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Geoffrey Stueven: August 31, 2016

Junk, Devolution & Death (we face a shining future)

I never meant to wait so long that my first assessment of the albums of 2016 resembled a premature year-end list, but here we are. Favorites so far:

1. case/lang/veirscase/lang/veirs

Her name sits modestly at the end of her new trio’s moniker but this is Laura Veirs’ show. Mark this as the concluding chapter of a trilogy that began with 2010’s July Flame and 2013’s Warp and Weft (the album that first assembled these three singers) and I’d consider her one of the most quietly significant artists of the decade. On those albums she celebrated Carol Kaye, Alice Coltrane and Howard Finster and longed to “make something good,” and this time she adds to her catalog three more songs about the purity of unrewarded artistic work. The people these songs honor become progressively more nameless as the album progresses: “Song for Judee” references Judee Sill, who “never really got a break”; “Best Kept Secret” keeps its secret but Veirs has revealed the subject to be Tim Young, who plays guitar on the song; “I Want To Be Here” conjures a jobless, toothless maker of beautiful things, and it could be anyone, bringing joy to just one person or just to themselves. In none of these songs is Veirs suggesting herself—she’s not forgotten or unknown, she’s not a tragic figure—but relative to her collaborators she does start to resemble the unsung heroes of her dreams. She’s a session musician in spirit, a band leader and songwriter in practice, and here she gets to anchor a project with two of the great voices of her life and times.

2. KamaiyahA Good Night in the Ghetto

Oven, shoestrings. Kamaiyah has my favorite opening line about growing up poor since Danny Brown’s Old, but doesn’t have much interest in maintaining that kind of specificity in her storytelling. If her album has narrative sweep it’s in the way the beats and hooks imply the range of associations and intimacies a person might have with her neighborhood. Good Night is local by definition, party music with a few cool retreats into solitude. The closing track is strictly “For My Dawg,” and the intended audience for the rest is probably never more than a few blocks wide. It’s sheer generosity on Kamaiyah’s part to allow the world within earshot.

3. UnderworldBarbara Barbara, we face a shining future

My favorite electronic music album since Orbital’s Wonky, which will tell you something about the faith I put in long-running British duos to remain vital, personal. Barbara Barbara is Underworld at their most condensed, a teeming 45 minutes in which clarity and sense of purpose yield a kind of holiness that I usually associate with photography or film: Robert AdamsThis Day, Wim WendersWings of Desire. Consider the album a retelling of the latter, so that Karl Hyde starts off as an angel rattled by the all the prayers of his city, channeling voices like an impassive Mark E. Smith, and then takes human form somewhere around the time of “Motorhome,” deaf at last to any thoughts but his own, silent, chapped-lipped and serene as the world of color rustles into existence. Just an idea. I listened to “Nylon Strung” during a bad spell of airplane turbulence in March and felt an enormous sense of well-being.

4. Esperanza SpaldingEmily’s D+Evolution

When I stumbled upon her live show in 2009, Spalding seemed comfortable in a jazz setting but clearly had the prodigious talent to one day undertake whatever kind of crossover she might desire. Seven years later she’s ending her new album with “I Want It Now” as a parody of her voraciousness, acting out the furious entitlement of Willy Wonka’s Veruca Salt. As an artist she wants the whole world, and a funky rock ’n’ roll trio to follow her lead. She wants one more red nightmare, the hissing of summer lawns. The intentionally off-putting theatricality of the presentation (she even screams the word “scream”) is one more nod to overreaching, but the joke is that as a musician she has no need to make demands. Her album’s all about striking out into territory that already belongs to her. Nowhere else is her music anything less than natural, or: “Flow” is the album’s third verb, and the operative one.

5. M83Junk

There’s nothing I can say that won’t sound like a reaction to the critical consensus. I never warmed to 2011’s Hurry Up We’re Dreaming, the supposed culmination of Anthony Gonzalez’s Mellon Collie-sized alt-rock ambitions, but find this dismissively reviewed follow-up a much needed corrective, one where he’s able to shed a lot of his worst habits, toy with expectations, and free himself from the burden of validating teenage feelings. “It’s up to you, the meaning,” someone sings on “Laser Gun.” Read: He doesn’t owe you another epiphany. And, frankly, Junk strikes me as a more generous platform for the listener’s meaning creation, even if it is born of a certain cynicism. It’s got more songs. Even the short instrumental tracks are excerptible, this time.

The standout is “For The Kids,” a morbid fantasy in which the baby doll voice of a dead child reassures a grieving mother. It’s grotesque but also, because Susanne Sundfør gives the best vocal performance ever heard on an M83 album, deeply moving. There’s an underlying argument here about a curdled aesthetic, about music pitched at an emotional extreme, pushed too hard for too many years and resulting in nothing more than a reanimated corpse. I believe Gonzalez fears nothing more, and “For The Kids” is his letting go. The song connects maybe for no other reason than that its version of longing and heartbreak is maternal/filial, not wide-eyed romantic. To anyone who called this album insincere I have to ask: Would it be more sincere for him to go even bigger than last time, to try to give you another soundtrack for that movie in your head, when his head and heart are somewhere else and when the last album was already a retread? Life doesn’t end when youth does. Some feelings are softened, and what once seemed beautiful might have been junk all along, but music, emotion, adventure, these things are still possible.

6. Jeff RunningsPrimitives and Smalls

My most-jammed collection of moody gay summer anthems since Bob Mould’s Modulate. Like that album, Primitives will likely be misremembered as a departure even though it’s quite strikingly the introspective forty-something echo of a younger man’s noise. Take Never Been, the 2009 album by Runnings’ For Against, add seven years and subtract guitarist Harry Dingman, and these lush, ruminative synth-pop creations shouldn’t be too far from your imagination. Where Modulate flaunted adventure and city life, Primitives reflects only one color, bedroom blue, but that doesn’t preclude constant melodic fun. For better or worse, these guys never sounded so alone. Runnings, recently married, sings of we and you in a way that superficially suggests relationship turmoil, but he’s really just honoring the other person’s layers of unknowability. Depth and distance are foundational, not synonymous with a rift. “What’s it like to be locked inside of you?” he asks. If the question was directed at Runnings, this album would be the answer.


I’ve struggled to view Prince’s death as transformational, not as an ending. Full of the kind of music that makes lifelong listeners, We Are KING helps. “The Greatest” remains bewildering, a study in the way pop music renews tired language. Stock phrases from the world of boxing (“I’m taking home the gold,” etc.) detach from their context and become purely musical, fleshed out with alliteration, and as they fill the contours of a melody, an altogether new portrait of their subject emerges. That’s a cool lesson but the album only gets better, and by the time it ends with “Native Land,” the world of KING has fully displaced the one I occupied an hour before.

8. Emma PollockIn Search of Harperfield

As great as anything she’s done. My 1200-word review awaits publication elsewhere. Here’s a sentence: “A band usually needs some kind of external reinforcement to maintain the illusion of faultless consistency, but a solo artist can sometimes pull it off by piecing together years of painstaking work, the same way a life appears whole to an outside observer.” (Pollock pulls it off.)

9. Pete AstorSpilt Milk

Astor’s songs are as unadorned and modestly constructed as the ones on latter-day Robert Forster albums, but his decades-deep career (Weather Prophets, et al) is apparent in the way the music tracks real terrain. The guitars have subtle, compelling topography; each drum hit lands a few feet from the last. “The Getting There” literalizes this feeling, and ends up a classic of bleary-eyed wandering in the physical world.

10. David Bowie – ★

…and somehow the life of his music is just beginning.

Morrissey’s prose can be wretched but he wrote the most eloquent half-sentence I read in the wake of Prince’s death. For me that line speaks more to the trouble I had mourning Bowie, the life of whose music often blinded me to any sense of the vulnerability at its center. It took re-hearing “Sound and Vision,” in which a body responds to sensory delight, or “Five Years,” in which a body finds that no span of time is long enough to hold it safe, to remember that Bowie lived down here with the rest of us. But he becomes deathless in art once again with Blackstar, an album of mortal reckoning that I didn’t hear until after his passing but which has yet to spook me. It has all the signs of a carefully managed exit, but it’s a fallacy to assume that the person who acknowledges his mortality is predicting his death. “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” the last ever David Bowie song, comes closest to signaling an ending. The sweeping grandeur of the music still sounds infinite to me, even as the singer confesses that he’s not. If Blackstar’s spell ever unravels, it’ll begin there.


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