The End (of the Year) Justifies the Means: Best of 2016

The past few years I’ve had to write one of these “year’s best” columns, the Rail has had some compelling angle on the concept that allowed me to push past my initial misgivings, some Poundian premise to “make it new” that let me forget I was engaged in an arbitrary enterprise. Since we’ve scrapped the high-concept approach this year, I’ve told myself that what I need to do is simply embrace the artificiality of the thing. Have some faith in your readers, I say to myself, it’s not like they don’t also know it’s artificial. They don’t need you dithering around in an intro paragraph like some cheap arts rag Hamlet, they just want to hear about some music.

Sunwatchers, Sunwatchers (Castle Face Records).

The thinking goes like this: you, the reader, might see my five picks for Top Tunez of 2k16 and, after rolling your eyes at our even honoring the pointless year-end recap ritual in the first place, you might turn to the list itself and think, That’s ridiculous, there’s no way that band is even top fifty material, they’re just shamelessly appropriating old tropes from the ’90s; or, I find the idea of an instrumental band that draws from the jazz tradition while performing composed music antithetical to the improvisational spirit of jazz; or, my ex-girlfriend likes that band and they suck. But then eventually you might get curious, and, if only to assure yourself of the rightness of your initial response, you might actually listen to some of the music listed, and then, in spite of yourself, you might actually like it, and some time down the road, long after you’ve forgotten about this throwaway year-end piece, you’ll be a fan.

So folks, we’ll call this the realpolitische approach to the annual recap, and I’ll quit stalling and get on with it.

***

I tend to do more casual listening between the months of November and April, one, because Mets Radio broadcasts take up a lot of my time in the summer months, and two, because bad winter weather keeps me off my bike and reliant on New York City transit. If there’s a plus side to commuting by subway, it’s the chance to listen to music. I spent the early months of 2016 listening to nonkeen, a typographically modest band from Germany whose début record the gamble, out on R&S Records, was culled from eight years of recordings the trio made in private, without any grand ambitions. Subtle instrumental music imperfectly recorded on analog tape, the record is an understated monument to reflection, the kind of thing you want to hear when riding the N train home on a February evening, emerging out onto the Manhattan Bridge to discover that the last bit of sunlight you caught walking to the station from work has gone, and all that’s left is the glittering lights of buildings over the river. Nonkeen put out another record later in the year, oddments of the gamble, with music assembled from the same sessions. The second record has a similar vibe as the first, maybe a little more brio in the tempos, but still something you want to put on when you’re feeling that ol’ weltschmerz again.

Closer to home and less prone to brooding, New York’s Sunwatchers put out a self-titled début on Castle Face Records. Merging the unlikely combination of saxophone, drums, bass, electric phin (a Thai lute)—plus occasional vibes, synths, electric fiddle, and guitar—the band plays with frenzied energy, producing an all-out assault of sound that produces, in me at least, a near-ecstatic state. But these aren’t just four dudes with weird instruments and loud amps; all of these songs possess a deep melodiousness and compositional heft. Sunwatchers’ members have played free jazz with Arthur Doyle, they’ve participated in downtown performances of Terry Riley’s In C, they’ve toured the country in a sprawling gonzo Southern rock band. Sunwatchers is a synthesis of disparate inspirations, but mostly it’s just inspired.

When the other members of the Indie Rock Preservation Society and I get together to drink PBR and watch old Pavement videos on VHS, there’s not much new business to discuss. Really, aside from the odd Guided by Voices box set, the only thing that still gets us jaded anti-Reaganites to look up from faded copies of the old zines we used to xerox is a new record by Parquet Courts. But Human Performance had us confused. Seemed like on its first record for Rough Trade the band was going to insist on continuing to make music on its own terms, aware of us and of our interest, but indifferent to both. We wanted the band to keep looking backwards, but this record was just so stubbornly contemporary.That song “Two Dead Cops”? Christ, it was even topical. Frankly, we didn’t get it. We liked the old stuff better.

Sometimes, you just have to see it live—I was reminded of this over the summer when I caught Dan Friel at Secret Project Robot, opening for KATIEE (whose record Out All Night was another highlight of 2016). I’d heard Friel’s most recent record, Life, out on Thrill Jockey, but I didn’t get it. Friel’s heavy, rattled, spastic electronica wasn’t for me. Then I saw him live, and something clicked—I guess I just needed to hear it blasted out of a P.A. I’m now listening to the record, which came out last year, and I hear a rich if bizarre sonic palette and the most shamelessly ear-pleasing melodies you’re likely to find this side of doo-wop.

Now that the Mets season is over and the cold morning air has me fingering my MetroCard with longing, I find myself listening again and again to Nathan Bowles’s Whole & Cloven, out last month on Paradise of Bachelors. The record features a mix of clawhammer banjo, piano, percussion, and guitar. It’s easy to get tripped up rhetorically in talking about Bowles’s music. To praise it as music that transcends Appalachian or bluegrass music would be to sell short the transcendental quality already present in music from these traditions, yet to embed him completely within those traditions would be to ignore his ability to incorporate influences such as minimalism. Maybe the best bet is simply to say that the quality most apparent in Bowles’s music is beauty, and I can think of few better ways to end the year than to end it in the presence of beauty. 

Contributor

Marshall Yarbrough

MARSHALL YARBROUGH is the Brooklyn Rail’s assistant music editor.

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