Best CDs of 2016 According to an Old Guy Who Bought 8

Violent Femmes!

Fun alt-rock crossover trivia: the cover art to this comeback is by Barenaked Ladies keyboardist Kevin Hearn.

It’s that time again! The annual entry where I look back at the previous year, marvel that I’m still buying new music at all, reaffirm my disinterest in digital, and boast how I’m one of eleven people nationwide still buying CDs. I don’t buy a lot of them, though. I rarely connect with the Top 40 acts that get all the social media attention. My favorite bands tend to be old and denied promotional push from their labels, assuming they still have a contract. I’m open to hearing new bands, but my styles of choice are narrowing over the years and I’m a lot less enamored nowadays of bratty whippersnappers who overestimate their own wisdom. Fortunately my finicky criteria don’t eliminate all musical acts. Yet.

The following list, then, comprises every CD I acquired in 2016 that was also released in 2016. On with the countdown, from most iffy to most spiffy:

8. Bloc Party, Hymns. After the heavyweight guitar sounds of 2012’s Four, this time frontman Kele Okereke opted for a calmer detour, with more spiritual, contemplative lyrics and a gentler lilt that favors light keyboard noodling over crunchy hooks. Part of the slowdown may be due to the change in rhythm-section personnel, giving the two rookies a chance to settle in and get up to speed. Sometimes radical detours can invigorate an artist who’s tired of reinventing the wheel, but several tracks run BPMs too close to lullaby level, and the introspection runs vaguely noncommittal between faiths, more of a curious outsider’s notes than a proclamation of change or repentance. When I saw them live last May, their set stuck mostly to the old singles, but a few new tracks, including “My True Name”, sounded better in person than on disc. Maybe practice is making perfect and their next album will be even better, especially if I’m a lot older and more amenable to ballads by then.

(Sample track: the lead single “The Love Within” took a few listens before its yay-inner-love exuberance and warped-robot-humming melody caught on with me. Russell Lissack letting in a smattering of guitar wall-of-sound behind the chorus was a plus.)

7. Bob Mould, Patch the Sky. This big fan of Hüsker Dü and Sugar is first in line for Bob any and every time he’s up for another round of cranked-up power-pop sets. That being said, while it’s been a treat to hear him evolve into the loudest fiftysomething soloist I know after braking often for safety in his 40s, some of the drones are starting to blur together to my ears. The minor-key lead-off “Voices in My Head” recalls his early-’90s amped acoustics and knack for self-examination, but after a while the tempos seem all to aim for the same brisk pace and vocal patterns, and it gets harder for me to distinguish between songs without the lyrics sheet in front of me, which is kind of tough to finagle when I’m listening to CDs while driving. I read one interview in which he and the writer had a lively discussion about the chords involved as they flow from one song to the next that Mould designed with a specific progression in mind because he’s that level of sonic perfectionist, and I cursed myself for shorting my musical acumen by quitting junior-high band after ninth grade and letting my Spin subscription lapse when they quintupled their ad content shortly after grunge became passé.

(Sample track: the depressing breakup of “The End of Things” is one of the few album tracks that haven’t been deleted from YouTube, and has the most memorable chorus, albeit a bit pessimistic for the moment of time it happens to capture.)

6. They Might Be Giants, Phone Power. One drawback to an awesome band that dabbles in every possible song styling is that it’s nearly impossible to chart any sort of ups or downs over the course of albums. All you can say is here’s another collection of largely bright tunes that share little common ground save tunesmithing quality. Their penchant for choosing totally original, inimitable song titles continues with offerings like “ECNALUMBA”, “Devil Awful Trouble Evil”, and “Say Nice Things About Detroit”. Also still going is their apparent quest to fit every word in Webster’s Dictionary into a lyric before they die, with new vocabulary words you’ll never hear in a Top-40 hit such as “abnegation”, “benighted”, “undiagrammable”, and “Lou Ferrigno”. If you liked the themes to Malcolm in the Middle or Higglytown Heroes, or that time the two Johns were on Tiny Toon Adventures, here’s more of that infectiousness.

(Sample track: “I Love You for Psychological Reasons” is what it sounds like when a hyperanalytical scientist with no romantic words in his repertoire tries to woo a crush while steadfastly refusing to let go of his college-textbook speech pattern for three darn minutes. This unreliable narrator is awfully perky for someone who’s about to get dumped without understanding why.)

5. Violent Femmes, We Can Do Anything. Not all musicians were lost to the Grim Reaper in 2016. Some came back after a 16-year hiatus just to raise their hands and confirm they weren’t dead yet. After declaring writer’s block for years and selling out “Blister in the Sun” for a Wendy’s commercial, Gordon Gano and Brian Ritchie return at last with a new drummer and another batch of off-kilter copiously snare-drummed folk-rock ditties on behalf of the ostracized recluse in everyone. They’re older and feeling it, straining to recall exes that are fading away (“Memory”), losing their patience with a current love’s whining about their problems (“Issues”), and highly recommending road trips and getaways to clear your head of all that baggage (“Travelling Solves Everything“, a.k.a. MCC’s new theme song, accordion and all). Gano’s voice is a tad huskier and more world-weary, but otherwise they’re the same as they ever were. And just in case 2017 goes on a killer rampage like its evil older brother, Gano closes with the stubborn “I’m Not Done”, in which he insists he’s got a lot more to say now and isn’t going anywhere.

(Sample track: other than the afore-linked? Well, if you like stories about white guys traveling to the East to fight dragons and rule kingdoms even though their name is Bongo, then the wacky empowerment anthem “I Could Be Anything” is the fantasy jam for you.)

4. Brian Fallon, Painkillers. The first solo album from the singer/songwriter behind the Gaslight Anthem steps back from the odd digressions of 2014’s Get Hurt and gets back to basics, which is great for fans of the heartland-rock of Bruce Springsteen or the Replacements, clear influences in every minute of this exceptionally earnest album from start to finish. I’d call it derivative if I hated that sound or if I heard it more often on current radio — besides local lite-pop stations that won’t let the ’80s go, I mean. As it is, with his band on extended hiatus and few other recommendations coming my way from the precious few outlets I follow, Fallon is one of my fallbacks for humbly protesting the “rock is dead” mantra we’ve been shrugging off since the days of disco, weighing in with the pedal-steel and hand claps of “Smoke”, the bouncy la-la-la’s and youthful regrets of “Among Other Foolish Things”, and the bracing opener “A Wonderful Life”, a clarion call for dreamers tired of just squeaking by and yearning for more highs and better hopes.

(Sample track: the most ‘Mats-ish rocker would be “Rosemary“, just 3½ minutes of him listening to a woman ruminating over the phone about the loneliness brought on after the good ol’ days gave way to the worst of times.)

3. Oscar, Cut and Paste. In a strange alternate Earth where Ian Curtis cheered up slightly and joined the B-52’s, we might’ve been gifted with years of albums resembling this, the indie-label debut from one husky-voiced Oscar Scheller. This British Millennial is one of those one-man bands easier facilitated by 21st-century recording technology, kind of like Owl City but with more revved-up guitars and before selling out. Sometimes the lyrics betray the comparative simplicity of youth, but the earworm choruses of the shuffle-stomping “Daffodil Days” and the New Wave Farfisa-organ throwback “Beautiful Words” stick in your head for days. I saw him open for Bloc Party (see above) and, despite a muddled vocal mix, thought within three tracks he was one of the best opening acts I’ve ever enjoyed.

(Sample track: I hate to keep picking track 1 for these, but the video for the ridiculously catchy “Sometimes” doubles as a road-trip vlog combing America to check out its performance troupes, including shots of one site familiar to lovers of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.)

2. Dinosaur Jr, Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not. Oh, how I missed the sounds of sweet, glorious, dissonant guitar-feedback squalls. I hadn’t been keeping up with J Mascis in recent history (sometimes bands slip through the cracks, sadly), so this is actually the first time I’ve checked in with his trio since…wow, now that I’m looking it up, I left off at ’94’s Without a Sound. Everything’s only improved with age, though — the vocals have grown more confident and less shaky, original bassist Lou Barlow returned at some point, and original drummer Murph remains fierce and relentless. Mascis seems to have put away the fuzzbox and opted for clearer riffs from other eras beyond the shoegazers that mesmerized me in college, but the intros and outros of several songs whet the feedback fixation that I never, ever get to indulge with new bands nowadays, with their corporate production facilities and their computer polishing and whatnot. I missed that and I have a lot of catching up to do with these guys.

(Sample track: fine, you ballad lovers out there may have part of one: “Knocked Around” meanders with a soft touch and a falsetto lamenting the post-breakup blues, until at the 2:40 mark Mascis’ heartache unleashes a volume-11 cyclone defending against the wounds of rejection.)

1. Weezer, (the “White Album”). Did you know “Buddy Holly” and the Blue Album will turn 25 in 2017? While you and I are over here feeling ancient, Rivers Cuomo and his buddies refuse to slow down or waver from their geeky rawk-god proclivities with their tenth effort, a concept album about a dude super excited to go on a West Coast vacation, meet chicks at the beach (the intentionally regressive “Thank God for Girls”), party hearty to the break of dawn (“Do You Wanna Get High?”, because of course there has to be one “naughty” song), and declare a life lived to perfection (the muscular “King of the World”), only to have everything go wrong around track 7 with the unexplained dumping by “Summer Elaine and Drunk Dori”. Suddenly women become his mortal enemy (scolding the “L.A. Girlz” to “please act your age”) who leave him homesick and hateful in the closer, a sort of Pet Sounds darkest-timeline outtake called “Endless Bummer” that leaves him griping “Not all 19-year-olds are cool” with the bitterness of someone who learned this practical lesson the hard way. Call it National Lampoon’s PUA Vacation. Out of context, the first six songs might seem tailored for dudebros who miss the heyday of AC/DC and David Lee Roth; taken holistically, it’s a self-aware 21st-century satire of half the summer-love albums ever made.

(Sample track: one-hit wonders Semisonic may not be around anymore, but founder Dan Wilson has become quite the in-demand songwriter, dropping by here to co-write the intro “California Kids“, a deceptively optimistic tourism pitch that lures Our Hero with promises of good cheer, debauchery, and cover-ups as needed.)

* * * * *

Also, special shout-out to two singles that wouldn’t stop buzzing in my head throughout 2016: Beyoncé’s uniquely funky “Formation” and Jidenna’s “Long Live the Chief”, an I-am-the-greatest rap manifesto in the old-school mode with an upscale Obama-era sheen. If you’re younger than me, you’re likely familiar with both already — the former because Beyoncé and the latter being one of the musical highlights from Marvel’s Luke Cage.

So that’s the limited scope of my 2016 in musical purchases, then. See you next year, assuming CDs are still a thing!

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