Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds – The Boatman’s Call
Released March 3rd, 1997 on Mute Records
Nick Cave is easily one of the most enduring artists in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. In the 1980s he staked his name on crawling, disturbing post-punk that encapsulated the violence and Biblical darkness of a mythologized American South (this despite growing up in Australia and basing himself out of England). From 1994’s Let Love In onward, he tempered the abrasive potentials of his songs with a renewed focus on texture, including piano and gentler tempos. Despite this, both it and 1996’s classic Murder Ballads reveled in the darkness, spiking moody atmospheres with moments of bone-chilling terror and loud musical moments. The Boatman’s Call, then, is an anomaly in his catalog. Everything before and after is shot through with darkness, full of revenge, murder, and sinners in the hands of an angry God. While 2001’s …And No More Shall We Part continued on with the exploration of gentler tones, The Boatman’s Call is also a musing exploration of spirituality and love.
“I’ve felt you coming girl, as you drew near,” he sings on “Are You The One That I’ve Been Waiting For?”, “I knew you’d find me, cause I longed you here.” This is a somewhat atypical Nick Cave lyric. Also atypical is “Just like a bird that sings up the sun / In a dawn so very dark / such is my faith for you,” the opening line from “There Is A Kingdom”, a song that feels as New Testament as Cave’s other work is Old Testament. “West Country Girl”, “Black Hair”, and “Into My Arms” are all about PJ Harvey, whom Cave dated briefly in the middle of the Nineties. “Into My Arms” was also performed at Michael Hutchence’s funeral (after Cave requested the cameras be shut off, so don’t go looking for footage). It’s also the wedding song of my wife and I; it was originally going to be “Have I Told You Lately” before we remembered that latter-day Rod Stewart sucks.
That said, there are a couple of songs on The Boatman’s Call which can be considered more standard fare for Nick Cave. “People Ain’t No Good” walks that careful line between love and death that is familiar for Cave fans (and also found it’s way into Shrek 2 somehow); “Lime Tree Arbour” straddles that same line, although in that case it’s love protecting Cave from death rather than the other way around. “Idiot Prayer” is also about dying, although there’s a firm sense of fatality that accompanies the line “If you’re in Hell, then what can I say / You probably deserved it anyway / I guess I’m gonna find out any day / For we’ll meet again / And there’ll be Hell to pay.” The real summation of the album – and perhaps Cave’s career as a whole – comes on the final song, “I Got You Bad”. “Babe I got you bad / Dreaming blood-wet dreams / Only madmen have / Baby I got you bad.”
#20: Kanye West – The Life Of Pablo
Back before I realized I didn’t have the time for lengthy individual reviews on albums every week, I put down 2000+ words in an aborted attempt to capture The Life Of Pablo. To sum them up: Kanye’s 2016 album is a signpost along the road to the post-album era. It’s worth remembering that the “album”, as a unit of musical coherence, is something that’s only been with us since the early 1950s, and as a concrete artist package it’s only been a thing since 1967. An album is a solid collection of songs by an artist that can be discussed after release with relative safety because it’s as set in stone as anything is in the modern age. The Life Of Pablo deconstructed this idea, and played out each part of that deconstruction in public. Kanye started sessions with Paul McCartney, released some of the results, and then scrapped that album. Songs would come out, mostly in demo form, and the internet would dissect them and cry out for CDQ versions (especially of “Wolves”). Kanye publicly went through album titles and covers, each one leaked out to the public for further discussion. Even when the album came out, bearing a last-minute title change and a bizarre cover that walked a line between the profound and the absurd, that wasn’t the end of it. The Life Of Pablo has undergone a number of transitions from it’s original “release” and it begs the question: in the digital era, is the artist’s work ever done? Kanye added verses, changed lines, redid entire songs (“Wolves”, again), and, weeks after release, added “Saint Pablo” which seemed to sum up the entire problem of Kanye in 2016 – unable to say no, welded to social media, worried about his family and his spending habits. Is this the way of the future? Will artists release and then continue to update albums like they were software, keeping things fresh and clean until they move on to something else? As usual, Kanye proves himself ahead of the game.
#19: M83 – Junk
A lot of people slept on Junk and I have trouble understanding why. After all, the sounds of the Eighties have never been more popular. Chillwave brought an interest in synth pop to the edge of mainstream awareness, and then artists like CHVRCHES and Grimes pushed that over the edge. Blood Orange and a number of other indie R&B acts have brought back a hipster interest in Prince, saxophones seem to be everywhere, there is a reliable subset of “the kids” who go balls-out over hair metal, and “retro nights” have been a popular place to hear Men Without Hats, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and Culture Club for as long as I can remember. When M83 conjures up the fundamental sound of the Eighties, though – the sound as it was for every regular schlub, not just the cool cats at the club – people get uncomfortable. Good. Run with that. Junk is the Eighties for people who didn’t have to live through it. It’s the sound of cheap radio ballads, training video soundtracks, love songs from TV movies of the week, and the backgrounds of weather channels. There are crystal clear electric piano tones, keyboard presets, deliberately generic female vocals (Susanne Sundfor in an amazing performance), VHS warping, shred guitar solos bursting out of synth songs, smooth songwriting, and a willingness to get deliberately absurd.
#18: Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
2016 found every indie kid’s favourite band building upon (relative) failure. 2011’s King Of Limbs was a short, underwhelming album that was followed by the band publicly musing that they might never make conventional albums again. Five years later A Moon Shaped Pool features the same sort of brittle, claustrophobic songwriting – those thin, cerebral drums, those tight, modular motifs, the occasional burst into something more room-filling with strings and synths – but it puts them together in ways that seem much more coherent when played, both individually and collectively. It makes for a greying, haunted sound, albeit one with judiciously chosen moments of focused energy – the opening “Burn The Witch”, the end of “Identikit”, the wiry riff of “Ful Stop”. Also, while personal favourite B-side “The Daily Mail” didn’t get the full album treatment, long-time live favourite “True Love Waits” (something that dates back to The Bends) managed to sneak in at the very end, to great delight.
#17: Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
Shortly after the release of his fourteenth album, Leonard Cohen gave an interview with The New Yorker where he intimated – hell, straight up said – that he was going to die, probably very soon. He seemed accepting of the fact, maybe even welcoming if you read between the lines. After some interested press coverage of it, he tried to walk it back, saying he intended to live forever, but of course he died very shortly thereafter. In that respect, it’s hard not to read You Want It Darker as a tidy summation of his feelings on impending doom. It’s full of references to God and mortality, with the wry, sacrilegious humour that’s informed his work since time out of mind – it could be a eulogy of sorts, but it also bears a strong resemblance to, you know, Leonard Cohen.
The integral part of the album, however, is the production that Cohen’s son Adam uses. A lot of Cohen’s mid-period work – Various Positions through to The Future – is hard to listen to due to the cheesy, ultra-Eighties production used. Adam Cohen produces You Want It Darker in such a way that it seems like a modern sequel to an album like Songs From A Room or New Skin For The Old Ceremony. The instruments take on a reverential tone, taking up as much space as needed to support Cohen’s creaking-leather voice and timeless poetry. There are no cutesy studio tricks or cutting-edge new production styles, just a man and spare arrangements, like it was always supposed to be.
#16: Bon Iver – 22, A Million
Bon Iver could have released lush folk albums from now until eternity and no one would really have faulted him too much. He’s really good at it, for one thing, and people respond well to them, for another. His path has taken him in a different direction, though: his interest in AOR and autotune first showed up at the end of Bon Iver and the beginning of the Blood Bank EP, respectively, and his use as a hook-man on several post-2010 Kanye West tracks has solidified the use of autotune and experimentation in his music. 22, A Million, his first album in five years, finds him ramping up those experimental tendencies to full-speed-ahead. These are fractured arrangements played by glitched-out instruments – bit-crushed drums, filtered synthesizers, autotuned vocals – but here and there moments of clean-synth AOR music comes shining through, as though Junk were trying to butt in and say something. He’s no stranger to the form – “Beth, Rest” was a radio ballad straight out of 1985 – but it’s more interesting to hear it assimilated into an overarching style, with limited and more impactful usage. I compared it unfavourably to U2 the first time I heard it, but each successive listen to 22, A Million reveals new secrets, each more delightful than before.
#15: BADBADNOTGOOD – IV
Toronto’s BADBADNOTGOOD originally met as members of Humber College’s jazz program, and their success is a testament to the power of not always listening to your teachers. From the beginning they skewed more towards a love of hip hop more so than the traditional jazz arrangements of their classes; Gucci Mane’s “Lemonade” was their first collaborative interpretation, and they actually had the cojones to do a selection of Odd Future music in jazz form as an exam for their instructors. According to the stuffy jazz purists at Humber, jazz interpretations of hip hop have no musical value. This is yet further proof that the Ontario College system has serious problems.
Three successful albums and a stellar collaboration with Ghostface Killah have proven that the trio has musical value. IV ups the ante by adding in elements of prog rock and vocals, something previous BBNG albums largely did without. Sam Herring of Future Islands shows up on “Time Moves Slow”; Kaytranada slays “Lavender”; and rapper Mick Jenkins closes the circle on “Hyssop Of Love”. This is jazz music for people who love music first and foremost, regardless of tradition, purity, or the American Songbook.
#14: The Avalanches – Wildflower
Sixteen years after their first album, Since I Left You, the idea of a followup album from the Australian plunderphonics duo The Avalanches was something that was along the same lines as Dre’s Detox or (at one time) Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy. That is to say, it was vaporware. Since I Left You had used somewhere in the vicinity of 3,500 separate samples, and stitching all of that together and then obtaining permission to use them was likely extremely draining, and the silence from the group as the 21st Century got underway was perhaps not surprising. When rumours come, though, they come quickly, and it went from vaporware to a definite thing in a matter of weeks. The result was something akin to My Bloody Valentine’s 2013 followup to 1991’s Loveless: an album that could never stand toe-to-toe with it’s legendary predecessor, but a great album in it’s own right. Wildflower skews more hip hop than Since I Left You did; there are actual guest spots from Danny Brown and M.F. Doom on “Frankie Sinatra”. At the same time, it also samples extensively from the Sixties psychedelic era and as such it strongly resembles a stoned party carousel album, something the Chemical Brothers would have recorded in their prime in a paisley-toned alternate universe. It satisfies an itch, and after sixteen years and countless delays, it satisfies that itch pretty damn well.
#13: Solange – A Seat At The Table
Solange, always the also-ran to her ultra-famous sister, has spent her own music career being known mainly for two things: first, a couple of sunny, funny light R&B albums; second, beating the living shit out of Jay-Z in an elevator while Beyonce stared into the middle distance. The second thing is likely the impetus for Lemonade; the first was okay, but largely mid-tier, nothing special. A Seat At The Table is not like those first two albums. Instead, it’s a soulful, guest-studded examination of Black identity in America, and the pitfalls of being black in a country where you are reduced to a set of stereotypes and assumptions by a population whose majority is obsessed with its own whiteness to the exclusion of anything else. It’s a highly political album first and foremost – check out “Don’t Touch My Hair” and “F.U.B.U.” for examples – and it’s one that emphasizes successful black people (her parents, and No Limits guru Master P) and the necessity of Black Pride in modern America. Beyonce may have been getting more political in recent times, but her sister has taken the D’Angelo route and gone full-on BLM – something that should happen everywhere, I might note.
Besides the politics, there’s also something exceedingly rare on this album: an honestly great Lil’ Wayne verse, on “Mad”. Where has this Wayne been all this time? Tha Carter III was a while ago – it’s been shit piled on top of itself since then.
#12: Japanese Breakfast – Psychopomp
In a dark year of tragedy, disappointment, political upheaval, and the unwelcome reemergence of the spectre of nuclear war, there is something to be said for the triumph of something as unpretentious and deeply caring as Pyschopomp. It’s a shoegaze album, and it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Meanwhile, it’s a great shoegaze album, maybe the best in a decade, and it hits every note in just the right way. Michelle Zauner’s usual stuff is a lot more straightforward; her band Little Big League trades in big ideas and big riffs. Japanese Breakfast, by contrast, quivers with innocence and anticipation, soars in the upper atmosphere and makes indie rock sound downright gorgeous again. Psychopomp is a little bit Asobi Seksu and a little bit early Smashing Pumpkins, wrapped in a tough exterior that keeps everything from getting too soft and maudlin.
#11: Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 3
This. This right here is why I wait until the last minute to finalize these lists. Three years running someone has dropped an album in mid-to-late December that has earned a high spot – Beyonce and Black Messiah and on and on. This year, right on Christmas Day, it was Run The Jewels 3. It was, as they might call it, a Christmas Fucking Miracle.
Hip hop can be quite intense – anyone who’s listened to Ready To Die can attest to this fact. Killer Mike and EL-P bring a whole new level of intensity, though, one that is usually reserved for punk rock, or metal. Run The Jewels 2 was the epitome of this, an unrelenting force of nature that pounded into the listener like a studded fist. Run The Jewels 3 captures this but also adds in textured moments, dynamics, and crafts more well-rounded tracks out of it. This is not to say that RTJ3 is any less powerful; as Killer Mike chants on the final track, “I remain hostile.” In a year with a lot to get angry about, Mike (a big supporter of Bernie Sanders on the campaign trail) remains angry, probably permanently given the state of the world. Snide remarks about Trump, racists, and killing your masters abound, brought to a logical conclusion by another Zach De La Rocha verse in the dying moments of the album. It’s music to march in the streets to, which is as timely as it ever could have been.
#10: Ty Segall – Emotional Mugger
After going full-on classic rock on his last album, Manipulator, garage rock guru Ty Segall reset his sound for this year’s Emotional Mugger. Rather than the clean(er) guitar tones of both Sleeper and Manipulator, Emotional Mugger layers on the fuzz until everything comes wrapped in a thick layer of sludge. It’s an album heavily influenced by the Seventies – Black Sabbath, primarily, but also lesser known hard rock touchstones and a bit of the funk here and there. It’s the same sort of stuff that he put forth on his “breakthrough” album Melted and the comparisons between that album and this one are quite apt. Both albums hit hard, both seem drenched in LSD, and both have these massive hooks that won’t let you go. As usual, it’s not for the faint of heart; Emotional Mugger has a solid core of weirdness running through it that might cause any casual music fan to go running for the hills early on. Those who stick with it, however, will find enough rewards to declare themselves a second Christmas.
#09: Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book
Chicago’s Chance The Rapper claims the guest spot on the intro of The Life Of Pablo, “Ultralight Beam”; on it, he says “I hear you gotta sell it to snatch the Grammy / Let’s make it so free and the bars so hard / that there ain’t one gosh darn part you can’t tweet.” Coloring Book – Chance 3 – is exactly that. A free album that outpaces nearly any other commercially available album released this year – “I don’t make songs for free, I make them for freedom” he says on “Blessings”. There may be a billion guests on it – everyone from Lil’ Wayne to Anderson .Paak to Justin Beiber and Future show up – but the star of the show is the exuberant, overwhelmingly thankful man himself. Kayne may have tried to describe The Life Of Pablo pre-release as a “gospel hip hop album” but it was nothing of the sort. Coloring Book is the real deal, full of swelling choruses and the celebration of Chance, his religion, and his friends. The Grammys need to get with the times – this is a contender if there ever was one.
#08: Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered
It is a mark of Kendrick’s artistry and music that his b-sides and outtakes are better than other rapper’s whole careers. These castaways from the To Pimp A Butterfly sessions show an even jazzier side than was originally shown on the main album, with the funk just as present. Despite the “unmastered” part of the title, these tracks are produced fairly slickly; the hooks bump and the jazz squalls come through clear as day. Maybe he meant “unmastered” as in “he has no master”, which is also true.
#07: Drive-By Truckers – American Band
Drive-By Truckers are a country rock band, something that used to be called Southern Rock back in the septic old days of the 1970s. Of late they’ve been lumped together in with acts like Sturgill Simpson in a quest to label a genre that I once read quite accurately described as “country for Democrats”. What it really is is American music – music that fits the unsettled tone of America in 2016 perfectly. The album kicks off with a story of how the founder of the NRA shot and killed a Mexican teenager and got away with it; the correlation to the anti-Mexican campaign waged by now-President-Elect Donald Trump is obvious in retrospect. Elsewhere throughout a war veteran hunkers down to survive a school shooter, gender roles are questioned, the reality of the brave new American wars are revealed, and Dixie refuses to get over the Civil War. The highlight, though, is the heartwrenching “What It Means”, where they try to make sense of the growing second civil war between the police and the black community while shaking their heads that racism is still a powerful force even nearly two decades into the 21st Century.
#06: Frank Ocean – Blond
For a while it was possible that Frank Ocean’s followup to his classic Channel Orange was going to be vaporware, joining a long tradition of eagerly awaited albums that never appeared. Then it did: first a “visual album” called Endless, and then an actual proper album, Blond. Unlike Channel Orange, which was immediately and viscerally rewarding, Blond took a bit of time to tease out it’s charms. Once they appear, though, the album becomes addictive and life-affirming. Blond is a pool that seems shallow on the surface – a pretty R&B album, with less beatcraft, perhaps – but there’s miles and miles of emotions under that surface that get more complicated and wrenching the further one goes into them. There’s nothing as straightforward as “Pyramids” on here, but one could also make the argument that the entire album is one big “Pyramids”.
#05: Parquet Courts – Human Performance
Parquet Courts put out two of the best indie punk albums of the decade and then started skewing toward jittery, willfully noisy post-punk experiments, culminating in the deliberately unlistenable Monastic Living EP. Human Performance, then, represents a sort of coming-through to the other side: it’s at once more mature and internally musing than either Light Up Gold or Sunbathing Animal, but it also keeps much of the speedy charm and dynamic liveliness that characterized those two albums. The difference lies in the approach, however: where their previous albums went from wink-and-a-nod to anger in the blink of an eye, there’s more introspection, weariness, and romance on Human Performance, especially on the title track, the lead single and song of the year contender “Berlin Got Blurry,” and the gentle, wave-tossed “Steady On My Mind.” Based out of Brooklyn, the band still gets compared to the icons of New York punk rock – the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, and the Ramones – and while there is some direct comparisons to be made (“One Man No City” is clearly influenced by the VU), it’s clear that Parquet Courts is quickly making a name for themselves as one of those icons, and not simply another worshiper at their altar.
#04: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
Skeleton Tree is the sound that Nick Cave and his Bad Seeds explored on their previous album, Push The Sky Away, but stripped down to it’s bare essentials – mournful drones courtesy of long-time Bad Seed Warren Ellis and dark poetry that yearns for release, understanding, and answers courtesy of Nick Cave. It is as raw and intense as grief itself, and it was of course born out of such. Between Push The Sky Away and Skeleton Tree Nick Cave’s fifteen year old son died in an accident and the honesty of this album is the sound of its creator working his way through his grief, balancing love and loss and musing flat-out, on “I Need You”, if “nothing really matters anymore.” Faith ends up being a mixed bag: “You believe in God but you get no special dispensation for this now,” he intones on “Jesus Alone”, while on “Girl In Amber” he sings that “I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the earth / In a slumber ’til you crumbled, were absorbed into the earth / well I don’t think that anymore.” It’s an album that can fill in for the soundtrack of grief of anyone’s loss; if you’ve ever lost someone you loved, Skeleton Tree knows exactly how you feel.
#03: Beyonce – Lemonade
The first time I ever heard Beyonce Knowles was in Destiny’s Child, and the song was “Bills Bills Bills”. Even though I was a confirmed teenage metalhead with a disdain for all things hip hop and pop, there was something oddly catchy about the song, something I couldn’t put my finger on; the same went for the other single off that album, “Jumpin’ Jumpin'”. Since then, of course, Queen Bey has made one hell of a name for herself as a solo artist, although before 2013 she was your regular standard-issue International Superstar. Since Beyonce, though, there has been a sense of a sort of ascension – becoming something more than a legendary Diva, an Artist in her own right. She has, at the very least, eclipsed her husband’s career and then some; while Jay-Z’s latter-day albums have come out to less and less acclaim, Beyonce’s have only grown in stature. Lemonade is, thus far, the peak of that growth.
The release of Lemonade was an event in the way that Kanye had wanted The Life Of Pablo to be. When it came out everyone was listening to it, at first because the initial listeners reported that there was something juicy going on. The lyrics on the album seemed to confirm the context of an event that had happened months prior – that time that Solange Knowles beat the shit out of Jay-Z in an elevator while Beyonce stared on into the middle distance? Was there cheating going on? people asked. Lemonade seemed to confirm that, in fact, there was. Certainly Bey was up in arms about something: “You can taste the dishonesty,” she whisper-sings on the opener “Pray You Catch Me”, “It’s all over your breath as you pass it off so cavalier.” Elsewhere, she tells her philandering man to call up “Becky with the good hair” (rumoured to be Rachel Roy), declares that “I don’t wanna lose my pride but I’m-a fuck me up a bitch,” and at one point screams triumphantly to “Just give my fat ass a big kiss boy / tonight I’m fucking up all your shit, boy.”
Beyond theme and lyrics, though, the album explodes in a way that marks new territory for her. Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend teams up with Father John Misty to interpolate the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s anguished “Maps” for “Hold Up”. Kendrick Lamar brings apocalyptic flames to the already-militant “Freedom”. Jack White turns “Don’t Hurt Yourself” into a barnburner – Beyonce as rock ‘n’ roll queen. The Weeknd’s usual coke-gaze sleaze turns into righteous empowerment in “6 Inch”. “Daddy Lessons” ventures with swagger into big-horn Texas country. It’s a tour de force of musical exploration that treats her thematic subject holistically – that is, philandering and heartbreak are the sum of all genres, and there’s a chance for redemption and righteousness in all of them. With Lemonade, Beyonce embraces them, and brings her own authentic voice to the forefront.
#02: Car Seat Headrest – Teens Of Denial
Rock ‘n’ roll dies a lot. Like, all the time. Every other month it seems like some publication or another is waxing poetic on the supposed death of the genre, clucking their tongues and blaming the younger generation for killing off Boomer youth rebellion or some such nonsense. The truth of it is pretty straightforward. Somebody – I think it was Billie Joe Armstrong, but don’t quote me or him on that – once said that “the real reason that rock ‘n’ roll will never die is that there is always another generation of kids willing to go out and dig up the corpse.” There it is, plain and simple. There is something primal and appealing in the basic guitar-bass-drum setup, partly because there is apparently a ridiculously huge amount of variation you can dredge out of it, and partly because there is something utterly amazing about standing in front of a Marshall stack with a guitar cranked out to 10 and hitting a power chord. If you’ve never done it, do it. It’ll change your life.
That brings us to Will Toledo. Will is exactly one of those “kids” referred to above (in that he was born after the fall of the Soviet Union) and he has found inspiration and salvation in that rush of distorted guitar and heavy drumming. Between 2010 and 2015 he released 12 (!) DIY albums on Bandcamp, impressing everyone and netting himself a hardcore group of online fans. When Matador inevitably came calling, the result was Teens Of Denial, which is without hyperbole the best pure rock album in years.
Here’s the thing: Will Toledo was born right in the middle of the initial phase of the Alternative Revolution, when Nevermind was destroying the old hair metal guard. The world he grew up in was one completely informed by alt-rock, and Teens Of Denial is a sort of grand summation of those world-straddling ethos. It is swathed in distorted guitar, right from the beginning: the riffs on this album are born out of the early 1990s, but transcend it in ways that suggest that alt-rock has mutated significantly over time. The opening riff to “Fill In The Blank” may be pure 90s pop-punk, but the stetched-out squiggles and supporting chords on “Vincent” suggest a bridge between alt-rock and prog. The world of Car Seat Headrest is one where Marshall stacks sit comfortably with keening synth choir pads, where the Foo Fighters’ affable radio grunge is turned on it’s ear, shot through with a heaping of Ric Ocasek’s neon-glitter New Wave, and made to walk the street for credibility.
It also has that certain self-deprecating, slightly beat-down and hungover sort of worldview that replaced the cocksure (emphasis on the cock) steel-groin ethos of the mainstream 1980s. It was a staple of the Nineties but has fallen into disfavour since. The bands of the last decade and a half have maintained an almost painful earnestness (Arcade Fire, The Killers, faux-folk like the Lumineers and Mumford & Sons) balanced with a careless, effortless sort of hedonism (Franz Ferdinand, the Strokes, a lot of Tame Impala) that’s sort of like Eighties hedonism only for people that just can’t be bothered to go that ninth yard. Will Toledo is neither, embracing irony as much as straight-faced reality and being a little nerd-boy awkward in his relationships. The very first line on the album is “I’m so sick of (fill in the blank)”, and he proceeds to tell us what dwells in that blank throughout the rest. As it turns out, that’s a lot: having to be high and depressed in a summer town; doing too many drugs and realizing that the only thing that killed your childhood was you; living in pursuit of meaning through porn (gotta make your shame count for something); the cliche of graveyards; the truth that, in order to really know yourself, you can’t know anyone else at all. It connects to the human experience on a far deeper level than, say, Two Door Cinema Club, and it’s little wonder why the album seems to be a consensus pick for breakthrough album of 2016. Sensitive awkwardness, after all, never goes out of style.
#01: David Bowie – Blackstar
If we go by American Gods rules, then David Bowie was the British version of Loki: The Shapeshifter, The Trickster, although much less malicious than the Norse original. His career was one of constant subversion of expectation: Oh I’m a glam star? Now I really like American soul. Disco seems cool. Ambient electronic sounds? Seems fun. Oh, now I’m a multi-million selling pop star. New Jack Swing has some pop to it, but wait, industrial seems where it’s at. The fun of Bowie was always that you never knew what sound he was going to reinvent himself with next, just that it would be great. While his recordings from the 21st Century struck an uncharacteristically even course, The Next Day found him using old forms to reinvent himself once again. Blackstar, when it was first released, was another leap forward in terms of sound, reintroducing especially Bowie’s saxophone work.
Then, he died.
In retrospect, it became incredibly obvious that the album had been written largely from the perspective of someone who knew they were dying. As it turns out, Bowie had in fact known that he was suffering from inoperable liver cancer for a year before he died. It is rare enough in history that an artist of Bowie’s caliber is able to write their own eulogy and share it with the masses. 2016 gave us two: Blackstar and You Want It Darker, Leonard Cohen’s final, death-haunted yet stoic album. Whereas You Want It Darker was largely a summary of Cohen’s strengths and highlights as an artist, an homage to the artist by the artist, Blackstar was a final example of Bowie’s unwillingness to settle for the status quo. It pushes on further into that dark strange universe that he inhabited, refusing to succumb to despair. The title track is one of the most disturbing songs he’d ever recorded, beginning with an eerie melody that is echoed in the strange, seizure-like dancing depicted in the accompanying video; it was unsurprising when some Christian groups labeled it as “Satanic” – fitting given his flirtations with Satanism during his bizarre coked-up year in Los Angeles near the end of the Seventies. “Lazarus” is more on the nose, being explicitly about mortality; it also addresses the character Bowie played in the film The Man Who Fell To Earth, again during that long odd year. “‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” and “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” reprise a single and B-side from 2014 and touch back on on Bowie’s theatrical origins, being a rework of an old 17th Century English play. “Dollar Days” addresses regret stretched out over a lifetime, and “I Can’t Give Everything Away” begins with a callback to a song on 1977’s Low – “New Career In A New Town”, a song about moving on. Throughout the album, Bowie’s sax playing – something once likened to impressionistic painting – takes an interesting forefront, something that stitches every phase of his career together.
There’s a joke floating around the internet – a half-joke, maybe – that Bowie was the glue holding the universe together, and the rest of 2016 is evidence of that. I’m willing to give that one a pass, if only because of the chaos and confusion of the year that followed, and because it seems only too fitting that Blackstar would be the sound of structure shimmering out of existence as the seams come apart and the Age of Aquarius finally rears its ugly head. Still, stripped of it’s meaning, it’s context, it’s weighty place in the canon of Bowie albums, it’s a stellar collection of songs that revel in texture, phrasing, and tone, three things Bowie has always excelled at through his career. We will never see another Bowie album again, but Blackstar was a hell of a way to go out.
The band’s last album, 2008’s Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, was a raucous affair, full of the sort of visceral garage-punk blasts that had always cropped up here and there in the their catalog, albeit on a much more consistent scale. Push The Sky Away takes the opposing path; where their last album scorched the earth, their newest meditates gloomily in the devastation. It’s the sort of contemplative tone that they took most notably on 2001’s hushed No More Shall We Part, but filtered through the sort of sonic crunch that Nick Cave explored in his Grinderman act. The result is an album that is both spiritual and heavy, uplifting and oppressive; it’s the sort of light-and-dark dichotomy that is quintessentially Nick Cave. The lack of hooks may be disconcerting to some, but it’s not as though the album is amelodic; tracks like “We No Who U R” and the title track will still get stuck in your head long after the album finishes. This sort of skill in songwriting is impressive, especially when one considers how long the band has been at it; to still be this good, this many years after inception, is a feat of which few songwriters in the modern era can boast.
Final Mark: A-