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.

Thanksgiving Rules of Decorum

The extended Smith-Duft clans will be gathering in Beaufort, South Carolina today to give thanks and then eat ourselves into food comas. It’s been quite some time since all of us have been together in the Low Country that spewed us forth, so I sent the following “Thanksgiving Rules of Decorum” out as a refresher to remind everyone how we roll at this most gluttonous of gatherings. Here’s hoping your family traditions result in similarly successful results.

1. Gristle may be sucked off bones at the table, but cracking bones to remove the marrow must be done in the kitchen.

2. If there are no pets in the room to blame, all flatulence must be held until such time as a particularly funny joke is told, and the accidental emission adds to the mirth.

3. The tube of cranberry sauce is a decoration, not a food. No touching!

4. You must clear your plate of all objects put upon it before beginning round two. Even stuffed tomatoes.

5. You may only hide peas within a roll if there enough rolls to ensure that everyone else gets as many as they want. If rolls run out, you must eat your pea filled roll before you leave the table.

6. No matter how you hold the fork, it is wrong. If anyone chooses to notice this fact, you must skip a round and look contrite while others eat.

7. Discussion of bodily functions should be reserved for the pause between main course and desert. Comparisons of bodily functions to objects on the table may result in a fork mishandling penalty and forfeiture of dessert rights.

8. If someone disappears for more than 90 seconds, everyone at the table must loudly enquire as to their whereabouts, and whether everything is okay in there.

9. No additional butter is required on the Stouffers Mac and Cheese, unless it touches anything green and you need to offset the effect of the vitamins and minerals.

10. You may not take the hambone out of the green beans and pass them on without taking at least six beans, and not hiding them in your roll. You may elect to butter them before eating.

Storm Watch

We’ve had a series of strong storms here over the past week that have had some tangible impacts on our days, e.g. we were in our seats at Steppenwolf Theater on Saturday night for a performance that was cancelled due to backstage flooding, we had to flee an outdoor show at Pritzker Pavilion on Thursday night when the lightning began striking too close to comfort, and we got to watch an aquatic rescue after seeing a sailboat struck by lightning in Monroe Harbor later that same night.

On the upside, the view of these big storms from our apartment is awe-inspiring, especially when two of them occurred just as Coldplay were about the take the stage at Soldier Field during their sold-out, two-night stand. I mean, yeah, I totally understand the universe’s wrath about that sort of thing. I’ve been snapping the storms somewhat randomly trying to get some shots worth preserving, and share a half dozen of them with you below (in the sixth one, you can actually see the Jumbotron at Soldier Field telling the Coldplay fans that the cosmos disapproves of them). I’ve also set up a second 2016 Chicago Scenes folder in my Flickr account and posted these there, with others, if you want to keep up with the ongoing adventures hereabouts, or at least the visual representations thereof.

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Goedjies

1. I accepted my current position as President and Chief Executive Officer of  TREE Fund on July 9, 2015, receiving the offer by phone as Marcia and I were driving back to Des Moines from Chicago during our final pre-move-in trip. I actually started the job on August 24, 2015, so this time last year was a period of high churn, as we closed out one household and opened another. It’s been an eventful year since then, with a lot of unexpected twists and turns and challenges and opportunities along the way. At bottom line, though, I can say that I feel more of a sense of place in Chicago after twelve months than I ever did in Iowa — even though both Marcia and I spend far more time traveling away from our home here than we ever have in prior jobs. As much as we’ve done here over the past year, I still feel that we’ve just scratched the surface of what our home base city has to offer, so I look forward to many more years of exploring it with Marcia and the various family members and guests who come to visit us.

2. Speaking of TREE Fund, and as a reminder for (or invite to) those readers here who are generously inclined to support the causes that I support: in three months, I will be riding my (new!) bike about 600 miles around my native Carolinas to raise funds for urban forestry and arboriculture research as part of the STIHL Tour des Trees. You can help support the good cause (and me!) by donating at my rider page. And if you choose to do so, and you put “Restricted to UARF” in your comment field to me, then we will get a 50% match on top of your gift from Pacific Gas & Electric Company to support utility arboriculture research. Go ahead. Click the link. I’ll stay here and wait for you, while showing you this nice book as inpiration . . .

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3. And also speaking of Chicago, I’d done a couple of photo summaries inline here in the blog during our first six months here, and recently set up an album of my favorite snaps from the second six months, here. I continue to be perpetually pleased and surprised at the vistas and vignettes that the city sets before me. It feels like home, at bottom line. And that feels good!

A Tuscan Treat

Marcia and I returned have just returned from a ten day trip to Italy, booked and built around the “Tuscan Treat” package offered by Back-Roads Touring, a London-based company specializing in small group tours. Here’s the itinerary, and we added an extra night at the front and back ends in Florence. We had done a similar small group tour last year to Spain and Portugal with a different provider, and had a great experience, so came into this trip with high expectations.

I’m delighted to report that the actual experience was even better than what we had hoped for. We had an utterly delightful group of travel companions, all of them from Australia or New Zealand, so it was a wonderful extra cultural exchange bonus to be able to spend time and break bread and experience Tuscany with all of them. Thank you Beth, Alison, Judith, Sue, Bill, Kerrie, Greg, Max, Robin, Karen,Di, Glen and all three Johns for your delightful warmth and companionship and perspective. We enjoyed our time together very much, and hope that our paths will cross again.

Our guide, Luis Cardoso, is a native of Portugal and long-time resident of the United Kingdom, and he was also a wonderful traveling companion and facilitator of group cohesion and spirit, with good humor and great tales and perspective about what we experienced. “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” he noted several times, and as a writer and storyteller myself, I couldn’t be more fond of that philosophy. I would be very, very happy to tour with Luis again, so I’ll be monitoring the Back Roads Touring schedule next summer to see what he’s up to, and whether we might be able to go along for the ride. So thanks to you too, Luis: you are a gentleman and a scholar and jolly good guide.

As is often the case on trips like this one, the things that we like the most are unseen and unexpected in advance of the journey. My favorite stops were Pienza, Lucca and Volterra, none of which I’d known anything about before we booked this trip; we saw a wonderful, intimate opera performance in Lucca, had one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten in Volterra, and just relaxed and absorbed the beauty of Pienza. We had a great time in Siena learning about their legendary historic Palio, and I have decided to root for the Bruco (Caterpillar) contrade in future runnings of this spectacle. We stayed for a couple of days at a wonderful villa next door (the term is relative) to Sting and Trudie Styler’s place in Chianti, and we visited the Cinque Terre, which my sister cites as her favorite place in the world. I could see why.

As always, I merrily snapped photos along the way, and you can click the sample photo below to see the rest of them. I was going to cull and sort and organize and order and explain them all, but I am actually just enjoying experiencing them as a big bloc of imagery jumbled all together, aptly capturing the overwhelming sensory experience of spending time in this magical, historic, alluring part of the world.

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Dingen

Ye gods, he blogs! Or at least he stops by his website to unload some piffle and tripe for your reading pleasure (?) until June’s Short Story of the Month appears . . .

On The Stereo #1: I’ve had Tsarskoye Selo by Che Guevara T-Shirt on heavy rotation for the past couple of weeks. The group formed circa 2005 in Albany, New York with a standard guitar(s)-bass-drum rock configuration, but around the time of their outstanding 2012 album Everyone That’s Dead Was Obviously Wrong (see #6, here), the front line of Keith Sonin and Matt Heuston both began playing baritone guitars, creating a truly distinctive sound and feel for their music. They’ve continued with the double baritone approach through three more albums since then (picking up new drummer John Olander along the way), and the low end remains front and center on the fabulous Tsarskoye Selo. The seven-track album combines knotty melodic and rhythmic figures with impressionistic, claustrophobic lyrics that are rich in word play, and delivered with a sharp urgency by Sonin (mostly) and Heuston (on “Revenge”). While the challenging musical patterns might casually shoehorn these songs into the “math rock” genre, Che Guevara T-Shirt manage to make their intricacy far more engaging than most other examples of that form, and the rumble of the baritones creates a sense of inexorable force that grabs you and holds you and shakes you in potent, resonant ways. Album highlights for me include “Un Jou” (fantastic use of multi-lingual sounds to tap hidden layers of meaning), “I Break Women” (the most rumbling of rumbles) and “Conrad” (which combines powerful music with dark, self-referential words to create a paean to the frustrations of the independent artist). What makes Che Guevara T-Shirt’s work most special to me is the blend of their unique instrumental attack with the excellence of their texts, credited in the album’s liner notes to one “Scott Koenig,” who I suspect may be the equally mysterious “S. Connick,” who wrote an interesting “20 Years Later” review of this disc on his blog, here. Having followed Heuston and Sonin’s musical activities for many, many years (well before Che Guevara T-Shirt existed), I’d be delighted if Connick’s future visions for this album came true. These guys are great songwriters and musicians, and they deserve to be more widely heard and respected.

A Pet Peeve: I’m very mobile these days, doing a lot of travel for work, or taking multiple buses and trains each day when I go to and from my office. I carry all the things I need to make it through the day in a satchel (okay, it’s probably a man purse, technically) that hangs around my neck. As I go to stores and buy coffee and other sundries necessary throughout the day, I’ve become increasingly bugged by the habit of retail cashiers to leaf large paper  receipts in with bills, then put coins on top of the whole mess, when making change. First off, I don’t want a huge paper receipt for a $2.50 cup of coffee. Secondly, when you give me change that way, I can no longer slide my bills into my wallet with one hand, then easily slide my wallet into my man purse satchel. It becomes a two-handed operation that involved setting things down on the counter, creating the opportunity to walk away without something. Before computers became ubiquitous, I think we all envisioned a far more paper-free world that they might have created. But now, the amount of useless, incidental paper generated seems to be rising, and cashiers are being trained to hand it to customers in the most inconvenient way possible. A big deal? No. Annoying nonetheless? You bet. That’s pretty much the definition of pet peeve isn’t it?

Road, Rail, Plane Warrior: I mentioned that I’ve been traveling a lot lately. How much? Here’s a map of the places I’ve been since August:

map thru may 13I’ll be returning to Iowa and Florida in the next month, but before then, I leave this map entirely for a trip to Italy with Marcia. Watch for the usual photo essays around that trip in early June.

Beloved Royals, Up Close and Personal: We had a perfect spring day here on Sunday, and Marcia and I spent it on the first base side of U.S. Cellular Field, watching my Beloved Royals play the hometown Chicago White Sox. It was a good game, though it didn’t end quite the way I would have liked, with the Sox winning, and two Royals players being injured in a foul ball chasing collision along the third base line. But it was still a joy to see them play, since it’s been a long time since I’ve had the chance to do so. Our seats were excellent, per shots below:

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On The Stereo #2: I was thrilled to learn a few weeks back that New Jersey’s dälek were back in musical action with a fantastic new album called Asphalt for Eden. My “Top 200 Albums of All Time” list features not one, not two, but three albums from this crew, and they are played very regularly in our household. At bottom line: I find their work be aurally, lyrically, and conceptually as ambitious and impressive and original as music comes. Ostensibly an underground rap act on paper, dälek actually mine an ambitious lode that sits on a tiny sweet spot where the industrial, noise, hip hop and avant garde genres overlap. Their beats are insistent, but they are often shrouded in dense loops of squall and squeal and static that don’t quite sound like anything else I’ve heard anywhere else, from anyone. Atop the tumult, MC Will Brooks delivers choice line after choice line in a perfectly cadenced, powerful voice, supplemented by some of the smartest and most thought-provoking spoken word samples you’re even likely to hear knitted into a musical tapestry. Asphalt for Eden is a powerful return document, and it’s wonderful to hear dälek maintain their sonic attack with a new lineup, who bring new things to the mix, but deploy them in order to extend the unique musical legacy that the group have forged over the years. The trio is coming to Chicago in July, and I look forward to hearing them live as they deliver cuts from this and so many other favorite albums.

Avail of Two Cities: An interesting memo from Mercy Health Network a couple of weeks ago contained the news that the hospital system had named a new Vice President and General Counsel: Marcia Brom Smith. It’s a wonderful and well-deserved career step for my bestest of bestests, and I’m proud of and pleased for her to the highest of high degrees. Huttah! And Huttah Again! You regular readers who are actually familiar with Mercy Health Network might correctly observe that it is based in Iowa, not Chicago, meaning that Marcia will be traveling regularly between here and there for work. Last week, we acquired and furnished (thank you, storage unit) a second one-bedroom apartment in Des Moines’ East Village so she doesn’t have to be a hotel regular when she’s there. So we are now officially stateless (in the good sense of that word) with a small base of operations in Chicago near my work, and a small base of operations in Des Moines, near Marcia’s work, and where Katelin still lives. Despite having two addresses, we still have fewer bedrooms than we did in our last house, not to mention no driveways to shovel, no grass to cut, no gardens to mulch, no roofs to replace, no furnaces to break, and no general worries about leaving an empty house when we travel. It’s a new chapter, a new adventure, and a new approach, but we’ve never shied away from those in the past, so I expect this phase to as exciting as all those that have come before it. Did I say Huttah? Huttah!