Best Albums of 2016 (First Half)

It’s only a couple of weeks until the mid-point of 2016, and that means there’s only six months left before I compile and publish my 25th annual Albums of the Year list. Time flies when you’re having fun and listening to good music, apparently. As has been my June practice in recent years, I offer the following interim list of the 15 releases of 2016 that have most rocked my world since January. The list is in alphabetical order by artist, more or less, and album titles link to sample songs to help you explore.

David Bowie — Blackstar

Che Guevara T-Shirt — Tsarkoye Selo

dälekAsphalt for Eden

Death Grips — Bottomless Pit

Ihsahn — Arktis.

Mind Spiders — Prosthesis

The Monkees — Good Times!

Mortiis — The Great Deceiver

Gregory Porter — Take Me To The Alley

Quilt — Plaza

Santigold — 99 Cents

School of Seven Bells —SVIIB

Teho Teardo and Blixa Bargeld — Nerissimo

Teleman — Brilliant Sanity

Wire — Nocturnal Koreans

Normally, I’d note that any number of these might be contenders for Album of the Year, but I can tell you that the quality of and circumstances surrounding the release of David Bowie’s final album certainly make it the disc to dethrone for the title at this point. I have high hopes for Chance the Rapper’s new disc (I refuse to join Apple Music to stream it, and don’t want to download it illegally, so waiting ’til it is available for general release), but I’m not sure it or any of the rest of these are going to be up to the task.

In closing, I also want to cite a few albums from last year that I nabbed too late to include in my Tournament-style 2015 Album of the Year series last November; they weren’t included, but they would have been, had I had them in time. Good stuff, all of it, above and below. Enjoy!

Action Bronson — Mr. Wonderful

Camp Lo — Ragtime Hightimes

Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment — Surf

Snog — Compliance

Snoop Dogg — BUSH



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.



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!

Short Story Of The Month #6: How Do You Know?

Once again, I’m not being a very good blogger when it comes to frequency of posting here, but I must admit that the Short Story Of The Month project is having something of its desired result in getting me to spend mental energy on creative endeavors that might have a bit more more heft and bit longer legs than my usual periodic piffle and tripe. So that’s what working for me here these days, and I’m gonna run with it.

I’ve finished my May story, the sixth of thirteen planned. It didn’t have quite the same genesis as the others in the series, in that I didn’t push the random word generator to pick four seed words to inspire a story. This one took something more like my usual weird creative process: I woke from a complicated dream one morning with the phrase “How do you know?” resonating in the afterglow of a good night’s sleep.

As I rose and tried to remember and retain the general gist and flavor of the dream, it dawned (no pun intended) on me that those were, as it turns out, four words randomly selected by my sleeping brain instead of by a computer, so I decided to use them for this month’s story instead. I trust the lizard in my skull when it comes to stuff like this: my favorite poem from the 2004 Poem Of The Day project — Jefferson Water — was also direct deposit from a dream state.

I don’t know if I will like “How Do You Know?” years from now as much as I like “Jefferson Water,” but the only way to test it was to write it, so I did.

As always, if you want to catch up on prior installments, here are the links:

December 2015: The Research Assistant

January 2016: Eadwig Espinosa, Ealdorman of Daud

February 2016: Fleming And The Food Fluffers

March 2016: Veronica Bugdoctor

April 2016: Blackthorn

And here’s the new one . . . enjoy!


Short Story Of The Month #5: Blackthorn

Holy Moly, where did April go?  The last time I only had one blog post in a month was September 2013, when I was coming out of a writing sabbatical. Not a conscious choice like that this month, I was just apparently busier than I realized elsewhere as the days flew by. “In the time that it takes to write about doing it, it could be done.” (TM: Shriekback). While not writing much here, I did spend a fair amount of time mulling this month’s story before putting it down for posterity. It grew from an idea I had last summer, and there’s probably more research into it than the final text would indicate, though hopefully that helps with tone and tenor, if not actual explication. It’s a dark one, I have to say. You’ve been warned.

Here are the prior installments of my Short Story of the Month series if you’d like to catch up:

December 2015: The Research Assistant

January 2016: Eadwig Espinosa, Ealdorman of Daud

February 2016: Fleming And The Food Fluffers

March 2016: Veronica Bugdoctor

As in prior months, the story is seeded by using a random generator that provides me with four cornerstone words. Here’s what I started with:


And here’s what I did with that . . .



1. My sports loyalties are a matter of public record, so when the usually sad collection of teams I most avidly follow have their occasional great seasons, I can’t be accused of bandwagon jumping. 2015 was a remarkable year for me on this front, as the Beloved Kansas City Royals took home a World Series Crown for the first time in 30 years. Huttah! Navy football also capped a remarkable season, with the stellar Keenan Reynolds ending his four-year career as starting quarterback with the best Heisman Trophy finish for a Navy player since Roger Staubach won the thing in 1963. Double Huttah! So now it is 2016, and it looks on the surface like I could be on a fandom roll, as the Washington Capitals just captured the President’s Trophy in the National Hockey League, securing home ice advantage for all four rounds of the playoffs. Note well, though, that they key words in the prior sentence are “looks on the surface,” as the Caps are among the most heart-breaking of my favorite franchises, with a long history of awesome regular season play being undone by shocking chokes in the post-season. How did their last President’s Trophy season end, you might ask? With a first round, seven-game loss to #8 seed Montreal. They say that pessimists are never disappointed, so I’m preparing for the post-season accordingly. Harrumph!

2. Around our three month anniversary in Chicago, I’d written a piece about some Mysteries of Chicago that we’d experienced in our early days here. Five months later, a couple more have emerged for us:

  • What’s with all the bad mouthing of Navy Pier in both the traditional and hipster media? Sure, it’s a big tourist destination with a lot of the expected plastic cheese factor that goes along with that, but it’s still a nice walkabout with some great lake views and pretty unbeatable people-watching opportunities, right? And what’s wrong with that?
  • Why are locals obsessed with regaling newcomers about the horrors of the weather here? While we recognize that this past winter was quite a mild one, we’ve endured the horrors of Idaho, Upstate New York and Iowa winters for the past quarter century, so when people give me the “Oooo, just you wait ’til next year, it’s going to be awful” pitch, I just sort of shrug in an unimpressed fashion, and it seems to offend some folks that I would dare to suggest that other places’ weather is more vile than ours is here.

3. Over a year ago, before we knew we were moving to Chicago, we purchased a pair of tickets in Des Moines for this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship first and second round games. We had seen had seen an epic collection of Women’s Hoops teams during their tournament a couple of years before (including Baylor with Britney Griner, and Tennessee in Pat Summit’s last year with the team), so were optimistic that we might get something similar for the men this year. We traveled back to Des Moines two weekends ago for the games, and the draw didn’t disappoint, as the second round games we attended featured four legendary programs with Kentucky, Connecticut, Indiana and Kansas taking the floor. We gave two of our first round tickets to Katelin and John, but we did get to see Stony Brook (SUNY represent!) play their first and (for now) last NCAA Tournament game. I’d have preferred to see their conference rival Albany Great Danes play, of course, but it was good to have an American East team in the house, however briefly. We didn’t get to pick seats, so were also nicely surprised at how good they turned out to be. Here’s the free throw that ended Kentucky’s season, as a sampler of the view:

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4. From Des Moines, I flew on to Knoxville, Tennessee for a conference, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the Convention Center is built on the grounds of the Worlds Fair, which I attended in 1982 on my high school Senior Class Trip. The Sunsphere  features in many blurry memories that I have of that trip, and it’s still there, so it was nice to have some fresh, unblurry views of it, all these years later. If you know much about what happened during that earlier trip to Knoxville, feel free to fill me in at some point. Ahem.

5. We celebrated Katelin and Marcia’s birthdays this year in Chicago together, with Katelin and John visiting from Des Moines, and three of Katelin’s college friends from New York flying in to make things extra festive. The weekend featured two exceptional meals, one with all seven of us at Emilio’s Sol y Nieve (tapas ’til the cows came home), and one with just The Family at Sepia (delicious creative organic/sustainable fare rooted in traditional American fare, with modern International twists). We highly recommend both destinations if you’re looking for a special night out.