Thursday, May 27, 2021

Countdown to 30: My Favorite Album From 2016


We're coming into the home stretch with only five years left to go, including this one. In 2016, I settled into my life as a general manager and moved to Delaware, Ohio. I didn't post as much on this blog, but there were a few albums that stood out to me a great deal. 

In the last article I talked about Andrew Wyatt of Miike Snow, who worked extensively with Mark Ronson on Uptown Special. In 2016, Swedish band Miike Snow released one of my favorite albums of the year, iiiiii is my favorite Miike Snow album to date. It is somehow more than the previous two albums. It's more full of pop, more full of electronic sounds, more disco. The production brings the vocals to the front. The songwriting is stronger. Andrew Wyatt's vocals are better on iii than the previous albums because he decided to go for a stronger studio sound rather than something that could be applied to a performance setting. 

"My Trigger" opens the album with a grooving electronic track that samples J Dilla's "The Diff'rence," which in turn samples "Fruitman" by Kool & the Gang. Wyatt had to add his own piano chords in order to complete the otherwise incomplete loop, but the songwriters of both sampled songs receive songwriting credit as well as the men in Miike Snow. 

Charlie XCX contributes vocals to a couple of songs on the record, namely "For U" and the second track of the album "The Heart of Me," on which she provides backing vocals. 

"Genghis Khan" has been the band's most successful single to date here in the U.S. It's an earworm of a song about jealousy. Wyatt based the song on his own feelings of intense jealousy during a long-distance relationship with a girl he refused to commit to, but nonetheless felt jealous at the thought of her seeing anyone else. 

A perfect use of sampling comes on "Heart is Full," in which Miike Snow use Marlena Shaw's version of the Bob Hilliard and Burt Bacharach-penned "Waiting for Charlie to Come Home." The sample receives just the right amount of use and filtering, and is mixed to great effect with the band's original material. Miike Snow did not create the original backing track, however. Another, unnamed producer created it but didn't complete it or clear the sample, and thus gave it to the band to use.

 The remainder of the album is all upbeat electro-pop. It's catchy and fun, with an element of wistfulness to it.

Speaking of wistfulness, Regina Spektor's 2016 album Remember Us To Life is also loaded with it. The title of the album is actually a perfect representation of what can be found on it. Spektor weaves stories throughout the album that have nostalgic qualities. This one had to grow on me a bit, but after I saw her support it live, I was sold. 

The opening track and lead single from the album "Bleeding Heart" seems to be Spektor's letter to her misunderstood younger self. Again, her lyrics are open to a great deal of interpretation as she will rarely reveal much about her songs. 

That said, there is another song that I imagine has a personal element to it. Spektor gave birth to a son in 2014, and "The Light" seems to be addressed to him (and possibly about post-partem depression? Probably not. Don't want to make any leaps). 

Spektor's lyrics might be obtuse, but there are beautiful lines found in them, particularly, "Older and Taller," which features lines like, "enjoy your youth/sounds like a threat/but I will anyway." "You're alone 'til you're not alone/And that's all you need to know" is another meaningful line, made all the better by Spektor's unusual melody. I have to mention one more line which is gorgeous and drives home the theme of reminiscence: "And the things that you never did/Have become your youth, somehow."

The most overall powerful song is "The Grand Hotel," which tells the story of a fancy hotel centered just over the gates to Hell. The lyrics are rich and full, with a mild humor to them. The story is, of course, a little tough to parse, so I'll let you make your own interpretation as to whether it's a metaphor or not. I'm inclined to think not, but I would also love to see an animated or stop-motion literal interpretation of the story. 

Spektor in Columbus, Ohio in 2017.
When I saw her live, the most interesting song to watch her perform was "Small Bill$," a track that is close to being rap or hip-hop, but isn't quite there. The chorus is just a melodic series of "la"s and acts as the perfect vehichle for Spektor's voice. The plot of the song seems to center around someone who has a great deal of potential but squanders it away. Then, either the same person or another main character has been engaging in some form of embezzlement and is about to have to pay for their misdeeds. 

"Black and White" fits the theme of memories, as does "Obsolete" and "The Visit." "Sellers of Flowers" has a retrospective plot, discussing flower sellers and visiting the market with her father. Spektor's piano work is excellent on "Sellers of Flowers."

"The Trapper and the Furrier" addresses the disparity of power and success in the world, from the cruel hunting of animals to the wealth disparity in business, to the unfair practices in the pharmaceutical industry. The chorus wraps the three verses together each time by saying: "What a strange, strange world we live in//Where the good are damned and the wicked forgiven//What a strange, strange world we live in//Those who don't have lose, those who got get given//More, more, more, more."

I didn't think upon my first listen to this album that it was much of anything, but I was very wrong. It's almost tied with Far as my favorite Regina Spektor album.

My favorite band are The Monkees, and that could easily be used as an excuse for why I identify Good Times! as my favorite album of 2016, but that's not it. It's genuinely a very good album.

Adam Schlesinger was brought on board to produce. Schlesinger had a knack for making tracks sound both retro and original as he did when he wrote "That Thing You Do." For Good Times!, that meant he was able to keep the sound similar to the music The Monkees were known for in the '60s without making it into Dad rock. Monkees historian and music archivist Andrew Sandoval was also brought on board to help produce existing tracks. 

Conceptually, Good Times! is a mix of songs by the artists that wrote for The Monkees in the '60s, songs composed by modern artists who take inspiration from The Monkees, and a couple of original tunes by the living Monkees themselves. 

The title track kicks off the album, a duet with Micky Dolenz and his late friend and occasional songwriter for The Monkees, Harry Nilsson. An unused demo was utilized and completed to make for a perfect title track. After all, the album is all about recapturing the "good times."

The second track on the album is one of the strongest, "You Bring the Summer" by Andy Partridge (XTC). For "You Bring the Summer," Partridge is able to tone down some of his more unusual melody choices to make it more palatable, but there is still enough uniqueness to pair with the sunny lyrics and make for a one-of-a-kind sunshine jam. Rivers Cuomo of Weezer wrote "She Makes Me Laugh." Evidently, Cuomo had been playing with the opening line of the song since 1998. Cuomo's mind seemed to be on the creation of sunny pop tunes as his album with Weezer from the same year, the self-titled White Album is the most sunshine-ey Weezer album (it was inspired by beach music but is most congruent with the music of The Monkees of anything Weezer has done). Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie wrote the album's ballad, which received a great deal of praise from critics and Monkees fans alike. Michael Nesmith appreciated it so much that he ended up becoming acquainted with Gibbard, even having him appear as a guest on the West coast dates of his First National Band tour. "Me & Magdalena" is a perfect song for a drive in late spring/early summer. There's something soothing and calming about it. The unlikely duo of Noel Gallagher (Oasis, Noel Gallagher's High-Flying Birds) and Paul Weller (The Jam, The Style Council) wrote "Birth of an Accidental Hipster" a song with a distinctly different verse and chorus which come together to form the most psychedelic accomplishment present.

Adam Schlesinger himself wrote "Our Own World," which is of course a '60s/early '70s pastiche that works out perfectly as sung by Micky Dolenz. It serves as a bridge into the second '60s song by composers, Jeff Barry and Joey Levine, "Gotta Give it Time." The guitar in "Gotta Give it Time" is incredibly throwback in the most positive way. It's actually one of the more classic-sounding tracks.

Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart were frequent Monkees collaborators, with Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz even releasing an album with them in the '70s. Their contribution of "Whatever's Right" also features a heavy throwback sound with a new intro to worn its way into your head. Neil Diamond's "Love to Love" as performed by Jones has been floating around for years as it was issued on Missing Links. The Good Times! version is different though, remixed and produced for this album specifically. Peter Tork takes lead on the Gerry Goffin and Carole King track, "Wasn't Born to Follow," a song recorded by The Byrds and included on the Easy Rider soundtrack. The song is about the freedom of hippies in the late sixties, and it finds a perfect home on the album with Tork's vocals.

Unfortunately, Peter Tork's involvement on the album was somewhat limited, but he did write "Little Girl," a song that fits Tork's voice and the overall rambling summer feel of the album. Nesmith offered up "I Know What I Know." It's a soft, self-effacing love song. Dolenz collaborated with Schlesinger for the closing song, "I Was There (And I'm Told I Had a Good Time)." The title is a reference to a joke Dolenz likes to make about his partying days. It makes the song all the more effective as a closer.

I started to get excited about this project as soon as it was announced. Not just because it was The Monkees, but because of all the names attached to it, the plans to use existing audio of the late Davy Jones (and even the late Harry Nilsson) to ensure that no member was left out. After Davy's death, Michael Nesmith seemed to really snap out of his disbelief that The Monkees still meant something to people. He became far more involved in Monkees work, touring again and involving himself in whatever shenanigans. I was thrilled of course that Andy Partridge, Rivers Cuomo and most of all Benjamin Gibbard were attached to the project. If you'll notice, all three of those songwriters wrote for at least one of my other albums of the year. I knew Gibbard was a Monkees fan, as he covered "Look Out, Here Comes Tomorrow" at a solo show and I've caught other references in the past. I became a much bigger fan of Adam Schlesinger in the last few years as I learned more about him and watched Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Schlesinger was an incredibly talented songwriter and producer.

Good Times! is a floating summer album. It's a picnic. It's proof that old acts don't have to make an album with dated sounds. It's proof that The Monkees specifically still had it fifty years later.

Let's go to that leaderboard!

Join me tomorrow for my favorite album from 2017.

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