Tuesday, January 31, 2017

TnJ BEST of 2016


16) TAUK – Sir Nebula

This ironically-named instrumental combo from Oyster Bay, NY, continues to impress with their third studio album.  Since releasing their incredible double-live set “Headroom,” their studio sound seems fuller and more in line with their live sound:  buzzy and fuzzy, hippy and trippy.

HIGH POINTS: Program Select, Where You Are, Sunshine Harry

15) CHRIS ROBINSON BROTHERHOOD – Any Way You Love, We Know How You Feel

Unwieldy album title aside, this is another fine entry into CRB’s catalog.  Their studio output is prolific, and nearly all of it worth a listen.  Hippie rock is their forte, and they seem content to reside near the top of that heap.  Recent personnel changes haven’t diminished their ability to play extremely well together.

HIGH POINTS: Ain’t It Hard but Fair, Leave My Guitar Alone, Narcissus Soaking Wet

14) MARCUS KING BAND – The Marcus King Band

The way I heard it, Warren Haynes “discovered” this young talent.  Marcus King could definitely find less valuable mentorship in the jamband world, but he’s already so fully-formed as a guitar wiz and bandleader at age twenty, I can only predict that great things surely lie ahead for the Marcus King Band.  A sparse two-man horn section fills out the sound nicely.

HIGH POINTS:  Plant Your Corn Early, Self-Hatred, the Man You Didn’t Know

13) SAM BUSH – Storyman

It’s been 7 years since the last release from Newgrass legend Sam Bush.  Whether that was deliberate on his part, or whether he’s too busy tearing it up on tour, or whether nobody’s in a hurry to release full-length albums these days, “Storyman” was worth the wait.  At age 64, his considerable songwriting and playing abilities do not seem to be waning in the least.

HIGH POINTS:  I Just Wanna Feel Something, Everything Is Possible, Where’s My Love

12) YEASAYER – Amen & Goodbye

This Brooklyn outfit seems intent on conjuring up bizarre soundscapes to back up their unusual harmonies.  Rarely does a band so roundly eschew traditional songwriting esthetics to such glorious result.  Whether their intention is to actually blow minds or to proudly represent the “hipster-kook” contingent, I can’t say.  Neither can I argue with an album this wonderfully strange.

HIGH POINTS:  Daughters of Cain, I Am Chemistry, Gerson’s Whistle

11) BOB WEIR – Blue Mountain

My hat’s off to Bob Weir for recognizing that folkie Josh Ritter and The National’s Josh Kaufman would be good songwriting partners for an album of “cowboy songs.”  This collection has a cohesive, old-timey vibe which suits Bobby’s aging voice.  Not even slightly “far out” in the way you might expect from a member of the Grateful Dead, but does echo back to the “earthy” Weir/Barlow collaborations.

HIGH POINTS:  Lay My Lily Down, Ki-Yi Bossie, Gonesville

10) AVETT BROTHERS – True Sadness

Take an ace family vocal duo, add an impressive band and an incomparable producer, and you could argue you’re bound to succeed. Succeed the Avett Brothers have, both live and in the studio, building a joyfully loyal grassroots fan base, then pumping it up to enormous proportions.  More often than not, their brand of twisted wit and melancholy comes off as more buoyant and bubbly than depressing, which may be their Golden Goose.

HIGH POINTS:  True Sadness, Satan Pulls the Strings, Victims of Life, Smithsonian

09) MARCO BENEVENTO – the Story of Fred Short

Somehow, Benevento is able to make the plinky, toy piano sound majestic.  His skills as a composer and conductor have metastasized into a giant, hairy beast whose chest heaves and unleashes fierce fronts of tropical wind which threaten to capsize our brains and devastate our ears.  With “The Story of Fred Short,” he’s finally concocted an operatic narrative large enough to contain his carnivalesque musings.  Fred Short is a fitting avatar for Benevento, coaxing frenzy from the mundane.

HIGH POINTS:  Follow the Arrow, Heavy Metal Floating Upstream, Live a Certain Life, Stay in Line

08) DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS – American Band

One might have worried the Drive-By Truckers would have wobbled in the absence of Jason Isbell, but they certainly don’t seem to be concerned.  In fact, they’ve stepped their game up considerably.  They’ve traded their grittily charming D-I-Y aesthetic for an ambitious, universal Americana sound which manages to hit all the right notes, and loudly.  For better or worse, this is their “Joshua Tree.”  They had something to prove, and that something was likely along the lines of, “Jason Isbell who?”

HIGH POINTS:  Ramon Casiano, Once They Banned Imagine, Surrender Under Protest, Ever South

07) BLACKBERRY SMOKE – Like an Arrow

Taking the southern rock thing and (to borrow a shopworn gag from “This Is Spinal Tap”) turning it up to eleven, this band seems poised to inherit the crown of the kingdom, by force if necessary.  Their songwriting has always been exemplary, but their musical muscle is now flexing off the chart.  If a band could literally set the world on fire by simply choosing the right incendiary sequence and layering of noises, my money would be on Blackberry Smoke.  I think “like an arrow” is an understatement; I’ll go with “like a cannon.”

HIGH POINTS:  Like an Arrow, Sunrise in Texas, Waiting for the Thunder, Running Through Time

06) RECORD COMPANY – Give It Back to You

I caught their act at an after-hours festival gig a couple of years ago, and the promise implied on that night has borne fruit with the most impressive bare-bones blues-rock album I’ve heard in a while.  If you’re the sort of Rolling Stones fan who believes “Exile” is their high-water mark, this is your kind of band.  Granted, the Record Company’s kind of gutter trash has more of a neon sheen to it, being from Los Angeles rather than London, but they’ve got the swagger and the attitude right.  I’d pay good money to see them on a bill with JJ Grey and Mofro sometime.

HIGH POINTS:  Off the Ground, On the Move, This Crooked City, Rita Mae Young


For my money, this is still one of the best live bands going.  A few personnel changes over the years doesn’t seem to have slowed them down.  They lock in the groove and just keep hammering.  It can’t be easy keeping all twelve (!) musicians on track, but like other “family-”and “extended-family-” bands before them, the bandleader (in this case, Derek Trucks) manages to bring the train safely to the station every time.  It may seem like it’s going to barrel through the brick wall at the end of the line, but that’s half the fun.  Susan Tedeschi and Mike Mattison’s vocal turns are always smooth and sexy, but for me the sonic circus is the star.

HIGH POINTS:  Let Me Get By, Laugh About It, Just as Strange, Anyhow, Crying Over You / Swamp Raga

04) PHISH – Big Boat

Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd’s “the Wall”) takes another turn at producing a Phish album.  Though “Big Boat” may seem less cohesive on first listen than its predecessor, “Fuego,” I think its meandering nature may be its strength.  Just as showcasing each of the phoursome individually in concert makes the overall structure more robust and varied, or the addition of outside genetic material can curb birth defects in humans, this album manages to avoid the trap of “same-y-ness” that can plague a band after fifteen studio albums.  Of course, as with all Phish albums, we must infer the jam sections these crafted, concise gems are meant to initiate, but for those who can’t afford to attend every Phish show, the implications are delightful enough.

HIGH POINTS:  Blaze On, Miss You, Petrichor, Waking Up Dead, Things People Do

03) DAVID BOWIE – Blackstar

I don’t think I can say anything about this album that a hundred writers haven’t already said.  Even if Mr. Jones hadn’t died two days after this album’s release and called for a permanent spotlight to shine on it all year, I remember how impressive it was on that first, untainted listen.  And the second.  And then I heard the sad news.  It is certainly one of the best albums he released in recent memory (though no less experimental), and I’ll argue it stands with the best of all his masterpieces.  The fact that it explores themes of abandonment, life after death, and an unsympathetic (or possibly nonexistent) supreme being wouldn’t have been surprising on any other Bowie album, but of course it’s in our nature to retroactively assign pre-sagacity to these in this case.  Bon voyage, Mr. Jones, and safe travels.  You will be missed.

HIGH POINTS:  I Can’t Give Everything Away, Blackstar, Lazarus, ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore, Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)

02) UMPHREY’S McGEE – Zonkey

The first time I heard Umphrey’s perform one of their now-infamous “live mash-ups” was in 2010 at the El Rey Theater in Albuquerque.  It was a mash-up of Nine Inch Nails “Closer” and The Beatles “Come Together.”  I thought it was brilliant.  Over the years, they’ve added enough of these to their arsenal to have committed them to an album of their own.  Whether or not the stunt gets them noticed by a more mainstream audience is practically irrelevant, since most of that “more mainstream audience” is too obsessed with checking their fucking phone to possibly matter in the grand scheme of things.  Mash-ups are a fun and interesting way to cover songs, and normally relegated to YouTube DJs with too much equipment and time on their hands, but Umphrey’s has proven that, in the right hands, mash-ups can be played, and quite impressively, by actual musicians.

HIGH POINTS:  Life During Exodus, Electric Avenue to Hell, National Loser Anthem, Strangletage, Can’t Rock My Dream Face
01) MARCHFOURTH – Magic Number

MarchFourth is now the band I most want to see in concert.  I spent the better part of 2016 telling anyone who would listen that this was the best, most interesting album of the year.  I’ve heard impressive “jam marching bands” before, but this is a totally take-no-prisoners affair.  They are here to literally blow you away.  Ben Ellman (Galactic) has produced the impossible, making something simultaneously goldbrick-solid and river-flowing, like I always imagined the Mesoamerican diety Quetzalcoatl.  Guest musicians Stanton Moore and Trombone Shorty add a New Orleans flair to the proceedings, but are hardly necessary.  Having been a member of marching bands myself, I simply cannot fathom how they are able to swing and thump this hard.  Heavy enough to stop you in your tracks, but lilting enough to spur your feet to happy dancing, this is the kind of band I could see forming a religion around.

HIGH POINTS:  Science (Free Your Mind), the Quarter, Inventing the Wheel, Magic Number, Push It Back, Call to Action


I should preface this list by saying that some of the albums of the year also produced what I considered singles of the year (e.g. “Off the Ground” by The Record Company), but for this list, either one track was a total standout from the album, or perhaps I simply haven’t had the opportunity to hear the whole album.  These are, for want of a better term, “radio songs,” but would nevertheless make great additions to many mixtapes.

16) WIL – A Whoo Hoo
A nice little retro ditty that got stuck in my head for weeks.

15) FRUITION – Santa Fe
New Yorkers love songs about New York, I love songs about Santa Fe.

14) JIM JAMES – Here in Spirit
A good message draped in fantastic production.  Operatic yet sparse.

13) STONE ROSES – All for One
This is one of the few bands from the 90s I’m glad got back together.

12) JAH WORKS - Water
So much reggae is just plain claptrap, I applaud their originality and sincerity.

11) ELLE KING – Good Girls
This one oozes a kind of Wanda Jackson-esque brassiness and sex appeal.

10) MONDO KOZMO - Shine
A songwriter singalong which uses no whistle track?  Thank you.  Just, thank you.

09) THE WIND + THE WAVE – Grand Canyon
Seems like it would be great music to ride to, really fast, down a mountain biking trail.

08) RIVER WHYLESS – All Day All Night
They call themselves a folk band, but this sound is pretty expansive.  Maybe that’s allowed in the Mumford age.

07) FANTASTIC NEGRITO – In the Pines
Like many takes on traditional standards, this one works by playing up the minor key and the bassline, implying a certain menace.

06) SAINT MOTEL - Move
The song opens with a command I’m happy to oblige.  This band is slinky and sleazy in all the right ways.

05) BASTILLE – Good Grief
Bordering on being too clever and meticulous to be a pop song, or maybe just clever and meticulous enough.  Meta moment: “It goes in one ear, out the other.”

04) DAWES – When the Tequila Runs Out
You’ve never heard Dawes try so hard to sound like an “indie” band.  This is as hooky and experimental as these “whisper-folkies” are likely to get.

03) STRAY BIRDS – Sabrina
My favorite “out of left field” entry this year.  Blissfully breakneck in its pacing and refreshingly unadorned with fancy production.  Raw in the best way possible.

02) STRUMBELLAS – We Don’t Know
In my opinion, far superior to their international hit “Spirits.”  Only time will tell if they’re just another flash-in-the-post-Mumford-folkie-pan, but I’m hooked so far.

01) ALABAMA SHAKES – Sound & Color
Yes, the album came out in 2015, and made my list of favorite albums.  As a single in 2016, this masterpiece revealed its hidden glory slowly.  It seemed like a new song every time I heard it.


NEW MASTERSOUNDS – the Nashville Session
PHISH – 12/31/16 Madison Square Garden, New York, NY
WIDESPREAD PANIC – 5/5/16 Chicago Theatre, Chicago, IL


CROSSROADS REVISITED - Selections from the Crossroads Guitar Festivals
DEAR JERRY – Celebrating the Music of Jerry Garcia
GRATEFUL DEAD – Red Rocks 7/8/78
JIMI HENDRIX – Machine Gun - the Fillmore East 12/31/69 [first show]
30 DAYS of DEAD – November 2016 [web series @ dead/net]


DAVE RAWLINGS MACHINE – 1/11/16 National Hispanic Cultural Center, Albuquerque, NM
GARY CLARK, JR. – 3/9/16 Sunshine Theater, Albuquerque, NM
MY MORNING JACKET / BARR BROTHERS – 5/29/16 Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison, CO
KARL DENSON’S TINY UNIVERSE – 6/30/16 the Bridge, Santa Fe, NM
POLYRHYTHMICS – 7/19/16 Plaza Bandstand, Santa Fe, NM
GALACTIC – 8/5/16 Taos Mesa Brewing, El Prado, NM
LAKE STREET DIVE – 8/11/16 Fox Theatre, Boulder, CO
GOV’T MULE / moe. / BLACKBERRY SMOKE – 8/25/16 Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison, CO
PHISH – 9/2-4, 2017 – Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, Commerce City, CO
TEDESCHI TRUCKS BAND / LOS LOBOS / NORTH MISSISSIPPI ALLSTARS – 9/19/16 Sandia Casino Amphitheater, Albuquerque, NM

photo by Gerald Bivens



Not certain if this technically counts as a local release, though Brian Haas (Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey) does spend a lot of his time in Santa Fe and apparently loves recording at Frogville Studios.  This album is all the more amazing because, as he told me, it is 100% improvised in the studio.

HIGH POINTS:  African Crowley, Orange Purple Sunshine, Cosmic Vision, Neuro Quantum Adept, Space Colonization



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