Expect to see this on best albums of 2016
"Birth of an Accidental Hipster" by The Monkees
First off, let me say that I am still astonished this album was ever made: a band that had nothing to prove proving yet again what a-holes the folks at that unmentionable-hall-of-fame are. Their new album Good Times! feels like a post-modern postscript to 1967's Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd: a combination of originals by surviving members Mickey Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, and Peter Tork with contributions by contemporary tunesmiths. And while there are some gems provided by songwriters from Death Cab and Fountains of Wayne, this collaboration between Oasis' Noel Gallagher and The Jam's Paul Weller sums up both their musical career and their personal trajectory brilliantly. Dolenz again demonstrates his is one of the finest voices the 60's ever produced; psychedelic trappings that pay homage of both Pink Floyd and Nesmith's "Writing Wrongs" and the harmonic interplay between Dolenz and Nesmith is nothing short of a revelation.
"Drawn" by De La Soul
"What's this? An upright bass jazz lick intro that signals angelic voices "watching the snow"? This is the opening track to And The Anonymous Nobody, and validates all the praise bestowed upon them for their long-awaited and welcome return. This song unfolds slowly, with bass dancing between a playful hi-end piano trill and a mournful string section, then goes full-bore into a cinematic thing of beauty. The song laments about a lost love before hitting us with social critiques, via a serviceable (though not entirely necessary) rap by Little Dragon. But as the backdrop dissolves and LD whispers "Time's a-wasting, quit squandering" you're reminded that with De La Soul, the music and the message are one and the same.
"The Honeymoon Killers" by Magazine
You would think a band that was no less an influence on one of alternative's biggest heroes (Radiohead) would get more credit than is given them; the absurd critical admonishments of sounding too much like Roxy Music (Hello! Psychedelic Furs!) were undeserved, and lead singer and bard Howard Devoto has definitely acted as a vessel for Thom Yorke. This was their final studio album, and the first album without guitar virtuoso John McGeoch (who defected to Siouxie and the Banshees) taking center stage, but on the plus side, we gained a guitarist and violinist in one Ben Mandleson, and Dave Formula gets to add layer after layer of brittle and sinister keyboards, of which this track is a perfect example. Sounds like a lost spy theme from a cult movie, and Mandelson's cascading guitar riff propels John Doyle's rolling thunder drumming perfectly.
"Desert Island Disk" by Radiohead
Speaking of Magazine, the latest outing from Radiohead, A Heart Shaped Pool is brimming with the kind of dissociate angst that Devoto made poetry from, but instead of painting a desolate landscape, the band finds them taking an ornamental route. Radiohead have dived into the deep end of baroque-pop here: acoustic, folky guitar, orchestral swells and majestic piano filigrees complemented by Yorke's fragile but no less haunting vocals ("...my open heart, an open ravine/waking up from a thousand years of sleep"). "Desert Island Disk" is mainly acoustic, with sonic detritus floating in and out of the background - musically it's one of the sparsest they've recorded, but by the time touches like a twinkling electric guitar and strings find their way into the mix, its already over, with Yorke chanting "All things are possible." So why does the ending feel more like a cliffhanger than a resolution? That's Radiohead for ya.
"Good Morning Kaia" by BT
Not sure how this disc avoided my radar for the eclectic, but DJ/Musician BT released Electronic Opus a year ago this month, and I only discovered this track after paying due diligence at a men's retreat in the Summer. So basically, this is a remix album, with BT reimagining tunes from his catalog with the help of a full-fledged orchestra. There are some interesting pieces on this compilation, but the one that I heard (and am still moved by) is the instrumental, "Good Morning Kaia". When you begin a track with a wistful piano line, you've already got my attention. Awash with film score nuance and ambient underpinnings, the piece builds slowly in intensity before making the grand orchestral gesture, yet instead of sounding rote, it feels precisely where the tune was headed from the beginning, then dissolves back into a forlorn piano coda. Mr. Transeau's opus is indeed a triumph - well done, my friend.
"Mr. Wright" by Claypool/Lennon Delerium
It takes real chutzpah to write a song whose bass line not-so-vaguely references The Beatles' "Taxman", much less make it funky - especially when half of the duo is the progeny of John Lennon, but that's what makes the debut by Sean Lennon and Primus bassist Les Claypool so unbelievably cool. It's obvious there is a meeting of twisted minds here, and it's refreshing to hear Claypool stretch himself to keep up with the genre-defying antics of Lennon. Unlike his dad, Sean has real musical scholarship and can bounce between guitar and keyboards so effortlessly, one can't help but be impressed. Oh by the way, did I mention this song is about a landlord who is electronically eavesdropping on a female tenant as she dances, sleeps, and pees? And with lines like "He sets up little cameras 'cause he likes to watch you shower/Such a pretty little flower..." I am reminded of the West Coast Pop Art's "Roger The Rocket Ship" and Markley's socially inappropriate lyricism ("Look out for nude girls in showers.............with your father"). Which is why coming to learn that Sean is a fan of that obscure psychedelic 60's band seems well, appropriate.
"Pretty Song From Psyche-Out" by Strawberry Alarm Clock
When it comes to misunderstood, underrated 60's bands, WCPAEB and The Strawberry Alarm Clock are kindred spirits: while the Alarm Clock scored a major hit with oldies chestnut "Incense And Peppermints", most of their catalog is assessed as uninspiring, when nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, if you contrast the politically tinged "Incense" with this sweet ballad, which was featured in the film of the same name (do I really have to tell you it's a psychedelic cult flick, and that they're in it?), it becomes clear this band had a lot more going for them. Opening with the prettiest harmonies this side of The Association, the song marries beat poetry ("Dancers, the ball scenes/The gay colored children of happiness/Waiting, the artists surround it with flowers and holiness") with a waltzing middle eight and a message of love and hope. Looking at the state of the world today, I'm inclined to think the hippies had it right all along: "The white dove is a prophecy/And the faraway is near....."
"Common Sense" by Wilco
Some critics might argue if Wilco had some, they wouldn't have recorded Wilco Schmilco and to be frank, their new album is as inscrutable as it is outside the box. Others have pointed out that, at least it didn't suck like Sky Blue Sky did, but it aint no Yankee Hotel Foxtrot either. But this tune feels weird in a good way. A minimalist hip-hop beat accompanies an acoustic guitar and female-sounding harmony vocals, and musically, they throw everything but the kitchen sink at you - xylophone, electric guitar shrieks, hand claps, a bass that appears to be practicing scales or something, time signature changes, you name it. The end result is a 'beautiful mistake.' I couldn't help scratching my head and thinking "What the deuce are they trying to pull?" upon first listen, but then repeated listens allowed me to make more sense of this experimental pop song, sorta like how people come to appreciate composer Harry Partch. But not nearly as innovative. Sometimes, being allowed total creative freedom is a two-edged sword.
"I Can't Stop Thinking About You" by Sting
The Last Ship, Sting's exceptional oratorio (and short-lived Broadway musical), deserved to be better received by the listening public and his fan base. Have we become so inundated with cookie-cutter radio fodder we can't distinguish between art and garbage? What do you want from a man who has evolved from the post-punk he ushered in, and has become a more sophisticated musician and composer? A new Police song? Well, you asked for it - you got it. "I Can't Stop Thinking About You" bolts out of the gate with Synchronicity-esque, unbridled energy, a jangly guitar lick and Sting belting out like the rocker he still is. And while Sting can testify to high heaven that the last Police reunion had absolutely nothing to do with the material on his forthcoming 57th and 9th album, I find it interesting that the drummer in the music video bears a slight resemblance to Stewart Copeland. This definitely sounds like a Police song, (albeit with belletristic lyrics and medieval references) and since word from Rolling Stone is that the album will be a return to rock form, can you blame us for name-checking the band that put you on the map, not to mention the RNRHOF? Lighten up, Sting.
"The Veil" by Peter Gabriel
Coincidentally, Sting and this man just got off of a dual-bill concert tour, and his musical contribution to the largely ignored (because, to paraphrase Nicholson, "we can't handle the truth") Snowden soundtrack hits the bullseye. Gabriel has no problem undermining the official narrative of Edward Snowden as a traitor and a spy, instead he sings "You let the whole world see/Exactly what is going on/Exactly who was looking on/There's no safe place to hide." Lyrical allegories to a "sea of data" that the average American finds himself adrift in, Gabriel reminds us of who made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom: "In the heart of the free world/In the home of the brave/You gave up everything to bring down the veil" - as only Gabriel can do. I would place this tune alongside his "Biko" as a rallying cry for justice, and I bet he does, too.
Listen to the full Spotify playlist here: