Albums of the Year – 2016 – Part 1

This has been an incredible and eventful year for music.  We’ve lost several superstars including one of the greatest musical personalities of all time in David Bowie.  In positive news, my childhood hero, Sting, has come back to the pop music scene after a decade in the lute filled wilderness.  Out of nowhere, Iggy Pop’s late-career masterpiece has led me to gobble up the rest of his discography and left me wondering how the hell I missed it the first go ’round.

Some consider 2016 to have been one of the worst years ever.  Of course, I think that’s impossible to say without some distance.  The losses in the music world were sad but we gained some promising new blood in a little band called Car Seat Headrest.  But for me, this was largely a year of the old pro’s being on top of their game.

This is also the year that my girls declared their favorite bands.  For my oldest, it’s the Beatles.  For my youngest, it’s Iggy Pop.  Unless you know my kids, you don’t know just how fitting that is, nor how happy it makes me.

OK, onto the list.  Like last year, this will be in several installments.  Let me know what you think in the comments.

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18. Drive-By Truckers – American Band

The DBTs get political here.  About the last thing I needed in my life was more politics.  Don’t get me wrong, the writing is pretty sharp but what’s missing are the fun character sketches of the Truckers’ previous albums.  I don’t mind politics in music but a lot of this just comes off as preachy.  But the red vinyl is cool.

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17. Bob Mould – Patch the Sky

The third in a trilogy of sorts for Mould, “Patch the Sky” is a solid latter day Bob Mould record.  That said, it’s not much more than that.  Nothing really sticks out on it.  Or, maybe after 3 records of superb Mould craftsmanship, I’ve started taking him for granted.  Either way, a solid Mould album trumps one like “Modulate” so I’m not complaining.

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16. Parker Millsap – The Very Last Day

I should really be forced to play this record every time I miss church.  The whole thing sort of reminds me of the one time I went to a Southern Baptist church service in rural Texas.  Something about all of the hellfire and brimstone really appealed to me.  The same thing happens with this record.  Something about recognizing and coming to terms with our flawed nature as humans has always had an appeal.  Parker Millsap nails that mood on this record.  If sinning and redemption had a soundtrack, it might well be this record.

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15. Andrew Bird – Are You Serious

Am I taking Andrew Bird for granted?  That could be.  This is a good album and the duet with Fiona Apple is a real standout.  Otherwise, it’s just a good, solid Andrew Bird record.  Is there really any other kind?

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14. Wilco – Schmilco

This album grows on me a little bit more with every play.  But it’s far from one of their best (a tall order) and the cover is just awful.  I think I may not have found the right mood to listen to it.  It’s notable that the only song that rocks is “Locator” and “Common Sense” is absolute garbage.  A close cousin of Tweedy’s solo debut, I can tell there’s something in this but can’t yet decide what it is.  Confused?  So am I.

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13. Sting – 57th and 9th

First off, when I was a kid I had Sting and Police posters all over my room.  When I listen to a Police record, I get the same type of feeling that I got when I first heard “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”.  So, I’m a fan.  That’s why I was so happy to see Sting come back into popular music.  His first effort in over 10 years in that vein is no disappointment.  It’s a solid Sting solo album.  It’s hard to say where it ranges in his solo canon but it faces some stiff competition.  That said, he pulls off some very difficult political commentary without sounding preachy.  He tackles global warming and the refugee crisis and I don’t get the urge to skip the songs.  The writing is solid though not stellar and somehow it all seems a little aloof.  What does it compare to?  I think it’s a close relative of “Brand New Day” in feel.  Not a bad thing.  Welcome back, Sting.

Part Two Here

Part Three Here

Sting – February 18, 2012 – Kongresové Centrum – Prague, Czech Republic

The first concert I ever paid my hard earned cash for was Sting.  To say I’ve been a fan of him for a long time is a big understatement.  So, when I give a review that is less than stellar, it means something.

I purposefully avoided his last “Symphonicity” Tour stop in Prague.  I couldn’t bear to hear the man that penned “Born in the 50’s” add an orchestral, candy-coated gloss to his work.  It all just felt so Yanni.  But when I saw he was coming this time for the “Back to Bass” tour, I was encouraged and snapped up a ticket shortly after they went on sale.

Last night’s show was not the same guy I saw playing with Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers as the Police in Munich a few years back.  This was clearly “late period” Sting.  The good news is I like his later albums from “Mercury Falling” to his last non-symphonic album “Sacred Love”.  Interestingly enough, it appeared that the man himself seems to favor that material.  It’s as if those songs were written more in his present state of mind, therefore, he can really get deep into the performances.

Stylistic differences aside, Sting was, as always, a stellar musician surrounded by other stellar musicians and then some musical sideshow that just distracts from the whole performance.  In this case it was a skinny, blonde, shrill singer/violinist that seemed to extend the high notes for Sting, play some OK parts on her fiddle and then annoy the rest of the time.  This isn’t the first occasion of Sting having a clown on stage.  Those who follow him will remember names such as Vinx and Kipper.  You come to expect it, actually.  That’s why it was such a relief when he reformed with the Police – there you knew the only clown would be Steward Copeland and that he was only doing it to annoy Sting.

All gripes aside the show was good.  Not great but good.  It was solid with an interesting mix of deep album cuts (Love is Stronger than Justice, I Hung My Head) thrown in to avoid the hit barrage.  If you’re a fan, go see him.  He’s coming back to Prague this summer.  Just know that when you plunk down your cash, there’s a clown that comes with the package.

Rock and Roll Birthday Navel Gazing

I turned 38 yesterday.  For the fun of it, I decided to take a look at the progress of my life in relation to 3 of my top musicians of all time: Sting, Bono and Lou Reed.  So I asked myself, “Where were these guys at my age?”  Yes, they were all huge rock stars but I thought it might be interesting to see what albums they were working on at the time to see if their subject matter correlated with my mood.

As it turns out, they’re no too far off.

Sting – Sting appears to have been 38 back in 1990.  During that time he would have been composing “The Soul Cages” album.  The work is introspective, focused on his childhood and parents and almost allegorical in nature.  It’s a deeply personal work that was one of his least commercially successful albums but remains one of my favorites to this day.

Bono – The lead singer of U2 and his cohorts were about to make the heralded “return to form” on “All That You Can’t Leave Behind”.  The album is a soaring mature work after the gritty, hip shaking albums before.  Again, as a songwriter, Bono seems focused on family and in wonder of the world.  Much of the cynicism contained in the albums that preceded it is gone.

Lou Reed – Uncle Lou was beginning to see his way out of years of drug and alcohol abuse.  He was in the midst of composing “Growing Up In Public” – an album whose title says it all.  He was reflecting on his life and figuring out how to pull himself together to continue on with the rest of it.

All in all, these guys were in pretty good periods, though, some would say had already peaked in their careers.  That’s probably a matter of taste for many but the fact remains that these guys all put out some great work in the years following their 38th.  So there is hope for me as I near the big 4-0.

Navel gazers all of them, but I can always look at it this way – Jim Morrison was already dead.

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I’ve been having a pretty great time messing around with the ultimate music nerd’s web site over the last several days.  The site is SongKick and it is a database of every concert that has ever happened.  Well, at least it’s trying to be.  It’s another angle on social networking and this one leans heavily on concert goers/music nerds.

Here’s how it works: A user signs in, sets up a profile and then proceeds to spend hours looking up concerts that he/she has attended.  You can post setlists, memorabilia and the like.  It’s actually more addictive than it sounds and has really succeeded in mining some deep musical memories for me.  Included in those memories is my first “real” concert – Sting at the Omaha Civic Auditorium on August 30th, 1985.  I was 12 years old and man, was I excited.

I remember seeing the ad for the concert in the entertainment section of the Omaha World Herald some time in May of that year and thinking I would never be able to get my scrawny butt to Omaha for this date with destiny.  Not to mention, school would have started by then.  But somehow, the fates smiled and after my older brother got recruited as my “chaperone,” it was all set to happen.  I went to the Brandeis ticket outlet at the Conestoga Mall and plopped down my $13 and change for the show.  (I think I had to borrow the money from my folks having already spent that month’s earnings on a giant pack of roll caps, Big League Chew and Fun Dip.  Amazing how fast $10 goes at age 12.)  I got in line as soon as the ticket window opened that morning and there were about 7 people in line before me.  I feared a sellout.  My fears were unwarranted.

When my turn was up, the lady behind the counter showed me a seating chart and I took several minutes to pick out a seat that matched my financial means and desire to see the ex-Police frontman turned jazzman up close.  I ended up with a frontish-row balcony seat on the right side.  When the woman handed me the ticket, I was blown away.  It was thick, cardboard-like and green.  Really, really green.  The way they had written “STING” really popped.  I was beside myself with happiness.

The show itself was incredible.  Sting was on fire and it was a great mix of the “Dream of the Blue Turtles” album and classic Police hits reworked.  As for my brother, he met some friends of his there.  I hung out with them for a while before the show, just after he had convinced them that I was young but still cool enough to hang out.  (He must have thought I knew how to keep my mouth shut, too because I remember nearly falling over when I saw him smoking a cigarette. )  We watched the concert from the pre-selected seats but my bro eventually managed to get me to the floor on the side of the stage when the show was over so we could see Sting run off the stage and into his dressing room.  My 12 year old mind was completely blown.

I also remember that the music played on the PA before the show included Bob Marley’s “Jammin'” and I thought it was a great tune.  I think of that show every time I hear it.

I guess that concert kindled a passion for this stuff in me.  I’ve been to hundreds of bars, auditoriums and music halls to see bands since then but there is no way the memory of this show can ever be surpassed.  I laminated the ticket and hung it on my bulletin board for years.  With the advent of the CD jewel case, it and the concrete memory of this show made their way into the back insert of “Dream of the Blue Turtles” and remain there to this day.