Just giving a perma-home to the hi-res version of this video we shot on the beach in front eco resort Latitude 10 in Playa Santa Teresa on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.
A few weeks back, we were sent an advance album from a New-York-City-based musician who created almost all of his melodic and many rhythmic sounds on his new album using a banjo. Needless to say, we were intrigued. We expected something interesting; what we didn’t expect was one of our favorite albums of the new year. Regardless, that’s exactly what Mike Savino—performing under the moniker, Tall Tall Trees—gave us. The full-length traverses epic soundscapes, moving from swelling, orchestral moments to quiet, contemplative ones that make you feel that you’re standing in the middle of a hushed forest (appropriately enough). And all the while, you’d never know that most of what you’re hearing is a banjo.
In anticipation of the release of his new album, Freedays, next week, we took the opportunity to speak with Savino about how he made the record, what inspired it, and what it’s like to write music on a massive abandoned resort in the mountains of Georgia. Below, the introductory track from the album and our conversation.
raven + crow: First off, thanks for taking the time to talk—we really dig the album. I know you’ve released two other records under the Tall Tall Trees moniker, but this is much more a solo record for you than they previous two, right?
Mike Savino: Yes, Freedays is the first full-length that I approached as a solo project. The first two TTT records we’re made in a collaborative band setting but, for this one, I produced it and played most of the instruments myself. I later got Philip Mayer and Claude Coleman Jr. to add drum set and Kishi Bashi to add some magic to a few tracks.
I thought I heard Kishi—or at least Kishi-influenced moments—there. We’re big fans. I haven’t seen the liner notes or anything on the album—is he on there a good bit?
Only on a few tracks if I remember correctly, be he definitely helped me shape and refine what I was going for.
That’s great. So, how else does the album differ in your mind, besides being your first solo endeavor?
This is the first record in which I used a set palette of sounds to create an entire album. It is purely my style without the dilution of collaboration which, for me, makes it a very vulnerable record. There was no one there to question me or lead me in a different direction or say that’s crazy or stupid. I went through a lot of soul-searching and convincing myself that it was okay to just say how I feel or what I’m thinking about very plainly in song.
I heard you wrote at least part of it while acting as the sole caretaker at an abandoned resort in the mountains of Georgia? Is that right?
That is correct. I spent eight months living at a place called The Bird’s Nest, nestled on the edge of the Chattahoochie National Forest. The owners spend most of the year teaching Biodynamic Agriculture abroad, so I was offered the opportunity to live there, take care of their dogs, and mail packages for them. It’s an enormous house that just happened to have a 1500sq foot wood paneled meditation room with vaulted ceilings overlooking a mountain and small pond. It turned out to be perfect for recording. The owner’s first husband was Christopher Bird, the author of—The Secret Life of Plants—who spent his final years there. There were seven libraries filled with incredible books including his lifework. The house sat on 15 acres, so there were only a handful of neighbors and they were too far away to hear my late night experiments, which allowed me to work any time I wanted.
That sounds amazing. How’d that all come about?
The house is owned by a good friend’s mother. He grew up and was home-schooled there before they had electricity. He knew I was looking for a special place to record my album and offered me the caretaker gig. I packed my car and drove fourteen hours to get there after seeing only one picture of the house.
Sounds like tit was well worth it. What it very Shining-esque? Tell me you didn’t chase anyone through hedge maze.
It kinda was, excepting I was completely alone and had no one to murder. The house, when it was built in the seventies, had eight sides with a stone fireplace in the center to heat it. Over the years, they built on to it many times giving it a maze-like quality. It was very easy to get lost in there and, needless to say, I did.
Is the Georgia connection how you know Kishi Bashi?
Kishi Bashi and I are old friends from New York City. We met there in 2003 when we we’re both cutting our teeth in the jazz and improvisational music scene. I had a group that was playing Brazilian music inspired by Hermeto Pascoal and a friend brought him to rehearsal and we clicked right away. We stayed in touch throughout the years and when his first album started to take off, he called and asked me to join him on the road. We share a sensibility and background that makes us natural collaborators and friends. He was vital in the making of Freedays as a co-producer because, when you are making music start to finish on your own, it’s hard to know when to step away from it. I would always send my tracks to him and he gave me a fresh perspective that I respect.
You guys are touring together a bit too, right? Will you be joining each other on songs at all?
We tour together all the time. We’ve played hundreds of shows all over the world, initially as a duo, and now the band has grown to five people. It’s been a wild ride.
I actually saw you’re playing the small town that hosts our alma mater, James Madison, in Harrisonburg, Virginia. That’s a pretty small town—do you have a connection there or is it just a random stop along the tour?
I’ve been there once before and had a really nice time. Sometimes you need to fill a date on a tour and there it was.
Yeah, it was a great place to spend four years. And it’s always had a surprisingly vibrant music scene. Any plans to come to the west coast at all? We’d love to see you play Los Angeles.
We’re working on that now. I’m hoping to get out to the west coast this summer or fall.
So, instrument-wise, is most of what we’re hearing on Freedays banjo in one form or another?
Yep. For this record, I tried to implement all the banjo experiments I’ve been utilizing on the road these past few years. Most of the songs are hinged on banjo drum loops I created on the spot and built from there. I’ve rigged my pedal board so I can play a note and treat it like an oscillator as you would on a synthesizer so it’s infinitely manipulatable. I also used this beautiful banjola that a generous Austrian fellow made for me, which is essentially a five string banjo with an acoustic guitar type body. That opened up some doors for me sonically. There is also some electric and double bass, ARP synthesizer, oboe, omnichord, and drum set. I think that’s pretty much the pallete I used.
Where does the attachment to the banjo come from? Have you played it long?
It was something I always messed with as a hobby. I was a committed bass player, went to school for jazz, and thought I would be a touring and recording musician supporting other artists, but it’s hard to predict your life, I guess. After school I pulled my banjo out of the closet and started writing songs after many years of playing instrumental music and people responded to it. I’ve always loved the sound of banjo though and became obsessed with bluegrass and Appalachian folk music, but it was always my inclination to do something different.
Can you break down what exactly’s been done to the banjo (in terms of filter or recording or alteration) on a particular track?
Well, there are so many things. The track “Backroads” (above) is mostly banjo, even the drums. There’s no drum set on that one. On “A Place to Call Your Own” the bass is really banjo. I’m probably using a POG on that one. Basically if I could use banjo to play an untraditional role in a song, I did. The song “The Riverbend” was basically an improvisation that I shaped into a song. There’s a lot of weird banjo on this record.
Man. Very cool. I know it’s a question you might get a lot, but what’s the story behind the name?
I was obsessed with Roger Miller for many years. I loved that he could write a song and make you laugh and the next one crush your heart. He encompassed the wide range of human emotion for me and that’s something I aspired to do from the start. I named the project after a song he and George Jones wrote, not particularly because I loved that song but I was looking for something naturalistic and fantastic to represent my music. Tall Tall Trees just spoke to me. Unfortunately that hokey Alan Jackson cover is the one most people know.
Oh, yeah, that version’s much better. Who did the album artwork? It’s right up our alley.
The photo was taken by my friend Paolo Corradeghini while I was on tour in Italy. I was very close to where many of my ancestors came from and was feeling very connected to the world. The artwork was done by my friend David Woodruff who worked with me to capture the essence of my time at the Bird’s Nest. The album also includes some photos I took while I was there. I’m glad you like it!
Yeah, love it. Well, thanks again for taking the time to talk and, again, honestly, thank you for this album—it’s an unexpected gift and we’re really into it.
Literally, down to the wire!
Wait. I mean. Not literally. I’m looking around as I write this, I see no wires. More accurately, then—literally, posting the monthly mixtape at nearly the final hour of the month!
This is not a brag, mind you. If anything, it’s a cry for help.
Yes, yes, that quote Winston Churchill likely never actually said and all, but, turns out, when you’re staring the visceral, fang-filled, frothing mouth of the end of the world in the face, it’s very difficult to justify and make time for—energy for—let’s say, your top fifteen songs of the month.
But we motherfuckingdidit. Because, you know what? If we don’t, the terrorists win.
The President of our United States wins.
All signs point to needing some good music, much of it with some suspiciously riotous and activating tones, I might add.
Starting out, we’ve got our favorite track off the new The xx, which, start-to-finish as an album, we’re really loving. Next up, a great song from Teen Daze out of Canada (AKA, That Place All of Your Friends are Moving [really hope we’re kidding—WE CANNOT RETREAT!]). Then we’ve got some great new music from New York artsy banjo guy, Tall Tall Trees; terrible spellers/excellent musicians FAWNN out of Michigan; nice, melodic electro from NYC’s Satellite Mode; gritty pop from Southampton’s Laurel; an excellent excerpt from an excellent new album by Chicago’s Lindenfield; a nice, long-titled, jump-up-and-down-when-this-comes-on-at-the-party number from Melbourne’s Alex Lahey; a new one from London’s Georgia (confusing, yes, but she made our runners up list for best album in 2015 and is awesome); an infectiously beautiful song from Amsterdam’s LUWTEN; some refreshingly new-sounding shoegaze from Montreal’s No Joy; a nice slow burn from Slovenlie; our favorite track from Austra‘s new one; a nice, droney-yet-upbeat track from Göteborg’s Wildhart; and we’re closing out with what has to be the most beautiful, saddest song about Los Angeles in ages from one Ms. Phoebe Bridgers, from whom I’m sure we’ll hear much more soon (she also has the best URL in the biz).
I don’t know.
Let’s enjoy some fucking music—play it as we protest, as we plan, as we motivate, even as we push that extra bit to make ourselves not feel like shit in this feel-like-shit-era.
Not to play sides.
It’s getting more and more difficult of late to use these pages for anything outside of the political, social, cultural, and activist realms. Things like vegan recipes and random cool products/designs are all great still, but they seem trite compared to what’s been going on in the world these days.
Luckily, many of our friends and colleagues are marrying their work and social activism, creating projects that directly support campaigns and causes that need our help now more than ever.
One such project comes from our friends at Pel—Mary and Paul’s Digital Bakesale is an ongoing fundraising campaign they’ve created to benefit different grassroots organizations in the seasons to come. As they explain:
“For this inaugural iteration we are offering t-shirts that say either ‘AMERICAN’ or ‘PEACE’ in Arabic. Our hope is that they will foster conversation and demonstrate that there is nothing to fear from any language.”
Pictured above is my PEACE shirt. Shirts aren’t solutions, but opening up needed dialogues and supporting important causes are just two of the small steps we need to take to affect positive change and stay true to the fundamental ideals of our nation.
Visit their site and order your own now.
We’re jumping on the downloadable poster bandwagon leading up to this weekend’s historic Women’s March in DC and Sister Marches all across the globe.
Because, hey, it’s a good bandwagon. And we like posters.
You can click any of the images below to download PDFs of any or all of the posters we worked up. Then just bring the file to your local print shop and have them print on something sturdy. Everything’s set to 13×19, but you can have them print on 11×17 if you want it smaller and just trim it down a bit.
And wondering if there’s a Sister March near you? Women’s March has a handy local march finder you can use—type in your zip, grab some friends, and get marching for positive change!
This is too good.
In this day and age, 90s band reunions are a dime-a-dozen; some are great to see and welcome, some are…not so much—seminal shoegazers Slowdive register for me as the very much former. We caught them at the Ace in downtown Los Angeles in 2014 and the show they put on was beautiful; nostalgic, yes, but, above all else, beautiful.
What’s not a dime-a-dozen, though, are reunions that result in new music; rarer still—reunions that result in good new music that isn’t just an uninventive regurgitation of music made 20+ years back. But last week, Slowdive released their first new song in 22 years and it is both excellent and forward-looking. The trademark swirling wall of noise and soft, melodic vocals are there, but the song sounds of the now as much as it does of our collective youths; there’s innovation and newness there and it all adds up to great new music.
As the band wrote when they release the track:
“When the band decided to get back together in 2014 we really wanted to make new music. It’s taken us a whole load of shows and a few false starts to get to that point, but it’s with pride and a certain trepidation we unleash “Star Roving”. We really hope folks enjoy it, it’s part of a bunch of new tracks we’ve been working on and it feels as fun, and as relevant playing together now as it did when we first started.”
Give it a listen and keep your fingers crossed for more.
A few months back, we were listening to KCRW‘s, Good Food, as we’re wont to do when we’re able to make the time on the weekends. If you don’t know the program, it’s a weekly culinary show that covers pretty much anything involving food—restaurant reviews, cookbooks, baking, farmers market finds, larger food trends, fair wages in food services; anything and everything interesting in the food world. It’s usually a pretty great listen; sometimes not the most-vegan-friendly, but, this being southern California, on the other side of the coin, also often super-vegan-friendly and more often than not, very vegetable-centric.
So, anyway, a few months back, we were sipping coffee on the front porch and their sandwich episode dropped. As usual, it covered an array of subjects within the show theme and featured a number of guests—bread-baking 101 with the owner of our favorite local mill; a super-charming British guy talking British sandwiches (spoiler: he adorably calls them ‘sarnies’); LA’s golden boy Jonathan Gold reviewing a great bar up from our studio, Everson Royce—but the segment that caught our ears was one with Tyler Kord, owner of No. 7 Sub, a sub shop in NYC that we’d never heard of before.
The shop, like the show, is not vegan, but has a clean love of vegetables, throwing many of their sandwiches into the vegetarian and/or vegan-ize-able categories. One such sandwich—No. 7 Sub’s Broccoli Classic—left us salivating and champing at the bit to make it ourselves.
I thought I’d just wing it, but, lo and behold, I happened across the recipe on an old WNYC post. Though it’s technically taken from a limited edition, 48-page cookbook Kord published around the time of that original WNYC post, the chef, restauranteur, and author also now has a fabulously named cookbook new cookbook out now—A Super Upsetting Cookbook About Sandwiches.
The original recipe linked to above is vegetarian already, so it was just a matter of subbing the mayo + feta; after which, we ended up with one of the messiest, most craveable sandwiches we’d ever made (note: we used ciabatta rolls; guessing using actual sub rolls might be a good deal less messy; …additional note: you might be tempted to skip the most intimidating component—the lychee muchin (pictured, right)—but don’t, it’s easier than it sounds and makes the sandwich).
Makes 2 large, messy sandwiches
1 can pitted lychees (available at Asian markets—we got ours in Thai Town), drained and quartered
1 garlic clove, minced
One 1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and minced
1 medium shallot, finely chopped
A few drops of sesame oil
1 tablespoon sugar
2 small dried chiles, chopped (from Kord: “I prefer tien tsin chiles, available at Asian markets, or chiles de arbol, available at Mexican markets, but a teaspoon of red chile flakes will work”; we used dried, bright red Korean chili flakes)
1 cup white vinegar
2 scallions, thinly sliced on a bias
2 soft Italian sub rolls, split lengthwise or 2 large ciabatta rolls
4 tablespoons vegan mayonnaise
1 pound broccolini (we used flowering broccoli, which is perfect in southern California right now)
4 ounces ricotta salata, shredded (about 1 cup)
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
1/2 cup fried shallots (the Vietnamese ones found at Asian markets, but any fried onions, store-bought or homemade, will do)
In a mixing bowl, combine the lychees, garlic, ginger, shallot, sesame oil, sugar, chiles, vinegar and scallions. Let sit for at least an hour.
In an oven preheated to 375 degrees, toast the sub rolls and reheat the broccoli if necessary.
Spread 2 tablespoons of mayonnaise on each of the sub rolls, then use tongs to stuff the rolls with broccoli. Top each sandwich with a little bit of the lychee muchin, followed by the ricotta salata, pine nuts, and fried shallots. Serve.
Belatedly wishing everyone a warm holiday season, happy new year, and a peaceful day of remembrance on the one year anniversary of David Bowie’s death. It still stings.
Let’s take the losses and turmoil of 2016 as a call to wholeheartedly enjoy and appreciate those we do have in our lives, be them creatively gifted entertainers, true friends, or both. Let’s also take it as a call to action.
Pictured, our yearly holiday/new year cards, designed by us and letterpress printed. You can listen to the song referenced here in our piece on the top ten records of 2016.
We’re handing the reins of our journal over to Jessica Ramsey of Los Angeles’ Moon Honey—one of our favorite bands in town—as she interviews and is interviewed by members of WARGIRL and Sugar Candy Mountain. The bands are playing a free show together at the Echo tonight along with Winter and Magic Wands.
Jess speaks with Ash Reiter of Sugar Candy Mountain (below, right):
Jess: First – we’re so saddened by the latest happenings in Oakland (your home base) concerning the Ghost Ship fire and send our condolences to those affected. In the midst of tragedy and anxiety over safe and affordable housing, what would you say has been a source of comfort or strength for the Bay Area artist community? Do you have any advice concerning self-care or how we should treat fellow artists at this time?
Ash: We find strength in each other. We take care of each other in the ways we can. We get together for Friends Giving and eat way too much bread pudding and laugh way too much. We go for winter hikes in Tilden and walk around with 5 pounds of mud caked to each foot discussing our futures. We go to each others shows and find ourselves in awe. My take away from this year has been to spend more time with the people you love, they are the only thing to precious to lose.
Jess: Have the events of 2016 shaken or detoured your current artistic course and/or musical direction following the release of your most recent album 666?
Ash: 2016 was a very ambitious for us as a band. We spent much of the year touring and recording our own music and helping record a couple albums for friends The Blank Tapes and fpodbpod. We also moved away to Joshua Tree from Oakland where we had lived for the past years. This was partly in response to the Bay Area housing crisis- at the time we still had reasonable rent but there seemed to be an incredible pressure on the city as it tried to absorb influx of new residents and exodus of many longtime natives. Oakland hardly felt like my city anymore. With 2016 now behind us we look forward to finishing a couple new album this year and touring Europe this spring.
Jess: Do you think artists have a responsibility to help shape the culture of modern America, and can we positively affect culture without being directly political—simply by expressing ourselves in our purest, most free form?
Ash: I believe the personal is political. As artists we may have more opportunities to call attention to issues and rally people to action, but we certainly have the power to move people towards feeling. I think that’s the only responsibility of an artist is to inspire people to feel more deeply- whether it be a feeling of peace or restless, heartbreak or ecstasy, rage or grace. Coming closer to our emotions allows us to reach a higher plane of self-knowledge. Understanding our inner landscape gives us better grounding to grasp the world around us.
Ash: Sometimes I have difficulty finding the right words for a song. Do you have somewhere specific you turn when you are having trouble with lyrics?
Jess: I have difficulty too! I try to turn back to my journals—moments when I’m very emotional and childish and let large amounts of words spill out without judgement or form. I take a big chunk later and try to whittle them down like a sculpture to a more styled and meditated form. I get to erase most of the embarrassing parts.
Ash: I like to think about different sorts of albums I plan to record and then begin writing the songs with specific reference points in mind. This can mean be attracted to a particular tone, wanting to emulate a specific singer, bring in an unusual instrument or play a certain genre of music. Together all these things give me a vision for a cohesive album. That said can you describe a future album you would like to make?
Jess: We do have visions of what our future music sounds like that usually get extremely derailed! For the album we are currently finishing, we became obsessed with replicating the recklessness of the Rolling Stones, the darkness of Bowie’s Low, and the mysticism of Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda. I’m glad we had those things there for a healthy guideline when our canoe traveled too far down the neurotic creek. Longterm we’re aiming to make big points in simple words.
Ash: What music would you like to have at your funeral? (Mine is The Velvet Underground)
Jess: Andrew inserts: “I would like Are You Experienced or a traditional jazz funeral playing as everyone gets naked and speaks in tongues. Afterwards have my guitars and body thrown into the Caribbean Sea so I can introduce pentatonic riffs to the angel fish.”
I personally would like a mix tape beginning with “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria” from Sound of Music, with entries by Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone and John Lennon. I’m thinking I’d like to be buried with a fig tree, just for the gross dare factor of someone eating my figs.
Jess speaks with Matthew Wignall of WARGIRL:
Jess: I understand via search engine that you’re the artist responsible for the pregnancy and birth of WARGIRL—an artist of all mediums who wrote, produced and engineered the tracks as well as filmed and edited the “People” music video, made the album art, and hand-assembled vinyl art packages for release. Please correct me if I’m wrong! I appreciate the colossal amount of effort that must have gone into the project, and I think that effort combined with a wonderful cast of musicians really paid off in an undiluted, soulful, analog aesthetic. In a modern musical landscape dominated by streaming services and DAW plug-ins, why is it important to you guys to make the human hand evident in your work?
Matt: While the band was started by me, it is very much of a collaboration. Many of us have been making music together for years and we all have this sort of broke down, duct tape, hissy analog aesthetic. I make records for other bands and have an analog recording studio so that makes for a great focal point for us creatively. Without the ladies we would be nothing. There really is something to the woman’s touch idea, so any idea I come up with and start to execute it’s always, how do I get the girls to make this cooler. They are all so insanely talented. Everyone sucks at texting and social media and everyone makes art so I think we all just more or less found each other, and we enjoy creative irregularities, accidents, distortions, individuality. It’s not so much that it is important to us, it’s all we know. We are lucky to have ended up all together.
Jess: The lyrics, “People are you living? / Get together now,” feel just as relevant today as they would have in the 60’s and 70’s. The Aretha nodding to Rhianna vocals with Jessica Rabbit appeal are the creamy peanut butter to the vintage jelly instrumentals of maximum vibe. Who wrote the lyrics, and do you find it at all uncanny that they were intuitively written before an extremely divisive election? Or do they simply reflect a political reality you were already in tune with long before America woke up to an enormous hang-over and new President Elect? I recently came across a quote by R.M. Koster which reads: “An artist predicts the future because, unlike others, he knows the present.” Can we expect to find more healing balm for our many political scabs inside the full length record?
Matt: That song was one of our first but it sets the tone of what we are about. Music and all art are things that bring people together, and hopefully, say something that causes some kind of change in an individual or group. When you listen to third world music, especially in Africa in the 60s and 70s, it is the voice of the people. It is progressive experimental folk music, taking what they grew up with and combining it with things they were hearing out of England or America. You can see this in most heavily oppressed cultures, the perspective is one of people unifying over common frustration or desperation. When it comes to our music we honestly don’t overthink it, this is our perspective and it comes out naturally. A good example, our percussionist was born in Ecuador and came to America with his mother at a very young age. I’ve been playing with him in bands since he was 13. He has spent more than 20 years trying to get legal residency. He has a college degree, he makes the world sound better as a musician, and he’s about the best person you’d ever want to know. Then you got Trump talking about mass illegal deportation. It’s easy to hold up a criminal and say this guy should be deported, but what about all the amazing people who were brought here by their parents and have nothing back where they came from?And how broken is our system that people like this cannot get residency when playing by the rules for decades? What about militarized police on private native land over Christmas? What about years of Bush wars sustained and sometimes elevated by Obama? I hate getting preachy but come on, there’s so much frustrating stuff going on that we can’t help but say something about it and hopefully make it positive. This older generation of political sellouts will die off sooner than later with their GMO heavy diets, and how will the next generation change things? We want to encourage people to make things better. Music is an amazing tool to do this. Protest can be positive.
Matt: So I’m really tripping out on the music you all make, I’m totally fascinated by the singing, the lyrics, really the whole package. There’s obviously prog rock influences, and probably theatre…I’m wondering how a band from Baton Rouge, Louisiana got here musically… Baton Rouge to someone from LA seems like Pirates of the Caribbean, I think of that part of the country as a kind of magical place with all the music and history and culture, tell me about how that culture and music and art shaped you into the unique performers you are now.
Jess: Aw shucks! It’s a bit more Pirates of the Caribbean than you might suppose, since our guitarist and composer Andrew grew up in Grand Cayman, a small island in the Caribbean. He moved to Baton Rouge with his father at age 13 out of excitement for American culture. His father, Frank Martin, is an outrageous music collector and raised Andrew on prog. As a child Andrew remembers lullaby night drives on which his dad blared King Crimson, Yes, Mahavishnu Orchestra, etc. Louisiana was a bit of a foreign place to him, but one in which he delightfully discovered troves of extremely talented musicians to collaborate with.
I grew up with more of a Christian church background. My first experience of playing music was when I joined the middle school worship team. My teens were spent in the swamp of St. Gabriel next door to Alligator Bayou. There’s a soggy, humid, mosquito driven depression that maybe unscrews our caps a little—just enough to make Louisiana the expressively flamboyant way that it is. I idolized New Orleans’ light hearted attitude, as well as respected the heavy history and voodoo spirit. When I finally became involved in the music scene, we wanted to explore new territory. We gave our best go as angsty young ones to stay away from every form of live music we were used to hearing in New Orleans: jazz, blues, Afro-Cuban, Cajun, Zydeco, folk, gospel. The appreciation never went away, though, and I do think these influences are finally leaking out our bathroom faucet. There are elements of Caribbean, horn jazz ensembles, twang, and whoopin’ and hollerin’. We’ve evolved into a Mardi Gras parade.
Matt: Jess, your vocals are so unique, and I think the lyrics are very original, I’ve listened to “Life Has No Meaning” 3 times this morning by the way. I would love to hear about your perspective on singing, what inspired you to experiment and find your own voice, and how your singing fits into the musical ideas you are projecting.
Jess: Thank you – I appreciate the open ears. To our readers, “Life Has No Meaning” has a positive message (I think), so no one worry if Matt has offed himself after a morning meditation. My inspiration to start singing was that of FOMO, or fear of missing out. Two wonderful musicians (Andrew and our former drummer Jermaine Butler) asked me if I’d like to sing in a band and I said no, I couldn’t. I was in college for fine art and had extreme stage fright. After a week it began to dawn on me that the proposal may have been the only opportunity in this lifetime I would be asked to join a touring rock&roll band. I realized I had no other choice than to try out immediately. Since then it has completely absorbed my life, and I am just as happy writing music as I am painting, as I am singing, as I am performing. My approach to it is therapeutic: how do I feel, how would I put that in words, how would I put that in melody, how would I put that in picture? Singing was wildly experimental, untrained, and not very comfortable to listen to for the first few years, then I met some beautiful women trained in opera and soul music who took me under their wing. I still feel highly untrained but at least the magic of music has stuck around for me.
Matt: Lastly do you like Scott Walker? I feel you like you would. He’s the best.
Jess: Listening now for the first time. Like an upbeat Bill Callahan in a Broadway show! Thank you for the intro. Wow this is really creepy. I’m into it and will have to fully explore what this person is.
At this point, the whole ‘2016 is the worst year ever’ thing is basically white noise. But it’s also 100% true.
Wednesday, the day after Carrie Fisher’s death, we walked down to the Arclight to see the new Star Wars movie and emerged to find out that Fisher’s mother, Debbie Reynolds, had died a day after her daughter. This in the same week Geroge Michael died suddenly; in the same year we lost Bowie, Prince, Cohen, Jones, Phife Dawg, and countless other iconic entertainers and public figures and waking up with New York Times alerts on your phone has become an anxiety-ridden death watch every morning. All of this on top ofa political victory many of us naïvely considered unthinkable that seems to threaten many ideals we hold dear.
At best, this year shined a light on mortality and what’s truly important in our lives; at worst, it’s the end of the fucking world.
Let’s hope (and, hyperbole aside for a second, truly work) for the latter. Truly sorrowful losses aside, it has been a great year for record releases, with some huge names giving us what may prove to be seminal albums and many a great record from relative newcomers.
Below are our picks for the best records of 2016. Narrowing these down this busy year for music was a pretty harrowing task and, even as we type this, there are still a few in this top ten that we’re on the verge of swapping out with someone from our long list of runners up; chief among them, the beautiful new symphonic disco turn from Kishi Bashi, Sonderlust, Utopia Defeated, the debut LP from Australian singer-songwriter D.D Dumbo (AKA Oliver Perry), and Solange‘s sprawling, intimate-yet-far-reaching debut, A Seat at the Table. On top of those three, we also saw a subtly beautiful record from New York’s Hannah Epperson, a great sophomore release from Jessica Dobson’s band, Deep Sea Divers, a solid, straight up rock record from Brooklyn’s Bird of Youth, a great, glitchy album from Seattle’s Shaprece, a surprise for us in the form of a country album we loved from Nashville’s Margo Price (see her live if you get a chance), the new one from Sweden’s Little Children (who we interviewed last month), and more.
But on to our top ten, listed below in order of release date along with a playlist of some of our favorite songs from these favorite albums…and starting with the most heart-breaking of them all:
1. David Bowie . Blackstar . ISO Records/Columbia Records
As with many all over the world, the death of David Bowie hit us really fucking hard. It coming a mere three days before my own fortieth birthday was, personably, an especially sobering, rattling experience. We grew up with his music and, again, like many others, looked up to him as the creative genius he was. But to have gone out on this note, with an album that’s not only forward-looking and beautifully innovative but also one that’s peppered with themes that, now, in hindsight, speak eerily to his own imminent demise is such a graceful, truly stunning gift to us all. To this day, nearly a year after his death, thinking too much it or writing too much about it (like now) makes me tear up. But he left us with a wonderful album; honestly one of his best.
2. Anderson .Paak . Malibu . Steel Wool/OBE/Art Club/EMPIRE
I’d written this back in march, when he blew up SXSW, but the way we first heard Anderson .Paak was through a Lyft driver we had in February, who just happened to be Paak’s keyboard player. Since, the talented multi-instrumentalist and southern Californian has enjoyed much-deserved praise—the songwriting on his debut album is clever, quick, and impossibly catchy and if the world has any sense (up for debate given recent events), he’ll be recognized for what he is: one of the best new musicians and songwriters of our time.
3. Eliot Sumner . Information . Island Records
After a string of singles and EPs, England’s Eliot Sumner finally graced us with a full length album. Yes, Sting’s is Sumner’s father and yes, Sumner and band sound like a timely, updated version of the Police, but only the latter should matter. We’ve been lucky enough to catch Eliot Sumner live twice in Los Angeles and highly recommend everyone do the same if they get a chance—they play an energetic, super-tight set and it’s a gift to see them in small venues while you can.
4. Liima . II . 4AD
One of my all-time favorite bands is Copenhagen’s Efterklang. I was first introduced to them by NYC’s Other Music (RIP and, again, fuck you 2016) and, since the band’s inception, they shifted and evolved their sound from choral glitch-electronica to symphonic pop to experimental field recordings and I’ve sincerely loved everything they’ve done. Now, the Danish trio have graduated to opera-writing and, as they employ that band name for the high art foray, they embarked on a more pop-centric (but still very experimental) project with percussionist Tatu Rönkkö under the monicker Liima. The album is sometimes tender, sometimes harsh, but always weird and beautiful.
5. Beyoncé . Lemonade . Parkwood Entertainment
At first, it struck us as really weird to include someone as huge as Beyoncé on our best of list, and not just because she chose to glorify the killing and skinning of animals for their fur on her album cover (not pictured here; couldn’t bring ourselves to show that on these pages in this context). But not only is the album full of excellent songs start-to-finish, it was also executed stunningly. As we’d written previously, Queen Bee partnered up with HBO to debut the limited release of her visual album—a stream of 12 videos for the 12 tracks on the album strung together by a continuous narrative—pairing it with a free preview weekend of HBO. Doing so, Beyoncé skillfully stepped out of the cultural white noise and grabbed our oh-so scattered attention in this attention deficit disorder digital age. We sat transfixed as the story of Lemonade unfurled before aurally and visually and it was wonderful, both in terms of art and marketing. And to not include it on this list just because it’s not indie would be a severe oversight in our opinion and change the nature of the list itself. After all, this isn’t the best of independent music, it’s the best albums in our opinion. We just happen to usually gravitate towards more independent, smaller bands and albums. But it’s not like bands like Radiohead, for instance, are really indie or ‘alternative’ anymore. Speaking of:
6. Radiohead . A Moon Shaped Pool . XL Recordings
I’ve loved Radiohead since the day I bought the cassette of OK Computer in a small record store in downtown Poznań, Poland (I only had an 80s-style tape-playing boom box at the time). Sure, the first two, more alt-rock albums were great and very of the times, but OK had the band boldly stepping out into weirdness, experimenting with their sound and setting them off on a path of individuality that they haven’t shied away form since. Now, with their ninth studio album, the band sounds just as relevant and ground-breaking as even. A Moon Shaped Pool moves from edgy to forlorn and back again with the artistry and grace only Radiohead could muster.
7. Local Natives . Sunlit Youth . Loma Vista
LA’s Local Natives first came on the scene back in 2009 with their debut, Gorilla Manor, a self-funded album named after the house the band-members all shared in the OC and where most of it was recorded. The record followed in the wake of bands like Fleet Foxes and the birth (or re-birth) of the folksy-dudes-making-folksy-melodies-together sound. And it was good. But not great. But with their sophomore release four years later, the band truly struck out on their own and found their sound, as they say, and it resulted in one of our favorite albums of that year. Likewise, this year, Sunlit Youth expands the band’s sound even more, making the album a solid pick for this year’s best of.
8. Boxed In . Melt . Boxed In/Nettwerk
With the last year’s debut from England’s Boxed In and frontman Oli Bayston, we were presented with what seems a near perfect album from a near perfect band. Described by Bayston as the analog, full-band manifestation of an electronic album, the songs are full of quick, highly active melodies and rhythms that are fully wrought in their presentation and thoughtful song-writing. The quick follow-up this year with their sophomore album is just as good if not better. Love this band and everything they touch.
9. Flock of Dimes . If You See Me, Say Yes . Partisan Records
I first saw Jenn Wasner’s band, Wye Oak, at small, sadly now defunct club on the Williamsburg waterfront that is now the headquarters of Vice Media (RIP Glasslands Gallery). I have no idea what Wasner’s plans are for Wye Oak’s future, but her new solo project, Flock of Dimes, picks up right where the band left off with their last proper studio album, 2014’s Shriek (this year’s Tween was an accumulation of pre-recorded tracks that didn’t make previous albums). When Wye Oak first started moving into the realm of more electronics, less analog guitar + drums, we weren’t immediate fans, but Shriek and, now, If You See Me, are beautifully, skillfully written records that don’t limit Wasner (and with Wye Oak, partner Andy Stack) to shallow electronic-based sounds that can’t provide the needed depth and strong base to support Wasner’s powerful voice. We’re excited to see what’s to come from the Baltimore native with this move to a new creative outlet and, with it, a physical move down to Durham, North Carolina (home to Sylvan Esso, a favorite of ours and friend of Wasner).
10. Bon Iver . 22, A Million . Jagjaguwar (9.30)
Finally, more beautiful weirdness, this time from Wisconsin darling Bon Iver (AKA Justin Vernon). Like most, our first exposure to Bon Iver was the breakout “Skinny Love,” a subtly magical song that was entrancing in its stripped away nakedness. Vernon’s sound on his first two albums largely followed suit in terms of style, focusing most often on acoustic guitar and the singer’s falsetto. This third album does anything but, taking that same falsetto, hacking it apart, and then stringing it all together again in bizarre digital and choral pulses of music. A lot of fans don’t like this turn, but we love it. As with the aforementioned OK Computer, 22, A Million is a bold step out into new territory for Vernon. Such a move can result in total garbage artistically, good intentions or not; in this case, it’s resulted in a weirdly bewitching musical masterpiece. Thematically, maybe it’s ravings of a borderline madman, maybe its a legitimate cry for help, maybe its just a songwriting stretch for new material, but, whatever it is, it’s Bon Iver’s best material to date and it has us excited for what’s to come.
In closing, thank you/fuck you, 2016.