This is where I'm supposed to summarize the past year, find some overaching theme or thread running through my choices, spot trends, or something along those lines. Instead it's just another mea culpa for my continuing and accelerating estrangement from mainstream pop music. Don't mind me, I'm just a grumpy old fart. But these twenty new albums made me less grumpy.
I'm certain many of you don't know that the New Jersey-born, Brooklyn-based Greg Trooper passed away yesterday after a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer, two days after his 61st birthday. Greg was one of those effortless singer-songwriters who other singer-songwriters cherished. And other well-known singer-songwriters actually covered his material, including Steve Earle ("Little Sister"), Billy Bragg ("Everywhere"), Vince Gill ("We Won't Dance"), etc. Never a huge star or mainstream name, his music resonated with us because he was so damn good at his craft, and he wrote amazing tunes. I once told a fellow musician that if I ever wrote and recorded a song as good as "Muhammad Ali (The Meaning of Christmas)," I would have reached the pinnacle of my craft. His voice was soothing, his delivery even, his lyrics vivid and inviting; he had it all. And, he would better himself time and time again; 13 albums of memorable music. Just a few years ago, he wrote another song I would have given my eyeteeth for -- "They Call Me Hank". RIP, Mr. Trooper. I believe your songs will resonate long after the embers of all of us have faded into the ether.
Happy New Year! It's been a tumultuous year for me and for many of us of a certain age. I lost a brother. The world lost a slew of pop culture -- Carrie Fisher, Alan Richman, Craig Sager, John Glenn -- and music icons -- Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, George Michael, et al. One comfort for me was music and my rediscovery of vinyl. The warm, comforting sound of analog became my daily meditative fix. Quite literarily. Seeking out vinyl "nuggets" became a quest to help me deal with my own pain and depression. Chasing down albums that I owned thirty years, abadonded at the advent of those shiny new things called compact discs. Restorative analog power reigned o'er me. One of my chief caveats: I would not purchase anything on vinyl that I already owned on compact disc. Well, that rule didn't last long as I found comfort in such ancient vinyl relics as The Who's Quadrophenia, Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsies, Neil Young's After the Goldrush, Joni Mitchell's Hissing of Summer Lawns, The Beatles' Yesterday and Today, and plenty more.
Consumer culture sucks the content out of every subculture it touches. All except Glam, which returns every ten years or so altered by time but with its central message of theatricalized otherness unchanged. Glam pop and fashion were in all the magazines both for teenyboppers and young mums. It was commercial, not very musically challenging, and seemed to have arrived already fully absorbed. But British glam (glam of the '70s as opposed to American glam of the '80s, otherwise known as "hair metal") was highly critical of the counterculture.
With vinyl being a hot music commodity and back in vogue, it would seem inevitable that one of the music giants of the vinyl era would get remastered and re-released. Frank Zappa remains one of the those musical geniuses where his impact was missed by a deservedly larger fanbase while he roamed planet Earth. With a must-see documentary -- Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words (Sony Pictures Classic) -- currently in theaters and on demand, hopefully some of his genius will be discovered by a new generation of fans. Certainly the above-titled masterpiece Hot Rats, reissued by Zappa Records in August on 180gram vinyl cut directly from the original analog master tapes by Bernie Grundman, remains one of his cornerstone releases in his immense and musically varied catalog.
Peaches is audacious but cool, her music is sexy but dangerous. She likes to push hard against the boundaries of conventional dance music. Her latest track -- "Hou You Like My Cut" from her album RUB -- finds her back on a fierce groove with provocative lyrics, slammin' beats, and some savage dancing from dancer/choreographer Miss Eisa Jocson. The dance is based on the exotic dances performed by men in the Philippines known as "Macho Dancer." And the video was directed by Peaches. Lady Power time!
America has a taste for cultural collapse and rebirth, whether in the religious right's mythos of the Rapture or in the left's fascination with nuclear extermination or the cataclysmic results of the effects of global warming as in say, Cormack McCarthy's The Road. This is the mulch that Goth grows best in. American Gothic, the subculture of the doomed.
Of all the youth subcultures New Romantic is the most arbitrary. It began in the London night club Blitz in 1979. It was a predominantly gay club that played a mixture of electronic pop and disco. The attitude of the patrons was that unlike punk it was important that you did 'something'. Such as write poems, write songs or (because of the proximity of the pre-eminent Fashion College; St Martin's) design clothes. At some point in the year the theatrical costumier (who supplied all the theatres in London) Charles Fox had the crashdown sale of it's long history. Consequently that week Blitz patrons came dressed in a mix of retro styles that spanned a thousand years. Chain mail, doublet and hose, ruffs and uniforms loyal to every flag. In one night New Romantic was born.
As widely noted, 2016 has been a year of painful loss in music. This month has been particularly bad: Canadian bard Leonard Cohen, jazz hipster Mose Allison, "Drift Away" songwriter Mentor Williams, Boston Symphony Orchestra cellist Jules Eskin, music publishing icon/musical polymath Milt Okun, Country singer-songwriter Holly Dunn, music historian/Norton Records co-founder Billy Miller, the uncategorizable Leon Russell, hot-shot bassist Victor Bailey, guitarist Al Caiola, classical pianist and conductor Zoltan Kocsis, Black Crowes keyboardist Eddie Harsch, French electronica producer Jean-Jacques Perrey, Sri Lankan violinist W. D. Amaradeva, classic pop singer Kay Starr, jazz bassist Bob Cranshaw, beloved Los Angeles music journalist/proto-punk musician Don Waller, and Irish singer-songwriter Bap Kennedy. Bad news practically every day.
Stephen Stills has always been a masterful songwriter. From his tremendous early days in the Buffalo Springfield and CSN/CSNY and Manasas to his extraordinary solo output, he's canon of rock and folk-rock work is quite impressive. So it should come as no surpirse that his latest tune -- "Look Each Other In The Eye” -- should be excellent. And excellent it is! This timely pre-election song by Mr. Stills boasts a rhythmic Latin salsa lilt with simple but biting lyrics as infectious as anything he's ever released. "Look at what you started now..."