The Agit Reader

Staff Picks of 2016: Stephen Slaybaugh

January 19th, 2017  |  by Stephen Slaybaugh

I’ve already mentioned the many things that made 2016 one of the worst years in a long time—and I didn’t even mention the Cleveland Indians losing the World Series. If you’re like me, music has always been a salvation. One can either lose oneself in visceral energy or somehow ease one’s one pain by listening to similar sentiments expressed in song. I certainly did plenty of both, though admittedly after November 8, it was probably more of the latter. Anyway, they say great suffering breeds great art, so I expect some pretty incredible records in the coming years. As it was, this year wasn’t shabby, and I also enjoyed great nights of live music that provided the perfect escape. Here were the things that made my year less shitty.

Top 10 of 2016

10. Emma Pollock, In Search of Harperfield (Chemikal Underground Records)
Emma Pollock’s latest album bridges the gap between the lilting songs of 2010’s The Law of Large Numbers and the majestic nature of her work as a member of The Delgados. The opening “Cannot Keep a Secret” starts simply with a smattering of voices and twinkling tones before building to a crescendo as Pollock commands, “Somebody hold me back.” Fortunately, she is unrestrained throughout In Search of Harperfield. She imbues the album with an emotional intensity regardless of whether she is traipsing across lush backings of strings (“Clemency,” “Intermission”) or is simply matched to a rugged guitar line (“Vacant Stare”). Somewhere in between is “Parks and Recreation,” the record’s lead single which combines lyrical quirks with decidedly pop tones for a song on par with her old outfit’s best. The rest of the album exhibits a restless creativity that highlights Pollock’s gifts as both a songwriter and singer.

9. Various Artists, Still in a Dream: A Story of Shoegaze 1988–1995 (Cherry Red Records)
Despite the somewhat pejorative tag, the shoegaze era was responsible for a sound that resonated long after it seemingly dissipated. Taking cues from the psychedelic era, but eschewing the tired hippie cliches for a modern, demure coolness, it appealed to a new generation looking to turn on. With the rush of unhinged guitars, shoegaze was at once visceral and heady. Cherry Red Records’ superb five-disc Still In a Dream: A Story of Shoegaze 1988–1995, captures the era with tracks from leading lights like Ride, Lush, Cranes, Chapterhouse, Swervedriver, and Slowdive, as well as lesser-heard bands such as Whipping Boy, Nightblooms, and The Charlottes, and American kindred spirits Galaxie 500, Velocity Girl, Swirlies, and The Lilys. Though My Bloody Valentine is conspicuously absent, this is an amazing volume of music from an amazing time.

8. Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker (Columbia Records)
In 2013, I made the decision to bite the bullet and pay $300 to see Leonard Cohen, who I had never seen perform, play at Radio City Music Hall. It was perhaps the best $300 I ever spent, as the then 80-year-old singer put on a three-hour show that was everything I had hoped it would be. Of course, his passing this year justified that splurge all the more. Though given his age, his death didn’t come as total shock, it didn’t make it any easier to take, especially coming on the heels of perhaps the greatest tragedy of the year (i.e. the presidential election). Ever the sage, Leonard Cohen seemed to see his death coming, addressing the subject in this record’s opening title track in lines like, “I’m ready my Lord,” and later “I’m leaving the table, I’m out of the game,” on “Leaving the Table.” But even if Cohen were still with us, this album’s gravitas would be impossible to ignore. Eschewing the modern keyboard tones of his past few records for a more natural palette, You Want It Darker has all the hallmarks of his best work: lyrical poignancy, grand metaphors, that distinctive croon, and a timeless quality that ensures it will live on for ages to come. The only disappointment is that it is his last.

7. A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service (Epic Records)
With no mention of this album being in the works when emcee Phife Dawg passed away earlier in the year, We Got It From Here seemingly came out of nowhere. Exhibiting all the hallmarks of Tribe’s best work—booming beats and left-of-center rhymes—the record was also a call-to-arms of sorts, with the leadoff “The Space Program,” perhaps in a nod to Q-Tip’s Beastie Boys collaboration, commanding, “Got to get it together.” “We the People” possesses the same sort of urgency, albeit with a more obtuse lyrical bent. As the group revealed in a Q&A I attended at Webster Hall, they continued to work on the record down to the last second, turning it in just a week before its digital release, and that immediacy shows through at every turn. Few have come back in such top form.

6. Johnny Marr, Set the Boy Free (Dey Street Books)
If you see me reading a book, chances are it’s a music-related biography. Of all the ones I’ve read in recent years, this one by the legendary guitarist for The Smiths stands out. As further evidenced by a Q&A he did at Gramercy Theater about the book, Johnny Marr has a knack for telling his own story, remembering details and specific incidents that made this memoir come alive. He was only 23 when The Smiths broke up, so a good portion of the book deals with his life after the band, and the chapter concerning his time with Modest Mouse and The Cribs is no less revealing or interesting.

5. Angel Olsen, My Woman (Jagjaguwar)
Crimson-throated Angel Olsen has been on a roll since releasing her debut album five years ago, with no signs of letting up. Having evoked the ghosts of Roy Orbison and Hank Williams on her previous record, Burn Your Fire for No Witness (another favorite), she’s expanded her range for the equally impressive My Woman. Here she incorporates modern pop touches while retaining both the bellyfire that’s fueled her best tracks and the timelessness with which her work seems to be effortlessly imbued.

4. The Scientists, A Place Called Bad (Numero Group)
Frequently excluded from the pantheon of the punk era, The Scientists seemingly were born from obscurity (Perth, Australia in the ’70s) and then proceeded to eventually return from whence they came. However, over the course of a decade-long existence, they pieced together an iconoclastic sound by fusing pop elements with remnants of the Stooges, Cramps, and Suicide, creating a catalog that is every bit as enthralling as that of their contemporaries. Fortunately for us, this year, the always reliable Numero Group gathered up the entirety of The Scientists’ recorded output and bundled it with a newly unearthed live recording and a 64-page booklet. This handsome box reveals head Scientist Kim Salmon as a musical force of nature as he manages to get to the nub of human emotion in all its varied forms, whether howling in despair or singing nonplussed of the ennui of life.

3. The Cure, Madison Square Garden, New York, June 18, 19, and 20
You’ve probably seen those lists that everybody is doing of the albums that impressed them as teenagers. At the top of my list was The Cure’s Standing on a Beach, the compilation that was my introduction to the band when it was released 30 years ago. I can still remember hearing the opening two tracks, “Killing an Arab” and “Boys Don’t Cry” and being immediately taken with the combination of simple chords and evocative lyrics. Though I’ve not always liked everything they’ve done (see Wild Mood Swings), they’ve remained a perennial favorite. And with the band becoming infamous for performing epic sets in recent years, my girlfriend and I decided to spend a weekend at Madison Square Garden with the band. It proved to be truly magical, with The Cure playing three-hour sets each night that varied wildly. In fact, of the 90-some songs they performed over the three nights, we heard 61 different ones. It was something special.

2. David Bowie, Blackstar (Columbia Records)
With the year beginning by losing David Bowie, you knew 2016 was going to be a shitty 12 months. An artist to whom I feel like I’ve been listening nearly my entire life, it was hard not to take his death personally. As such, it took a few attempts to make it through this record without shedding a tear. It’s a haunting album that blends electronic esotericism with emotional frailty and otherworldly touches that seemingly evoke Bowie’s subsequent postmortal ascension. It’s exactly what you’d expect from the artist who perhaps more than anyone influenced the sound of modern music, while he himself always remained one step ahead.

1. Arab Strap, Barrowlands Ballroom, Glasgow, October 15
I have few regrets in life, but nearly all involve missing a band I love play live. Such was the case with Arab Strap, though admittedly I had few opportunities to do so aside from flying to Scotland for their farewell gig 10 years ago. But when they announced they would be getting back together for a few select anniversary shows, that’s precisely what I decided to do. With a full-band that included a violinist, the band played a set that captured all the majesty of the band’s varied catalog, before principals Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton returned to play a selection of requests that the audience had submitted. Had I hated the rest of the trip (which I didn’t), it would have still been well worth the expense.

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