This year was not my most musically adventurous. I spent a lot of listening time on podcasts (SSDGM), lecture series (Russia, Ulysses, Ireland), and Hamilton (again), and made minimal efforts seek out new music. I have decided to take action against musical malaise next year. I will listen to a new album every week, at least four times to make sure they get a chance to sink in. I crowdsourced a long list of albums (some new, all new to me), and I am excited to get started. Until then, here are the albums that I enjoyed the most in 2016.
5. Rocket to Russia (Ramones, 1977)
Favorite Song: “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker”
Listening to Rocket to Russia, I can almost hear the crowded New York club, filled with rollicking girls and rowdy boys. The songs are not meant to be played cleanly into a silent space (like my car), but played with living energy and breathing motion, directly into the bodies of the listener. Once I got over the impression that the album was made of two songs, each rewritten several times, I found joy in the simple lyrics and driving beats. The repetition and pace are hypnotic. On the downside: I can’t imagine why they included “Surfin’ Bird.” The Clash would never do that.
4. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (The Flaming Lips, 2002)
Favorite Song: “Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell”
One impression of Yoshimi: So this is what all those indie bands are trying to do.
Though I was initially wary of the musical interludes (I am a lyrics-first person), I soon found the melodies crawling under my skin, making themselves a backing track to my day. Once the lyrics broke through, they hit me squarely in the chakra. The Flaming Lips’ new age philosophy (which is really old age philosophy) in catchy rhythms with just a touch of science fiction makes for a fun and beautiful album that grows on me more with every listen.
3. Sail Away (Randy Newman, 1972)
Favorite Song: “Sail Away”
Any communication folks have had with me this year has probably included some version of me melting into “Randy Newman is a genius.” Randy Newman is so good at satire, you can love and know every word of his songs and not even know they have meaning beyond
their face value. The title track of Sail Away feels like freedom–sail away, cross the ocean, stop running, take care of your home–but it is a lie coaxing someone to surrender themselves into bondage. “Political Science” is one of the funniest songs I know. At the same time,
it simply relates a terrifying endpoint of American exceptionalism (they’re of no use to us, drop the big one). Newman is not a religious man, so you know his two songs on God, “He Gives Us All His Love” and “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind),” mean more than meets the eye. Then there is “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” which is just a jam.
Each Newman album has a handful of gutpunches. Standouts to me are “Jolly Coppers on Parade” and “Baltimore” on Little Criminals and “Rednecks” and “Kingfish” on Good Old Boys. I have not begun to crack the all nuts that are Randy Newman songs, but there is a whole barrel worth gnawing on. Because I don’t know if you realize this, but Randy Newman is a genius.
2. The Modern Lovers (The Modern Lovers, 1976)
Favorite Song: “I’m Straight”
This album is a gem. I am grateful for John Hodgman’s continual pushing of “Roadrunner” that finally brought The Modern Lovers to me. Jonathan Richman sounds like a self-aware teenager doing an impression of a regular horny teenager. “Pablo Picasso” is the comeback of a rejected adolescent bemoaning the injustices of life and love. “Government Center” is a ‘60s garage band playing a ‘50s dance number. Great music, great lyrics, great delivery. Richman loves the Old World but wants to live in the Modern World, and I want to live in the Modern World with him.
1. Blackstar (David Bowie, 2016)
Favorite Song: “Girl Loves Me”
I may not have listened to Blackstar much this year if David Bowie had not died; perhaps I would not feel the weight of its greatness under different circumstances. Nevertheless, Blackstar is inseparable from Bowie’s death–the themes of age, illness, legacy, and life are felt in every song. Bowie knew he was leaving and he gave us Blackstar as a parting gift. The man who once had Friday on his mind is now wondering “where the f*¢k did Monday go?”
Technically, Blackstar is not “my kind” of music. But there are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music. Whether it is folk, funk, metal, or jazz, David Bowie makes good music. Like a symphony the title track carries the listener from movement to movement, and somehow drops you off where you started with no memory of the return. “Sue (or In a Season of Crime)” is a slow ballad sung over a breakneck jazz beat in a triumph of musical engineering. “Lazarus,” “Dollar Days,” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away” are mesmerizing, haunting, heartfelt reflections in peak Bowie style.
There is an old monk in a Robertson Davies novel who laments that since Jesus died at 33 he did not have the opportunity to teach the monk how to be old. There is no end of music describing the pleasures and sorrows of youth, but many of us will grow old and all of us will die. In his final months Bowie turned his inner state into art, as he had so many times before, and we are all his beneficiaries.
Little Creatures (Talking Heads, 1985)
The only reason Little Creatures didn’t crack my top five is because I only started listening to it in the last week of 2016. “Stay Up Late?” Are you kidding me with this? Of course.
Hamilton Mixtape (Various Artists, 2016)
I’m not as Hamilton-crazed as I once was, but the Mixtape mostly nailed it. Kelly Clarkson’s “It’s Quiet Uptown” is magnificent. The original tracks “Immigrants” and “Say Yes to This” have convinced me that I need to listen to more rap (please don’t laugh at me).
Elephant Power (MC Yogi, 2008)
I cannot stand Christian rock, but Hindu rap I am 100% in favor of (I asked you politely not to laugh).
Here’s to 2017!
May I have 52 entries on this list next year!