The Iceland Report

We’re happily back home in Chicago again, though it’s colder here today than it was in Iceland, just for the record. Of course, we have a bit more daylight in which to appreciate  the cold, so I suppose that’s a reasonable trade.

I’ve put my usual photo album documenting the trip up at my Flickr site, if you’re interested in giving it a look-see: Icelandic New Year. Also ten quick thoughts, observations, or stray neuron firings, all of which are supported by photographic evidence in the linked Flickr gallery.

1. We did see the Northern Lights on this trip, and they were impressive, as expected. But we also saw something in the heavens that I didn’t expect, when our Northern Icelandic guide pointed out a pair of “glitský” scuttling across the sky one morning. He translated the word as “glitter cloud,” which was apt, though I now know they are actually called stratospheric or nacreous clouds. Like so many things in the sky, it’s hard to take their pictures, but imagine a line of luminous, rainbow colored UFOs passing overhead, leaving wakes in the blue sky behind them, and you’ll get the general gist.

2. Speaking of our Northern Icelandic guide, his name was Gísli, he was a fantastic companion, and he had the best hyphenated job listing I’ve ever heard: Farmer-Guide-Viking-Opera Singer-Classic Car Collector. Our Southern Icelandic Guide, Arne, was a Photographer-Designer-Guide. Multiple jobs are big in Iceland, which I like, as a Professional CEO-Writer-Critic-Crank-Gadabout.

3. I’ve already written about the New Year’s Eve Fireworks. They still blow my mind. And eardrums. Totally awesome.

4. We got our metal on with a visit to Dimmuborgir. If you have to ask, then you’ll never know. Brutal!!!

5. My favorite tasty thing on the trip was smoked arctic char on buttered lava bread. I ate it at a restaurant near Lake Mývatn that doubled as a cow barn. They also sold an Icelandic chocolate there that has the best brand name I’ve heard in recent memory: OMNOM. My other new taste sensation is a non-alcoholic drink that’s only consumed during the Icelandic Christmas season (which lasts 13 days): it’s a mixture of two independently bottled beverages called Malt og Appelsín. It’s sort of like a combo of beer, chocolate, and orange. Better than it sounds, honest.

6. As I usually do, I visited record shops to score some real local musical flavor of the variety I’m not likely to find easily in the States. I came home with six CD’s ranging from ambient jazz through to extreme pagan metal. Initial favorites after first pass are Önnur Mósebók by Moses Hightower, and Börn Loka by Skálmöld, though there’s not a dud in the bunch I acquired.

7. I don’t watch Game of Thrones, but we visited a cave that Gísli informed us featured heavily in the story line as “the love cave.” We also visited a couple of other scenes from that show, and when we were watching the last Star Trek movie on the plane on the way home, we were informed that several scenes from that were also filmed in Iceland. I guess it’s just the place to go for alien arctic landscapes.

8. Arriving just after the winter solstice, we knew we’d experience limited daylight, but it honestly wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. Sunrise was around 11:30, sunset was around 3:30, and the dawn and dusk periods were long, so you actually had a reasonable amount of time to process Vitamin D.

9. During the widely hyped 1972 Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky  duel in the World Chess Championship, Fischer stayed at the S-Room Presidential Suite at Hotel Loftleider in Reykjavik. I remember eagerly following those matches as a kid, and playing chess more then than I probably have in any year since. Fast forward 40+ years, and the old Loftleidir has been acquired by Icelandair as part of its country-wide chain of hotels. it is now named Hotel Reykjavik Natura, and we stayed there for the two nights that we were in the capital city. I was rambling about exploring as I do, and I was tickled to come upon a nice little exhibition dedicated to the matches and (more specifically) Fischer. He was something of a tragic case with some noxious beliefs, but Iceland did open its heart to him and provide him sanctuary as a citizen for his final years, and you see a lot of “Bobby Fischer ate here” type recognition around the town. He’s actually buried in a tiny church yard on the south of the island, if you’re a chess nerd and want to make a pilgrimage.

10. When we were in Iceland in 2010, the harbor area was torn up as a new performance art center was under construction. We were pleased to see the final results this trip: Harpa. It’s architecturally striking, and we had a very good meal (fish soup for me, yum!) and saw a nice classical music show on New Year’s Day there. A good way to greet the year, peaceful and quiet after the fireworks carnage of the night before!

2017

Marcia and I greeted 2017 in Reykjavik, watching the Icelanders absolutely lose their collective minds in an orgy of pyrotechnics and bonfires. Never mind some city sponsored “shows” staged by a fireworks company — in Iceland, it’s every man, woman and child for him/herself, with all the explosives you can afford and carry. My ears are still ringing and I still smell like gunpowder as I enjoy the first coffee of 2017. Now that is a celebration. More words and pics to follow when we get home, and I am posting these from my phone so I can’t really attest to their quality, but here’s a tiny taste of what it looked and felt like.

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2016 Year In Review

We’re two days shy of the year’s shortest day, and deep in the heart of the coldest snap of the current winter, so it seems a good time to look back over the past twelve months here at the blog and in the greater personal, professional and cultural world around me.

Counting this one, I published 27 blog posts here in 2016. That’s a big drop off from the 77 posts I published in 2015, but that was a somewhat conscious decision as I decided to focus on my Short Story of the Month project, which I completed successfully earlier this month. The 12 new stories I wrote over the past year were knit together with half a dozen older ones into a single manuscript, and it’s off for copy editing as I type. You writing types: if you’ve got any good leads you’d suggest for placing the manuscript commercially in 2017, I would appreciate an introduction!

Marcia and I opened 2016 in our still new home town of Chicago, watching the inaugural edition of the city’s “Chi-Town Rising” star drop on the river, which was frankly underwhelming. You’ve got too much going for you, Chicago, to try to ape New York City! Let them have their thing, because you’ve got plenty of your own! Seriously! They’re apparently doing it again this year, but we will welcome 2017 in a more exotic locale instead: Reykjavik, Iceland. We loved our summer trip there some years ago, and are excited to see it under the polar twilight with (hopefully) some Northern Lights in play to guide us into a new year together.

Between those two points, we had a crazy travel year. Marcia goes back and forth between Chicago and Des Moines ever other week for work, and I traveled to 26 states this year for my own work with the TREE Fund. (Speaking of, it’s not too late to contribute to our year-end appeal . . . hint hint). Since a picture is worth 1,000 words, here’s the visual representation of my travels in 2016:

cwne26ewgaazm9i-jpg-largeThe arrow pointing southward was to Grand Cayman, which Marcia and I visited together as part of a work trip for me. One of the northerly arrows points to Iceland, as mentioned above, and the other one points to Tuscany, where Marcia and I had a wonderful vacation with many new friends from Australia and New Zealand. I also did about 600 of those miles  on a bicycle through my native Carolinas. Big thanks to R. Jeanette Martin for the photos at that prior link, which are totally worth seeing, even if I’m in them.

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See? While it was my intention to try to do a little bit less traveling this year for work, I just laid out my 2017 schedule with my staff, and at this point it looks like I will be going to Mississippi, Arizona, Puerto Rico, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ontario, Maryland (twice), Virginia, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Florida, Colorado, Washington (state), Oregon, Missouri, Texas, Iowa, Connecticut, California, Ohio and Oklahoma during the next twelve months. Plus wherever Marcia and I decide to go for our international summer trip. Personally, I’m lobbying for Malta. So, uh, my 2017 map will probably look like a spaghetti chart too. Hmmm.

Even with all of that travel, I suspect that 2017 will look like more of a typical blogging year for me, so if you have been and intend to remain a faithful follower this site, then (1st) thank you, and (2nd) there might be more things for you to read beyond short stories next year. I’m considering a couple of web-based writing projects that are a little bit more interactive, so will update on that when I decide which one (if any) I want to pursue.

Some other bits and bobs to wrap things up . . .

Music, Theater and Dance: I’ve already done my 25th Annual Best Albums Report, here, and my Annual List Of Most Played Songs, here. On the live front, we saw many plays, concerts and dance performances, and honestly, I’m just really happy to have spent the year experiencing them in the moment and not documenting and making lists of them, and I’m disinclined to go back and do so now to try to recreate them after the fact. Maybe next year, I’ll start keeping a list. Or maybe not. We’ll see. I kinda think my live performance criticizing years may be behind me, y’know?

Books: As posted here multiple times before, my book reading tends to cluster predictably into four primary areas: 10% Fiction, 40% Natural Science and History, 40% Music Biography, and 10% Tales of Human Suffering. Over the past year, my fave reads didn’t stray too far from the norm, although I read more older books than newer books in 2016, so my list of favorite new releases is a bit brief:

  • The Fisherman by John Langan
  • Death’s End by Cixin Liu
  • The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben
  • The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman
  • Not Dead Yet: The Memoir by Phil Collins
  • My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor by Keith Morris
  • But What If We’re Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman

Movies: We have a theater within walking distance of our apartment, so we saw more flicks in first release than we typically have in the past. The best films I saw in 2016 (thus far, recognizing that much of the Oscar Bait is just coming out now) would include:

  • The Witch (My current pick for Best Movie of 2016)
  • The Lobster (A very close second place)
  • Everybody Wants Some!!
  • The Jungle Book
  • Florence Foster Jenkins
  • Sausage Party
  • Hell Or High Water
  • Arrival
  • Manchester By The Sea
  • La La Land
  • Office Christmas Party

Politics: Ennnnnhhhhh . . . . the less said here the better, I think. I’ll leave it to others to write about those matters more regularly and effectively than I do. That said, I did write and publish a poem here in the days after the election called “Tiny Blue Isle,” which explains what it feels like to me to live in Chicago right now. A local colleague liked the concept and approached me about using it for a progressive politics feed on Twitter and (maybe later) as a website, and I agreed to let my friend do so. Follow here for more news on that in the months ahead.

Art: We are blessed with ready and easy proximity to some exceptionally fine museums hereabouts, and three solo exhibitions stand out for me among the dozens we saw in 2016:

  • Mastry by Kerry James Marshall, at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
  • Future Present by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, at the Art Institute of Chicago.
  • Procession by Norman Lewis, at the Chicago Cultural Center

Websites: Two websites dominated my daily reading in 2016, and I have written about both of them here before:

  • Electoral Vote Dot Com: I’ve been following this website through every Presidential election since 2004, and I think it remains the best real-time aggregator of relevant information, and the best site for thoughtful, objective analysis that I’ve found for comprehending our incomprehensible electoral nightmare process. I wrote about it back in 2012, and my thoughts about it (and its competition) remain unchanged.
  • Thoughts On The Dead: I wrote about this website back in 2015, and my thoughts on this one have changed a bit. At the time, I cited it as one of the few websites that actually made me “laugh out loud” (not LOL) as it did a bit of creative world building around the history of the Grateful Dead. While that element of it remains (e.g. the coverage of the Dead And Company tour with John Mayer was sublime and hilarious), somewhere along the way, the site also evolved to include some truly brilliant fiction (the Roy Head adventures, the Route 77 travelogue, and the Little Aleppo series, among others) and some of the most incredible rock music writing I’ve ever read, anywhere (the recent series on Van Halen and Queen, most especially). The volume of exceedingly high quality work being posted here on a nearly daily basis boggles my mind. Thoughts On The Dead is unquestionably my Website of the Year for 2016, and if I knew who he was in real life, I’d celebrate and hail him by name as my flat-out favorite writer of the past twelve months as well. And I’m done here with this note, so get on over there and just dig in . . . wonders await you, I promise!

Growth Rings In The New Year

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December 11, 2016

Dear Friends of the Urban Forest,

Annual growth rings in temperate-climate trees mark the increments of new wood added each year. As you all know, we can learn a lot by studying a tree’s annual rings: its age, the climates it has thrived in, its relationships with symbiotic organisms, and even the nature and quality of its interactions with humans.

I’ve been thinking about the imagery of annual growth rings as I reflect on my first year with TREE Fund, much of it spent traveling to meet, listen to, and learn from professionals working in the tree care community. We’re a year older now, so what would our latest annual growth ring say about our nonprofit organism if you peeked inside?

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Click the growth rings to support our work.

First off, it would show that we’re growing in both resources acquired and resources expended, and that the ratio of those two flows is trending in a healthy direction, as we’re working to get more of every dollar we raise back out to support our colleagues in the field. We’re doing this by growing new branches and adding new coverage — additional programs, larger grants, and more awards — all to the benefit of the professionals who shelter under our canopy of knowledge.

To sustain this healthy growth, we’re continuing to “open the circle” in a healthy, non-invasive fashion, thereby allowing new friends and supporters to build atop our strong roots, injecting new revenue streams that will ensure we remain vibrant for many years. Trees are long-lived organisms — just as endowment funds are — and we exist to provide long-term support for tree care professionals, helping them adapt to the ever-evolving challenges facing our urban forests.

Of course, there’s another meaning to “annual ring” — namely, a once-per-year call — and I’m hoping you’ll indulge me on that front here as well. As we move forward and upward, solid sustenance sets the stage for potentially transformative growth in 2017, so I respectfully request that you consider a gift to our 2016 year-end appeal. Please make your contribution at treefund.org today. With your support, growth can ring in the New Year from day one.

With best regards, and deep gratitude,

J. Eric Smith, President and Chief Executive Officer

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Most Played Songs of 2016

Today is the day that I reset the play counts on all of the Smith Family iPods after a year of data gathering and consolidation. I’ve been doing this annually since we got our first iPod in 2007. I used to wait right up until December 31st, but I’ve found that Marcia and I almost always want something fresh through various holiday trips and hectic work season, so early December has become iPod playlist reprogramming time.  And, uh, we now have a lot of iPods in our house at this point, all of them still in regular use:

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The most interesting playlist to clear is the collection of “most played songs” for the year. Since we synch all of our gadgets to one computer and one iTunes account, this “most played songs” list in our household represent the aggregated play counts from my train commute, my travel time, Marcia’s car, Marcia’s gym, Marcia’s apartment in Des Moines, and the collaborative family iPod that stays in our Chicago apartment stereo dock and is played by whoever’s home at the time.

So the “most played songs” of the year are often unexpected, since they tend to represent the heart of a musical Venn Diagram where our family’s musical tastes most closely overlap, even though each of us individually may like very different things. We spun about 4,000 songs in 2016 — out of about 10,500 stored on my computer. The list below represents the 40 that earned the most frequent listening love in aggregate; because it’s 2016, it’s probably not a surprise how many of them are by dead people, sigh. I have also provided links for some of the less-well-known artists for your listening enlightenment, should you be curious:

1. “Single Bullets” by Huggy Bear

2. “Flesh And Blood” by Roxy Music

3. “I Can’t Give Anything Away” by David Bowie

4. “Sons Of The Silent Age” by David Bowie

5. “Cervix Couch” by Christian Death

6. “Tensile” by The Clean

7. “The Blue Hour” by Christian Death

8. “Wondering” by Reverend James Cleveland

9. “Open Your Eyes” by School of Seven Bells

10. “Sound and Vision” by David Bowie

11. “C’est La Vie” by Emerson, Lake and Palmer

12. “Move On” by David Bowie

13. “Sunday Candy” by Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment

14. “Ablaze” by School of Seven Bells

15. “Children Laughing” by Wendy and Bonnie

16. “If You Know What I Mean” by Neil Diamond

17. “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?” by The Monkees

18. “Oh Yeah” by Roxy Music

19. “Larf and Sing” by Family

20. “You Just May Be The One” by The Monkees

21. “Still . . . You Turn Me On” by Emerson, Lake and Palmer

22. “On My Heart” by School of Seven Bells

23. “Death Is A Star” by The Clash

24. “Lazarus” by David Bowie

25. “Clasp” by Jethro Tull

26. “Fire Of The Mind” by COIL

27. “Look Back In Anger” by David Bowie

28. “Heart Like A Wheel” by Linda Ronstadt

29. “Longfellow Serenade” by Neil Diamond

30. “Bee Stings” by COIL

31. “Children” by Family

32. “Passerby” by Quilt

33. “Lord Do It” by Reverend James Cleveland

34. “Fishes Bones” by Wire

35. “Dollar Days” by David Bowie

36. “Love Is Like Oxygen” by Sweet

37. “Wanna Be Cool” by Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment

38. “Take To The Sky” by Alan Parker and Alan Hankshaw

39. “More Than The World” by FREEMAN

40. “Internal Exile” by Wire

Best Albums of 2016

With December upon us, it’s officially time for my annual Albums of the Year Report. 2016 marks the 25th consecutive year that I’ve publicly published a report in either traditional print or digital formats, so it’s a venerable personal tradition for me at this juncture.

To frame the process: I’m a big believer that the best music ever made is the music being made right now. To believe otherwise is to accept that it’s not worth looking for new music, and I can’t psychologically ken to the fact that music’s best days are behind it. I am confident that there are just as many musical geniuses plying their trades now as there were in days gone by. I view claims to the contrary as nothing more than admissions that the claimant’s musical tastes have ossified, typically (in my experience) around the tunes that defined their teen or college years.

My belief in the value and importance of new music keeps me hungry as I search out new sounds throughout the year. While 2016 has been a traumatic year on many, many fronts — including the loss of certain artists who are featured in the list that follows — I actually found it to be a very good year for new music, with old favorites and newcomers alike challenging me with their latest offerings.

I don’t wait until the very end of the year to do my list, since I think it takes at least a solid month or more of listening before I feel comfortable that something meets both the “strong first impression” and “stands up to repeated listening” tests that I apply in rating albums. Albums released in the last month of the year generally get bumped into the following year’s report accordingly, if they’ve got the legs to last that long.

Before posting this year’s results, I share the following complete reckoning of my “Albums of the Year” from 1992 to 2015. With 20/20 hindsight, I don’t quite know what I was thinking in some of the years, but I own my picks as historic facts, stated publicly, for better or for worse.

1992: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Henry’s Dream

1993: Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville

1994: Ween, Chocolate and Cheese

1995: Björk, Post

1996: R.E.M., New Adventures in Hi-Fi

1997: Geraldine Fibbers, Butch

1998: Jarboe, Anhedoniac

1999: Static-X, Wisconsin Death Trip

2000: Warren Zevon, Life’ll Kill Ya

2001: Björk, Vespertine

2002: The Residents, Demons Dance Alone

2003: Wire, Send

2004: The Fall, The Real New Fall LP (Formerly “Country on the Click”)

2005: Mindless Self Indulgence, You’ll Rebel to Anything

2006: Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere

2007: Max Eider, III: Back in the Bedroom

2008: Frightened Rabbit, The Midnight Organ Fight

2009: Mos Def, The Ecstatic

2010: Snog, Last Of The Great Romantics

2011: Planningtorock, W

2012: Goat, World Music

2013: David Bowie, The Next Day

2014: First Aid Kit, Stay Gold

2015: David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock

Last year, I didn’t feel like I had a single record that was powerfully moving me as an clear cut Album of the Year selection, so I ended up running one of my head-to-head music contests to hone 32 records down to a champion over half-a-dozen blog posts. I have a bit more clarity on the playing field this year, so I’m going to revert to my normal approach and count down from my 30th favorite album of 2016 to my #1 Album of the Year. If you are intrigued by what you read, please support these artists by buying the albums reviewed, and not just chasing down free copies.

Though I shouldn’t have to note this, I know from prior experience that I do: the list below is obviously based on the things that I actually listened to in the prior year, and as musically omnivorous and curious as I am, there are some genres of music that I just don’t choose or get to experience much, and they’re generally not going to be represented in my year-end list. So as much as love dialog and discussion about music, please resist the urge to write me a scathing comment or e-mail telling me that I am a cultural imperialist bastard whose taste is all in my mouth because I do not recognize the overwhelming genius of your favorite Uruguayan emocore free jazz balalaika and krumhorn skronk collective. I am glad to know that their latest album will top your own list when you write it. Thank you.

As a final introductory note, for those who have been following my other recent writing project — The Short Story of the Month Series — I’m going to miss a month-end deadline for the first time this year, but will have something up in the next week. My music list is occupying my head space too vigorously right now for me to set it aside and finish a story tonight. Such is my brain, for better or worse.

Okay, all of those preambles done, here’s my picks for The Best Albums of 2016:

#30. Danny Brown, Atrocity Exhibition: Gnarly, ganky, hinky beats topped with ace rhymes and flow delivered in the Detroit native’s distinctive nasal whine. The story and textures here are fine and complex, with fun, furry and fuzzy weirdness and wonders in full effect throughout.

#29. The Veils, Total Depravity: Finn Andrews and crew return with a spooky stew of story-teller songs sprinkled with odd sounds and startling sentiments. Andrews has been cast in the return of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, and I suspect the types of musical chops and stylistic surrealism displayed here had something to do with that (excellent) decision.

#28. Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Getaway: After parting ways with producer Rick Rubin following a quarter century of collaboration, the Chilis found a perfect new creative foil in Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton. All the elements you suspect and expect are here, but the songs are stronger and the sentiments more soulful and (dare I say) grown up than many of those that have come before. I find it comforting to know that the cocks-in-socks boys can still work their magic in middle age with dignity, and with pants. And stop with all the Anthony hate, y’all hipsters. He’s a good and charismatic singer. Really.

#27. Death Grips, Bottomless Pit: Are they broken up? Are they back together? Will they show up for the concert? Do I have to look at their private parts? Are they really a band? Or just some sort of guerrilla art theater happening? Do I care? No. Not really. Death Grips make harrowing noise that moves me, and Bottomless Pit is a great new page in their history, inexplicable as it is. Electronic noise, organic drums, hardcore beats and blasts, and MC Ride’s strident exhortations grab you where it’s not comfortable, and make you pay attention. Yes, sirs. I get it. Thanks for letting us have a little more.

#26. Teleman, Brilliant Sanity: The second full-length record from the artists who used to be (mostly) known as Pete and the Pirates, Brilliant Sanity whips equal measures of sentimental songwriting sweetness with a dash of Kraftwerkian cool, and produces something that’s starkly beautiful and quietly compelling in the process. It’s a rare record that seems so familiar and so strange at the same time.

#25. Gregory Porter, Take Me To The Alley: Speaking of soulful sentiments, the burly be-hatted baritone delivers an awesome collection of original tunes here, all arranged to a tee, all with the sorts of messages that give you hope when the night seems darkest and the world seems meanest. I saw Porter sing the title song of this record in a concert hall in Chicago, and I knew what was happening in the alley just behind the stage. Powerful goodness, done fine and pretty.

#24. Che Guevara T-Shirt, Tsarkoye Selo: It’s a hoary cliche to say that a band sounds like no one else, but in Che Guevara T-Shirt’s case, it’s pretty darn close to the objective truth, since I can’t think of any other bands who consistently play in a drums plus twin baritone guitars lineup. The rumbling tunes are knotty and grindy and grand, the lyrics say a lot with a little, the vocals are plaintive and urgent, and the combined effect of these truly unique and seemingly incongruous splashes is an awe-inspiring, big-picture musical canvas. They deserve to be more widely heard and better known. Do your part.

#23. Ihsahn, Arktis: If you had told me in the early ’90s that not one, but two, members of Norwegian Black Metal pioneers Emperor would end up on my 2016 Best Albums List, I’d have been impressed that you had any idea who they were, and then told you that you were an idiot. But, here we are, it’s 2016, and Emperor singer-guitarist Ihsahn has emerged as a prog-metal, string-shredding metal demigod, delivering a concept album album about the travails of polar exploration. And it’s really, really good. Review executive summary: Huh!

#22. Santigold, 99 Cents: Santigold was Santogold when her fantastic debut album appeared high on my 2008 Best Albums list. It took her four years to get the sophomore disc out, and it seemed to these ears like a slump, alas. But four more years on, Santi White is back, and her magical musical mojo is working like mad on this collection of songs that range from cleverly infectious to infectiously clever and back again. Plus you can dance to it. Danger, earworms! And brain pokes! And those things are very good together, again! Huttah!

#21. Prinze George, Illiterate Synth Pop: This she-she-he Maryland-based trio (yes, if you know the Old Line State, they’re from that county) make smart and stylish pop music that avoids so much of the twee sterility and digital dullness that I’ve come to associate with the waves of female-fronted electronic acts that throw themselves on our nation’s cultural beaches with every-increasing frequency. If that sounds like it’s damning them with faint praise, it’s not: I think that’s a very hard thing to do well, and Prinze George do it with style, panache, and killer hooks.

#20. Goblin Cock, Necronomidonkeykongimicon: Chalk this one up on 2016’s “unexpected thrills” blackboard. Pinback leader Rob Crow issued two great records using the Goblin Cock moniker in 2005 and 2008, under his alter-ego guise as Lord Phallus. While you might read that sentence and snidely think “ha ha” or “novelty band” or “joke metal” or “Tenacious D” or other such similar sentiments, let me tell you that those records were fantastically well-written, played and sung melodic metal music — and that this latest addition to the Goblin Codex is just as engaging and entertaining and worthy of your collecting consideration. Frank Zappa already showed us how to be serious and have fun at the same time. Weren’t you paying attention?

#19. Gojira, Magma: In which two French brothers form a grinding and guttural two-guitar metal band of an early-Sepultura stripe and name it after a Japanese monster — not really a recipe for success on paper — then mature a bit, hone their chops, face the life-altering experience of losing their mother, and produce a really strong 2016 album filled with massive waves of clean vocals, dynamite dynamics, precision drill playing, and meaningful messages galore. Who knew? One of the most unexpectedly fine records of the year from a group I didn’t really think I liked very much. Now I do, a lot. Quelle belle surprise!

#18. The Body, No One Deserves Happiness: This record is a grinding, painful sprawl of musical duress, and I mean that as a very sincere compliment. The title pretty much lays out the underlying emotional credo here, so don’t come knocking if you’re seeking a remedy from the pain that ails you. But if you want to find that special sacred spot where horror and beauty get just close enough that you can see the sparks they strike together, anti-matter explosion style, then The Body might just have what you want and need. Imagine a stew of Lightning Bolt, early Swans and Neurosis for the general flavor. It’s strong. Do not operate heavy equipment under the influence. This is heavy equipment enough on its own.

#17. Mind Spiders, Prosthesis: Analog-synth fueled skuzzy racket rock from a revolving cast of Northeast Texas regulars that reminds me of the woefully under-appreciated Six Finger Satellite, who are so obscure that you probably have no idea who I’m talking about, and therefore get nothing useful out of this comparison. Bad music critic! But you can take this opportunity to embrace a double-duty homework assignment here: go listen to both Mind Spiders and Six Finger Satellite right now. See what I’m talking about? It’s real good, isn’t it? Yeah. That’s the ticket. Mission accomplished, with phat sounds, killer drums, and sonic squiggles for everyone!

#16. Korn, The Serenity of Suffering: Hey hipsters and cool kids, you know how I said a little while ago to knock it off with the reactive Anthony Kiedis hate? Same thing applies with Korn. Stop it! Right now! Yeah, their public persona and appearance (and huge commercial success) might be anathema to the double-wide stroller, homburg hat and kombucha tea crowd, but you know what you’re getting on a Korn record, and they do Korn better than anybody else does Korn, and what they do is grabby and engaging and sounds damn good at high volume, if you give it a chance. Them down-tuned seven strings and that slappy bass and Jonathan Davis’ vocal stylings all satisfy, and the myriad contradictions of their lifestyles and religion and fan base and whatever else you want to offer as argument are part of what make them what they are. Which is a great band, especially with Ray Luzier behind the drums. Embrace the inevitable, predictable, and very tasty goodness of what they do, and stop blaming them for Fred Durst. We all make mistakes. Forgiveness is divine. Ask Head.

#15. Merchandise, A Corpse Wired For Sound: Arty art rock (on 4AD, no less!) from Tampa Bay (!) that blends an early Echo and the Bunnymen vibe with some Bauhausey elements and a bit of shoegaze and a dash of Britpop and a jigger of studio jiggery-pokery and processes it all through the sorts of pedal effects found in the back of obscure electronics magazines to produce a sonic whole that evokes a whole world of things that you can’t quite put your finger on. Spacious and claustrophobic in equal measure, A Corpse Wired for Sound features an aural wobbliness and conceptual wonkiness that’s exhilarating and  unsettling, all at once. And did I mention 4AD? And Tampa? My work is done here.

#14. Mortiis, The Great Deceiver: In which the unexpected second  founding member of Norwegian Black Metal pioneers Emperor appears in my 2016 best album list. And when I say “unexpected” here, I mean “holy krow really this is mortiis zomfg no way whoa dude get out no way” levels of unexpected. Mortiis’ time with Emperor was brief, and his solo career to date has been a bit odd and erratic, as has his public persona. (Look him up, with images; yes, those are goblin ears and yes, that’s a goblin nose and no, I don’t know why). So where the hell did The Great Deceiver come from?  Great goodly-moogly, Wotan, I have no idea! Eschewing any wifty forest goblin dark ambient nonsense, this record offers punchy  industrial metal with crazy catchy singalong bits and crazy infectious metal riffery and crazy tight production and, uh, just a lot of crazy good crazy cray cray, all around. Might we have more of this please, Mortiis? And soon?

#13. Quilt, Plaza: A lovely collection of tunes by a talented young quartet who create a positive sense of universal essence in their music, in the sense that the sounds on this record touch the parts of your brain that make you think you’ve always lived with these songs, after a single listen. There’s no mimicry, nor any plagiarism, nor any lack of originality, just a powerful sense of familiarity and comfort that instantly ingratiates and pleases, most potently. Lovely, warm, inviting, engaging, and timeless in the best sense of the word. In fact, I’ve been listening to Plaza since I was 13 years old, come to think of it. Remember that dance in ’78 when we . . . well . . . maybe that’s for another time, huh? Man. Those were the days. I’m sure glad Quilt’s still doing what they do. They’re the sound of always.

#12: The Dean Ween Group, The Deaner AlbumI really, really, really have to resist the urge here to just type DEANER!! DEANER!!!!! DEANER!!!!!! over and over again in this review blurb. DEANER MADE A RECORD!!! DEANER!!! DEANER DID IT!!!!! We now have great solo records from both halves of Ween, and they’re playing together live again, so on some plane, this is the best of all possible worlds. DEANER!!! YAY DEANER!!! DEANER IS THE EXERCISE MAN!!!!! Dean Ween has always been a fantastic guitarist, and the songs here are accessible and goofy and fun, with nary a shred of political correctness, but copious portions of love and respect for the great guitarists who inspire, and , um, uh, perfectly suited to, uh, that which is . . . oh, what the hell, why resist . . . DEANER!!! DEANER!!! DEANER!!!!! WE LOVE DEANER!!! OMGF DEANER!!!!! DEANER MADE HIS RECORD!!! DEANER!!!!

#11. Nails, You Will Never Be One of Us: This album by a trio of headbangers from Oxnard Cali packs 10 songs into 21 minutes, and one of them is eight minutes long, so that should give you a sense of the short, sharp punches that the rest of the cuts provide. Except that “sharp” is probably too mild a word: something like “bludgeoning” or “punishing” or “terrifying” or all of them combined is closer to the real auditory experience. In fact, I would rate the title track of this record, all 90 seconds of it, among the most brutal, hardcore, awesome, ass-kicking, double-plus metal moments of the year. The riffage is crushing. The shreddage is grinding. The shoutage is punishing. Fantastic, potent, power-violence distilled multiple times into pure, refined essence of pummeling. I likes it, yes sir, I do. No wasted time, no surplus effort, just get in, kick everybody’s ass, and call it a night.

#10. King Crimson, Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey MindIf you enter “King Crimson” in the search block of my blog, it returns 30-some pages worth of worship, so Robert Fripp’s on-again/off-again musical beastie sits heavy in my musical makeup. King Crimson Mk VII — also dubbed “The Seven Headed Beast of Crim” — is the first in the group’s history to present all stages of the group’s tortuous personnel and creative history into their concert canon, and Holy Moly, do they do it justice. This album is a three-disc set of the finest moments of the group’s first two years of touring (Marcia and I saw one of the shows in Chicago, before we lived here), played and recorded amazingly well, with audience noise edited out. It’s a delight to hear both new and classic songs rearranged for Mk VII’s triple drum, double guitar, reeds and bass lineup. King Crimson’s catalog is like the progressive rock version of the Great American Songbook, with amazingly well-composed pieces that can thrive in a variety of arrangements, and allow players to shine in both ensemble and solo performances, playing parts that may or may not have been written with their instruments in mind. That solo used to be played on a violin? Well, now we’re gonna do it on a sax. And it still works, grandly well. I truly believe that some of these songs will be played on stages 200 years from now, as representative examples of the art of composition in and beyond their native time and place. This is a truly great introduction for new King Crimson listeners, and for long-standing Crimbo Anoraks like me, you can never have too many versions of “Larks Tongue in Aspic, Part 2,” now can you?

#9. Wire, Nocturnal Koreans: I can’t tell you without checking just how many albums Wire have put over the 25 years that I’ve been doing these sorts of lists — but I can tell you that every one of them has appeared in the list of my faves in the years that they’ve been released. I’m not sure that there’s any other act as prolific as Wire (when they’re working together; sometimes they don’t) who have managed to move me so consistently over that time span. Nocturnal Koreans was presented as an adjunct or supplement to last year’s self-titled disc, ostensibly offering some of the weirder or eccentric bits that didn’t fit in the flow of the predecessor record. It’s got all of the cool guitar interplay, just-so metronomic drums, punchy dubby bass parts, and arch/wry (Colin Newman) or stern/spooky (Graham Lewis) vocals that almost all other Wire albums have, along with some new touches (trumpet!) and textures. No matter how many times you hear or see the basic formula unfurled, it remains fresh and distinctive and thought-provoking, lyrically, musically, and conceptually. Rarely have grooves seemed so smart. Rarely have smarts rocked so hard. Bravo, Wire! Long may you dugga! Long may you drill!

#8. The Monkees, Good Times!: Given this album’s provenance (a mix of updated cutting room floor relics from the ’60s and for-hire songs from a collection of hip contemporary writers), and the fact that the unjustly-dubbed “Pre-Fab Four” are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, listeners could have been forgiven for expecting the outcome of this project to be something of a train wreck. But the reality couldn’t be further from that low expectation: Good Times! is almost impossibly well played and sung (studio pros and Messrs Tork, Nesmith and Dolenz all do their parts), improbably fresh and current sounding, and incredibly engaging and endearing. There’s not a dud song in the mix, and even poor deceased David Jones gets a solo spot on a lost Neil Diamond tune that sounds exactly like what a lost Neil Diamond tune sung by David Jones should sound like. Dolenz takes most of the lead vocals throughout the album’s run, which is as it should be, since he really is voice you hear in your head when you think “Monkees,” but I find the Tork and Nesmith spotlight numbers to be among the record’s highlights, and it’s a delight to hear the three old colleagues working so well together on a single record again. You’d be hard pressed to find a more fun album in this darkest of years, so I highly recommend it if you need a pick-me-up in the face of current events, or are shattered by one too many spins through The Body’s No One Deserves Happiness.

#7. School of Seven Bells, SVIIBAn incredibly uplifting album created under the darkest of circumstances. Main musical Bell Benjamin Curtis (ex-Secret Machines) died terribly young of lymphoma in 2013. His musical and ex-personal partner, Alejandra Deheza, worked to complete an album of songs she’d written with Curtis before his passing, and SVIIB is the delightful and honestly unexpected result of that commitment to closure. While there are senses of loss, longing, pain, and passion pervading the album, it’s not a dire travelogue through the process of dying, nor a cathartic house-cleaning, nor a “woe is me, I’m left behind” missive that places the surviving member in a staring role in the story of the member who flew away. It’s ultimately just a collection of really soaring and transcendent songs about love and life, with “Ablaze” especially standing out as one of the most perfect pop culture moments of the year. Bittersweet, yes, but in the end, it’s the sweetness that endures and empowers. A lovely labor of love that I love.

#6. Teho Teardo and Blixa Bargeld, Nerissimo: Blixa Bargeld made his name as a noisy motive engine in Einsturzende Neubauten and Nick Cave’s early Bad Seeds, and Teho Teardo is best known on these shores for his work with ’90s indie metal noise monsters Meathead. So when you put them together and have them make a record, it’s most likely to be an explosion of grinding noise and industrial samples and shrieked vocals and clattering cans, right? Maybe sometimes, but not this time, not at all: Nerissimo is a beautiful album, with a nearly symphonic score, subtle electronics, and some of Blixa’s most evocative vocals and lyrics, which is truly saying something. The title track (which roughly translates to “the most black”) is offered in both Italian and English versions, and it’s a joy to hear the piece both when you know what der Bargeld is saying, and when you hear his voice as an instrument without specific word-for-word meaning. While I’d be delighted to have a new Neubauten album at some point, if that group has banged its final can, it’s wonderful to know that Blixa has found another truly sympathetic collaborator who can bring his remarkable visions to florid musical fruition.

#5. Jonathan Richman, Ishkode! Ishkode!While Jonathan Richman is certainly among the longest performing and likely best known names (well, among music nerds anyway) on this year’s list, Ishkode! Ishkode! may be among its most hard-to-score albums. Jojo is notoriously anti-technological, so his latest disc doesn’t readily appear on the usual online record-selling portals, slipping out instead via cool brick and mortar-based Blue Arrow Records’ house label with little fanfare or fuss. But, boy oh boy, is it worth tracking down and nabbing, as it contains 11 utterly charming songs that touch almost of all of Richman’s signature quirks and concerns, along with a boodle of new touches and tics to keep things exciting. The songs are whimsical and wonderful with delicious lyrical turns of phrase and gushing confessional moments balanced with tender paeans to a variety of loves, most sung in English, but with snatches and fragments of the Romance languages Jojo enjoys mixed in for fun and variety. Longtime drummer Tommy Larkins ably supports Richman’s usual vocal and acoustic guitar (gentle) attack, and a collection of female voices and additional instrumentation enriches the textures, though I have no idea who provides them. He’s not prolific, is Jonathan Richman, but he’s damn good at what he does, and still getting better all the time, based on the evidence of Ishkode!  Ishkode!

#4. Dälek, Asphalt for EdenI’ve written about Dälek a fair amount here over the years, and three of their records have prominent spots on my all time favorite album list, more than all but a few other acts can claim in my personal canon of musical loves. Fronted by Newark, New Jersey’s Will Brooks, the group had gone mostly quiet since 2009’s utterly epic Gutter Tactics, so I was well and truly stoked when I learned that a re-tooled lineup of the trio would be returning to action this year. The resulting long player is a thrilling addition to their fine body of work, with the usual exceptional (and topical) lyrics delivered atop their signature sonic soundscapes, combining big beats with industrial sounds, chiming and clanging guitar lines, and truly fantastic turntable and sample work. Not to beat a dead horse, but 2016 has been a tough year, and as we look to its end and to what’s coming ahead of us, we really need voices and sounds like those that Dälek are offering us to keep us sharp and sane. There are very few artists whose music challenges me to think as much as Dälek’s does, and I am grateful for that. This is the sound of resistance, and of empowerment, and of strength. Embrace it through the guaranteed struggle ahead.

#3. Jesu/Sun Kil Moon, Jesu/Sun Kil Moon: I can cite half a dozen times in my life when I’ve been stopped flat in my tracks in public by unexpectedly hearing something so insanely good, different and original that it has changed the way I perceive music from that point forward. Like the first time I heard the guitar solo on Brian Eno’s “Baby’s On Fire” on WLIR while riding a school bus, for instance, or the first time I heard Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” on WBRU in a record store in Newport, Rhode Island. (Don’t hate, hipsters, that was mind-blowingly different song in its day, before it permanently changed the ways we hear and appreciate drums). I had one of those transformative musical moments last summer in Florence, Italy, when I went into a local record shop (remember those?) to try to score some contemporary Italian music, and heard the song “Good Morning My Love” from this disc cranking as I closed the door behind me. I had no idea who it was, but I stood still and listened to every word and every chord until it was over, and it totally rocked my world. I’ve known Jesu mainman Justin Broadrick’s work for many years, through his time with Napalm Death, Head of David and Godflesh (whose last album was a #2 here on my 2014 list), but I’ve been less actively attuned to Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek since way back in the days when he fronted Red House Painters, who I liked, but hadn’t really thought about in a long, long time. Together on this record, though, Kozelek and Broadrick tapped something primal for me, fitting perfectly into an amazing spot where epic story-telling unfolds over patient, anthemic, down-tuned guitar washes, filling a niche that I didn’t know needed filling, but which now I can’t imagine ever having empty again. On the gentler side, “Fragile” is the most perfect, sweet, honest and well-crafted homage to the great Chris Squire that I could image. Sublime. This collaboration has inspired me to work backward through both gents’ catalogs, and that has been highly rewarding. I didn’t get any contemporary Italian music in Florence that day, but I got this, and that changed everything. I need to walk into record stores more often, clearly.

#2. Chance The Rapper, Coloring BookIt has been an unexpected delight to be living in Chicago through the ascendancy of Chance the Rapper, first with his Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment group outing, and now with his third self-directed album. He’s a formidable talent on all fronts, dazzling with vocal prowess, lyrical skill, and uncanny arranging and collaborative abilities that leave his songs sounding rich and luscious like few things on the market in the sample, soundbite, and ProTool era. I’m also awed and encouraged to see the care that Chance puts back into his home community, and am deeply impressed by his business acumen, as he appears to have forged an amazing career playing solely by his own rules, record label and music industry be damned. Coloring Book is a close-to-perfect album, and as a devotee of both hip-hop and classic gospel music, I think it’s the best crossover between those deeply spiritual and powerful genres that I’ve yet to hear, or expect to hear in the future, at least until Chance decides to drop another disc. In most years, Coloring Book would have been a clear Album of the Year for me, so fine are its form, function, fashion, finesse, and well-deserved fame. But 2016 is not most years . . . not by a long shot . . .

#1. 2016’s Album of the Year: David Bowie, Blackstar: What else could it be, really? I gave Bowie’s The Next Day Album Of The Year honors in 2013, awed by the quality of that record, that awe then further compounded by its completely unexpected emergence with little of the usual advance media and marketing nonsense surrounding it. What a joy it was to know that the great one had been working in secret to share this new gem with us! And, glory, how great it was, reminding us of just how much we had missed him during his silent decade. And then . . . and then . . . and then . . . we got another disc in 2016, and just as we heard it for the first time, and we realized that he had given us yet another sublime masterpiece, we learned that David had kept another great secret from us, and that we would be missing him again, forever, his final work to tweak our expectations in a completely new fashion, as he done so, so many times before, but not like this. Marcia and I actually put Blackstar on the stereo the night we got it, and laid in bed together and listened to it, beginning to end, something that we rarely do, for any artist, for any album, for any reason. He, and it, were that special and exciting to us. Katelin posted on her Facebook page that same night that she felt awed to live in a time when David Bowie was actively making some of his best music ever, since he’d been such an important part of her own musical interests and history over the years. And then we woke up the next day to learn that he had died. I don’t normally get emotional about the loss of people I don’t know personally, but I can say that this passing probably moved me more than that of any other non-friend or family member in my adult life (with the possible exception of Muhammad Ali, damn you, 2016!), and that feeling lasted for a long time. So the circumstances surrounding Blackstar certainly make it resonate strongly, but that wouldn’t be enough to make me name it my Album Of The Year if is wasn’t a masterpiece, too. It is, though, truly. What a great gift to balance such a great loss at the beginning of the year. I remain cautiously hopeful that other moments of darkness in this year and the years to come may also eventually be assuaged by beauty and artistry like this magnificent, luminous, shining and inspirational creative jewel. Sometimes we achieve our greatest triumphs when we face our darkest days. Blackstar, guide us home. Amen.