A few barely formed thoughts about some of the many music, art, film, stage, &tc. experiences I’ve been fortunate to hear, see, witness, feel, and be knocked out by during 2016. All lists alphabetized, some contain 25 items, some 20, some 10, some may have one. If I’ve written about it before, I try to link to that. If it’s something that’s been written about extensively, I probably won’t say something about it because though I’m arrogant, I’m not so arrogant that I feel like I have to share every thought that passes through my head in my out-loud voice. There’s little consistency in the below—and I kinda run out of steam toward the end of the list—save whatever is included was something that connected in some way with my brain. (For calibration purposes, in some lists I also include an example of something that did little for me, a blind spot.) I may not know what’s best or great or even good, but I do know what I like.
Anohni “4 Degrees” Hopelessness lead-off track “Drone Bomb Me” received more year-end attention, but this banger, which comes right after it, is the one that sears the ears.
Beyoncé “Don’t Hurt Yourself”
BLXPLTN “FEMA” This Austin duo continues shape-shifting in every direction. The New York Fascist Week album moved from industrial funk to anarcho-punk hip-hop to electro-indie rock to inviting noise to, with “FEMA,” a muscular blend of rap and ambient chill, Bowie’s Low by way of the Geto Boys.
Big Ups “National Parks” Brooklyn quartet grafts a Rodan-like tensequietloud onto a Fugazi-dubby rhythm pattern and peels off a postpunk pop gem.
Cala Vento “Isabella Cantó” Cala Vento is a Barcelona indie-pop/rock duo, whose self-titled debut has its share of hits/misses, but “Isabella Cantó” is pure glee. My Mexican Spanish is shamefully crap, and my continental Spanish and/or Catalan nonexistent, but my best guess says “Isabella Cantó” is your pretty typical boy has crush on girl, girl doesn’t know boy exists story that has been causing dudes to try to make something like art only since forever. Cala Vento has a new album out this month on BCore, and the lead single, “Isla Desierta,” is pretty tight.
Lucy Dacus “Troublemaker Doppelgänger” Another case where attention to an album’s single, No Burden‘s “I Don’t Want to Be Funny Anymore,” overshadows the song the showcases just how sophisticated this early-twentysomething Richmond songwriter is. “Troublemaker Doppelgänger” is a slow boiling country-rocking stomper about that dangerously exciting time between being seen as a kid and full grown-assness, and Dacus straddles it with the thousand-yard stare of the battle scarred: “She was a victim of the same disease/ that’s roaming the streets and bites when it please/ and makes us wanna live forever or die in infamy.”
Death Grips “Three Bedrooms in a Good Neighborhood” Sometimes I wonder if every song idea that passes through Death Grips’ heads ends up being released, but when this outfit sticks the landing, there are few other bands like it.
Mykele Deville “Chasin’ Rallies” Stumbling across this underground Chicago emcee’s Super Predator—and, yes, the album opens with that clip from Hilary Clinton’s infamous 1994 speech—back in May is what turned me from casual Bandcamp browser to dedicated user. That album is a sobering exploration of systematic racism; his follow-up, Each One, Teach One, which came out in August, is a De La Soul-level example of hip-hop storytelling. The album’s Bandcamp page says it was a quickly made—conceived in two months, recorded in one week—ode to Deville’s nine-year-old niece, and it unfurls like the bedtime stories a young girl makes an adult keep telling her to stay up later and later. Overall it’s beyond adorable, but Deville isn’t afraid to wander into real talk. The politically agitated “Chasin’ Rallies” will resonate to anybody hyperaware of the two Baltimores, and producer Colin Mulhern intermittently punctuates the staccato beat with a piercing police siren. Not everything is so severe on Each One, and the album closes with the lullaby-like “C’est la vie,” whose chorus goes: “Never listen to what the television told you/ Never let another person control you/ You’re a queen, everything that you dream you’ll receive/ if you fall I’ll be there by your side/ Ces’t la vie.” When Deville’s niece repeats it right after him but in the first person, don’t mind those tears that may well up a bit.
The Dirty Coal Train “Black X / J’Acuse” This Lisbon trio’s album Super Scum hits Supercharger levels of garage-rocking goodness, and if the above video and this studio appearance on Portuguese radio station Antena 3’s No Ar program is any indication, guitarist/vocalist Beatriz Rodrigues has the best eyebrows in rock.
Honeyblood “See Hearts”
Sam Lao “Reminder (Bitch I’m Me)”
Ted Leo “In the Mean Times”
Little Mix “Hair” Yes, this British dance-pop group is totally manufactured by Simon Callow’s effing The X Factor. Yes, as often happens with manufactured pop groups none of the performers had a hand in writing the song, and one of its six songwriters is the ferociously talented Anita Blay, aka CocknBullKid, whose stunning solo work doesn’t get anywhere near the same amount of mainstream attention as Little Mix. Yes, “Hair” is pretty much Rodgers and Hart’s “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” from South Pacific updated for the Instagram age. And, yes, guest emcee Sean Paul still kinds looks like Vin Diesel’s mini-me. Don’t care: “Hair” is ridiculously entertaining and shameless pop.
MHD “Roger Milla” (Artside) Paris-based Afro-trap emcee MHD pens a funkily staccato ode to the great Cameroon striker Roger Milla. There is nothing but fun here.
Mitski “Your Best American Girl”
OBN III “Rich Old White Men”
Julie Ruin “I Decide”
ShitKid “Oh Please Be a Cocky Cool Kid” (self/bandcamp) Swedish solo artist Åsa Söderqvist finds the sweet spot between early New Order’s stumbling electro beats and Sentridoh’s bedroom sarcasm.
Sleaford Mods “I Can Tell”: If there’s other people sing-ranting as angrily and specifically about economic inequality as this Nottingham duo in indie music right now, please let me know.
Solange “Cranes in the Sky”
The Suffers “Midtown” Houston 10-piece the Suffers may be the closest thing we have to the Delfonics’ silken mid-tempo soul working today, and vocalist Kam Franklin can move from sotto voce Jill Scott intimacy to Gladys Knight richness, which she does here as she moves from the finger-snapping verse to the flowering chorus.
Kanye West “Ultralight Beam”
My blind spot: Leonard Cohen “You Want it Darker” Look, I get it—he passed away, he was one of the more emotionally complex writers of deceptively simple songs of his generation but, again, he also wrote “Hallelujah.” Frankly, there are much better songs on Cohen’s final album—specifically the ghostly “It Seemed Better That Way” and the gut-punch “Leaving the Table.” But the title track’s smoky rhythm, Cohen’s arch delivery of the Mickey Spillane-terse lyrics, and the song’s whole neo-noir steez makes it sound like something that got cut from the 9 1/2 Weeks soundtrack.
Acid Arab Musique De France (Crammed Discs)
Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra s/t (Gitterbeat) The latest project from Nigerian drummer Tony Allen. There is no bad here.
Blood Quartet Deep Red (Feeding Tube) The debut LP from a quartet featuring trumpeter/guitarist Mark Cunningham, who played bass for NYC no-wave outfit Mars, along with Lluis Rueda (guitar), Kike Bela (bass), and Candid Coll (drums) in Barcelona. Noisy, dreamy, oceanic post-rock excursions that aren’t afraid to wander far away from the skeletal groove.
Buñuel A Resting Place for Strangers (La Tempesta International Oxbow vocalist Eugene Robinson with some Italian noise-rock powerhouses: seductively scary.
Nick Cave Skeleton Tree (Bad Seed Ltd) The way Cave lets brief moments of shimmering light poke through the most profoundly sad album of his career is a humbling display of an artist confronting grief.
Chance the Rapper Coloring Book mixtape (self) Sometimes the most radically disarming thing a 23-year-old African-American father, who grew up in what some stereotypically reactionary and data-using web sites deem one of Chicago’s “worst neighborhoods,” can do is create one of the more sincerely celebratory and thankful-to-be-alive albums of the 21st century. I probably listened to Coloring Book start-to-finish more than any other album in 2016.
The Dance Asthmatics Lifetime of Secretion (Melted Ice Cream) Noise-y, PIL-y trio in Christchurch, New Zealand, who had me with the lead-off track “Liquid Lunch,” a wickedly lumbering mess that brings to mind the born-in-last-place scowl of Drunks With Guns’ “Wonderful Subdivision.”
The Dead C Trouble (Ba Da Bing Reords)
dvsn Sept. 5 (OVO Sound) This debut outing from the Toronto R&B duo of vocalist Daniel Daley and producer Nineteen85 specializes in downtempo landscapes of bleary-eyed desolation, what unspools in the mind’s ears while waiting for the rideshare to head home instead hitting up the after party.
Exploded View Exploded View (Sacred Bones Records) German journalist-turned-vocalist Anika provides the icy chill atop the permafrost electro vibe smelted by Mexico City musicians/producers Amon Melgarejo, Martin Thulin, and Hugo Quezada; equal parts DFA’s death-disco wobble and Pylon’s post-punk twitch.
Familea Miranda Radiopharm (BCord Disc) New album from the long-running Chilean post-punk trio who treats rhythm with as much controlled abandon as The Ex. Solid video for the album’s lead single, “Brut Nature.”
Gate Saturday Night Fever (Mie) The improvisation-leaning Dead C guitarist/vocalist Michael Morley and his drum machine tackle, appropriate, deconstruct, and reinvent one of the more indelible movie soundtracks and the result is even weirder than expected. Every time I listen to it, I realize that there’s some place on earth where it is crawling toward 5 a.m., and if there’s somebody there who is still awake, albeit coming down off of whatever, Gate’s SNF could be the discombobulating void-stares-back dance music looping inside that brain.
Jambinai A Hermitage (Bella Union) South Korean outfit that marries the noise of Japanese label PSF bands in the ’90s with the kind of Godspeed You! Black Emperor drone-groove-as-epic-poetry thing for which I am a sucker. A track such as “They Keep Silence” was an itch I didn’t even know I needed scratched until I heard it.
Kamaiyah A Good Night in the Ghetto (self) Second only to Chance in the stem-to-stern spins in my headphones; I have to confess one of the reasons I dig this Oakland emcee so much is that in my ears she raps with the same kind of nimble, laid-back intelligence that made Heather B such a joy.
Sam Lao SPCTRM (self) Like Tink, Dallas’ Lao is commandingly comfortable singing and rapping, and with SPCTRM she combines R&B and hip-hop into her own bustling, infectious blend of independent pop that darts among a range of colorful personalities, like the wildflowers that run along Texas highways.
Mannequin Pussy Romantic
Martha Blisters in the Pit of my Heart (Dirtnap Records) This punk-tinted indie pop quartet hails from Durham, UK, a town of about 140,000 located 20 miles south of Newcastle way up in northeast England, closer to Scotland than London. I mention that because in my mind that means Durham might be like a Dayton, Ohio, or a Denton, Texas—one of those small to mid-sized American cities that has steadily produced some of the better if under-sung and underground American music since the 1970s. Martha hits the ears like one of those bands, not afraid to punch above its weight class in verve, smarts, and killer hooks. Blisters is a little bit the Vaselines, a little bit Hearts of Oak-era Ted Leo, and a whole lot of insouciant glee that’s all the band’s own. In addition to having knack for killer song titles—dig “Chekov’s Hangnail”—Martha’s secret weapon is a gift for ebulliently bummer lyrics. “The Awkward Ones” contains the stop-eavesdropping-on-my-mind’s-internal-monologue lines “I won’t take a compliment, but I will ruminate for hours on a single mean remark/Collecting them like ornaments, the nasty things that people say that I save up to think about when it gets dark”— and starts off with a direct smells-like-teenage-brain-rot “More Than a Feeling” guitar hook allusion to boot. The album even ends in one of the more sincere, I-hate-you/I-love-you-Paul-Westerberg mash notes since the Goo Goo Dolls pinched out their first songs, minus the shameless yearning for adult-contemporary radio airplay.
NxWorries Yes Lawd! (Stones Throw) As much as I enjoyed Anderson .Paak’s lovely Malibu, there’s something more relaxed and off-the-cuff about NxWorries, a duo with the ridiculously prolific producer/beat chemist Knxwledge. Lawd!‘s casual atmosphere—sculpted entirely by Knxwledge’s palette of stately rhythms, touches of horns, slinky bass lines, and cashmere keyboard touches—creates a plush velvet cushion for .Paak’s soulful croon. The entire album’s a soundtrack for sitting out on the front steps and shooting the shit with whoever’s passing by. I’m gonna grab me another from the fridge, want one?
Carrie Rodriguez Lola (Luz Records) I’ve dug the fiddle-playing of Texan singer/songwriter Rodriguez ever since catching her a long time back when she was touring/recording with Chip Taylor, though I’ve been lukewarm to some of her solo albums. Though her 2009 album Love and Circumstance includes a gorgeous version of ranchera singer Tomás Méndez Sosa’s “La puñalada trapera,” by and large she’s stuck to country, folk, and honky-tonk on her albums—which is what makes the bilingual Lola such a disarming rush. Until I read this Texas Monthly Q&A I didn’t know Rodriguez’s great aunt was Eva Garza, a Mexican-American actress/singer from San Antonio that might be little known to people my age who didn’t grow up with Spanish-language radio and jukeboxes often playing in the background, and on Lola Rodriguez displays a sophisticated intimacy with a variety of Mexican/Latin popular music idioms, delicately blending them with country and folk instrumentation and tempos. It’s a stunning outing, and as lovely as Rodriguez voice is, when she sings in Spanish it sounds like she’s unlocked an emotive superpower.
Xenia Rubinos Black Terry Cat (Anti)
SPR! Mental Health (Hoga Nord Records) Debut LP from the Swedish duo of Albert Sjöstam and Christoffer Fransson. It’s mostly noisy-ish, psychedelic-leaning electronic tapestries punctuated by Primal Screaming beats—see “Cha Cha Cha” on the Hoga Nord Soundcloud. In a few places, however, SPR! unfurls some intoxicating beauty, as in “Turn Your Illness Into a Weapon” a Fennesz-lush tapestry of shimmering glee, and album stand out “Twa-Li,” a heavier, more damaged, and more the-antidepressants-aren’t-working take on Spaceman 3 at its most self-medicated.
Yves Tumor Serpent Music (Pan) This intoxicatingly alive album has one foot in the kraut-noise of Sex Swing and one foot in Franke Ocean’s shrugging soul&B, one hand in the woozy pop sensibility of Blood Orange and the other hand in the oneiric experiments of Madlib. One of those albums that’s easy to get lost inside.
A Tribe Called Quest We Got it From Here . . . Thank You 4 Your Service (Epic)
True Widow Avvolgere (Relapse) This Dallas trio doesn’t try to fix what ain’t broke with its fourth album, another slab of shimmering shoegazey melodies that crawls at the oozing pace of permanently stoned metal. Delicious.
Un Blonde Good Will Come to You (Egg Paper Factory) The nom-de-band of 20-year-old multi-instrumentalist, producer, songwriter, and vocalist Jean-Sébastien Audet, with Good the Montreal-based Un Blonde concoct a swirling amalgam of gospel, psychedelia, and soulful pop. It’s like Maxwell and the first incarnation of the Polyphonic Spree got together to make a chilled-out album for summer nights.
My blind spot: Bon Iver 22, A Million (Jagjaguar) It’s not that I hate sad-beard synthpop. It’s just that I liked this kind of introverted, beat-oriented, fragmented mood album a little more when it was called Vespertine and especially Nearly God. Comparatively, A Million feels willfully vague, less Justin Vernon’s intense long night of the soul and more concerned with figuring out if he likes piña coladas and getting caught in the rain.
20 Jazz Albums
Aggregate Prime Dream Deferred (Onyx Music) Drummer Ralph Peterson’s new ensemble, which includes pianist Vijay Iyer and saxophonist/flutist Gary Thomas(*), delivers a thoughtful, politically ornery album that isn’t afraid to swing.
Melissa Aldana, Back Home (Wommusic) Chilean saxophonist Aldana has a big, plush tone, and alongside bassist Pablo Menares and drummer Jochen Rueckert she’s able to conjure the tight, expressive saxophone trios of Joe Lovano and especially Sonny Rollins, an admitted inspiration (her interview/conversation with Rollins is a great read, and not only because it’s always refreshing to read what Rollins has to say about anything.)
AZIZA Aziza (Dare2) It’s possible some the year’s funkiest moments appear on an album anchored by 70-year-old bassist Dave Holland. Rounded out by drummer Eric Harland, guitarist Lionel Loueke, and saxophonist Chris Potter, Aziza revisits big, American 1970s large-ensemble jazzrock’n’funk muscle cars and reimagines them as a lithe, responsive quartet for today’s highways and byways in other parts of the globe.
Battle Trance Blade of Love (New Amsterdam) This New York tenor saxophone quartet completely knocked my socks off with 2014’s Palace of Wind; it’s difficult to call Blade more of the same because I’m not entirely sure what to call what saxophonists Patrick Breiner, Travis Laplante, Matt Nelson, and Jeremy Viner do. Otherworld drones move into overlapping lyrical melodies move into almost funeral bluesy wails move into something like contemporary classical minimalism. Regardless of what to call it, Blade contains passages that offer some of the most delicately moving music to caress my ears all year.
The Jim Black Trio The Constant (Intakt Records)
Fire She Sleeps, She Sleeps (Rune Grammofon)
* Michael Formanek Ensemble Kolossus The Distance (ECM) A 19-member group that frequently corrals its big-band oomph into compositions that are as intimately vulnerable as a Morton Feldman piece. Hauntingly cinematic.
Gunwale Polynya (Aerophonic Records) Chicago saxophonist Dave Rempis’ take on the power trio, featuring percussionist Ryan Packard and bassist Albert Wildeman. If Time Berne’s Paraphrase trio ever did anything for you in the ’90s, worth checking out.
Mary Halvorson Away With You (Firehouse 12) The New York-based guitarist heads up a larger ensemble on this outing, including Baltimore-based pedal-steel player Susan Alcorn, for a hypnotically intricate record.
Yussef Kamaal Black Focus (Brownsound Recordings) Groove-oriented head music from this duo of London-based drummer Yussef Dayes and keyboardist Kamaal Williams.
Bobby Kapp/Matthew Shipp Cactus (Northern Spy) Of the eight (I think, I may have miscounted) records Shipp played on this year Cactus is the one I kept coming back to. Grippingly exquisite.
Moonbow When The Sleeping Fish Turn Red And The Skies Start To Sing In C Major I Will Follow You Till The End (ILK Music) Septet led by bassist Tomo Jacobson featuring players from around northern Europe; at times as vulnerably and gorgeously emo as the Dirty Three—see “And the Skies”.
Free Nelson Mandoomjazz The Organ Grinder (Rare Noise Records) Trio of Edinburgh-based musicians Paul Archibald (drums), Rebecca Sneddon (alto sax), and Colin Stewart (electric bass) keep one foot in the ominous moods of doom metal, one in the ebullient joy of free jazz, and combine them in a disarmingly engaging amalgam of melodic oomph.
William Parker with Lisa Sokolove and Cooper-More Stan’s Hat Flapping in the Wind (Centering/AUM Fidelity) Bassist Parker has apparently been working on a musical since the mid 1990s and Stan’s Hat collects 19 of those songs, performed by vocalist Sokolove and pianist Cooper-More. The album feels like a chamber opera informed by gospel, postwar jazz, and Parker’s deeply soulful stripe of free music.
Sélébéyone s/t (PI Recordings) Alto saxophonist Steve Lehman teams up with emcees HPrizm and Gaston Bandimic, bassist Drew Gress and Damion Reid find the breakbeats in hard bop’s propulsion, and the rest of the ensemble make hip-hop and jazz find in-the-pocket common ground.
Shabaka and the Ancestors Wisdom of Elders (Brownswood Recordings) Saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, currently in his early 30s, is about the same age as many free-jazz musicians were when they were making some of the more adventurous, curious-about- music-from-other-cultures explorations in the mid to late 1960s, and Wisdom, recorded in Johannesburg, wouldn’t feel out of place among any of the BYG Actuel records of that era.
Linda Sharrock (In) the Abyssity of the Grounds (Gold Lab Records) Rare is the triple LP that you want to listen to start to finish. Rarer still is the free-jazz, wordless-vocal triple LP that you not only want to listen to start to finish, but that each and every time feels like it is clearing the history on the brain’s web browser so that you hear anew.
Starlight Motel Awosting Falls (Clean Feed) This quartet of three Norwegians— saxophonist Kristoffer Berre Alberts, bassist Ingebrigt Haaker Flaten, and drummer Gard Nilssen—along with American organ/moog player Jamie Saft push its collective jazz heaviness toward psychedelic rock terrain, and the result is something that’s at times disorienting and treacherous, as if the band brought in at Twin Peaks‘ One-Eyed Jacks when shit is about to get seriously unclean.
20 Baltimore Albums
Abdu Ali Mongo (self)
Baklavaa Dane On (Grimoire) It’s possible Baklavaa is Baltimore’s oddest band, which is saying something: too metal to be punk, too spazzy to be metal, too art-school damaged to be indie-rock (see: the video for “Ointment”), too thrift store to be art-school trust funded. But on songs such as “Bad Filth” and “Plunger Lip,” Baklavaa hammers out its own kinda ear-worming noise-rock.
Black Lung See the Enemy (Noisolution) This fantastic local power trio seems to get plenty of digital ink/attention in Europe than it does in America, much less Baltimore, and we’re the ones missing out on that. Black Lung—Adam Bufano (guitar), Dave Cavalier (guitar/vocals), and Elias Schutzman (drums)—doesn’t try to reinvent any wheels. It simply hammers out eight tightly spacious and gloriously fuzzy heavy-rock songs.
Ami Dang Uni Sun (Friends): “Nasm” may be the most gorgeous piece of music that Dang has ever conjured into existence, and she specializes in threading together tapestries of rhythmic, disorienting beauty. The local sitar player, vocalist, and producer has luxuriously hybridized Indian classical and electronic dance music for approaching a decade now, and it’s a sound that cozily snuggles between disorienting rhythms and skyward soaring melodies. “Nasm” finds her voice carving a slow-jam melody around what sounds like sustained organ notes and a drum pattern that slow swells from gentle pulse to onward rush, like a stream graduating to a tributary. Her voice stays at an almost lullaby pace for most of the song, the music’s increasing bustling unable to sway her calm—until a spike of vocal agitation she hits at the nearly three-minute mark sends an electric chill down the spine. Uni Sun‘s eight tracks aren’t a radical departure from her 2011 Hukam (Ehse) debut or her 2014 In Auspices self-released EP, more a testament of how sophisticated Dang’s songwriting has ripened. She’s streamlined her approach, and she’s achieving so much more atmosphere, mood, and emotional depth with seemingly fewer elements. Absolutely gorgeous.
Liz Durette Six Improvisations (Ehse)
Dave Heumann Cloud Hands cassette (2020 Records)
Horse Lords Interventions (Northern Spy)
Rjyan KidwellMusic Man Forever (Bandcamp) Of the seven (I think) releases Kidwell/Cex made available on Bandcamp for the first time in 2016, Forever reveals something a bit new, in my ears, for Kidwell. Other releases, particularly Acts and Irreducible Sensations, shows off his gift for slippery beats, sculpting gentle grooves out of jagged textures, and an all-around deft touch for crafting ambient electronic funk. Forever‘s four songs are more moody, deliberate, and ominous, at times conjuring a dreamy, George Crumb intensity.
Littlehawk self-titled (Friends) Longtime Celebration drummer Dave Bergander’s solo album of loops and loopy textures is an immersive, ambient album for living in in the postindustrial now, where the decay of neglect and contentious renewal efforts slowly skirmish on city streets.
Maxine s/t (Bandcamp)
Equal parts Kiwi-pop jangle and dreampop fuzz. Lovely late summer night pop.
Multicult Position Remote (Reptilian) With its third release this trio of bassist Rebecca Burchette (ex-Flowers in the Attic, Exosus, Lady Piss), guitarist/vocalist Nick Skrobisz (Carrion, the Wayward), and drummer Jake Cregger (Hatewaves) continues to be Baltimore’s most consistent update of Big Black’s brand of unrelenting noise-rock.
Eva Rhymes Odd World (mixtape) There’s a stripped-down but robust vibe to Rhymes‘ mixtape, from the initial modest keyboard blip and drum track combo of “Wierdoz” to the bouncing soul of “Ignorance is Bliss.” Rhymes treats these musically warm and inviting beats as backdrop for her verbal shadow boxing, at time aggressive, at times taunting.
Scroll Downers Hot Winter (Ehse) The debut release from this combustible trio of drummer David Jacober, guitarist Zachary Utz, and vocalist Lexie Mountain doesn’t quite capture the full detonation of the band’s live sets, but as a Polaroid snapshot of that energy, it’ll do.
TT the Artist Queen of the Beat (Z.O.M.E.)
Wordsmith and JSOUL Blame it on the Music (Hipnott Records) At this point singer/songwriter/producer JSoul and emcee Wordsmith are under-sung local veterans, with JSoul’s 2008 Love Soldier still sounding like a neo-soul classic nearly a decade on and Wordsmith one Baltimore hip-hop’s earliest adopters to using the internet as his primary means to connect with fans. I think Blame is their first album collaboration, and stem-to-stern it sounds like two guys confident in their ability to pull off big hooks, intimate emotions, and catchy melodies. Stand-out track “Satellite” features Wordsmith nimbly dancing over a lithe beat about “welfare, Spam in a can, eating pot pies/ KFC, Popeye’s, buckets or the box eyes” en route to talking about “just haves and the have nots, it was lopsided/ MSNBC is biased and FOX lies.” Blame it on the Music is one of those casually solid hip-hop albums from two artists who aren’t trying to prove anything, merely talk right down to earth in a language that everybody here can easily understand.
My blind spot: Blacksage Shivers (Friends Records): Due really to me not always cottoning to certain 1980s synth-era throwbacks that this album recalls in my ears, which I discuss a bit more at the end of the Baltimore singles list, below.
20 Local Singles
Alter “Static Sea”: Long-haired twee shoegaze, as if On Fire-era Galaxie 500 added nine layers of distorted fuzz to its vulnerably skeletal pop songs.
Abdu Ali “I’m Alive (Humanized): “Tears of a Black Mova” is probably the Mongo song that I dragged and dropped into the headphones playlist more often, but “I’m Alive” is the mixtape’s track that best showcases Ali’s stylistic range, vocal charisma, and, alongside JPEGMAFIA’s production, wickedly inventive sense of rhythmic propulsion.
Terrell Brown “Supposed to Be”
Kotic Couture “Get Ya Life” (produced by Tzeraa) See City Paper‘s Top Ten Baltimore Singles of 2016.
Greenspan featuring Eze Jackson and OOH “Keep Swimming” An organ provides a sleepy melodic line that almost quotes the bridge from “More Than a Woman,” which you expect is setting up a sleepy-eyed mood, and then Greenspan comes in behind a head-bobbing beat, setting a high bar for Jackson and OOH, who are more than up to the challenge.
Greydolf “God or Cunt”
Hands Up featuring Miz Jaxxxn “Free”
Jacober “Scary Driver” (Friends) Former Dope Body and current Scroll Downers drummer Jacober’s latest solo album, Glass Splinter, recalls a mid-’90s Thrill Jockey kinda feel, Tortoise before it went the full prog or Sea and Cake before Sam Prekop went totally Steely Dan. “Scary Driver” hits an off-center indie pop/rock mood that finds a winsome melody out of a collisions of rhythms and textures, with Jacober on a number of percussion instruments and some guests fleshing out the song with electric guitar, vibes, double bass, and violins.
JPGMAFIA and Freaky “I Might Vote 4 Donald Trump” Sure, Dooley, Tlow, and Lor Roger’s “CIT4DT” has more sincere laughs. And Mighty Mark and TT the Artist’s “F Trump” has a catchier hook. But only JPEGMAFIA took a look at this cracker-ass-cracker country months before the election—remember, this track was posted online back in May, right around the time the president elect secured the nomination—and realized, These comfortably numb white people are actually going to do this. JPEGMAFIA’s lyrics over the past two years reveal a mind the utter opposite of naïve, and with “I Might Vote 4 Donald Trump” he and Freaky wrap cultural commentary around political satire around a scorched-earth exasperation with the status quo.
DJ K-Spin featuring Mighty Mark “We Don’t Give A”
Brooks Long “Have You Been Getting Too High”
Long and his band prove their ample skill with throwback soul and R&B every time they hit a stage, but this three-minute-and-change slow burn is the one time on Mannish Boy, their new album, that Long & Co. live up to the Muddy Waters-nodding, dirty electric blues muscle of the album’s title.
Mighty Mark “Real”
Nadszat “Budapest Smile Club” No idea who is involved with this project, which has put out two or three singles via Bandcamp over the past year—this one an earworm of off-kilter instrumental pop and curlicue beats.
Joy Postell “Consciousness”:
DJ Spen presents Doug Lazy “Church Clap” Yes, a cheat because Lazy is a house producer originally based in DC and currently, I think, in Atlanta. But this infectious track is one of the many put out this year on Quantize Recordings, the Baltimore-based label run by DJ Spen and Thommy Davis, who mixed and mastered this single.
TT the Artist “Drop It”
Quattracenta “Hang the Moon” Newish outfit of Sarah Matas (guitar/voice), Andrea Shearer (drums), Joan Sullivan (guitar), and Christian Sturgis (bass) that, on this track at least, does a windswept takes on the spacious indie rock that kinda splits the difference between the anti-Western country rock of Monroe Mustang and Knife in the Water’s dreampop take on honky-tonk. I keep missing this band live and hope to correct that when the next opportunity arises.
Romantic States “Strangled” This duo of drummer Lenia Madelaire and guitarist/vocalist Jim Triplett continues to find a sneaky power behind its minimalist set-up. “Strangled” is the B-side to “Take My Hand and Run, a fuzzy take on indie-rock twee that hits all the appropriate hallmarks. But “Strangled” spends nearly three minutes of its 3:40 running time bouncing from jaunty guitar and drum line to fuzzed out bliss, like a has-no-words-for-his-emotions dude sitting in his idling car and occasionally revving the engine because he doesn’t how else to express anything. By the time Triplett exhales the song’s single verse, the song barely has any emotional steam left and settles down.
Zheep “Old Man” Zheep’s 20/20 can be hit and miss over its 17 tracks, impressive experiments with a shadow of a beat pushing “Old Man” undercut by the less impressive rhymes. With the title track, though, Zheep displays a charismatic storytelling streak over Ksonn’s horns and vocal loop production.
My blind spot: Lower Dens “Real Thing” Again, I think this is me having an issue with the sound to which the music here harks back. Lyrically, “Real Thing” is Jana Hunter’s typically succinct poignancy, and her delivery, swaying from reigned-in passion to unleashed urgency, shows yet another evolution of her increasingly versatile voice. Musically, though, in my ears “Real Thing” marches in step with the mood and tone of mainstream mid-1980s music—see: Chicago’s “Hard Habit to Break,” Thompson Twins “Doctor Doctor” and “Hold Me Now,” Mr. Mister “Broken Wings”—that sounds like the middlebrow John Hughes norm. As weirdo-embracing or sexually ambiguous or not white-boy-rock as that era of new-wave synthpop can seem from the 21st century, at the time it was also the soundtrack for kids who, you know, got brand new cars for their eighteenth birthdays. And that’s totally my problem, not the song’s.
The Age of Shadows (Kim Jee-woon, South Korea) The Cinemark Egyptian 24 cinema at Arundel Mills Mall has regularly programmed mainstream Indian movies for a while now; over the past year or so I’ve been noticing some popular movies from Latin American, the Philippines, and South Korea making its way to its screens, and because I often have to get out of my apartment early on Saturdays—it’s the wife’s home work space—I’ve made a modest habit of catching a few matinees that seem interesting. Shadows is basically a stylish, old-fashioned spy thriller set in Japanese-occupied Seoul in the 1930s, but Kim—the director of such genre-shredding gems as I Saw the Devil; The Good, the Bad, and the Weird; and The Foul King—and his longtime cinematographer Kim Ji-yong have a blast updating classic Hollywood style for 21st century action. A genre exercise, but Hollywood doesn’t really make genre films this sumptuous and solid anymore.
Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt, USA) A small number of filmmakers have been dubbed the “American Bresson” over the past few decades; Reichardt is the only one who insists on a rich, nuanced moral universe in her films that lives up to the comparison.
A Conspiracy of Faith (Hans Petter Moland, Denmark) This third installment of film adaptations of Danish crime fiction author Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q series finds its pair of cold-case detectives Mørck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and Assad (the great Fares Fares) tracking down a serial killer who may be hiding out in a cloistered religious group. I’ve never read any of these novels so I can’t attest to how faithful the adaptations are. That said, the prickly chemistry between Lie Kaas’ taciturn to the point of being an existential asshat Mørck and Fares’ Assad—no, I don’t think I’ve heard his last name mentioned in the three films thus far—is superb. The subject matter is grim. The cinematography deceptively gorgeous—this is a film where some of the more heinous acts take place in sunlight’s brightness—and Fares, it bears repeating, is touched by that Gregory Peck-ish mix of competence and decency that makes his cop navigating the worst that humanity has to offer both gripping and moving.
Divines (Houda Benyamina, France) French-Moroccan writer/director Benyamina’s feature follows Dounia (Oulaya Amamra) and Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena), two teenage girls figuring out how to live on the mean streets of a Paris banlieue. Sure, it’s stuffed with the uneven here’s-every-idea-in-my-brain of an independent film, but anchored by a powerhouse performance from Amamra, it has the energy of the Dardenne’s Rosetta.
Fences (Denzel Washington, USA) Of all the indelible performances Washington, our greatest living screen actor, has given in his career, his proud but bitter 50-something former Negro League ballplayer Troy Moxon ranks up there—and yet Viola Davis as his wife Rose, Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s mentally impaired brother Gabe, and especially Stephen McKinley Henderson as Troy’s garbage man co-worker and best mate give him a run for his money as the standout here.
The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer, USA)
Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier, USA)
The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook, South Korea)
High Rise (Ben Wheatley, UK) Savage socioeconomic satire delivered in the unfussy, poker-faced sangfroid of mid-century modernism. Also: few songs from The Fall have ever been used in film soundtracks—Silence of the Lambs is the only one that comes to mind—but if there’s a better cinematic use for any Mark E. Smith song than “Industrial Estate” cuing up the closing credits to this barbed, feral flick, I hope to live long enough to see it.
I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach, UK) Director Loach and lawyer-turned-screenwriter Paul Laverty have worked together since Carla’s Song (1996), and I’m having trouble coming up with another filmmaker/writer team that has been as consistently good over a 20-year span, much less one as devoted to cinema as a medium for social critique, however much their success on that front has waxed and waned. In this indictment of neoliberal austerity measures they’ve produced a work that stands alongside their best—see: My Name is Joe and The Wind That Shakes the Barley—in finding the bigger political statement wrapped around the personal story.
Julieta (Pedro Almodovar, Spain) Look, I also enjoyed the weak I’m So Excited, so yes, I confess being on the Almodovar bus since I was a teenager. That said, Julieta is Almodovar in a minor key—well, as minor a key as he works in—and for me it was his most satisfying film since All About My Mother, one that I hold dear to my heart.
Krisha (Trey Edward Shults, USA)
The Lobster, (Yorgos Lanthimos, USA/Greece)
The Love Witch (Anna Biller, USA)
Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, USA) I really have little to add to the praise heaped upon writer/director Barry Jenkins, story source Tarrell Alvin McCraney, or the impressive performances from Mahershala Ali, Trevante Rhodes, and Naomi fucking Harris. I did, however, want to give a huge shout out to director of photography James Laxton, for helping to make this film visually unforgettable and, for my money, the first American film to approach the expressionistic use of color of Wong Kar-wei’s vivid collaborations with cinematographer Christopher Doyle (Days of Being Wild, Ashes of Time, In the Mood for Love).
The Nice Guys (Shane Black, USA) Yes, it’s basically Inherent Vice for people who don’t want to think, but in the process of jettisoning elements that tie politics, history, and America into confounding knots, Black and his co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi resurrect the quasi-buddy cop comedy from the lobotomized likes of Cop Out, Let’s Be Cops, and The Other Guys. Still, it’s no The Guard (2011), from Irish writer/director John Michael McDonagh, whose 2016 pitch-black-comedy War on Everyone deserved a better roll out than what felt like that one day it was in theaters.
Three (Johnnie To, Hong Kong/China) Filmmaker To has a career as long, varied, and celebrated as John Woo’s, but he’s a bit more of a film-nerd/snob taste here and he never had an American interlude that dramatically handicapped his output and creativity. As a result, To has made more films, which has given him more opportunities to try new things, from the tense, Sidney Lumet-like Drug War (2012) to the disarming high-rise musical Office (2015). Consider Three a chamber thriller: a police unit led by a ruthless chief inspector (Louis Koo) accidentally shoots a crime boss Shun (Wallace Chung) in the head. He’s alive, but the bullet is still in his brain, and he’s taken to a hospital, where he’s placed under the care of neurosurgeon Dr. Qian (Zhao Wei). The film takes place entirely in the hospital, mostly in the ER unit where Shun is monitored by cops and hospital staff. Surgery is required to save his life, but Shun is trying to buy time to get word to his people to tell them to come get him. This roughly 90-minute actioner is about 80 minutes of talky bits before it arrives at its conclusion, which kicks off with nearly four minutes of operatic all-hell-breaks loose that’s shot in an uninterrupted single-take choreography of Matrix bullet-time, whip pans, and moving camerawork, and scored to a Chinese pop ballad. It’s the greatest hospital mayhem since Hard Boiled, and it’s surprising how patiently To sets up such an eruption of activity to what had up until then felt like a closed-door drama.
Snowden (Oliver Stone, USA) Not to imply that it’s all that good, mind you, or that I think that the mercurial Stone has made the definitive anything about Edward Snowden (Laura Pointras’ Citizenfour is, in every way, the superior film). What is curious is how Stone frames Snowden (Joseph Gordon Levitt) as another one of his typically idealistic American men who get disillusioned by the reality of what serving their country means. Snowden is basically Kevin Costner’s Jim Garrison’s conversation with Donald Sutherland’s L. Fletcher Prouty/Mr. X in JFK stretched into an entire movie, or Ron Kovic’s journey in Born on the Fourth of July in the intelligence community instead of the armed forces. That parallel makes Snowden problematic and politically undercooked, but for a Baby Boomer whose politics were sharpened in the ’60s to see Edward Snowden as an archetype of disillusioned American patriots makes a curious, eccentrically compelling version of a contemporary political biopic.
Train to Busan (Yeon Sang-ho, South Korea) Yes, it’s Snowpiercer with zombies but, you know, it’s also fucking Snowpiercer—with zombies. A disposable widget of human greed and businessman-slash-absentee divorced father (Gong Yoo) reluctantly accompanies his daughter (Ma Dong-seok) on a train from Seoul to Busan for a weekend visit with her mother. They leave on the same morning a virus spreads through Korea turning people into wanton flesh-eaters devouring any living thing in their path. Obnoxiously entertaining.
Things to Come (Mia-Hansen-Løve, France)
My blind spot: Both La La Land and Manchester by the Sea. Even if you completely overlook the white jazz dude trying to be the art form’s saving-grace champion in the former, you’re still left with a musical where every number is listless and inert and not a single dance sequence measures up to even the worst ones in the Step Up series. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend does more sincerely impressive and alive songs on a weekly basis during its season. In the latter, Casey Affleck’s ostensibly impressive performance amounts to doing the least acting, as if every time his working-class white dude has to contend with an emotion Affleck opts for expressing nothing. I realize that part of the point of this portrayal may be that this kind of man’s version of masculinity means he doesn’t have a place or know how to express the immensity of the emotions he’s going through, but I do would argue that this version of working-class masculinity is one imagined by somebody who has never spent any time around working-class Americans.
Author: The JT Leroy Story (Jeff Feuerzeig)
Hooligan Sparrow (Nanfu Wang)
Kate Plays Christine (Robert Greene) Arguably a cheat, as it’s closer to one of Chris Marker’s cinematic creative nonfiction essays than conventional documentary proper.
Mapplethrope: Look at the Pictures (Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbeto) Come for Mapplethorpe’s younger brother’s anecdote of Robert brining Patti Smith to his parents Queens home for a meal in the early 1970s, stay for the reminders of Mapplethorpe’s exquisite visual intelligence and the widespread antipathy to gay life, sex, and death in the 1980s.
Miss Sharon Jones (Barbara Kopple, USA)
One More Time With Feeling (Andrew Dominik) Like Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, pretty much shattering.
13th (Ava DuVernay)
Trapped (Dawn Porter)
Zero Days (Alex Gibney)
We Are X (Stephan Kijak)
22 Television Shows
Atlanta (FX) See City Paper‘s Top Ten Television Shows of 2016.
Baron Noir (Canal+/Amazon) Billed as the French House of Cards but oh so much more, revolving around the mayor of Dunkirk (the superb French Algerian actor Krad Merad) and his mentor, who is running to be president on the Socialist party ticket.
The Black Mirror (Netflix)
Bosch (Amazon) This is really just a Titus Welliver-delivery system for me.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (CW)
Elementary (CBS) As a late-40-something person I’ve always associated CBS as the middlebrow network for people who have just given up on being interesting in life—Square Pegs and the risibly reactionary The Unit are the lone CBS shows I can recall caring about, and even those are pretty lame—so I do kinda wonder if I’m regularly watching the Simon & Simon or Murder, She Wrote of right now. What keeps me coming back is being a total Jonny Lee Miller fanboy and for Elementary being the lone show on TV that I can think of that allows a grown-ass man and woman to be professional colleagues without ever trying to suggest or invent or insult that relationship with a romantic one.
The Fall (RTÉ One/Netflix)
Fleabag (BBC Three/Amazon)
Happy Valley (BBC/Netflix) English playwright/writer Sally Wainwright’s bleakly gripping procedural that follows a police sergeant (Sarah Lancashire) in northeast England.
Jack Irish (ABC, Australia) In 2012 the Australian Broadcasting Company debuted a pair of stand-alone, two-part TV movies starring Guy Pearce as Jack Irish, a Melbourne lawyer turned debt collector and reluctant private detective, a character created in Peter Temple’s crime novel series. It’s fun to see Pearce speak in what’s probably closest to his natural accent, and he seems to have a blast playing a PI who rather be hanging at the pub watching Australian rules football, learning to be a woodworker, or at the horse track with his mates Harry (Roy Billing, who could very well be the New Zealand Bob Hoskins, and somebody should be attaching him to a Auckland-set update of The Long Good Friday stat) and Cam (the fantastic Aaron Pedersen), the kind of guy who knows that some situations call for merely threating blokes, others call for bringing a gun. In 2016 ABC turned its latest Jack Irish adaptation into a six-part miniseries, meaning twice the fun.
Killjoys (SyFy) Yes, it’s Firefly lite, but it’s also a multi-racial/ethnic, polysexual space opera that lets a character say of a computer, “Wow, whoever programmed this is an asshole,” and when another wonders aloud why a male colleague is attracted to someone, “Have you met boobs?” In other words, juvenilely ridiculous.
Mr. Robot (USA)
The Night Manager (BBC)
The Night Of (HBO)
OJ: Made in America (ESPN)
Peaky Blinders (BBC Two/Netflix)
Secret City (Showcase, Australia)
Shetland (BBC Scotland) Douglas Henshall stars as a cop in Shetland, the archipelago located furthest north east away from the mainland, but not so far away that gang informants, witness protection, professional hit men can’t touch it.
You’re the Worst (FX)
Luke Cage (Netflix)
Queen Sugar (OWN) I’m actually kinda surprised this drama didn’t get more year-end, awards/nominations, or critical attention. For this adaptation of Natalie Baszile’s novel, executive producer and co-writer/director Ava DuVernay and her creative team—particularly the writing staff of Melissa Carter, Ali Gordon-Goldstein, Denise Harkavy, Tina Mabry (Itty Bitty Titty Committee), Kay Oyegun (This is Us staff writer), Anthony Sparks (Lincoln Heights), Jason Wilborn (Underground)—deliver a master class in telling a story with long and knotty historical details through the intimacy of a single family. The cast—including Rutina Wesley, Dawn-Lyen Gardner, Kofi Siriboe, workhorse character actor Omar Dorsey, and total badass Glynn Turman—is on point. And I think every episode was directed by a woman. On top of all that, Queen Sugar used music better than any other show this year with, maybe, the exception of Mr. Robot. Yes, Sugar‘s deep south Louisiana setting means it can break out some lesser-known gems such as Henry Gray and the Cats, Big Jack Johnson and the Oilers, the Rebirth Brass Band, and Louisiana Red. But DuVernay, series composer Meshell Ndegeocello, and music supervisor Morgan Rhodes also make some brilliant choices—which you discover in the very first episode when a few tensely dramatic storylines tightly coil around each other as the episode approaches its end and you slowly realize the music you’re hearing is U2’s “Drowning Man,” the eighth or ninth best-known song off 1983’s War, but the emotionally ideal soundtrack for this moment. Bravo.
11 Books from Baltimore Authors
Mikita Brottman The Maximum Security Book Club (HarperCollins)
Alejandro Danois The Boys of Dunbar: A Story of Love, Hope, and Basketball (Simon & Schuster)
Laura Lippman Wilde Lake (Simon & Schuster)
James Magruder Love Slaves of Helen Hedley Hall (Queen’s Ferry Press(
Craig Saper The Amazing Adventures of Bob Bown (Fordham University Press)
* Ellen Silbergeld Chickenizing Farms and Food: How Industrial Meat Production Endangers Workers, Animals, and Consumers (JHU Press) See: Johns Hopkins Magazine feature.
Tariq Toure Black Seeds (self)
Benjamin Warner Thirst (Bloomsbury USA)
Megan Abbott You Will Know Me (Little, Brown and Co.)
Amie Barrodale You Are Having a Good Time: Stories (FSG)
Joshua Clover Riot. Strike. Riot. (Verso)
Jeff Chang We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on race and Resegregation (Picador)
Natashia Deon Grace (Counterpoint)
Olga Grushin Forty Rooms (Putnam)
Joshua Hammer The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts (Simon & Schuster)
Nathan Hill The Nix (Knopf)
Samantha Hunt Mr. Splitfoot (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Sarah Jaffe Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt (Nation Books)
Lee Clay Johnson Nitro Mountain (Knopf)
Brendan King Beryl Bainbridge: Love By All Sorts of Means (Bloomsbury)
Eimear McBride The Lesser Bohemians (Hogarth)
Hisham Matar The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between (Random House)
Lisa McIrnery The Glorious Heresies (Tim Duggan Books)
Yelena Moskovich The Natashas (Serpent’s Tail)
Dana Spiotta Innocents and Others (Scribner)
Elizabeth Swados Walking the Dog (The Feminist Press at CUNY)
Heather Ann Thompson Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy (Pantheon)
Shawn Vestal Daredevils (Penguin)
Juan Pablo Villolobos I’ll Sell You a Dog (And Other Stories; translated by Rosalind Harvey)
Juan Villoro God is Round (Restless; translated by Thomas Bunstead)
Colson Whitehead The Underground Railroad (Doubleday) See City Paper’s Top 10 Non-Local Books.
Gary Younge Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives (Nation Books)
Alejandro Zambra Multiple Choice (Granta; translated by Megan McDowell)
10 Book or Album Reissues
Eve Babitz Slow Days, Fast Company (NYRB Classics)
Madeleine Bourdouxhe La Femme De Gilles (Melville House/Neversink)
The California Playboys Trying To Become A Millionaire (Manufactured Recordings)
Julius Eastman Feminine (Frozen Reeds)
Egyptian Lover, 1983-1988 (Stones Throw)
The Garbage and the Flowers The Deep Niche (Grapefruit)
Vivien Goldman Resolutionary (Songs 1979-1982) (Staubgold)
Halldor Laxness Wayward Heroes (Archipelago Books)
The Soho Press Book of 80s Fiction (Soho Press; Dale Peck, editor)
20 Visual Art Exhibitions
Rahne Alexander & Jaimes Mayhew Queer Interiors (Baltimore Museum of Art)
Stephanie Barber’s installation as part of the Sondheim Prize 2016 exhibit (BMA) See: Sondheim prize discussion at Bmore Art.
Front Room: Broomberg & Chanarin (BMA)
Theresa Chromati: BBW (Platform) See: BmoreArt’s Best Visual Art of 2016.
Larry Cook’s entry as part of the Sondheim Prize 2016 exhibit (BMA) See: Sondheim prize discussion at Bmore Art.
Abigail DeVille Only When It’s Dark Enough Can You See the Stars (Contemporary, Peale Museum) See: Review at Bmore Art.
Dirtier Words: Robert Attanasio, Marta Buda, Karen Mainenti, Joe Nanashe, Michael Scoggins, Allison Wade (Guest Spot at the Reinstitute)
Hasan Elahi Datamine (Grimaldis) See: Bmore Art review.
Skye Gilkerson UNENDING (Gallery Four/Institute for Contemporary Art) See: City Paper‘s Top Ten Art Shows of 2016.
Phaan Howng If It Bleeds We Can Kill It (School 33) See: City Paper review.
Jonathan Latiano Existence and Properties are Inferred (Current Space)
Matisse/Diebenkorn (BMA) See: City Paper‘s Top Ten Art Shows of 2016.
Jackie Milad Pyramids Fall Too (Phoebe) See: City Paper review.
David Page Security Theater (Creative Alliance) Because I suck I never made the time to write about this exhibition, which is both the most Dave Page-ist interactive sculptures qua apparata ever but also, as evidenced by the “performance” portion of this show, where volunteers willingly got into Page’s odd wearable forms of physical restriction and consciousness confinement, a slyly brutal comment on how we willingly participate in our own dis-/misinformation in the 21st century.
Reference/Material (Center for the Arts gallery, Towson University) Full disclosure: I consider Alex Ebstein, the artist, writer, and former Nudashank gallerist who curated this show, a colleague. That said, her 2016 return to curating following grad school, both with Phoebe Projects and this exhibition, served as a reminder that we need younger curators with great eyes for emerging artists because their curatorial brains are able to articulate and visually demonstrate what this work is doing. Reference/Material took seriously the irreverent, at times blatantly silly and elusive work of a handful of contemporary artists, many of whom local DIY gallery goers of recent years would be familiar with, and explored how they’re in conversation with 20th century modernism. Exquisite.
Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television (UMBC’s Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture)
The Squinter’s Watch: Colin Foster (Springsteen)
Stephen Towns Take Me Away to the Stars (Galerie Myrtis) See: City Paper‘s Top Ten Art Shows of 2016.
John Waters’ Kiddie Flamingos (BMA)
Hermonie ‘Only’ Williams Not Now (Gallery Four) See: City Paper‘s Top Ten Art Shows of 2016.
My blind spot: Baltimore Rising at MICA. Not so much that I didn’t like the show as much as I feel my takeaway from it was a minority opinion. Rising opened less than a week before we went to the voting booth on Nov. 8, and I have the feeling that the election’s outcome adjusted the needle on responses to this show—which is poor art criticism and even worse politics. To wit, that any/all visual content of protest stands in opposition to the then (and now current) president elect and everything he/the GOP stands for. But what’s going on in this exhibition is more nuanced and complex, and speaks much more cogently and adamantly to the Baltimore of the past year and a half and the polices/economic development ideas of Democratic control of the city for most of the 20th century. Rising is a weird show, where some of the recent work by white artists looked like an emotion searching for a subject matter while some of the work from the African-American artists, which the exhibition catalog admits, dates back a few years, if not a decade, before the 2015 Uprising. Together the show brings together works telling many different narratives, about who is paying attention to what and when and why. The catalog also mentions that the Uprising took place a few blocks from where the exhibition is installed without mentioning that moving that distance along those same blocks radically changes things such as life expectancy, income, incarceration rate, level of education attained, etc., for the people who live there. Some of the pieces are total stunners because the artists and the work understand or at least wrestle with this city’s and country’s thorny history—Lauren Frances Adams, Sonya Clark, Joyce Scott, Jeffrey Kent, Olivia Robinson, and Paul Rucker chief among them. Others, less so. Again: Baltimore Rising is not a bad show, but to regard it as some institutional embrace and/or allegiance with and tribute to Uprising protestors erases the very real economic and political forces perpetuated by institutions that create the conditions that led to the Uprising in the first place and silences what the Uprising protestors were saying by lumping their voices into some greater, nonspecific, anti-Trump/Fox news/fascist Republican resistance that we’re all, now, on the same page about because Trump. Yes, solidarity, is important and vital—but so is listening to and trying to understand what the people who were protesting before you started status updating a new outrage every hour were saying.
One Light City Baltimore Installation
Shelter in Place By far the most effective and illuminating installation at the entire festival. And I’m pretty sure nobody is going to sue anybody else over its use. Innovative. Disruptive. Informative. Win-win.
17 Theater Productions
Antigone Project: A Play in 5 Parts (Rep Stage)
Cleveland (Psychic Readings) See City Paper‘s Top Ten Stage Productions of 2106.
Death of a Salesman/A Streetcar Named Desire (Everyman Theatre)
Detroit ’67 (Center Stage)
The Failures (Psychic Readings)
Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Center Stage) Center Stage’s opulent staging of Christopher Hampton’s 1985 adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ epistolary novel received lukewarm reviews, which curiously chided it for being a disappointing choice (a play about the aristocracy) and having problematic subject matter—as if those issues weren’t there in the mid 1980s when it was celebrated on both stage and screen. What the Guardian called the “seduction of a 15-year-old girl” in its review of the play’s original run starring the late Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan was pointed out as abuse a few years later. In 1988, a then-18-year-old Uma Thurman, who played Cécile in Stephen Frears’ film adaptation, pointed out that the Marquise, by questioning Cécile’s resistance to a rape, transforms the victim into the criminal—”what people have been doing to women for hundreds of years,” Thurman said in an interview with The New York Times. True, but I’m not sure the diffident response to this Dangereuse is due entirely to contemporary culture’s better awareness and/or understanding of sexual assault. Sex as weapon is what this play is explicitly about, but it’s also played as farce for most of its running time. Every production I’ve ever seen of it plays the arc a 15-year-old girl being “seduced” by a grown-ass rapist to enthusiastic participant is played for a laugh—and often gets that laugh from its audience. But both this production and this fall’s Broadway revival starring Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber attempted to fluff this play’s relevance to today via the rise of Trump and the one percent billionaire asshole class in general—which starts to get at what makes the play so disquieting today but doesn’t quite get there. Les Liaisons Dangereuse ends with its rich optimistically looking forward toward the 1890s, and we smirk in knowing what awaits them. But with economic inequality and government in Western democracies reaching levels not seen in a century and political shifts toward the right, the smugness of thinking the rich finally get their comeuppance no long feels true. What made this play feel so not right was leaving the theater wondering if all the amorally rich had to do is wait a little over 200 years to regain its grip on power’s reins.
The Lord of Flies (Annex) See: BmoreArt review.
The Master and the Margarita (Annex) See City Paper‘s Top Ten Stage Productions of 2106.
Murder Ballad (StillPointe Theater Initiative) See City Paper‘s Top Ten Stage Productions of 2106.
The Rocky Horror Show (Iron Crow) Though I first saw the Rocky Horror film a handful of times over the summer of 1987 at some theater in Harvard Square I’d never seen the stage version, and I hadn’t watched the film since sometime in the ’90s. This show was pretty much the most fun you could have in public without getting arrested.
Schoolgirl Figure (Cohesion Theatre)
Siobhan O’Loughlin’s Broken Bone Bathtub (Submersive Productions)
Something Like Jazz Music (Single Carrot Theatre)
Stranger Kindness (The Acme Corporation) Bmore Art review.
The Wild Party (Iron Crow Theatre) See City Paper‘s Top Ten Stage Productions of 2106.
The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee (Stillpointe) See: BmoreArt review.
Under the Skin (Everyman)
Scean Aaron The Rocky Horror Show (Iron Crow)
Cricket Arrison, Cleveland (Psychic Readings)
Body/Head at Ottobar, Nov 10 This concert took place two nights after the presidential election. I had done a phoner with guitarist Bill Nace about 10 days prior, but ended up not able to place it locally because it was all Trump all the time by then, and for that I suck. Fortunately, the embarrassment of that failure didn’t prevent me from catching the show, because Kim Gordon and Nace were otherworldly. They seemed to play one extended improv, with a single video, running in super-slow motion, projected behind them. The video featured a band playing live, and the singer looked familiar, and it took me about 15 minutes to realize it was that video from the Germs playing the Whiskey in 1979, one of, I think, the few live films of the band that isn’t in The Decline of Western Civilization. As I’m recognizing that I’m watching Darby Crash, one of the great instances of being newscycle footnoted in music history—Crash’s December 7, 1980, death was overshadowed by that other news event of Dec. 7, 1980, when Mark David Chapman shot some guy outside the Dakota near Central Park West—I also feel like Gordon’s distorted vocals come into sharp focus for a few seconds, and I think she’s screaming, DON’T GIVE WOMEN POWER, DON’T GIVE WOMEN POWER, before moving onto something else. That’s just as likely to be a mishearing of the words that came out of her mouth as it is an accurate representation of lyrics, but the entire night ended up exactly the kind of wall of sustained, propulsive guitar noise that I needed refresh empty my brain’s cache.
Jessica Bennet The Wild Party (Iron Crow)
Allison Bradbury The Wild Party (Iron Crow)
Martin Casey, The Master and the Margarita (Annex)
Marcus Civin “his table is a drum/These feet are drumsticks/And I’m sick of It” (School 33, May 14) and “City Hall Levitation” (Transmodern Festival, Nov. 6) For Civin’s School 33 performance in May, he was joined by percussionists Sierra Gaither, Terence Hannum, and John Lemonds, who carved wooden lower leg/feet as sticks to bang on a drum-like table, producing the kind of brain-rattling bass throbs that would drop a metal drummer’s or hip-hop producer’s jaw to his/her knees. “City Hall Levitation,” on the other hand, was an unmitigated hoot. Loosely inspired by Abbie Hoffman’s Levitate the Pentagon in 1967, Civin put together a group of “Gestures essential to Levitation”—in this order: hip roll: two steps up, two steps back; head nodding back and forth; a low hum; a high “angel note”; make the sound of water whooshing through a pipe; and the wiggly-wacky-woo, which is pretty much your great American freak-out of running toward an unmovable object and then stopping, as if hitting a glass wall—and an inspired chant. Sample, which you should imagine being read in a City Lights Bookstore beatnik drone: “This year has left me with strength and yearning – I know how to come from the quiet places and the shadows – I know where my people are – P-P- P-Paving stones rumble – B-B- B-Balustrades are outraged – Sign posts are outraged– F-F- Flags are feeling sick – The steps are tired – Park your car somewhere else – Stone knows its ambition – Stone wants to fly –The Baltimore harbor is churning – The Appalachian Mountains are rumbling – The cabinets are creaking – The bark and the roots of the trees feel it – The artworks have left the walls – There is a great force pulling us upwards – The glass in the windows will shake – All the underpinnings will be exposed – This building wants freedom.” Yeah, I think I saw that building lift up an centimeter or two.
Jessica Frances Dukes Detroit ’67 (Baltimore Center Stage)
FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture on North Avenue, 9 April 2016 Not trying to take anything away from FORCE’s winning Sondheim Prize entry at the BMA, which mainly proved how well Hannah Brancato and Rebecca Nagle can adapt the project to a gallery’s white box. What makes this project compelling and vital, however, is that I don’t get the impression that figuring out how to make it work in a white-box gallery was ever the point. FORCE is above all a political enterprise, figuring out how its primary object, the Monument Quilt, can do the work of policy reform, advocacy, awareness, and solidarity. And this installation of the work on North Avenue—the largest display I’ve ever seen of the Quilt, and in the most urban setting I’ve ever seen it occupying—brought the discussion about upsetting rape culture to the very streets where those actions need to be taking place.
Tatiana Ford, Schoolgirl Figure(Cohesion Theater)
Lafayette Gilchrist and the New Volcanoes Blues for Freddy Gray EP release show, Windup Space, Oct. 1.
Guillermo Gómez-Peña: Unplugged, UMBC Dresher Center, Sept. 13 I’d seen Gómez-Peña many, many moons ago in San Antonio, so I was looking forward to experiencing his irreverent mix of funny and smarts again. What I was ill-prepared for was the emotional sucker punch of some of the pieces he’s doing now, particularly a piece toward the end wherein he invoked American politicians constantly invoking g-d and the almost placeholder speech-ender, “God bless America.” The piece included Gómez-Peña calling out God bless” and inserting a few different countries: Mexico, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Venezuela, Bolivia, Columbia, Cuba, North Korea, China, Cambodia, Palestine, Sudan, the Blackfoot and the Iroquois, the Mixtec and Zapotec people. He continued with France? Canada? Iceland, Fiji, the Bahamas—before repeatedly calling out “God bless” and pausing, until people in the audience started calling out countries: Peru, Azerbaijan and Syria, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Chile, Costa Rica, Nigeria. These shout outs to countries we never hear our leaders or ourselves blessing uncomfortably spotlighted not only the narcissistic arrogance of “god bless America” but the verbal barrier it erects between us and the everybody we’re saying isn’t us.
LabBodies’ Creative Mornings Baltimore presentation Both informative of their process and playfully made fun of the self-seriousness presentations of these “creatives” pow-wows at the same time.
New Music Gathering at Peabody (*) Taka Kigawa playing Ligeti’s Etudes, So Percussion, catching a bit of the five-hour performance of Morton Feldman’s For Philip Guston Kathleen Supové, or the Gamelan Dharma Swara—only my fourth time ever to see a gamelan orchestra, which only solidified my suspicion that gamelan orchestras and brass bands are two of greatest things human beings have ever come up with—this intimate conference was non-stop awesome.
* Peabody Institute’s Now Hear This performance of Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians,” April 15 See profile of Now Hear This-artistic director Courtney Orlando in the Johns Hopkins Magazine.
* Hank Shocklee, Peabody Institute A cheat, because Shocklee’s appearance was a lecture as part of Wendel Patrick’s Hip Hop Music Production: History and Practice class (see Johns Hopkins Magazine article), but Shocklee’s such an entertaining speaker I wanted to bring up one thing he said in passing. He mentioned the importance of emerging artists having a space to, you know, get better at what they do—or, in his words, “you need a place to suck.” He was specifically talking about musicians performing live, but as I approach being an adult in Baltimore for 25 years, I think about all the underground, quasi-legal, and impromptu basements, warehouses, studios, living rooms, backyards, temporary street stage, parking lots, VFW halls, former strip clubs, bars, cafes, clubs, and afterhours spaces where I’ve seen bands and musicians over that time, about who those spaces did and didn’t welcome and make room for, and who does/doesn’t have the opportunity to suck before getting better, finding a local audience, finding a wider audience, and the chance to make have even the hard-scrabble side gig that is being a working musician today. Speaking purely as a going-to-shows music fan for the past 30+ years, “places to suck” are pretty much my favorite places to see live music, and we need more for everybody, because they’re very often the Bunsen burners where tomorrow’s hotness catches fire.
Malcolm Peacock Let the Sun Set on You (Presented by Ginevra Shay’s Rose Arcade curatorial project in Druid Hill Park, Oct. 6) Like Tino Sehgal I don’t think Peacock considers his work performance at all and might actively distance himself from the term but, also like Sehgal, Peacock’s situational, constructed experiences involve active participation by his audience that makes us performers in this space we’re creating by encountering his ideas. Let the Sun Set on You threaded together a trio of Baltimore histories: 1) the open-water drowning deaths of African-American boys in the summer of 1953, when all the city’s public pools, save one, were whites only; 2) Druid Hill Park’s Pool No. 2, the city’s lone black pool, which is now the grass-covered site of Joyce Scott’s “Memorial Pool” artwork; and 3) the tennis courts where blacks played, which remain without lights so that people can’t play after the sun goes down. Each segment was a mindful history lesson, a chance to time-travel to a decade where life in Baltimore might’ve been different, but not all that much. But there were moments of genuine magic during this evening-into-night event, as a table with pinic-y sweets and drinks and blankets were spread out on the grass where the poll once stood. And as the sun set on a part of the park that, by design, tried to push African-Americans home as night fell, Peacock accomplished what may never had taken place in that pool before: guys and gals, black and white, young and old, and of who cares what gender identity and sexual orientation, mixed and mingled and enjoyed each other’s company on a gorgeous fall eve.
World’s Longest Game of Telephone, Lexie Macchi, Walters Art Museum, 22 May 2016 OK, yes, I realize Macchi was sincerely aiming to break the record, which would have involved getting more than 1,330 people to the museum on a single day—a quietly wry a comment on the things art institutions have to do to put asses in the proverbial seats in our age of the (post?) blockbuster museum show. Couple that idea with the actual path Macchi carved out in the Walter’s to accommodate more than 1,330 people—the game started in the Hackerman House in front of the late 15th century sculpture “Buddha at the Moment of Victory” and, if the record had been broken, would have ended in front of the museum gift shop, which was then having a 50 percent off sale on certain prints. Macchi had a much more interesting conceptual idea running through the game—I think the snippet of text that started the game came from a rare illuminated manuscript in the Walter’s collection—but the experience itself was a playfully rich and thoughtful consideration of the museum space and how its contents are marketed and presented. Bravo.
Trevor Wilhelms, Stupid Ghost (Annex)
13 Lists I’m Glad Other People/Places Made
BookRiot’s guide to Wonderful Books of 2016 from 100+ Indie Presses
Boston Review‘s 25 most-Loved Essays from 2016
Fuckin’ Record Reviews’ Best Reasons to Write in 2016.
Global Psychedelia’s Best Psychedelia of 2016
Noisey’s 37 Best Overlooked Albums of 2016
The Peoples Movies’ 20 Best Horror Films of 2016
Remezcla’s 15 Best Albums by Latinx Artists of 2016
SoulTracks’ 50 Best Albums of 2016
Sundress Publications Best of the Net 2016 anthology of short fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction published in online literary journals.
The Talkhouse’s 2016 Talkies
Very Smart Brothas’ Best Hip-Hop Tracks of 2016
The Village Voice‘s 50 Best Protest Songs of 2016
13 Perhaps Lesser Known Actors/Filmmakers Who Passed in 2016
Hector Babenco, who directed Kiss of the Spider Woman and Pixote.
Franco Citti, who had small parts in two installments of The Godfather but who made his debut in Pasolini’s Accattone, and would go on to co-star in six other Pasolini films, including the great Porcile.
Raoul Coutard, a cinematographer as responsible for the visual look and cinematographic headiness of the French New Wave as some of the directors—Costa-Gavras, Jean Luc-Godard, Jean Rouch, François Truffaut, Jacques Demy—with whom he worked.
Ronit Elkabetz, Israeli actress I knew very little about until I saw her in The Band’s Visit.
Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami
Screenwriter and actress Barbara Turner, mother of Jennifer Jason Leigh and writer of director Ulu Grosbard’s undersung Georgia, one of the most beautifully brutal portraits of a walking human chest wound sucking all the wind out of every room she enters.
Vilmos Zsigmond, who—during the last decade of adventurous color cinematography in Hollywood—shot one of the most stunningly photographed films of the 1970s or any decade.
Polish director Andrezj Zulawski, whose gift for turning the creepy into the viscerally uncomfortable seeped into nearly every one of his 15 films.
20 Shit Movies I Totally Paid to See Because My Wife Works from Home and Sometimes on Saturdays I Have to Leave Early and I’m Wicked Cheap So, Hello, circa 11 a.m. Matinee Price or Second-Run Theater and Dammit, I’m Now that Middle-Aged Man Seeing a Comic-Book Slash Knuckle-Dragger Movie by Himself on the Weekend and That’s Sad AF
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Captain America: Civil War
Hell or High Water
Jack Reacher: Never Go Back
London Has Fallen
The Magnificent Seven
The Purge: Election
Star Trek Beyond
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
A Few of My Favorite Things From Musicians Who Passed in 2016
A Tribe Called Quest “Steve Biko (Stir it Up)” (Midnight Marauders, 1993, co-written by Malik Taylo, aka Phife Dawg)
Pauline Oliveros “A Love Song” (The Well and the Gentle, 1985)
Prince “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” (Sign O’ the Times, 1987)
Wham! “I’m Your Man” (Columbia 12-inch single, 1985, written & produced by George Michael)
Issa Bagayogo “Madomba” (Sya,1998)
Suicide “Frankie Teardop” (Suicide, 1977, co-written by vocalist Alan Vega)
David Bowie “Teenage Wildlife” (Scary Monsters, 1980)
Alphonse Mouzon “Some of the Things People Do” (mind Transsplant , 1974)
Parliament “I Can Move You (If You Let Me)” (Up for the Down Stroke, co-written by keyboardist Bernie Worrell)
Eartn, Wind, & Fire “Mighty Mighty” (Open Our Eyes, 1974, co-written & -produced by Maurice White)
Paul Bley “Mazatlan” (Ramblin’, 1969)
Merle Haggard “If We Make it Through December” (If We Make it Through December, 1973)
Leonard Cohen “Winter Lady” (Songs of Leonard Cohen, 1967)
Force MD’s “Are You Really Real” (Step to Me, 1990, co-written by vocalist Trisco Pearson)
Sharon Jones “Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects” (Soul Time!, 2011)
Vanity 6 “3 x 2 = 6” (Vanity 6, 1982, written by Vanity, né Denise Katrina Matthews)
The Dixie Cups “Iko Iko” (Red Bird 7-inch, 1965, a traditional song whose recording studio arrangement gave co-writing credits to the three Dixie Cups vocalists, including Joan Marie Johnson)
Prince Buster “Texas Hold-Up” (Fabulous Greatest Hits, 1968)
Bobby Hutcherson “Wrong or Right” (Cirrus, 1974)
Getatchew Mekurya “Muziqa Heywete” (Éthiopiques 14: Negus of Ethiopian Sax, 2003)
Naná Vasconcelos “O Berimbau” (Saudades, 1979)
Poison Girls “Riot in My Mind” (Songs of Praise, 1985, co-written by vocalist Vi Subversa)
Beastie Boys’ “Egg Raid on Mojo” (Polly Wog Stew EP, co-written by guitarist John Berry)
Kim Wilde “Hey Mister Heartache” (Close, 1988, co-written by Wilde’s guitarist Steve Byrd)
Clarence Reid “Nobody But You Babe” (Alston 7-inch, 1969, co-written by Reid, who would go on to infamy as Blowfly)
Finally, Rudy Van Gelder, the jazz recording engineer who, after building his studios in Englewood Cliffs, NJ, in 1959, spent the rest of his life recording and preserving some of the most amazing sounds human beings have ever created.
* Starred items feature people associated in some way with the Johns Hopkins University, including the Peabody Institute, and since I work at Hopkins, just disclaiming such here.