The year in music 2016 began with the unexpected death of David Bowie and went downhill from there.
Like Lou Reed, who passed in 2013, Bowie represented a sea change in modern pop music; he impacted everything you hear on your favorite college radio station and on commercial radio in general.
We lost Bowie and struggled to understand that loss. Then three months later Prince left us, and we were left wondering about that, too. The year was rounded out with Leonard Cohen’s exit, followed by that of soul-singing youngster Sharon Jones. Their losses and the others still to come not only remind us of their greatness, but of our own mortality. As we age, our heroes pass one by one. Chew on that one.
In a year that likely will be remembered more for its deaths than its music, we continued to see the passing of the music industry many of us grew up with. The loss of physical music sales is now being felt by musicians. Too many times last year talented local musicians confided that they were giving up on their dreams, that without the money generated from selling CDs they simply could not afford to tour, to record, to make new music. For them, as John Lennon put it, the dream is over.
While streaming technology has made music more available than ever before, we must figure out a way to financially support musicians who are getting paid virtually nothing for it, or we’re going to be left with a world filled with Adeles, Beyonces and Biebers. And if that sounds just fine with you, you’re reading the wrong article.
If you’re an indie music fan like me, your world became a little smaller last year. I can’t put a number to it, but it seemed as if local promoters and venue owners continued to shift their booking away from indie and more toward mainstream acts. You can’t blame them for chasing dollars or the fact that fewer indie bands are touring through Omaha than in the past.
An example of this erosion: The Slowdown, which used to be a bastion for indie music, saw its booking taken over by The Knitting Factory, resulting in more pop acts and fewer indie shows. They did what they had to do, and hopefully the move will help keep their doors open.
Maybe it was an anomaly, but 2016 also was one of the weakest years for new indie music in recent memory. This year I toiled to fill my “favorite albums” list. For those who are saying to themselves, “Ol’ McMahan is just getting old,” I counter with the fact that 2015 was (in my humble opinion) one of the best years in new indie music in a decade.
Creativity in music (and anything) runs in peaks and valleys; it’s a giant pendulum that swings between ingenuity on the left and pablum on the right. This year, the pendulum swung decisively to the right. Just like politics. Which brings me to a closing thought:
The rise of political right in this country (and the world) along with the coronation of Donald Trump will make music more important than ever. In the face of the erosion of our country’s moral core, music will point the way, just like it always has. It’s like that old cliche: bad politics makes great art.
Last month you were inundated with “Best of 2016” lists; well here’s another. I’m not audacious enough to say the music and shows listed below were the “best”; they were merely my favorites last year. Let’s start with recordings, in no particular order:
Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial (Matador) — Thematically our hero, Will Toledo, paints a grey portrait of a nerdy white dude trying to fit into a hipster world filled with drugs and assholes where he doesn’t (think he) belong(s). It’s personal confessions taken from a movie John Hughes would have directed if he was still alive, with lyrical clarity matched only by Westerberg (or our very own Conor Oberst).
Conor Oberst, Ruminations (Nonesuch) — A return to form for the indie-rock poet laureate, it’s been called his version of Springsteen’s Nebraska, but it has more in common with Zimmerman than The Boss. You only get one of these, Conor, and thankfully, you’ve made this one count.
A Tribe Called Quest, We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service (Epic) — Is it more of a surprise that this record was so successful or that it’s so good? In a lot of ways, it recalls the hip-hop I remember from back in the day; and yet, there’s an edge of civil disorder that makes it oh so modern.
Big Thief, Masterpiece (Saddle Creek) — At times, it sounds like a quiet hiding place; at others, a chaotic party; frontwoman Adrianne Lenker pulls you in and shows you the world inside her world.
Quilt, Plaza (Mexican Summer) — A throwback to a time when records were complete collections of great songs instead of the usual tossed-together block of ethereal “vibe” noodling. They sound as if Quasi had sex with The Shins and gave birth to a smarter, more fit, more tuneful version of Of Montreal.
David Nance, More Than Enough (Ba Da Bing!) — Hard rock, hard folk, hard psych, as bracing as a barefoot stroll on broken glass.
Oh Pep!, Stadium Cake (Dualtone) — Pop folkies influenced by acts like Paul Kelly, Leonard Cohen, Glen Hansard, Elbow and Arcade Fire, this debut recalls early Jenny Lewis, upbeat Azure Ray or laid-back Angel Olsen with gorgeous melodies eclipsed by gorgeous-er harmonies.
Preoccupations, self-titled (Jagjaguwar) — The band formerly known as Viet Cong not only changed their name, they changed their style to something post-punk, electric and haunting reminiscent of Interpol and Joy Division.
Tenement, The Self Titled Album (Deranged) — They’re associated with the American hardcore scene, and while the first track does have a sneering punk sensibility, the rest bounces between styles as diverse as Pavement, Ted Leo/Pharmacists and ’80s-era Rolling Stones.
Jeff Runnings, Primitives and Smalls (Saint Marie) — Runnings takes the most accessible elements of For Against and modernizes them in beautiful ways. His breathy voice lies warmly atop layers and layers of synths and beats that shimmer like a dream.
David Bowie, Blackstar (Columbia) — A prescient masterpiece, it must be included on every year-end list. This was tough to listen to in January; it gets easier as time goes on.
Favorite Live Shows
And now, my favorite live shows of 2016. I thought I had a slow year, until I began looking back. I would venture to say I’ve missed as many good shows as I’ve attended. Regardless, here are the ones I’ll remember 2016 for:
Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Feb. 10 at The Slowdown — Most compositions (songs?) were deep, repetitive ambient tonal melodies that evolved into haunting and/or majestic sweeps of sound.
Quilt at Reverb Lounge, March 31 — While mostly laid-back, the band got the crowd moving on the night’s closer, “Own Ways,” which also is the album closer on Plaza and my favorite song on the album.
Chemicals at Hi-Fi House, April 16 — This is modern, progressive rock jazz in the same vein as Kamasi Washington, progressive but tuneful and exciting, and well played.
Closeness at O’Leaver’s, April 30 — Closeness (Todd and Orenda Fink) goes beyond the familiar hypnotic beats, of which Todd always has been a master, to melodies and counter melodies and layers upon layers of textured sound. Hypnotic.
Shannon & the Clams on the River City Star, May 15 — Floating up and down the Missouri River, we were met time and time again by a large white half-submerged floating upright refrigerator. Was there someone inside it, traveling to the Gulf of Mexico? We’ll never know. No doubt the river people, who were either fishing or dumping garbage along the shore, could easily hear the riotous rock and wondered who were those lucky bastards having the time of their lives.
Dolores Diaz & the Standby Club at The Waiting Room, May 21 — Corina Figueroa’s rough-edged voice is pure Tammy Wynette. What she lacks in range she makes up for in heart, throwing herself into every note, leaving little doubt that she loves this music.
Arbor Labor Union at Milk Run, May 31 — For the 10 people in attendance, the Georgia-based four piece played a hypnotic style of rock based around a repeated riff driven over and over while various members filled in the spaces with bits of improvisation.
Cultural Attraction at O’Leaver’s, June 11 — The groovy, acoustic-guitar driven music was propelled by John Riley pounding away on a fine set of congas. Yes, congas. But the real power came from the voices and the harmonies, which were as strong as ever, a testimony to a band that hadn’t played together in 20 years.
Outer Spaces at Milk Run, June 24 — Frontwoman/guitarist Cara Beth Satalino has a simple, quiet quality all her own on songs that are classic ’90s-style indie.
Twin Peaks at The Waiting Room, June 29 — While I dig their new album, Down in Heaven, the recording seems subdued compared to the manic live version. Or maybe it was the young crowd, who danced/slammed/jumped, even tried a bit of awkward crowd-surfing atop the estimated 150 or so on hand. Is rock ‘n’ roll back after all?
Refrigerator at O’Leaver’s, July 1 — The literate indie rock band puts its guts out there for everyone to see, but doesn’t take itself too seriously. Case in point: Halfway through their set, guitarist Dennis Callaci decided it was a good time to form a congo line and bounce on out to the beer garden with his brother, frontman Allen Callaci, while the bassist and drummer kept the beat in the club. Cha-cha-cha…
Protomartyr at Slowdown Jr., Aug. 12 — Joe Casey’s vocals: Call them atonal, call them simply yelling, the closest we’ve got is Gary Dean Davis’ enthusiastic bark. Or maybe Craig Finn’s talk vocals, but that’s not quite right. Finn always sounds like a college guy snottily reading slam poetry when he fronts The Hold Steady, whereas Casey’s bark vocals seem more like someone scolding you about what’ll happen if you don’t start paying attention.
Maha Music Festival, Aug. 15 — The weather was great, the park was wet, and the music for the most part was pretty good. Favorite bands were (no surprise) Car Seat Headrest, Diet Cig and Grimes. Diarrhea Planet also was a surprise.
Oh Pep! at The Waiting Room, Sept. 30 — Opening for Mountain Goats, Oh Pep! drew upon gorgeous melodies and frontwoman Olivia Hally’s remarkable voice for a memorable set drawn from their debut album, Stadium Cake; a cake that took seven years to bake.
Mark Kozelek at Slowdown Jr., Oct. 3 — He can be nasty to his audience, but he was nothing but kind and funny, laughing often and mostly at himself. The laughter countered the hard-reality lyrics that dealt with death and murder and getting older and memories of loved ones gone.
Jeffrey Lewis and Los Bolts at Reverb Lounge, Nov. 15 — Lewis’ albums are mainly fast-paced upbeat acoustic folk fare, but for this show he slalomed between acoustic and electric — making his acoustic guitar scream as loud as any Fender Strat.
Daughter at Slowdown Nov. 19 — While I listened I thought about all the ’90s British shoegaze acts I never saw perform live and wondered if this was what they were like, and thought about how how fortunate I was to be able to see this band at the height of their powers.
Over The Edge is a monthly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.