Every Open Eye
This record humbled me. I loved their first, The Bones of What you Believe, and we'd seen a moving concert in our year away, but I couldn't get my head around this one. I'm a crier--plays, mostly, but also classical music-- but nothing wrecks me like "The Mother we Share;" I just bubble right over. On this new one, nothing. I tried maybe three times through and found it all shallow. Then, a tweet. Aaron Sprinkle (@aaronsprinkle), whose various contributions, in Poor Old Lu, as a solo artist under his own moniker, as producer) are featured on my best records lists more often than anyone else's, said:
Perfect? This guy knows more about music than anyone I can think of and he can't handle how great this record is? Who am I then to demure? I tried again. Nothing. But Aaron Sprinkle said! Again. Nothing. That one song is kind of fun though. Again. Again. Pretty soon, I loved the album, song for song and note for note. It just grew. Pretty soon, I didn't want to listen to anything else. It was a case, too rare in this time of fleeting pleasure, fleeting attention, and belief in one's own every whim as the surest route to fulfillment, of shutting up and listening to someone who knows what they're talking about. Of learning then, and of difficult beauty whose pleasures are all the more lasting for the contest.
A book by its cover. I knew I'd dig this record before I heard any of it. This is exactly the kind of retro cool I'm a sucker for: the font, his clothes, his posture, the old LP label, all catnip for me. When I put it on and heard those rolling drums and the vintage mic (or mic effect, no matter), I was a goner. The heartening backstory, Bridges' devotion to his mother, and his old-time religion all add to the attraction for me. A lot of people compare him to 70's Sam Cooke, so I spent a good few months listening; I can see the resemblance I guess, but none of Cooke's actual songs stick out the way most of these do. I tend to think of Bridges more along the lines of Aloe Blacc, who, if he weren't busy trying to be an average rapper, would be an incredible soul singer. Good stuff.
Glorious girl pop. I love the self-aware contradictions in their breakout track that begins "you expressed openly your contempt for matrimony," and whose chorus swells into a plea, "Marry me, Archie!" Another win for the retro-cool camp, this time 1950's beach-core. When I thought about the year in music, this was always the first to come up as one of the clear contenders.
Heart. On. Sleeve. This music is painfully earnest and painful in all the best ways. It's devastating. I used to think early Bright Eyes, or maybe Grouper was the saddest music I knew. No more. It's Baker by a yard. But what a sweet ache. Thanks to Joel Heng Hartse for the tip on this one.
Basically, if Bazan is making a record, I'm going to buy it and listen to it and think long and hard about it. At this point, we've been together so long that to do otherwise would amount to a kind of adultery. Since Pedro the Lion's Whole ep in 1997, I have adored this music. It's shaped a huge part of my aesthetic. Now that he's gone from believer to thoughtful questioner to glib reactionary atheist it's harder to get behind some (most?) of the things he says, but the music is still concerned, still true in ways I hardly ascribe to any other recording artist. Blanco came out within a week or so of the new Radiohead and was everything I wished that latter album would have been.
22, A Million
This album makes me feel old because it's so clearly from the future. I just shake my head muttering "what will they think of next?" How did he manage to make that beautiful? And then that too? All the bits and beeps that make Age of Adz so precocious and annoying are here used in service of..well, not songs quite...what even are these sounds? Does this count as music? This is art-core of a type no one would have expected from the bearded cabin boy from Wisconsin. That makes three Bon Iver records now that have topped my year end lists, each massively, unrecognizably different from the rest.
Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording)
And then there's this. Hamilton is a cultural phenomenon at present, and a play before it's a soundtrack, but this recording is how I encountered it, not having seen a single scene from the set, not knowing what anyone involved looked like, and having no sense of its popularity. I just listened to this soundtrack because I liked the star on front and the idea of an historical musical. Using a streaming service, I read along with the lyrics to the whole album the first time through, so this was sort-of concurrently a literary experience. It was late when I put it on, so I listened to the first half and went to bed feeling like Keats' "watcher of the skies;" something new and strange and beautiful had entered the galaxy. Next day, I couldn't wait to find the alone time to finish the record and I basically haven't shut up about it since. I'm not sure this counts as music, quite, but 2016 will always be for me the time when this was happening.
I've kept a list of the most important records for my life every year since 1992. I haven't posted them all, since I'm daunted by the task of explaining why each of over 100 albums is so meaningful for me, but you can see a few recent years here.