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Senior Editor Dave Cantrell’s TOP TEN NOTABLE ALBUMS OF 2016 (non post-punk edition)

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OK, look. If I’m to be such a fool and concoct a New Year’s resolution – and apparently I am – it is this: in 2017 I will give my utmost effort to stay abreast of new album releases from as many corners of the genre spectrum as is humanly possible. Such an impetus is required simply because, in recent years, with a thriving post-punk/darkwave radio show hosted live every week, added to the singular focus that I can’t help but apply to every review I take on here at SEM, both in turn competing fiercely for attention amidst the basic daily grind, there’s been little time or energy to devote to the current release schedule. Where this has left this correspondent, aside from being a tad suspicious that all those best-of lists that clog our feeds this time every year are perhaps more well-intentioned than well-informed (I’m being generous here), is in the awkward position of having to admit that what used to be a rather panoramic view of a given year’s horizon as it was falling behind him come the end of December just ain’t what it used to be. While I’m pleased with the more specialist-oriented post-punk survey just recently published, I look forward to bringing at least a modicum of that attention to 2017’s general release schedule. So, caveats and confessions aside, here’s at least a rundown of the best of 2016 as I was able to experience it, keeping in mind that ‘best’ might often mean ‘new,’ ‘startling,’ or ‘unexpected.’ [original SEM reviews are linked where applicable]


eureka california cover

Ahh, we do love our outliers around here. This often thunderous, roaring duo out of Athens GA has naturally over the years garnered a reputation for ferocity, but it always seemed that behind that lash lay some ‘sublime’ waiting for its moment. That opportunity arrived in full flush this year with the release of the band’s third album Versus. Still hurtling forward breakneck, EC have simply found a wider road on which to hone their brand of beer-spilling punkiness. Long, indeed, may they run. [SEM review here]


9. THE APRIL SEVEN Pop Tarkovsky

pop tarkovsky cover

Stunned, we were. To have Patrick Fitzgerald from Kitchens of Distinction basically ring up and ask if we’d like to cover his new project with former Family Cat linchpin Paul Frederick, here are the files tell us what you think, well, we aren’t ones to hesitate in a scenario such as that. Fact is, we dove in head first and boy was that water fine. One can never be certain how the results of a privately-held dream match-up – even one you hadn’t actually considered – will turn out but from the first note of Pop Tarkovsky it was clear there was no reason to hold our breath. Brilliant start to finish, subtle in all the striking ways that the melding of those two source bands’ essences would suggest, it even contained a track of such era-transcending prowess (“Platform Shoes”) it was instantly added to our desert island playlist. Our only complaint? That track isn’t available via YouTube or Soundcloud but no matter, the, as we put it, “beauteous pop glare” of “Commandant, Commisar” is a more-than-worthy alternative. [SEM review here]


8. ADIA VICTORIA Beyond the Bloodhounds


Reading Adia Victoria’s quick bio on Wikipedia one comes across this tell-all snippet: “Her family also left the Adventist church before Victoria attended high school, which allowed her to explore music she hadn’t been exposed to before, like Kurt Cobain, Miles Davis and Fiona Apple.” And right there in that short sentence not only do you get a neat triangulation of influences that at least form a persuasive basis for the ‘gothic blues’ that Ms Victoria has more or less patented, but you’re also availed of the dramatically contained personal background the release from which provides the singer’s drive and verve. Equal parts sinuous, swampy, confessional, and tempestuous, Beyond the Bloodhounds rocks its universal blues in a powerfully unique voice. One of 2016’s most breathtaking arrivals. 




While some of you reading this might at this point glance up at the title of this piece and think ‘Umm…but…didn’t the Monochrome Set emerge right in the fevered middle of the original post-punk years?,’ all we can do is but gently concur before pointing out that A) the Bid-led lads from London arrived on that scene with a sound so sui generis that it rather set them apart in a league of their own, and B) said sound has only evolved over the ensuring decades to the point that, had you not known of the time and place of their origins, you’d never have guessed they were contemporaries of the Gang of Four, the Pop Group, Magazine and all the rest. Still effusing a level of wryly suave pop intelligence that defies age and to some extent logic, the work that informs the band’s lucky thirteenth album Cosmonaut could comfortably nestle in anywhere on the The Monochrome Set’s storied discography, just as Eligible Bachelors would sound not out-of-place had it been the one released in 2016. In short, the term here is ‘agelessly moderne.’ [SEM review here]


6. CHRISTIAN KJELLVANDER A Village: Natural Light


Probably the most common statement to be found in the reviews I’ve written for SEM over the years is prefaced by some iteration of “The great thing about this gig is finding out about artists you’ve never heard of before,” and this record certainly fell with astounding force into that group. A Swedish-born, Seattle-seasoned songwriter/guitarist of rare sensibilities, the overall impact of A Village: Natural Light was one of a kind of fraught reverie. Haunting, elegiac, and more than anything else masterful in a way that brought the kind of shivers we might imagine had it been Bill Callahan and not Justin Vernon that had created For Emma, Forever Ago, there wasn’t anything else I heard this year that brought my heart to its knees like this record did. [SEM review here]




Look, I’m still so speechless about this precocious debut that I’ve little choice but to quote the review, since it seems almost miraculous that I was able to wring any words at all out of my paralyzed, jaw-agape brain immediately upon hearing I, Gemini :”There is undiluted wonder here, taking the form of wounded, subverted fairy tales, intensely (and playfully) disassembled shanties, of sinister trip-hoppy pop tales built equally out of innocent beauty and knowing winks of irony. Indeed the prevailing response hearing this record through front to back is one of scarcely being able to believe it.” Lavish words certainly for any artist(s) but when taking into account the ages of the two young women responsible here – Rosa Walton was 16 at the time I Gemini appeared, her best friend (since toddler-hood) Jenny Hollingsworth 17 – they barely begin to cover the wonderment. 2016 wasn’t lacking for its unexpected shocks, but at least with this one was the type that came accompanied by wonder and joy. [SEM review here]


4. PETE ASTOR Spilt Milk


Without doubt one of the surest pop hands the rock world has ever seen, even as the cast of the work and the demeanor of the man rather intrinsically dismiss such hyperbole, Pete Astor, from his days fronting the Loft and then the Weather Prophets on a fledgling little label called Creation, has never to any appreciable degree let us down. However, there’s a difference, no matter how hair-split, between making us happy with the likes of Diesel River or Judges, Juries and Horsemen and bringing us to the brink of full-on sublime as he has on both the valedictory Songbox in 2011 and the glowing, maturely exuberant Spilt Milk that, umm, dropped last January. What this latest album did was make clear that, with someone like Astor, whose decades-spanning career has made it a given that we expect resiliently crafted songcraft every time out, a new one better make us gasp – contentedly, mind – with newfound appreciation. Spilt Milk did just that, and made it seem seamless and easy.




Yeah, this is kind of a hard one. Nearly every proclamation of just how shit 2016 was begins with the January 10th revelation that the Thin White Duke had slipped into the beyond, a place that he himself may find very suitable but the inaccessibility of which leaves the rest of us in the profoundest of lurches. Making it especially difficult was the then-very recent release – on the man’s 69th birthday, no less – of his latest record, a work that in the wake of his passing made more mortal sense than we ever hoped it would, even if we didn’t realize that until faced with its reality. What it left us with was a document-cum-performance piece that necessarily overshadowed anyone else’s attempts at anything even close to similar by several magnitudes of wow★ floored us for the couple of days we had it in our grasp before its import became so monumental. Then it left us in this strangely rewarding bottomed-out place the parameters of which we could scarcely measure. In his final act, David Bowie slyly inserted an extra word into that common referent mentioned above, becoming, in death, the Thin White Arch Duke. Arguably, he also became, in death, the most alive person in the world. An extraordinary feat that we can be most sure we won’t see equaled in our own now-poorer lifetimes. The record itself, while not comparing to the unmatched dark glory of his Berlin trilogy or even, some might say, his Ziggy years, took on a far greater prominence due to its presentation and portent. It may not have been the best record of 2016, but it was probably the most breathtaking artistic act of our generation. Respect beyond mere respect.


2. JOHN HOWARD Across the Door Sill


Really, again, we just don’t know how so much astonishing work can emerge from corners of the music world that we didn’t even know existed. In reality I’d heard the name ‘John Howard’ before but not to the extent I could pick him out of an audio lineup. And then Nick Halliwell from Occultation sends me this record and what the hell? How can this be so intensely idiosyncratic, so intimate yet blindingly universal? How is this not a recorded document proclaimed throughout the creative world as a masterpiece of personally explicative expression on a par with Leonard Cohen? How can a song cycle that’s built on Rumi’s “Quatrains,” that so carves out its own niche of conflicted rhapsody that one can imagine the Sufi poet himself smiling with a discreet glow up through the centuries, not be widely and loudly hailed throughout the land and brought before the keepers of The Canon to be immediately enshrined in their metaphysical hall? And why all these extravagantly rhetorical questions when all we’re talking about here is a damn record? Well, because the glories of this record are of the most rarefied type, they live quietly but with emotional abandon inside the subtlest intuitive architecture imaginable, where the sheer is layered like a fine opium haze over the opaque, where innuendo and explicit desire share the same shadow. But what about the music, you ask. I’ve just described it, I answer. If it appears I’m speaking in riddles be assured they’re only that until you’ve heard Across The Door Sill. You can read the review for more detail but the only real answers lie in the listening. Records like this are impossible to make. The only motive for attempting them at all arises from a feverish, possibly fanatical artistic impulse, which is why so few try and precious fewer succeed. I’m done talking. Buy the record. [SEM review here]


1. KRISTIN HERSH Wyatt at the Coyote Palace


There are those artists who so lay themselves out on the line that in response the writer tasked with covering whatever album or book or painting or stage performance etc, to the best of their ability, ends up pouring the all of him- or herself into their own attempt at coming to terms with what’s before them. Kristin Hersh, at least as much as anyone I’ve encountered and I’d argue more than, is such an artist. Ever since the dawn of the Throwing Muses there’s been a burning in her work, of bridges, of midnight oil, of candles at both ends. Oftentimes of her own heart. There’s a sense of tenacity clinging to the spaces inside her songwriting that suggests that whatever she needs to do to get ‘it’ across, she’ll do it, she’ll go there. Fearlessness, not unwisely, is often equated with foolishness and one senses that Ms Hersh would agree while simultaneously confessing that it’s never stopped her. And for that, we are ever grateful. Wyatt at the Coyote Palace, a story inside a story, a treatise on survival out on the edges backgrounded by her autism-spectrumed son’s otherworldly fascination with an abandoned hotel near the recording studio that had been overtaken by coyotes, surpasses all measures of what was previously considered confessionally brave within the rock idiom, and does so with a kind of allegorically spiritual sleight-of-hand that utterly stuns. The fact that she was responsible for every sound on the (deeply involved, double-length) album, which included not only field recordings but also a hardbound book – her third outing in this format – filling in details of the gritty narrative with an essential diarist’s elan, only adds to the immensity of the project undertaken, to the promise fulfilled. I can only hope that something that reflects this level of commitment and true artist’s desire shows itself in 2017. That, at least, will help calm my anxieties. [SEM review here]