This is Fifty Second Week.
And thank God, it means that 2016 is over. I’m writing this two weeks in advance, so I have no idea what fresh hells this year visited upon us on its way out. (Update: Yeah, George Michael died. Good lord.) I’m just glad it’s done. Begone and good riddance, 2016. I don’t have the highest hopes for 2017, of course, but at this point I am willing to take my chances.
At any rate, welcome to my annual end-of-the-year tradition. If you don’t know how this goes, let me tell you. I buy and hear a lot more music than I can find time to review in this column, so every year I round up a stack of 52 albums I didn’t get to for one reason or another and I review them here. The catch is that I give myself 50 seconds to write about each one. I time myself, and when the buzzer goes off, I stop, regardless of whether I am in the middle of a word or a sentence. It’s an enjoyable game for me, and it allows me to clear a backlog of CDs that perhaps do not deserve the full in-depth treatment.
I hope you find this as much fun as I do. If you’re ready, I’m starting the timer. This is Fifty Second Week.
Anderson/Stolt, Invention of Knowledge.
Who would have thought that it would take a meeting of the classic prog minds to get Jon Anderson back into this mode? This album is comprised of four long tracks, three of them subdivided, and sounds like Yes from back in the day, with a modern twist. Roine Stolt deserves accolades for this.
Aphex Twin, Cheetah.
Talk about coming out of a hiatus strong. Richard D. James took a decade or so off from recording as Aphex Twin, but in recent years he’s been pumping out the material, including this strange yet magnificent little EP. No one makes electronic music quite the way James does.
The Avalanches, Wildflower.
It’s been 16 years since this Australian sound collage group released their debut album. This second record sounds for all the world like no time has passed. This is fun, danceable stuff, constructed entirely from samples, and is one of the most welcome comebacks of the year.
The Bad Plus, It’s Hard.
I could have sworn I reviewed this. The Bad Plus return to covers in the best way, taking the piss out of songs like Barry Manilow’s “Mandy” while still remaining respectful to their source material. I adore this record.
Garth Brooks, Gunslinger.
For some reason, Garth Brooks keeps making new records. There’s nothing on Gunslinger you haven’t heard him do a million times, nor is there anything that justifies its existence. It’s another foray into modern stadium country for a guy who used to genuinely rebel against that stuff.
Cheap Trick, Bang Zoom Crazy Hello.
Cheap Trick keeps making new records too, even though they haven’t changed a lick. This new one sounds like the last one, but if you like this band’s brand of hard rocking melodic power pop, you’ll enjoy every minute of it.
Colvin and Earle.
You know how you never really think about how well two voices and styles will go together until you hear them? And then you can’t imagine how you missed it? Yeah, that’s what this is like. Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle run through covers together and turn in something that brings out the best in both.
Common, Black America Again.
Again, I really intended to review this. Common’s first really good album in a long time takes aim at racism and life in black America, and it’s powerful, uplifting and quite good. I’m thrilled with his John Legend collaboration, and his song from 13th, which closes this record.
Bob Dylan, Fallen Angels.
I can understand being curious about an album of Sinatra standards covered by Bob “I’ve been gargling with sandpaper” Dylan. But who wanted a second helping of this? Sure, his croak brings a new dimension to these songs, but it’s a barely listenable dimension.
Brian Eno, The Ship.
The master of ambience returns to the ambient with this lovely, droning cloud of a thing. The title track is the best kind of endless and formless, and even the Velvet Underground cover that closes things out can’t set this record off track.
Enuff Znuff, Clowns Lounge.
On the one hand, it’s great to hear Donnie Vie singing old-school EZN power pop again. On the other hand, I know this is archival material propping up a band that is a shadow of its former self, and on the tracks where Chip sings, you can really hear how far they’ve fallen.
Brian Fallon, Painkillers.
If you expected a solo album from the voice of the Gaslight Anthem to sound like anything but the Gaslight Anthem, you’re going to be disappointed. But if Fallon’s band’s variety of fist-pumping heartland anthem gets your motor running, this will work for you. I’m somewhere in the middle.
Fates Warning, Theories of Flight.
More solid sorta-progressive sorta-metal from this long-running band. The longer songs here are the most convincing, as always. Jim Matheos remains a fine, fine guitar player, despite the sometimes uninspiring material he plays.
Field Music, Commontime.
I have this strange inability to remember Field Music albums, even half an hour after I’ve played them. I know this is another platter of tricky yet tuneful progressive pop, and yet I’m struggling right now to remember a single song, or think of a single thing to say about it.
Future of Forestry, Awakened to the Sound.
This is a genuine surprise. A string-laden atmospheric record from a band that often traffics in U2-style rock dynamics, this is one hell of a fine production, hampered only by a quiet mix. I love this record and would whole-heartedly recommend it.
I bought this one on a recommendation from my awesome record store. This band lives in a place halfway between shoegaze and stoner rock, and that’s a fun place to spend an hour. They’re patient and space-y and worth your time.
Hope for the Dying, Legacy.
Fourth album from one of my favorite metal discoveries. These guys play insanely intricate material with a backing synth orchestra, and the sound is grand and expansive and really impressive. This album is no exception.
Eric Johnson, EJ.
The “Cliffs of Dover” guitar guru goes acoustic for this lighter collection of ditties. There are some cool covers here, and Johnson’s originals are very pretty. There isn’t a lot more to say – if you like acoustic guitar, this is quite nice.
Mark Knopfler and Evelyn Glennie, Altamira.
A very brief but very pretty soundtrack from Knopfler, a guy I could listen to for months without feeling bored. I wish there were more of this material, but what’s here is pleasant and dramatic. Glennie’s percussion is just the perfect seasoning.
Despite the band name, this is a solo record from Fountains of Wayne’s Chris Collingwood, the guy who sings most of the band’s songs. It’s pretty much what you’d expect – character studies with a sweet sense and a wide open heart. It’s good!
Bill Mallonee, Slow Trauma.
I’m starting to worry about Bill Mallonee. He still writes the same kind of folk-rock songs he always has, but his prodigious output lately has become more depressed and sad. This record is one of his saddest, and since he called his new one The Rags of Absence, I’m not expecting it to be any happier.
The Mavericks, All Night Live Vol. 1.
I just love the Mavericks. They’re one of the best country-Cuban-swing bands around, or they would be if there were another one. This live album features some of their best tunes, and the voice of Raul Malo (a Roy Orbison acolyte) brings them all home.
Meshuggah, The Violent Sleep of Reason.
Man, this is brutal. Meshuggah steps away from the cleaner and more technical metal they’ve been doing lately to return to pure pummeling. Getting through this whole record is an ordeal, but an awesome one.
Buddy Miller and Friends, Cayamo Sessions at Sea.
This slight but fun set pairs the Nashville legend up with the likes of Richard Thompson, Lee Ann Womack, Lucinda Williams and Shawn Colvin, and the results are pretty much what you’d expect. Which is not a criticism in any way.
The Orb, Chill Out, World.
Yes, the Orb is still kicking. This album contains some of their most ambient material, and is an hour-plus of soothing, otherworldly sounds. I’m glad they’re still around and still making lovely electronic prettiness.
Over the Rhine, Live from Nowhere Else.
I got to see Over the Rhine this year. They’re a spectacular live band, and this two-CD set from their recent shows at Nowhere Farm in Ohio is proof. Every song is wonderful. I remain so enamored of Karin Bergquist’s voice that I would listen to her sing anything.
Jack and Amanda Palmer, You Got Me Singing.
Aw, this is so cute. Amanda Palmer sings with her dad on these 12 tunes from her childhood, from Leonard Cohen’s title track to “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” to the wonderful “I Love You So Much.” It’s adorable.
Periphery, Periphery III: Select Difficulty.
Apparently they selected “very difficult.” Periphery is a stunningly talented technical metal band, and this record is one of their best, combining full-on power and speed with atmosphere. It’s their fifth, which makes the title strange, though.
At least this actually is this electro-pop band’s third album. It’s also their best, making the leap into fully produced radio-ready pop but also sticking to their independent guns. “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore” was one of the year’s best mopey pop tunes.
Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter.
A justly lauded old-school country record, Price’s debut is in the vein of Loretta Lynn, who she homages with the title. But she also homages the Beach Boys with the same title, which is kind of awesome, and tells you what you need to know about where she’s at musically.
Prophets of Rage, The Party’s Over.
After all that buildup, this mash-up of Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy and Cypress Hill landed with a damp splat. There isn’t much here that points to a bright future for this side project, and this EP makes clear that it really is a side project.
Queen, On Air.
How I love Queen. This collection brings together all of their sessions for the BBC, spanning from 1973 to 1977. It’s always great to hear Freddie Mercury sing, but the real treasure of On Air is how tight this band was in the ‘70s. Live they were unstoppable.
Ra Ra Riot, Need Your Light.
I keep buying this band’s records, and I’m not sure why. This fourth one ditches the violins that had been their trademark for synthesizers, and it’s fine and good, but I can’t really remember it. Their songs remain just pretty good, never slipping over into great.
Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Getaway.
I suppose it’s telling that the strongest album the Red Hot Chili Peppers have made in many years still didn’t inspire me to review it. I’m so far over their sound that even this, the most adept record since maybe Californication, just sat there for months, forgotten.
Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau, Nearness.
I would buy anything from either of these jazz masters, so an album of duets is right up my alley. To their credit, Mehldau and Redman didn’t stick to the obvious, instead creating a tricky and difficult listen, but one that rewards repeated dives through.
The Rolling Stones, Blue and Lonesome.
I kept hearing about this, and despite not being a fan, I gave it a try. Damn. It’s really, really good. The band sounds on fire here, tearing through a set of old-time blues covers with abandon. Mick in particular sounds great, which I would not have expected. If this is the last Stones album, it brings their career full circle in the best way.
Sleigh Bells, Jessica Rabbit.
I remain surprised, four albums in, at how many different variations on this duo’s guitars-and-drum-machines sound they manage to find. I liked this record, probably more than any they’ve made, because it is so varied.
Solange, A Seat at the Table.
Her sister got all the ink this year, but Solange Knowles made a strong, stirring third album, tackling race in America over soulful grooves and some fascinating interludes. Not sure it adds up to more than the sum of its many parts, but it’s a real surprise.
Colin Stetson, Sorrow.
My favorite new saxophone player tackles a reinterpretation of Gorecki’s Third Symphony. Yes, this is for real, and yes, I love it. It’s off-putting in all the best ways, and continues a streak of strange, beautiful projects from Stetson.
Sting, 57th and 9th.
Sting puts away his lute at last and returns to his rock roots. Considering his age and his mellowed sensibilities, this is actually pretty good. Some of it rocks convincingly, and “Inshallah” is one of his most affecting songs. Not great, but still worthy.
The Sword, Low Country.
A collection of acoustic outtakes from The Sword’s absolutely batshit High Country album. This is pretty good, and serves to drive them even further from their stoner rock roots. I love it when bands go nuts like this.
Chris Taylor, Never Ending Now.
Taylor is an unjustly obscure singer-songwriter, and this, his umpteenth album, is a full-on double record. It’s remarkably consistent, a through-and-through work of art, and it deserved a full review. Take this as my unabashed recommendation.
Chris Taylor, Reimagine.
And if you buy Never Ending Now, you get this collection of re-recordings from throughout Taylor’s career for free. That’s a deal you shouldn’t pass up. christaylor.bandcamp.com.
They Might Be Giants, Phone Power.
TMBG’s third album in less than a year is another gem. Their second collection of Dial-a-Song ditties, this one sports a killer cover of “Bills Bills Bills” and so many clever, melodic moments that it would make most other pop bands jealous. Keep ‘em coming.
Teddy Thompson and Kelly Jones, Little Windows.
If there’s any release this year that I wish were longer, it’s this one. Teddy Thompson, son of Richard, melds his deep voice with Jones’ lush one, and they spin out one lovely duet after another. All ten of these songs together will only run you 25 minutes, though. I want more!
Devin Townsend Project, Transcendence.
At this point, Devin has so perfected his ambient metal style that an album that rocks, dives and swerves like Transcendence does just feels pretty normal for him. It’s very good, don’t get me wrong, but there aren’t any surprises here, except maybe the amazing Ween cover.
Various Artists, Day of the Dead.
Five CDs of Grateful Dead covers curated by the guys in the National? Could this have any more going against it? But it’s really nice stuff, for the most part. As expected, it’s too long and too bloated, but the gems here are strong, and it turns out to be a nice tribute.
Various Artists, George Fest.
This set documents a September 2014 concert honoring the late George Harrison, and it’s pretty wonderful. There aren’t very many obvious choices here, and the best ones are the most unexpected, like Weird Al singing “What Is Life.” It’s terrific.
Jack White, Acoustic Recordings 1998-2016.
There’s very little new here, but it’s fun to have all of White’s various acoustic pieces (studio, live, etc.) in one handy place. White is always enjoyable, and this collection proves he doesn’t need distortion to be entertaining.
Joy Williams, Venus Acoustic.
If you were pleasantly shocked by the danceable grooves of Williams’ post-Civil Wars solo album, Venus, you will be equally pleasantly shocked by how lovely these songs are in her more stripped back, acoustic style. Williams’ voice is a treasure, and she sings the hell out of these sparsely arranged tunes.
Brian Wilson and Friends.
Wilson’s No Pier Pressure tour found him teaming up with a bunch of young ruffians, like Nate Ruess and She and Him and Kacey Musgraves. That this live album is as much fun as it is anyway is a testament to the songs and to Wilson’s very Wilson-esque arrangements.
Xiu Xiu, Plays the Music of Twin Peaks.
What a weird one to end on. Noise masters Xiu Xiu perform a reverent tribute to Angelo Badalamenti’s score to Twin Peaks, music that is seared into my brain from my teenage years. This is such a strange project, but they clearly love this music, even when they make it weirder, and it works.
And scene. As always, I’m grateful for all of you who read this column, no matter how regularly. I love writing it, and I don’t want to stop. So I’m not gonna. When we return, we’ll rush right into year 17. That’s a lot of years. Might be time for a new look. We’ll see.
OK, g’wan, get outta here, and take 2016 with you. Happy new year, everyone. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.