1. Sturgill Simpson: “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth”
Outlaw country artist Sturgill Simpson may sound like Waylon Jennings, but he behaves more like his idol Merle Haggard. He does things his way.
First-time parents respond to the dramatic change children have on their lives differently. Simpson decided to write an album to his son. Since a significant part of making a living as a musician is the necessity of live performance, it means going on tour.
On “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth,” he writes to his first born from the perspective of a sailor who has to go to sea, and may not return. What are the important things he wants his child to know in order to navigate life? He goes to the heart of the matter, leaving nothing out. And dad has made his share of mistakes. But he owns up to all of them in hopes that junior pays attention — subject matter any parent or child could relate to.
This is not your average country album. There is nary a banjo or mandolin to be heard. In their stead are Hammond B-3’s, entire brass sections and gospel choirs, all to the apparent chagrin of some traditionalists. Simpson simply doesn’t care. He had a goal in mind. In the end, father knew best. He has given junior (and the rest of us) an amazing musical guide to life.
It does touch on many genres, often in the course of a single song. That’s part of its charm. It’s also an album that gets better with repeated listening. Most will find themselves singing along with choruses and sailing to the vibe throughout.
2. David Bowie: “Blackstar”
Most who have reviewed Bowie’s “Blackstar” album called it experimental. They obviously have not spent any quality time with most of the albums that preceded it, especially the ’90s releases. “Blackstar” is one of the most accessible Bowie albums, ever. It was meant to be. Bowie had been waging a long battle with cancer. He realized it was one challenge he would not conquer. Early in the recording sessions, producer Tony Visconti realized what was happening and reportedly confronted David saying, “You canny bastard, you’re giving them your eulogy.” To which Bowie supposedly just threw his head back and laughed. When, during the track “Lazarus,” he speaks of being in heaven, it makes it all seem just a little easier to take. A magical album from a special man. Thanks for everything David!
3. Tragically Hip: “Man Machine Poem”
The U.S. has ignored the revered Canadian band Tragically Hip. Singer and chief songwriter of the band Gord Downie was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor during recording sessions that would become “Man Machine Poem.” Not only did they complete the album, but a full tour as well. The final show had two giant screens outside the venue in Ontario so the thousands who came without tickets could experience the show standing outside. National networks and online streaming sources made it available free for the entire country. 11.7 million people tuned in. Check out “Man Machine Poem” and get a solid glimpse as to why Canada loves Tragically Hip so much.
4. SWANS: “The Glowing Man”
As Michael Gira folded SWANS in 1997 with a world-wide final tour, none expected the band ever to return. When Gira unexpectedly brought them back in 2010, fans around the world rejoiced. Gira and company have rewarded those same fans with a live album, three studio albums that are each over two hours in length, several mail order-only live albums and DVDs in that time span. The latest three-LP set is “The Glowing Man.” Gira claims that this installment of the band is over and this is its last release. If so, it stands as a great testimony to the entirety of SWANS career. A majestic swan song.
5. SUMAC: “What One Becomes”
Just when it seemed that post-rock had become mired in redundancy along comes SUMAC, a power trio with a massive emphasis on power. Instigating guitarist/songwriter Aaron Turner (Isis, Old Man Gloom, Lotus Eaters) has taken the heavier aspects of his previous bands and forced them through a Black Sabbath filter. The resulting five tracks in 58 minutes astound. The future of post-rock looks a lot better because of this release.
6. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: “Skeleton Tree”
Nick Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur died on July 14, 2015, accidentally. This is his first release since that tragedy. Death has always been a frequent subject of his songwriting. How would he deal with a death so close? Though credited to Bad Seeds, this is a Nick Cave album and the music is pretty sparse. Mostly in the form of poetry set to minimal accompaniment, Mr. Cave exorcises his anguish over the course of eight tracks. This is not an easy listen, but it is a completely human listen. Audio catharsis, indeed.
7. King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard: “Nonagon Infinity”
This Australian collective will use any and every genre at their disposal. They have only been together since 2010 but have released eight full-lengths and two EPs, with their ninth ready to drop in early 2017. On each previous release there have been moments of brilliance amid a lot of chaos. On their eighth, “Nonagon Infinity,” they have finally harnessed their “everything including the kitchen sink” philosophy into a totally unique and compelling release. Never to be normal, this time out every track morphs into the next. The ending track fades out into the opening of track one; a complete loop. If you play back on repeat, you’ll be unable to distinguish where the album begins or ends. Repeat long enough and the music takes on a truly ambient vibe.
8. The Kills: “Ash & Ice”
Garage rock duo The Kills (Alison Mosshart: vocals; Jaime Hince: instrumentation) have made numerous advancements in filling out the power of two over the course of their first four releases. Their fifth, “Ash & Ice,” continues in that vein. Ms. Mosshart has one of those voices that could sing a grocery list and make it provocative. Mr. Hince has truly learned how to magnify the potency of her vocals with oft-changing accompaniment. Post-apocalyptic lounge music if only Las Vegas survived.
9. case/lang/veirs: “case/lang/veirs”
Certainly the prettiest album of 2016 is the self-titled collaboration of alt/rock and alt/country star Neko Case, country/jazz chanteuse k.d. lang, and indie singer/songwriter Laura Veirs. The fact that they operate in completely different musical spheres is probably what makes this project instantly rewarding. All but four of the 14 tracks were written in one combination of the three or another. They claim that this is a one-time project. The impact of this release coupled with the positive response to their brief tour this past summer will hopefully cause them to reconsider.
10. Opeth: “Sorceress”
Opeth had seemingly lost their identity over the course of their decade of studio releases that Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree) had a hand in either producing, engineering and/or mixing. Control freak Wilson is nowhere to be found on “Sorceress” and it seems to be exactly what the band needed. They’re still not recognizable as Opeth, but the changes this time have resulted in an instantly engaging prog rock offering. The sub-human growls and black/doom/death metal riffs of yore are exchanged for some of the most forward sounding “progressive” rock available. They may have alienated thousands of fans of their former sounds, but this release opens a plethora of other avenues for them to explore.
A retired educator, Johnny Vinyl spends his days with Lucifer, a 7-year-old German shepherd, reading and riding the vibe. His column, Ride the vibe, focuses on entertainment. Contact him via firstname.lastname@example.org