The Best of 2016

It was another fine year for music and we tried to embrace as much of it as possible.  Besides lots of shopping at the stores in the greater Seattle area, I also bought vinyl in Los Angeles, Denver, and Oklahoma City, as well as on trips abroad in Hong Kong, Sweden, and Iceland.  We saw some great live shows, made some new friends, and discovered new bands.  It was a lot of fun, and we can’t wait to do more of it again next year.

So, without further ado, here’s the Life in the Vinyl Lane “Best of 2016” edition!

Top 5 New Releases in 2016

  1. Ash & Ice – The Kills
  2. EP01 – Dream Wife
  3. Hope – Iiris
  4. Kælan Mikla – Kælan Mikla
  5. Redemption & Ruin – The Devil Makes Three

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Sometimes I find myself thinking about how I’m going to write on certain topics, and that happened to me recently with respect to my Top 5 New Releases list.  I was super excited about Dream Wife and their EP01, enough so that I felt like it was deserving of the top spot on the list, which would also conveniently supply me with a narrative arc since lead singer Rakel was also the vocalist on my pick of the best album of 2015 as part of Halleluwah.  Man, this was going to be so easy to write!

But then I remembered Ash & Ice.  I’ve played the hell out of this album over the course of the year, and I love it more with each and every spin.  So while I certainly root for the little guy (and girl) and Dream Wife in the top position would have made for a great story, it simply wasn’t authentic.  The Kills killed it, and that’s that, putting out an album that is, to my years, light years ahead of everything else I heard in 2016.

There is another thread in this list, however, as all of the top four performers have female vocalists, and the fifth, The Devil Makes Three, has a female bassist who does backing vocals.  So every band/performer on the list has at least one woman involved.  I think we’re seeing more and more opportunity for women in rock and outside of the traditional singer/performer format, especially in rock and metal, which is outstanding.  We saw lots of women performing great music this year at Airwaves as part of outfits like Hórmónar, Singapore Sling, Samaris, aYia, Thunderpussy, and Let’s Eat Grandma, and I for one couldn’t be happier about it.

Top 5 “New to Me” Bands/Performers

  1. Prayers (US)
  2. Dream Wife (UK/Iceland)
  3. Andi (Iceland)
  4. Scorpion Violente (France)
  5. The Lyman Woodard Organization (US)

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All of these “New to Me” bands came to me in different ways.  I saw Prayers on an episode of Huang’s World and literally ordered some of their music as soon as the commercial break came on after their appearance; I’d never heard of Dream Wife until I saw them perform live at Airwaves this year; I picked up Andi’s self-titled release because it was on Lady Boy Records and I pretty much buy everything they put out; Scorpion Violente was a random purchase from the New Arrivals bin at Amoeba; and I read about They Lyman Woodard Organization in an online article.

Stylistically the five band have nothing in common, ranging from cholo goth to pop-punk to electronic to industrial to jazz-funk.  They varied in genres just as they did in the ways they came to my attention.  This makes me feel good – the wider the net I can cast in the search for the new and interesting, the more likely I am to have my horizons expanded and mind blown.

I can’t recommend Prayers enough.  If you’re into hip hop or even somewhat darker electronic music you need to give these guys a listen.  But really I could say the same about all five of these selections.  Even if you’re not into their style, you may very well find something you like and have your musical base broadened just a little.  But be careful – if you open that door, even just a crack, there’s a whole flood of awesome music on the other side that will blow it down and rush over you like a tidal wave.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Top 5 Vinyl Purchases

  1. U-Men – U-Men
  2. No New York Compilation
  3. Revolver – The Beatles
  4. The Decline of Western Civilization Parts I & II Soundtracks
  5. The Icelandic Punk Museum Cassettes

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I think I felt a little less passionate about acquiring specific things in 2016 than I have in past years.  That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed playing tons and tons of new vinyl (and tapes, and CDs), but there hasn’t been a lot of the thrill of picking up a rarity or even new releases that I looked forward to with great anticipation (though there are a few items due in 2017 that I am excited about).

That being said, I did get my grubby paws on a few rarities and cool titles this year.  U-Men is a legitimately scarce pre-grunge Seattle punk record, and the original pressing of No New York was an exciting find in Oklahoma City.  Getting red vinyl Japanese first pressing of The Beatles’ Revolver in Hong Kong was my first foray into that collecting rabbit hole, and the record will always carry with it the great memory of listening to James Tang play us different versions of Beatles songs and break them down for us by their differences.  The two Decline records are soundtracks to a pair of great documentaries which also finally got released on DVD.  While the last item(s) on my list are actually tapes not vinyl, I was probably most excited to get my hands on those from a purely musical standpoint – there’s some great stuff on those comps, and they hold a proud spot on my tape rack.

I’ll be excited to see what 2017 brings!

Top 5 Live Shows

  1. Macklemore – Neumos, Seattle
  2. The Devil Makes Three – Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Colorado
  3. Dr. Spock – Húrra, Reykjavik
  4. Dream Wife – Harpa, Reykjavik
  5. The Ills – Húrra, Reykjavik

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When a good friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, called and said, “psst, I’ve got two spots on the guest list for the Macklemore album release party at Neumos, do you want to go?”, I couldn’t say yes fast enough.  The chance to see Seattle’s best known hip hop artist (sorry Mix-A-Lot, but he has the belt now) playing in an intimate venue like Neumos in front of the home town crowd was way to good to miss.  And it was great.  Including the part shown here when he climbed up onto the ledge of the balcony level (right) and then dove backwards into the awaiting crowd below.  I doubt I would have tried that, especially given that there seemed like a lot of 14-year-old girls down below waiting to catch him.  But catch him they did, and it was a hell of a show.

The Devil Makes Three are always great live, and getting to see them at Red Rocks was just icing on the cake.  An amazing venue, and once the show started I hardly noticed the wind and the cold.  The other three shows rounding out my Top 5 were all at Airwaves.  I’m going to skip past Dr. Spock and Dream Wife as I’ve written pretty extensively about both bands recently, and go straight to The Ills.  When these crazy Slovakians hit the stage at Húrra, all five of us in our Airwaves posse basically groaned – “ugh, instrumental rock…”.  But by time the second song was done The Ills had won the entire crowd over, including us, with their sheer enthusiasm and joy of playing, plus of course they had some pretty sweet licks.  By the end of their set we were all bummed they couldn’t play just one more song.  We ran into a couple of the guys the next night and they seemed genuinely appreciative of the praise we heaped on them.  Bands like The Ills are why you go to Airwaves.  Look for a review of one of their albums in the upcoming weeks.

Top 5 Places to Buy Records

North America
1. Easy Street Records, Seattle
2. Daybreak Records, Seattle
3. Guestroom Records, Oklahoma City
4. Amoeba Music, Los Angeles
5. Hi-Voltage Records, Tacoma

The Rest of the World
1. Lucky Records, Reykjavik
2. Trash Palace, Stockholm (Sweden)
3. Shun Choeng Record Company, Hong Kong
4. Reykjavik Record Shop, Reykjavik
5. The Record Museum / Sam the Record Man, Hong Kong

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I feel like I should just retire Easy Street and Lucky, since they are my two go-to shops and will likely remain so for years to come.  Hell, I could easily populate a Top 5 in North America with just Seattle area shops that I visit semi-regularly.  But such is life in the vinyl lane.  Seattle’s Daybreak Records is new on the scene this year and has an impressive amount of quality wax in a relatively small space.  Guestroom was a very pleasant surprise that I came across during a business trip to Oklahoma, and I came away with an armload of great titles there.  And if there’s one upside to all the business trips I had to take to Los Angeles in 2016 it was the opportunity to pay some visits to Amoeba, which has so much vinyl that I literally run out of energy looking well before I’ve had a chance to look at everything.  Hi-Voltage rounds out the North America Top 5 – they moved into a new location down in Tacoma and I love the new layout.

We got to visit record stores in three other countries on two continents in 2016.  Reykjavik of course gave us the always amazing Lucky Records and Reykjavik Record Shop, places where the folks working there are more like friends and family than employees.  A pre-Airwaves trip to Stockholm gave me a chance to visit Trash Palace for a second time, one of the best punk/metal speciality shops around.  And Hong Kong… ah, Hong Kong.  Shun Choeng Record Company was hard to find – it’s actually in a regular looking office building on one of the middle floors, and there’s no sign for it on the street.  It was impeccably laid out and organized, and I swear every single used record in there was immaculate.  While we didn’t buy much there, it was a fun shop to explore.  And we can’t forget our visits to James Tang, aka Sam the Record Man (above), as he literally gave us a masters-level course in the different sound qualities of various versions of the exact same songs.  It was fun and educational, a visit I’d highly recommend even if you don’t end up buying anything (though I recommend treating yourself to a Japanese red vinyl first pressing of something you enjoy… you won’t regret it).  It’s probably the only record store that also has a chandelier and will serve you coffee or tea in fine china.

The best record shopping experiences are those that come when you can build rapport with the folks at the stores.  Record shopping is fun in and of itself, but that takes it to a new level and makes the whole thing special.

Top 5 Music Books

  1. Miles:  The Autobiography, by Miles Davis
  2. Hardcore:  Life of My Own, by Harley Flanagan
  3. Porcelain, by Moby
  4. I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, by Grace Jones and Paul Morley
  5. X-Ray Audio:  The Strange Story of Soviet Music on the Bone, ed. Stephen Coates

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I’ve always been a pretty voracious reader.  I’m probably good for 30+ books in a typical year, and once when I decided to keep track I finished a year at 51… almost a book a week.  Traditionally I’ve spent almost all of my reading hours on non-fiction, but over the last few years I re-discovered my love for sci-fi and I’ve been consuming novels at a rapid rate, aided no doubt by the amount of time I’ve spent on airplanes in 2016 (best guess is I’ve been on somewhere around 60-70 flights this year).  However, I did find some time to squeeze in some music related reading, and these are the best of those books I read in 2016.

Most of these are autobiographies, which can at times be a mixed bag, perhaps nowhere as much so as with my top pick, Miles:  The Autobiography.  I applaud Miles for penning his own book, using his own voice and not relying on the co-author to turn his words into something different.  You feel like you’re listening to the man himself speak, though that can be good and bad.  What was refreshing in the first hundred pages could at times get grating as the book progressed.  Miles gives movies like Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction a run for their money with the sheer volume of “fucks” he writes, and there are entire sections that seem to devolve into “then I played here with these guys, then I played over here with these other guys…”  But man, there are some moments of brilliance here where you get a glimpse into how deeply Miles understood music, and I have to give the man credit for exposing himself completely, warts and all, including drug addiction and domestic violence.  An important work in understanding the nature of genius.

The other three autobiographies each had lot to offer as well, and I found them generally honest and forthcoming, not simply providing an idealized version of the individual.  Grace Jones probably has more of her pure ego come through than the others, but she’s a powerful and confident woman, and that shows on the page.  X-Ray Audio is a killer book about a very unique topic, old bootleg records from the Soviet Union that were cut on used x-ray file.  A definite passion project, and one beautifully packaged.  All of these were enjoyable and brisk reads.

 

So there you have it, my 2016 recap.  It’s had to believe this is the fifth one of these I’ve written… the years are going by so fast any more.  Keep on playin’ those tunes and hunting for new music, my friends!

The Devil Makes Three – “Redemption & Ruin” (2016)

I’m not exactly sure when we discovered The Devil Makes Three (DM3), but it was sometime between the release of their self-titled LP (2007) and Do Wrong Right (2009).  Since that time we’ve seen them live about 7-8 times, most recently crossing an item off of our musical bucket list by catching them at Colorado’s Red Rocks Ampitheatre earlier this year.  Every show has been fantastic, but this one was particularly interesting in that they played a ton of “new” material off of their then soon-to-be-released album Redemption & Ruin.  I put new in quotes because Redemption & Ruin is also kind of unique in that the entire album consists of covers of musicians who influenced DM3.

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But just knowing Redemption & Ruin is a covers album doesn’t tell the whole story.  It’s actually broken down into two distinct parts – one side of the album is songs about redemption, which tend to be more religious in nature, while the other side is about ruin – stories of drinking, cocaine, abuse, abandonment, and morphine.  DM3’s sources run the gamut from Muddy Waters to Willie Nelson to Kris Kristofferson to Townes Van Zandt.  Blues… Country… Bluegrass… Traditional… Gospel… it all comes together in two intriguing sides of music that mirror the two extremes of the human condition.  It doesn’t take long to pick up the influence the Redemption & Ruin songs have on the DM3 – “Drunken Hearted Man” harkens to the Do Wrong Right track “Aces and Twos,” while “I Gotta Get Drunk” reminds me more than a little of “Gracefully Facedown.”  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like DM3 is copying these songs; but you can feel the influences seeping out of the originals.

My tastes are heavily weighted towards the “Ruin” half of the album (side A on the vinyl), songs about na’er-do-wells and addicts.  Like so many of the questionable characters who inhabit DM3’s songs, those on Redemption & Ruin aren’t necessarily bad people (though some certainly are), but more lost souls.  Cooper McBean gets to move to the lead vocalist spot a couple of times on Side A, most notably on the brilliant “Chase the Feeling” (originally by Kris Kristofferson):

You got loaded again,
Ain’t you handsome when you’re high.
Nothing matters,
Chase that feelin’ ’til you die.

DM3 keeps the song painfully slow and McBean brings his voice down to lower than his normal register to maintain the darkness, allowing Lucia Turino’s backing vocals to take the high space and give the entire thing an otherworldly feel.

The real gem is Town Van Zandt’s “Waiting Around to Die,” a song I vividly remember from DM3’s Red Rocks show for it’s pure emotional power and weight.  It’s not the typical DM3 sound, way slower than they typically play (especially live) and it feels like listening to a dream, or more accurately a nightmare.  Emmylou Harris makes an appearance doing backing vocals, giving it a bit more of a country feel and a touch of sadness that can only come from maturity.

Side B brings us “Redemption”… and though I’m generally not one for gospel and spirituals, once again the influence these musicians have had on DM3 is abundantly clear.  “Down In the Valley” is probably my favorite on this side, a more uptempo number that sounds like it could easily be a DM3 original.

While I’m anxious for some new material from DM3, my general unfamiliarity with the classics of these genres means that Redemption & Ruin is still fresh-sounding to my ears, and the songs fit in well with DM3’s overall style.  In a bizarre occurrence for Life in the Vinyl Lane, I didn’t buy Redemption & Ruin on vinyl… nor on CD; I actually bought it online from the Apple Store for a meagre $5.99 a few nights ago.  I’m not sure why I never got around to pre-ordering the vinyl, but I didn’t, and I simply felt the urge to hear it immediately (whiskey was involved), and there it was.  But regardless of the format, I strongly recommend Redemption & Ruin, just as I do most other DM3 albums.  And if you ever get a chance to see them live, do it; you won’t regret it.

The Devil Makes Three – “Dragging Chains” b/w “This Life”

We got hooked up last night, scoring a spot on the guest list for The Devil Makes Three at Seattle’s Paramount Theater.  I’ve written about TDM3 a number of times here – they’re one of my favorites, and this show marks the sixth time I’ve seen them live.  Every time has been in Seattle, and they’ve spread it out over five different venues.  When I heard they were playing the Paramount I was a bit surprised, because it’s by far the biggest place we’ve heard of them headlining up here.  But the Paramount is a great venue, and with a large general admission section on the main floor we were able to stake out a nice spot along the side where we wouldn’t get crashed into by too many dancers, because let me tell you friends, TDM3 fans are seriously active, and they love to dance, both solo and in pairs.  Last night was no exception.

It was a high energy show, and probably the longest set we’ve seen them play at about an hour and 20 minutes (we didn’t stay for the encore).  As always, they blazed through their songs at a faster tempo than the studio versions, but this time they also slowed down a few numbers to make the mood more somber, most notably on the brilliant “Graveyard.”  They also had guest cello and fiddle players with them on some numbers, and that added a lot of depth and richness to the sound.  It was a great mix of older and newer material, with at least four songs off their debut including the crowd-pleasers “Old Number Seven” and “The Bullet.”

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I knew that TDM3 had a new 7″ out that was being sold at the shows, so I made sure to pick up a copy.  Both songs are new, and I think it’s only the second 7″ they’ve released, the other being “Aces and Twos” b/w “Help Yourself” back in 2009, which are alternate versions of songs that appeared on Do Wrong Right.  Supposedly one copy sold last night included a “golden ticket” that would get the holder into any/every TDM3 show for the rest of the year, which is kind of a cool promo.

“Dragging Chains” has a honky-tonk kind of feel to it, a slower moving song that takes full advantage of Lucia Turino’s upright bass, and also adds some percussion.  “This Life” has more of a traditional TDM3 feel, both musically and lyrically (“This life, it ain’t right for everybody… but it’s sure been good to me…”), and it takes full advantage of Turino and Cooper McBean’s harmonizing.  It’s a down-home song about a person living outside the mainstream, getting by, and being pretty happy about it.

If you ever get a chance to see The Devil Makes Three live, do it.  It’s high energy and there’s a lot of depth in their music – McBean and Bernhard’s guitar and banjo playing is first-rate, and Turino just hammers that upright bass.  Plus there’s guaranteed to be some good people-watching in the crowd.

The Devil Makes Three – “Stomp And Smash: Live At The Mystic Theatre”

I love me some The Devil Makes Three.

By last count, Holly and I have seen them live something like six times… plus we’ve seen singer/guitarist Pete Berhard solo once.  All those shows were in relatively small venues, but always with them as the headliner, and they never disappoint.  They have one of the most eclectic and active fan bases of any band out there – you’ll see all types of folks at a The Devil Makes Three show, and a lot of them will be dancing.  And must of them will sing along to at least some of the songs.

Sometimes its hard for a great live band to capture that live vibe on their records.  The Devil Makes Three certainly does a lot in concert with pace changes, sometimes tearing through the entire set sounding like they’re playing all the songs at 45 rpm instead of 33 1/3, but other times they slow it down to a crawl.  You’re never quite sure what you’re going to get, other than that it will be awesome.

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Fortunately in 2011 they released their second live album, Smash And Stomp:  Live At The Mystic Theatre, and it does a solid job of giving the listener a taste of the live experience (their first live album, A Little Bit Faster And A Little Bit Louder, was released on CD in 2006 and included all new material, none of which appeared on a studio album before or since).  You can hear the crowd actively involved right from the opening lyrics to the second track, “Statesboro Blues,” and by time fan-favorite “Old Number 7” (an homage to boozing on Jack Daniels and biding your time until the devil calls you down to hell…) the crowd is like the band’s fourth vocalist, ably singing backup.  And immediately following the brisk pace and audience involvement of that song, the band immediately screws with them and slows it waayyy down with perhaps their darkest number, and the song that first blew my mind and turned me on to them, “Graveyard” (I’m leanin’ on my shovel… in this graveyard of dreams…).  And the fans love every minute of it.

The Devil Makes Three is sort of alt-country-punk, with two guitarists, both of who also play banjo at times, and a stand up bassist.  No drummer, and frankly none needed.  At times they’ll have a guest fiddle player, as they do on some tracks on Smash And Stomp, using the sound to create a moody atmosphere that penetrates deep into your soul as it does on “Graveyard.”  Vocally all three members are involved.  Bernhard is the primary singer, but guitarist Cooper McBean leads on a few and sings some great backup/harmony with his unique, nasal sound, while bassist Lucia Turino brings a female voice to the mix, altering her style to sometimes do traditional harmony while at others having an almost atonal delivery that’s as much like another instrument as it is a voice.  These three have been playing together a long time, and it shows in how well they work as a unit.

Smash And Stomp is a good mix of material, with songs from all of their releases going all the way back to 2004, and it’s similar to live shows we’ve seen in the past.  The Devil Makes Three make sure to get most of the fan favorites into their sets while also mixing in a healthy dose of newer material, so for a new fan or someone looking to check out their sound for the first time a live album like Smash And Stomp is a great starting point.  “Old Number 7,” “Graveyard,” and “Black Irish” are my top picks here if you’re looking for just a sampling, but the whole album is solid from start to finish.  The vinyl version comes on both red and black wax, though I’m not sure if one version is rarer than the other.