With the year coming to a close, it’s that time again to take a look back at some of the best that the music world had to offer in 2016. First up on the “Best of” docket is my annual “Best Album Covers” list. Throughout the year, I kept a list of album covers that I found strange, beautiful, and provocative. This list is a compilation of my favorites from this yearlong collection. Anyone who loves the album as an art form knows the importance of a powerful LP image, and the following 20 covers elevate their corresponding albums.
Well, it happened. Arcade Fire “Suburbs”: album of the year. Wow. Who would have thought?
And despite giving the Grammys a thrashing last week, I watched the last bit of the ceremonies, and my alibi is that I was waiting to see Arcade Fire’s performance. But I have to admit there was some curiosity as to if Arcade Fire could pull it off. And they did. And I cheered like the Spurs had just won the NBA Championship. I’m not sure exactly why. As discussed in my last blog, Grammys are a joke, yet it was exciting to see a band I’ve loved for years actually get recognized. Maybe this is a sign, or maybe it was just a one year fluke (probably the latter), but I enjoyed it nonetheless.
My favorite part is that instead of giving a lengthy, self-congratulatory speech, the band simply wanted to play another song:
The otherwise torturous Grammys were made much more tolerable thanks to Tweets by fellow artists that came up throughout the night. Here are some of their reactions:
Roky Erickson with Okkervil River“True Love Cast All Evil”[Anti-]
In the past month I’ve gotten back into the dating game, taking several different women out on that all too awkward first date. I hate the entire courting process in general with its uncertainties and 20 questions interview format. But my most despised, unavoidable moment is when the dreaded question arises: “So what kind of music do you listen to?” I never know how to answer. Some of my favorite artists at the moment are Devo, Slayer, Tanlines, Four Tet, Wu Tang, Erykah Badu, and the underappreciated 1960s band The Zombies. How do you describe all of this in one blanket statement? I could give the generic “I like everything” but that’s a bit misleading. I don’t want them to think I enjoy both Nickelback and Brad Paisley.
Usually I just say I like “weird” music or sometimes I splurge and say “indie” music, another misleading response. I of course am then forced to ask the same question, dreading the response I’ll get because I know I will be disappointed. In my recent exploits, the answer has been “country music”. I know….I know…no matter how much I try to get past this point, it remains in the back of my mind, an imaginary scarlet letter “C” scrawled across their shirt the remainder of the night (make your own jokes).
I hate to be judgemental of other’s taste, but I struggle to find any value in modern country: the hokie lyrics, the put-on twang, the predictable storylines. And the thing is, I actually love country music. Not the convoluted crap on CMT, but real country. The country music of Willie, Emmy Lou, Merle, and Johnny. The old style of country that still had a soul, that was soaked in sincerity and warbled with authenticity. There was no need to pander to patriotism or reach out to the religious right. In fact, country music was about rebelling, about “killing a man in Reno just to watch him die”, about “drinking yourself blind with whiskey, weed, and women”, not the transparent choruses of “God is great, beer is good, people are crazy!” or “I love this bar!” Unfortunately, in the 80s the country music machine began moving away from its gritty country roots toward a glossier, family friendly approach.
Johnny Cash became so fed up with country music that he bought a full-page ad in Billboard magazine featuring the above picture with the caption,“American Recordings and Johnny Cash would like to acknowledge the Nashville music establishment and country radio for their support.”
I don’t mean to say real country doesn’t still exist, or that artists haven’t taken the sound into more adventurous directions. Here in the nation of Texas we have our own breed of country with artists like The Band of Heathens, Guy Forsyth, and Ryan Bingham presenting a sound that is more tried and true to what this style of music is supposed to be. It isn’t a coincidence that all these musicians hail from Austin, a city where all music forms blur lines and reach in new directions.
Austin is also where the subjects of this album review hail from (you knew I’d get to the album review eventually…). While Okervill River usually thrive on folky rock anthems, Roky Erickson is a 1960s psychedelia survivor who’s quirky personality leans more towards Daniel Johnston than Lou Reed. Yet when I listen to their collaboration “True Love Cast Out All Evil”, I can’t help but believe that this is a country album at its core. Maybe it’s alt-country, Texas country, or whatever other label you want to stamp on it, but it’s country music.
At first I thought my country diagnosis was due to Roky’s earthy twang. Then I changed my mind and decided it was due to the occasional whine of the steel guitar. But I was still wrong. The combined powers of Roky and Okkervil results in heart-wrenching tales, brimming with sincerity and soul. Roky, a victim of paranoid schizophrenia, growls out lyrics that come straight from the heart, not from the notepad of a hired songwriter. This is real, melancholy melodies of a man who is struggling to live day to day.
“Be and Bringing Home” is more country than anything you’ll find on CMT. It looks like some time in the mental hospital could do Tim McGraw some good:
Okkervil River know better than to step on Roky’s toes, playing as a back-drop rather than a center-piece. Yet, when the time arises, they step up to the plate and hit a home run with their artistic approach, exploring noise fueled nooks and crannies of the honky-tonk that only a five dollar call girl knows. I’ve been a critic of Okkervil over the years, but I’m beginning to wonder if my dislike was mislead. They are a popular band in their own right, yet they allow Roky to do his thing while still adding their own unique nuances to his songs.
“Please Judge” starts off as a slow, procession, but mid-song Okkervil raise the song a notch with their own unique perspective:
Maybe I’m wrong altogether. Maybe this isn’t country music. And really, does it matter what it is if it’s good? I guess to a stickler like me it does. Maybe Roky and company are simply taking a genre into stranger, unexplored territories, like a musical Lewis and Clark. I guess there-in lies the answer to that dreaded date question “What kind of music do you like?” It’s not “indie”, “everything”, or “weird”: simply put, I like music that explores. I guess I’m just a nomad at heart.