Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2016’s New Releases, Part One

In the rearview is 2016—and we won’t really miss it. We’re counting down the new releases you shouldn’t have missed; the platters that easily got us through it. Here’s the first installation of our favorites spun.

10. A Tribe Called Quest, We got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your service (Epic) + Kristin Hersh, Wyatt at the Coyote Palace (Omnibus) Writing about records can be a tug of war between the excitement of expectation and emotional detachment; one wishes to avoid foaming at the mouth like a raving fanboy and conversely, emanating the disinterest of a robot. The leadup to the release of We got it from Here was accompanied with hopes of a great album tamped down by the knowledge that most comebacks bring disappointment. Inside: hopes for an odds-defying success. Outside: the demeanor of a drone.

A Tribe Called Quest pulled it off with flying colors, and with a high number of guest spots, a tactic that’s always cause for nervousness. But instead of making up for a lack of substance, the contributions underscore Tribe’s sheer impact over the years, with none of the visitors impeding the smooth eclecticism of the record’s progress; the best are Andre 3000 and Kendrick Lamar. Plus, Tribe packs a ton of engaging sonics and sturdy word flow into a solid and digestible hour, so there’s no worries in terms of content. All this and standout “Lost Somebody” samples Can’s “Halleluhwah.” Jeepers.

Wyatt at the Coyote Palace isn’t a comeback album, but akin to We got it from Here it offers an artistic vision having emerged from the 1980s that perseveres in the present day; that both albums are completely disinterested in hopping on any nostalgia trains is a major component in their triumphs. Throwing Muses has been fitfully active over the years, but Wyatt is a deeply personal collection, recorded entirely by Hersh and accompanied with a book of her (very good) writing. The whole fully embraces its solo nature.

Likewise, it turns its 82-minute running time into a major trait. If Tribe’s return benefits from a relative measure of conciseness, Wyatt gains strength from what in lesser hands would be unwieldiness or sprawl, with the results reminiscent of catching up with an old friend who’s achieved and endured much in their absence. Said friend has a whole lot to share, and just happens to write, sing, and play guitar like a champ.

9. Los Hacheros, Bambulaye (Chulo) + Walker Family Singers, Panola County Spirit (Daptone) The sophomore effort from Brooklyn’s Los Hacheros is a sweet beast of deep Afro-Caribbean groove (the stated goal: to be “gritty, driving and infectious”) delivered with impeccable musicianship by a gang of five players wielding obvious knowledge and love for the root forms of salsa, guaracha, son montuno, and the Puerto Rican rhythm of Bomba.

Bambulaye is essentially party music, but its nine tracks are conceived with utter zest and recorded with bountiful warmth, transcending the substitute status lessening much party/ dance-related wax and realizing an allure of its own; it’s a stone cinch to please listeners captivated by collective instrumental precision and verve. Fania Records fans will delight, but just for starters, the guitar tone of Jacob Plasse insures this is no mere throwback.

Chulo is distributed by Daptone; with Bambulaye, the classic Jamaican style of The Frightnrs’ Nothing More to Say, the rich soul of Charles Bradley’s Changes, and the celestial groove of The Olympians, the label known for gracing the world with Sharon Jones (RIP) has had an impressive year. But don’t let’s forget the outstanding Panola County Spirit, which arrived early in 2016 as the latest in Daptone’s documentation of the vibrant a cappella gospel of Como, Mississippi.

Like 2008’s Como Now compilation and ’13’s Get an Understanding by The Como Mamas, Panola County Spirit was recorded brightly but unobtrusively by Michael Reilly, enhancing the intensity of both vocal harmony and numerous solo turns; when the lead and group backing come together during “Old Ship of Zion,” it’s a wonderful sound to hear, presenting a living tradition that’s as beautiful as it is rare.

8. Bobby Kapp & Matthew Shipp, Cactus + Oneida & Rhys Chatham, What’s Your Sign? (Northern Spy) Cactus is feast of duo improvisation and a pleasant surprise for those of us who missed out on Themes 4 Transmutation, the 2014 Kapp-led quartet date that included Shipp. Kapp is an important if too seldom recorded veteran of the ’60s free scene (he drums on Gato Barbieri’s In Search of the Mystery, Noah Howard’s At Judson Hall, Marion Brown’s Three for Shepp, and Dave Burrell’s High), and his return to action is reason to celebrate, particularly since the outcome is so splendid.

Shipp is on an ass-ton of recordings, an outpouring stemming from his stature as one of leading pianists in jazz over the last 30 years. In a nutshell, he belongs to the post-Cecil Taylor wave of energetic abstraction, though it would be mistake to describe him as a disciple of any one pianist’s style. Kapp has reportedly been doing some straight-ahead work lately in the Fine Wine Trio, but he and Shipp are firmly in outside mode here; the lack of skronk and the focus on the percussive (by both players) could tempt folks not normally swayed by free jazz, but be warned, for “Snow Storm Coming” is a wild ride.

What’s Your Sign? is also composed of two halves, specifically a man and a band. It’s also a story of New York City; as a composer and multi-instrumentalist primarily noted for expanding the possibilities of the guitar, Rhys Chatham sprang from the city’s New Music scene, got all shook up by the Ramones, and ran parallel to the No Wave uprising. In short, he was integral to the state of musical affairs that spawned the avant-rock of Oneida, a Brooklyn-based group featuring the talents of Bobby Matador and Kid Millions.

The danger lies in collab albums (even those with a thought-out combination and intent, as is the case here) tending to inspire high hopes but frequently leading to disappointment. What’s Your Sign? doesn’t, but there was still a nagging suspicion that I’d overrated it. Having just gone back to check, this experimental-rock tangle is as sharp as it was last month. Cool.

7. Myrkur, Mausoleum (Relapse) + Swans, The Glowing Man (Young God) If a record caught these ears off-guard in 2016 it was Mausoleum, the second album by the one-woman black metal project guided by Amalie Bruun, though here she gets joined by Ulver guitarist Håvard and the Norwegian Girls Choir as they recorded this succinct gem live in an actual sepulcher.

Those having tasted and disdained the flavors of black metal shouldn’t assume this isn’t for them; driven by vocal gorgeousness, the instrumentation consists of acoustic piano and distortion-free guitar, the strings clean even on the Bathory cover “Song to Hall up High.” The overall sweep gains much from the intimacy of the unusual performance setting, intermingling intensity and beauty (e.g. the soaring vocal in “Skøgen Skulle Dø”) in a manner that extends from Bruun’s black metal base rather than breaking clean with it. Mausoleum is a stirring success. Did I mention it was recorded live?

The Glowing Man didn’t throw me for a loop, however; frankly, I’ve come to expect a grand scale, considerable potency, and a high level of quality from the releases from Michael Gira. The biggest surprise arose a long while back, when it first became apparent (through My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky) that the revived Swans (a then new incarnation including a few familiar names) was equal to the best of earlier lineups.

The general excellence of Swans’ subsequent trajectory was unlikely, but with each release the worry over a nosedive subsided a bit more. Now, as the sustained accomplishment of The Glowing Man’s eight tracks (three of which fruitfully break the 20-minute mark) couples with Gira’s announcement that it will be the final album from this version of the band, a chapter closes in a manner that’s almost predictable. Until one listens, of course; then it’s screamingly clear just how rare it is to conclude this segment of Swans on such a high note, and how lucky we are to experience it.

6. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, EARS (Western Vinyl) + Itasca, Open to Chance (Paradise of Bachelors) In addition to the terrific EARS, Smith has a strong collab record out on with fellow Buchla synth specialist Suzanne Ciani; in fact, it was that album, the 13th volume in RVNG Intl.’s FRKWYS series of collaborative projects, that led me back to EARS and to the conclusion that it’s even better than I initially thought.

Smith conjures a sound that draws upon both avant-electronic and non-academic celestial precedent, the blend avoiding the risk of dryness while never sinking into the insubstantial; EARS momentarily recalls everything from Ciani, Laurie Spiegel, Dickie Landry, Eno, and the heartier side of kosmische and new age, and when her vocals enter the equation they land Smith in the same neighborhood as Dan Deacon and Animal Collective (for whom she opened a few shows earlier this year). It’s a vibrant ride, and I can hardly wait to hear what she offers next.

Kayla Cohen is Itasca, and her latest record and debut for Paradise of Bachelors (who have been on quite the roll this year) brought her out of the acid-folk shadows into the pure light of robust Laurel Canyon-ism. Equally adept at singing and songwriting (as is the ’70s Cali-folkie norm), Cohen is also quite the fingerpicker and pianist. But if Open to Chance has increased her profile, it simultaneously finds the bud of her creativity coming closer to full-flower by utilizing a full band including pedal steel, drums, bass, flute, and bowed strings.

The good news is that she never fades into the background, nor does the LP succumb to the familiar from moves copped by solo folk artists when adding instrumental hues to their palette. This is still Cohen’s show, and by deftly sidestepping so many potential pitfalls she not only makes Open to Chance one of 2016’s best but joins Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith in the realm of musicians to watch.

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