This is way late, originally intended for December 2016, but life intervened, mostly in a good way.
Considering that I recently turned 40 years old, and I’ve spent a year co-writing a book of musical criticism about a single record, I was surprised to look at my CDs & phone and learn that I actually bought more new releases in 2016 than in the previous two years combined. So, I’m keeping up! Except, you know, not so much—half of my buys have been new records by my old mainstays, and the other half are longtime jazz masters with whom I’m just now catching up. Here we go with some 50-word reviews and recommendations.
I’ll have a larger reflection on a new Sun Ra release in a week or two. It’s a three-disc affair, and the Man from Saturn deserves more than a snippy sentence or two.
(For a primer on the process and rating system, go here. I added two rows for, respectively, favorite and least favorite tracks. You’ll figure it out.)
aphex twin — cheetah [EP] — 9.5
Beats throb like a thumping heart; everything else courses like a river of blood. The synths echo and skittter nervously off the walls. The instruments feel soft, rounded, and pulsing with erotic energy. Play it loud, quietly, on your headphones, or through your speakers—no matter what, it’ll flow through you.
reminds you of: The Orb / Autechre
slay tracks: “CIRKLON3 [Колхозная mix],” “2X202-ST5”
just say no, Nancy: n/a (and, no, that’s not a song title)
de la soul — and the anonymous nobody — 6.0
When everyone shows up to your party, sometimes people forget who threw it. Supa Dave West’s all-star group funked around uninterrupted for hours; the gorgeous tracks were built from these sessions. David Byrne, Snoop Dogg, Estelle, Usher, 2Chainz, Jill Scott, Damon Albarn, and others add contributions. Guess who feels missing?
reminds you of: D’Angelo’s Voodoo / Jurassic 5 / Lucy Pearl
slay tracks: “Pain,” “Memory of… (Us),” “Trainwreck, “Here In After”
just say no, Nancy: “Drawn,” “Lord Intended,” “Whoodeeni”
fred hersch trio — sunday night at the vanguard — 7.8
So warmly recorded that I often forget how chilly the music is, I appreciate Hersch aiming the standard piano/bass/drums format beyond tasteful ballads, even though the band ultimately clings to that mode. They mesmerize me enough that I almost never longed for feedback, bad ideas, or, like, a kazoo. Almost.
reminds you of: Bill Charlap / Martial Solal / Bud Powell (but when is that ever not true for a piano trio?)
slay tracks: “Blackwing Palomino,” “The Optimum Thing”
just say no, Nancy: “Serpentine,” “Calligram”
massive attack — ritual spirit [EP] — 7.5
So much remains the same—outstanding singers and MCs made usefully indecipherable by dense production; slow-building sonic layers; intricate beats—that the changes are jarring: Tempo’s generally up, beats crunch instead of thump, and it emphasizes industrial harshness instead of hiding its digital roots. It rocks but I wish it bounced more.
Reminds you of: Shabazz Palaces / Tricky / RZA
Slay tracks: title track, “Voodoo in My Blood”
Just say no, Nancy: n/a
murray, allen & carrington power trio — perfection — 9.0
Like Sleater-Kinney, this trio doesn’t need bass. What David Murray’s saxophone can’t croak on the low end, Geri Allen’s left hand covers on piano; whatever she misses, Terri-Lynn Carrington catches on drums. Jaunty and roiling, this combo sasses and snaps, gets gorgeous, and then slinks away—often on the same track.
Reminds you of: Ben Webster, at his most full-throated / Martial Solal, at his most angular / Elvin Jones
Slay tracks: “Barbara Allen,” “Geri-Rigged,” “Mirror of Youth”
Just say no, Nancy: oddly, the title track (“Perfection”)
phish — big boat — 6.0
The Vermont boys tamp down the D&D lyrics and complex changes, which surface only on “Petrichor” (gorgeous) and “Waking Up Dead” (awful). Trey loves horns (good). Page loves vocoders (*sigh*). Even the drummer wrote a song, because that’s what “Friends” are for. Everyone invests in generous emotional clarity, for once.
Reminds you of: Sting / Styx / Motown
Slay tracks: “More,” “Breath and Burning”
Just say no, Nancy: “I Always Wanted It This Way,” “Waking Up Dead”
a tribe called quest — we got it from here… thank you 4 your service — 10.0
Phife’s dead, Ali Shaheed Muhammed is mostly absent, and Tribe is technically defunct, not that you could tell. Jazzy beats and liquid flow remain but respectively harder and funnier. This time, Tribe’s politics reach beyond Afrocentrism, embracing “mothers and fathers and dead niggas,” and brothers and sistas of all colors.
Reminds you of: Blowout Comb (look it up; you need to own it) / Fear of a Black Planet (ditto)
Slay tracks: “Dis Generation,” “The Space Program,” “The Donald”
Just say no, Nancy: n/a
mike watt — “ring spiel” tour ’95 — 4.5
A few ringers—Dave Grohl, Eddie Vedder, Pat Smear—help Watt out in Chicago but it’s his show. The melodic bass crowds the room, inventively, sure, but mixed too muddily to tell. The music jangles and throttles in equal measures but, God bless, Watt can’t really sing. Or write a memorable chorus.
Reminds you of: fIREHOSE / Pearl Jam
Slay tracks: “Big Train,” “Piss-bottle Man,” “Chinese Firedrill”
Just say no, Nancy: “Powerful Hankerin’,” “Habit,” “Against the ’70s”
wussy — forever sounds — 8.5
Lisa Walker (honeyed, confident) and Chuck Cleaver (yelping, anxious) sing so differently that it always surprises how beautifully they intertwine. Here, they bury their beautiful voices (and lyrics) in corrosion, spacy synths, and downtuned sludge. Clean songcraft suits Wussy; frayed atmospherics makes you dig for the magic—which is still there.
Reminds you of: Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot / Lush / Sleater-Kinney’s The Hot Rock
Slay tracks: “She’s Killed Hundreds,” “Hello, I’m A Ghost,” “Better Days,” “Majestic-12”
Just say no, Nancy: “Hand of God”