Wednesday, December 28, 2016

THE BEST OF 2016 - The Best ROCK Of The Year


- For years, if you asked me my list of all-time dream concerts, I'd list defunct bands like Queen, The Ramones, and Led Zeppelin. But always in the mix would be Guns n' Roses. Original line-up. In 2016, the impossible happened - GnR reunited - Axl and Slash together again. Welcome to the jungle, baby - the band was back together. Seeing GnR at the height of their powers at Dodger Stadium this past August was an all-time music moment for me and the thousands of other fans in attendance. A thing we thought we'd never see. And remarkably, Axl was in fine form - his voice in top form (in far better form, in fact, than when I'd seen him previously as part of his "Axl and friends" makeshift GnR line-ups). Slash of course is a given - the dude is an immortal rock god. But Axl was the real surprise - following recovery from a broken leg suffered earlier on the tour, he was back in fine form in LA - juking and jiving and Axl-dancing like it was 1989. It was a potent reminder that for a moment, GnR was the biggest band in the world - a dangerous force of nature the likes of which we've not seen since. Seeing the band - the real band - live in 2016 is a moment I'll never forget.

Bonus for the GnR concert: another favorite band, The Cult, was the opener. Given that the crowd was there for GnR, not The Cult, it wasn't exactly the ideal circumstances in which to get the full Cult experience. But still, I got to hear "She Sells Sanctuary" live, so I'll take it. I saw a number of other excellent concerts this past year - most notably, Alice Cooper live, the night before Halloween, at the Pantages theater in Hollywood. I've seen Cooper live before, but my appreciation for his music has only grown over the years. And of course, seeing him in a theater like the Pantages, just before Halloween ... I mean, does it get any better? 

I also had the unique pleasure of seeing the legendary John Carpenter in concert. Carpenter has been one of my cinematic heroes for years, and a big part of that has always been the moody synth scores he's composed for his movies - iconic pieces that were and are hugely influential on movies, rock music, videogames, etc. In the last few years, Carpenter has released a pair of albums of all-new music - Lost Themes in 2015, and Lost Themes II in 2016. These albums are positively bad-ass (and the rocking track "Dark Blues" makes my Songs of the Year list below). So, seeing Carpenter live at the historic Orpheum theater, performing a mix of movie scores (Escape From NY! Halloween! They Live!) and tracks from Lost Themes was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I won't soon forget. Surreal to be sitting in a theater watching a legend like Carpenter perform. 

What else? I saw Boston - an all-time favorite - with their re-booted line-up at the OC Fair in Costa Mesa, which was pretty cool. And speaking of legends ... I saw John Williams at the Hollywood Bowl, conducting iconic scores from Star Wars, E.T., Harry Potter, etc. Pretty incredible. Being at the Bowl in a sea of lightsabers was definitely something. It was my first time seeing Williams live, and it was undoubtedly a memorable concert.

Of course, 2016 was (in many ways) a tragic year. Some of the all-time legends passed away, and their deaths hit hard. For me, David Bowie's passing was a gut-punch. Bowie was such an icon - a seemingly-immortal creature who was a being of pure rock n' roll. He was rock personified - a man who embraced the role of outcast and misfit, the godfather of glam rock, the man who fell to earth. It seemed unreal that Ziggy Stardust could succumb to death. Because even though Bowie had kept a low profile for a long time, his presence loomed large. There was a strange comfort in knowing he was out there, that we lived in a time when Bowie lived. To add to the mystique of Bowie's life and death, Bowie's passing was immediately preceded by a final album - one that seemed to materialize out of nowhere, and that - it quickly became apparent - was a farewell. Even now, Blackstar is almost too painful to listen to. But it's brilliant work - art commenting on life commenting on art - a final chapter in a life that was lived as art to the end. I went on a huge Bowie kick after his death - I'm on that kick still. We'll never see another like him.

The same can be said for Prince. A musical prodigy whose message of love and individuality struck a chord in 2016, making his death seem like some sort of cosmic casualty of this cursed calendar year. Prince's death was shocking, but the one silver lining was the way in which it prompted many of us to do a deep dive into the man's vast catalog of music - a treasure trove of funk and rock and immortal pop that will live forever. 

So many other great artists died this year - George Michael, Merle Haggerd ... but the one other I'll talk about is Leonard Cohen. I had a roundabout way of becoming a Cohen fan. I knew of him and knew some of his songs by the time I was in college, but I really became a super-fan when I saw, of all things, the movie The King of Kong. A scene in that movie used Cohen's "Everybody Knows" to such great effect that it quickly became a favorite song of mine on heavy-rotation, and that prompted me to dive deeper into Cohen's catalog and learn more about him. What a unique artist. His deep, world-weary voice was one of a kind. His poetic lyrics were unmatched. And his longevity was pretty remarkable. The world lost an icon when Leonard Cohen died. 

As for this year in music ... it was another year where you really had to search for and seek out the good stuff. Rock once again seemed largely absent from the pop-cultural conversation - except when, unfortunately, talking about fallen icons and heroes. But there was good stuff, and the more I looked back and recalled music I enjoyed in 2016, the more I realized there was a pretty excellent list of new stuff from this year. And there are some great bands out there - from Volbeat to the Dropkick Murphys - that continue to churn out quality rock music. So though many great ones left us in 2016, take comfort: rock yet lives.


1.) David Bowie - "Lazarus"

-  Haunting ... to put it mildly. David Bowie's last will and testament is a mythical, magical, otherworldly song that speaks to the inevitability of death and the struggle for immortality. The song quickly took on new meaning in the wake of Bowie's passing, but rarely has an artist seemed to go out in quite this way - on his own terms, with his music providing a final goodbye. Life and death and art impossibly entangled. 

2.) Sing Street - "Riddle of the Model"

- If you haven't seen the movie Sing Street, watch it. Now, I'll wait! But seriously, Sing Street is a great, empowering, uplifting tribute to the power of rock music to escape, to fight the power, to bring people together, to turn misery into hope and struggle into freedom. But more specifically, "Riddle of the Model" is just an insanely catchy homage to 80's new wave, sounding like some lost Depeche Mode song that never was. 

3.) John Carpenter - "Dark Blues"

- As talked about above, I've always loved John Carpenter movie scores (my fave: Escape From NY), and so his Lost Themes albums of new music have been real treats. 2016's Lost Themes II added more of a rock n' roll edge to Carpenter's trademark synth, and one of the best products of that was Dark Blues - which layers crunchy guitar over moody synth for a result that is, in a word, badass.

4.) Dropkick Murphys - "Blood" 

- And here's just a straight-up fist-pumper - vintage Murphys that is meant to be played in a stadium of people looking to get their adrenaline levels up. Blood is one of the first tracks released off the Murphy's upcoming 2017 album, and it's a scorcher. Thank god there are still songs like this being made in 2016.

5.) Volbeat - "The Devil's Bleeding Crown" 

- If you're not familiar with Volbeat, they are one of the best rock bands going - purveyors of epic, metal-tinged barn-burners like "Lola Montez." This year, they had a new album that was a return to their harder-edged roots - hence a song with a title like "The Devil's Bleeding Crown." These guys are not messing around. But if you want an Iron Maiden-esque rock ballad that is guaranteed to get your motor runnin', look no further.

6.) Green Day - "Bang Bang" 

- I'll freely admit: Green Day is one of my favorite bands, and I love both their old-school stuff as well as their more recent concept albums like American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown. I was not so hot on their triple-album experiment, and their latest, Revolution Radio, is a definite mixed-bag. But the original single from the album, Bang Bang, is the highlight - a one-off return-to-form that sees the band rage against the machine with an aggressive punk-rock stomper. 

7.) Mudcrutch - "Beautiful World"

- If there is one constant for me as a music fan, it's that when Tom Petty comes out with a new album, I will buy it. I always find something to like in Petty's releases, and that holds true for his side-project Mudcrutch - the back-to-basics band that predated The Heartbreakers, re-formed by Petty a few years back. Mudcrutch's latest album is almost *too* basic, filled with solid if unremarkable rock. But one standout is definitely Beautiful World, the kind of somber-yet-hopeful song that has always been Petty's bread and butter - a me-vs.-the-world anthem that is a must-listen for any and all Petty fans.

8.) The Interrupters - "By My Side"

- Last year I praised The Interrupters as one of the best new rock bands in a long while. Singer Aimee Allen made a career pivot from dark rock ballads to jumpy punk and ska, and she did it in a way that calls to mind the best bands of the genre. The Interrupters' second album is filled with catchy punk anthems, the most fun of which might be By My Side. "I don't wanna die! I don't wanna die! But if I do die, do die - you'd better be by my side!" is a punk rock shout-out for the ages.

9.) The Struts - "Could Have Been Me"

- A classic rock throwback band of sorts, The Struts made waves recently by touring with The Rolling Stones. Makes sense - the band has Stones-esque swagger and a knack for combining blues-y rock with 80's-style arena-filling epicness. Could Have Been Me is a catchy rock anthem, a sign that rock still has pop potential in 2016. 

10.) Metallica - "Here Comes Revenge"

- Finally, there's Metallica. The iconic band put out a new album in 2016, and it was hard. Devoid of softer ballads, this was an album for true-blue fans. That said, as someone who doesn't mind Metallica's more ballad-y stuff, I found Here Comes Revenge a stand-out. Don't get me wrong - this song is aggressive af. But it matches driving guitar with some soaring Hetfield vocals that still pack a punch. It's comforting to know that Metallica can still rock this hard.

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