2016 in Music

This page contains all the music reviews I’ve written for music released in 2016. On account of my podcast – which you should listen to! – I have been completely absorbed in the music of the past for the last year and 3/4s, so I have heard very little new music. That makes me a little bit sad, so if you have any recommendations, do let me know.

1. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Skeleton Tree (8/10)

Push the Sky Away felt to me like a radical departure from the Bad Seeds’ sound but, if anything, this feels like an even more radical departure from the sound of The Bad Seeds. Though there are a couple of tracks that recall the sound they’ve pursued since the ’90s, most of it is unrecognizable as this band. That’s a good thing, I think. And brave for musicians of this age.

People all want this record to be about Cave’s son’s death but my understanding is that most of these songs were written well before that. Regardless, this is not Cave’s best set of songs ever, but the sheer shock of the arrangements is enough, for me, to ignore that.

It really is remarkable to hear older musicians still trying to find something new and different.

2. Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool (8/10)

This is the most orchestrated album Radiohead has made since Amnesiac – and it’s considerably more orchestrated than that. The near-omnipresent orchestrations – with strings often scored to sound like other instruments – makes this record sound new and different (more often than not) compared to their last effort. The songs are still very much recognizably Radiohead, but I feel like they’ve replaced the traditional density of their arrangements – regularly combining traditional rock band instrumentation with non-traditional, and programmed noises – with an even more traditionally dense sound, that of a (large) string section. And that’s refreshing because I thought the last album really sounded like a band that was losing its edge, or had lost it. Here they’re as mellow – perhaps even more mellow – but it feels fresher. And that makes me happy.

3. The Dillinger Escape Plan: Dissociation (8/10)

I think there’s a tendency to get a little too excited about this record, given that we know this is the last one. But, like nearly all of their records upon first listen, I find that, at least at first, it’s not my favourite one. So I find myself caught between wanting to like it a lot, and feeling like it’s a bit of a retread of various earlier albums. (You can almost play “spot the reference to an earlier album” with this record.)

But that feeling, that I’ve heard this before, is fleeting when I listen again. It’s also a stupid feeling, given that this band does what they do, at this point. And that thing that they do is a very specific, and great, form of mathcore that I really like. And so I don’t know why I was struggling with the album.

I haven’t sat down and listened to all their records in a row, so I’m not sure where I’d put this if I did that, but it feels like a pretty fitting end to one of the better bands of the last two decades. I look forward to seeing them for their last show in Toronto in a month or so.

4. The Bad Plus: It’s Hard (8/10)

This is the first Bad Plus record in a while to be all covers. On some level, maybe that’s a retreat to their “safer” (albeit polarizing) earlier sound, routed in familiar melodies. And yes, I think this could be considered “fan service” to long time fans who maybe miss the nearly complete exclusion of the thing that made them popular in the first place when they come out and play their (usually more challenging) original material.

But I don’t really care. The Bad Plus have returned to the thing that made me love them in the first place. It’s something they extremely well – is there another band that does piano trio jazz versions of famous (and not so famous) pop and rock songs this well? – and it’s something that does result in interesting music, even if that music is less interesting than their original compositions.
I love this record and I don’t think I can be objective about it. It’s what I wanted. And though I rarely succumb to that, I’m doing it this time.

5. Weaves (8/10)

I like this less than their show I saw but it’s still pretty great. Read the review of Weaves’ debut.

6. Free Salamander Exhibit: Undestroyed (7/10)

Though as compelling and provocative ever, there is also a huge sense of deja vu, and the sense that a part of the old band is gone. Read the review.

7. Wilco: Schmilco (6/10)

Star Wars made me so happy that I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that this record does not make me that happy. Whereas Star Wars felt tossed off in a good way, this record feels like the toss offs of the toss offs; I can’t help but have the word “slight” pop into my mind every time I listen to it.

For a band as adventurous and as large as Wilco, not only is this record not particularly adventurous – there is one song, I think, that lives up to their usual standard of incorporating weird ideas into straight-ahead songs – but it sounds small, more often than not. Remember, there are 6 people in this band. Why does it sound like a trio a lot of the time?

At the moment, this is my least favourite record since their debut. Maybe that will change with more listens. We shall see.