A Year Ended, Let’s Make Some Lists
I usually don’t do year end lists. For one, I don’t like lists. I think they’re lazy. Give me a 2,000 word essay on the state of music in 2016. Don’t give me a list of albums you thought were neat.
But I relented this year, for a few reasons. One, I bought a shitload of new music this year, which is something I really haven’t done since I moved to Japan three years ago. And a lot of it was really, really good.
Additionally, a lot of it was either Japanese or, for other reasons, the kind of stuff that flies under the radar for most people. And I’m not under the illusion that my taste in music is somehow better or more important because so much of what I like isn’t popular, it’s just different. And since none of the year end lists or articles I read mentioned damn near any of these albums (save for one obvious exception) I thought I’d go ahead and write up my own for a change.
But I didn’t stop there. Like any other year, I bought a lot of old music too, much of which in the form of reissues. And again, a lot of them where fantastic. So, in addition to “Best New Music,” I’m also including a list of “Best Reissues.” Because the old shit is always better.
So let’s get down to it. The first list is numbered, the second is not.
Top Ten Albums of 2016
10. Banks – The Altar
Banks continues to carry the long-forgotten trip-hop torch with her awesome sophomore effort. While it lacks the diversity of her stunning debut Goddess, it’s a tight, focused record that plays up the funkier, soulfulness of her voice much more.
9. Goblin Cock – Necronomidonkeykongimicon
Bought this on a whim and had never heard anything from the group or their associated acts before, but I quickly fell in love with it. You don’t get a lot of good stoner metal these days, and these guys really nail that sound. Clean riffs and vocals, and it all segues together with a great flow between the harder numbers and the more lyrical, vocal-driven tracks. Don’t let the idiotic name dissuade you. Great metal.
8. Power Glove – Trials Of The Blood Dragon
Yo, I think I’m the only person out there who really likes Trials Of The Blood Dragon (for reasons that might have been all in my head, but still). But even the games most ardent detractors have to admit that its soundtrack by Power Glove is totally fucking rad. A big step up from their soundtrack to the original Blood Dragon game, it evokes not only the classic John Carpenter synth sound, but also the percussive beats of the Commando soundtrack, the fun of Jan Hammer, and the ambient pulses of Brad Fiedel’s Terminator soundtrack. Sure, it’s nothing but pastiche of the past, but in a year full of toxic shit, some escapism to a previous decade isn’t a bad thing.
7. Kishi Bashi – Sonderlust
Let’s be real, this year sucked hard. And in hard times we need a beacon of happiness. For me, that beacon was Kishi Bashi. No one writes a giddy love song like Kishi Bashi. “Honeybody” and “m’lover” are overwhelming joy, I can listen to them, close my eyes, think of my boyfriend and just smile endlessly. Even when the world is going to shit, I have Kishi Bashi, thank god.
6. Metafive – Meta
Metafive is a supergroup of six (don’t ask), including Yukihiro Takahasi from YMO, Towa Tei (formerly of Dee-Lite), Cornelius and Yoshinori Sunahara, who was previously in the legendary Denki Groove. Their album is a wonderful amalgamation of all their styles, incorporating vintage 80s synthpop, house beats, hard techno, and even some dope horns. And it was even a commercial success in Japan! So rare in the a musical climate that values pretty boys and jailbait girls over anything resembling actual talent.
5. David Bowie – Blackstar
4. Jun Togawa and Vampillia – Watashi Ga Na Kou Hototogisu
Vampillia is a nigh-indescribable act that combines classical with post-rock and metal. Jun Togawa is a god-like genius who has spent the better part of 30 years destroying every convention of pop music imaginable. Put them together to rework and re-imagine some of Togawa’s greatest hits, and holy shit you got a masterpiece. I’m typically not a fan of the “self cover” album, but the addition of Vampillia really gives all the tracks a new life, especially since the majority of them were originally synth-fueled pop tracks. To hear them re-imagined with a classical/metal edge is to hear them entirely anew. Here’s hoping they combine their talents again to create some original material.
3. Sleigh Bells – Jessica Rabbit
Noise gods Sleigh Bells move away from the largely electronic influence of their fucking brilliant 2013 album Bitter Rivals and return to a more guitar-influenced sound once more. I’d call it a return to form, but they’ve never put out a bad album so that’s not really apt. Additionally, while they return to a more conventional (for them) sound this time around, they still tweak it a bit, embracing a slightly more pop sound to great effect. And the lyrics, which swing wildly between waxing nostalgia, murder/death ballads and vaguely abstract stream-of-consciousness insanity, just serve to make it all sound even more powerful thanks to the raw emotion that Alexis Krauss belts out.
2. The Kills – Ash & Ice
I had completely written off The Kills after an album or two of mostly mediocre material but holy shit they came back hard here. An angry record full of sadness, Alison Mosshart carries it all, with a voice that sounds like it was born of rage and whiskey. It has a few forgettable tracks, but it also has “Hum For Your Buzz” and “Days Of Why And How,” which are my two favorite tracks by an American artist this year, so I think the good outweighs the bad here.
1. Boom Boom Satellites – Lay Your Hands On Me
Oh boy, this is going to be hard to write about.
This is Boom Boom Satellites’ final release. Lead singer/guitarist Michiyuki Kawashima passed away not soon after its release, after a nearly 20 year long battle with brain cancer.
The album, which is an EP, is about his own death.
The title track emphasizes everything that was and is great about Boom Boom Satellites, soaring riffs accompanied by transcendent electronics and euphoria-enducing keyboards. Heavenly sounds take you higher as Kawashima exclaims to his love,”lay your hands on me, drive me so crazy,” all while realizing that this moment is fleeting and that future encounters will be from the beyond, “faded out to the setting sun, I’ll see you again I’ll carry on.”
From there we get “Stars And Clouds.” Beautiful and ethereal. It’s here where Kawashima addresses his own death directly, “the moment is here. I’ll take your hands. Turn out the lights.” But the tone is one that is re-assuring. He’s dying. But he wants to you to know that it’s going to be okay. He’ll be better soon. “Lay Your Hands On Me” sounded like an ode to his wife, here it sounds like he’s trying to reassure his children.
Kawashima had two young daughters.
We segue smoothly into “Flare.” Kawashima just vocalizes now. No understandable words. Violins echo. Silence. Kawashima’s voice returns, layered over and over, with vintage, amazing sequencer loops accompanying them. Its soaring. He’s soaring.
Finally we move into “Narcosis” the state of being in a drug-induced stupor. Breakbeats, heavy synths. A return to the group’s original sound from the 90s. Kawashima’s voice returns for another wordless crescendo. Silence once more and then Kawashima’s voice becomes distorted and twisted. His vocalizing is sampled, slowed down and backmasked.
The sound of footsteps. Complete silence.
Then, finally, Kawashima draws a final breath.
Rest in peace Michiyuki Kawashima.
LONG LIVE BOOM BOOM SATELLITES. MAY YOUR GUITARS NEVER BE SILENCED AND ONE DAY RULE THE WORLD.
Yellow Magic Orchestra Vinyl Reissues
I was very surprised to see that a reissue label as big as Music On Vinyl would dedicate themselves to re-releases the core YMO back catalog on clear limited edition vinyl, as the group never really rose about niche status in the US. I was doubly surprised to hear how damn good each reissue sounded. Music On Vinyl’s history is one that is woefully uneven, with every decent release marred by a godawful one (that Mother Love Bone one really hurts). But credit where credit is due, they really hit it out of the park here. These re-issues sound absolutely superb, they might be the best-sounding vinyl releases of YMO’s back catalog yet. Trust me. I would know, I own every single album on vinyl three times over.
I don’t know why.
Pink Floyd – The Early Years
Eleven CDs, nine DVDs, eight blu-rays, and five 7″ singles at a combined retail price of I don’t even wanna think about it. This is truly a kitchen sink release, collecting nearly everything the fans have ever wanted and more. All packaged in a wonderful (if needlessly large) box that houses plenty of amazing physical extras to boot. To the early Pink Floyd fanatic, this is a treasure trove of content, featuring long-booted Syd Barrett gems like “Vegetable Man” and amazing rare footage stunningly remastered in glorious HD. Yes, it may cost more than some life-saving medical treatments, but it’s worth it. Unless you have to choose between those two options. Then get the life-saving medical treatment.
Peter Gabriel Vinyl Reissues
While choosing to press these at 45RPM means a loss of convenience (you have to flip each record every 15 minutes or so), the records sound so damn amazing that you won’t mind having to get off your butt to hear more. These might be the best sounding records I’ve bought all year. Clear sound, amazing fidelity, and nary a pop or crackle to be heard. If all vinyl sounded this good I’d never buy a CD again.
Rajie – Le Trottoir D’Apres Midi
Of all the former YMO associates, Rajie is probably the most obscure. She only releases two albums with help from the YMO crew, and they promptly bombed. So I don’t know her catalog managed to get its first ever CD release this year, but I’m not going to complain. Of the two albums with production by members of YMO, this one is the best thanks to its tight production that successfully merges Rajie’s jazzy vocal style with early 80s synthpop. If you’re a YMO fan, you owe it yourself to pick this album up, as it literally features everyone who was working with the group at the time, including Hideki Matsutake, Kenji Omura, Taeko Ohnuki and Akiko Yano, as well as the group themselves.
Fright Night CD Reissue
The Fright Night soundtrack is a glorious time capsule showcasing all the best that the mid-80s had to offer. You got your 70s holdouts (Ian Hunter), early MTV rockers (J. Geils Band) quiet storm songstresses (Evelyn “Champagne” King) and even a touch of prime synthpop (Devo). Shame that it took 31 years for it to get a proper CD release. A fun, great record that evokes the spirit of the film tremendously well.
Zuntata Arcade Classics Volume One
Zuntata is Taito’s houseband, and composers of some of the most iconic and memorable music of the golden age of arcade games. Bubble Bobble, Darius, Arkanoid? That’s all them. This release avoids many of those hits though, in lieu of some rarer, deep cuts from the lesser-known titles Night Striker, Metal Black, and Elevator Action Returns. You’ve probably never played any of those games, but don’t let that stop you from picking up this amazing compilation. These fast-paced, synthesized jams are some of the best instrumental music from the 80s ever, game music or not.
Bad Company – Live In Concert 1977 & 1979
You know what’s a good song? “Shooting Star.” You know what’s an even better song? “Can’t Get Enough.” You know what song is fucking dope as shit? “Feel Like Makin’ Love.” All of those and more are captured in these two stellar live sets by one of the 70s more sadly forgotten B-tier acts. This set serves as a great introduction to the group, showcasing their best tracks from their best period, as well as demonstrating what a fantastic live act they were.
Erasure – From Moscow To Mars
Thirteen discs of Erasure singles, remixes, b-sides, demos, live cuts and so on. This is for…very few people, I understand that. But if you’re like me, and you own over 50 Erasure 12″ singles, then you’ll be in fabulous synthpop heaven. Not only is the track selection magnificent, and includes all the single edits spread across three discs and a multitude of hard-to-find remixes, but they all sound excellent and were obviously sourced from the masters. Show this to the people who put together that clusterfuck of a Dead Or Alive box set so they can see how it’s done.
Game Theory – Lolita Nation
Lolita Nation just might be the greatest album of the 80s, if not all-time, but almost no one’s ever heard it thanks to the fact that it went out of print almost immediately after its initial release in 1987. But now that it’s back in print and easy to pick up, you have no excuse. This is the definitive document of what alternative rock (or college rock, if you will) sounded like before Nirvana came along. Wondrous combinations of power-pop, jangle and synth-pop, all tied together by some of the most powerful and beautiful lyrics ever. This would be worth buying if it was just the album proper, but a disc full of bonus tracks (including live cuts and demos) just serve to sweeten the deal even more.
Love Is A Drag
Love Is A Drag is a 1962 vocal pop record featuring songs written about men performed by a male singer. And it’s performed straight (no pun intended), meaning that it’s a respectful record that doesn’t rely on lispy voices or bad gay jokes, like so many other “gay” albums that came later did. Its importance as a historical document alone makes this reissue a welcome surprise, the fact that it’s actually a pretty good record is just a nice bonus.