Quicksand

“Don’t believe in yourself, don’t deceive with belief”

Feel free to Google along if you want to follow all of the references. Being a David Bowie fan comes with a lot of homework. He consumes and repurposes culture of every stripe -a prodigious amount of culture – and he doesn’t bother to provide footnotes. Bowie, like many of his rock star peers, attended a technical arts school and he carried the persona of the earnest art student for many years afterwards. (As I understand it, at that time, English art schools served as a dumping ground for students who did poorly on their exams or had disciplinary issues i.e. John Lennon, Keith Richards, et al.) In fact, if the ever shifting nebula of Bowie personas could be boiled down to an essence, it would be that of the prodigious student. The brilliant student who shows off with his scope of knowledge grows into the confident academic so at ease with his many points of reference. On Hunky Dory – and this track in particular – we catch Bowie as the student who still feels the need to mix in ALL of the references just to show that he knows them, like an amateur cook going crazy with the spice rack.  Do you really need to namecheck Greta Garbo and Heinrich Himmler? And Churchill? And Crowley? And Nietzsche? We get it, you’re an intellectual. From anyone else less brilliant it would be insufferable, of course, but it’s Bowie, and he built his stature on his ability to appeal to those people who feel at home with occult references and many level’d depths of meaning, people who feel underserved and understimulated by lowest-denominator entertainment. Just as he validated and inspired sexual outsiders with his androgyny and glamour, he attracted intellectual outsiders and dissidents with his book smarts and ambitious ideas. If David Bowie was an object, he’d be a bookshelf covered with glitter.

Queen Bitch

In which David Bowie steals – “with love!” – The Velvet Underground’s light and heat. Stealing with love, of course, has been David Bowie’s mo throughout his career; it’s what he does. And he was certainly better qualified than anyone to dip into Lou Reed’s narrative bag of drag queens, hustlers and various wild side characters. Lou Reed, though, was a journalist with a guitar and he wrote about real people and their real lives, as he saw them. David Bowie wasn’t all that much interested in reality, except possibly as an existential concept. In his interpretation of the same milieu, the element of fantasy replaces the element of grit. It’s like a Lou Reed song performed by one of Lou Reed’s characters, which I think is exactly the intention.

The Prettiest Star

Please take a moment of silent awe for what may be the only recorded collaboration between David Bowie and Marc Bolan. Bowie and Bolan were frenemies whose clashing egos made for one of the great rivalries in music history. Bolan was full of great ideas and made many trailblazing breakthroughs in music and image, but Bowie kept overshadowing him and stealing his thunder. This is a prime example. A romantic ballad featuring Bolan’s instantly recognizable lead guitar, it was a failed single in 1970. Bolan’s playing is outstanding, while Bowie is in earnest mode, emoting like a leading man in a Hollywood musical. It’s a slightly weird combination of Bowie’s theatrical tendencies and Bolan’s fluid pre-glam psychedelic style. A few years later, when both players had become big stars and even bigger rivals, Bowie re-recorded the song, with Mick Ronson taking over on lead guitar. The tune is the same, the arrangement is similar, but Ronson’s style couldn’t be more different. Bowie has gone full Ziggy, his earnestness gone, the camp factor turned up to 11. It’s apocalyptic cabaret on crack now. This is the version everybody knows, while the earlier, arguably better version is a rarity. It certainly shows how much David Bowie changed his outward style in just three years; how he could twist his own sentiments from romantic sincerity to drag-queen burlesque; and, unfortunately, how he didn’t mind erasing other people’s contributions. Bolan was pissed that his work had been thrown away, and he hadn’t been informed or invited to the rerecording. The two didn’t talk again for several years. David Bowie was a great collaborator, but only with people who could accept that their spotlight would always be the less bright.

The Best Albums of 2016

After a gut-wrenching year, the best albums of 2016 gut-wrenchingly blew apart the boundaries of art and real experience. David Bowie faced his own death. Nick Cave faced the death of his son. Beyonce grappled with what it means to live and love as a black woman in America. Anohni railed against the dying of the planet. Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant cringed before the inevitability of age. As Jerry Garcia once said; “I may be going to hell in a bucket, but at least I’m enjoying the ride.” We’re all gonna die, babe, but at least we got some great art out of it.

  1. ★ – David Bowie

blackstar_front_cover

David Bowie may have opened up a black hole in the fabric of known reality. He exited the world as he inhabited it: cryptically. At least he left us with this swan song, a final masterpiece. It is at once nakedly emotional and knowingly legend-building. Creating art in the face of death – that has to be the most intimate act of creation, besides literal conception. Yet he still cast himself as an intergalactic messiah, still offering unknowable promises of redempion through pure self creation. Once a starman, forever a starman, even through death’s door.

Blackstar

Lazarus

I Can’t Give Everything Away

2. Lemonade – Beyonce

Beyonce_-_Lemonade_(Official_Album_Cover)

Beyonce has outgrown being merely one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. She’s made what has to be the most unified and relevant statement piece by a popular artist within recent memory. Beyonce grasps that the personal is the political. The (publicly unspecified but strongly implied) travails that she has suffered in her own longtime marriage take on broader meaning as a metaphor for the travails that Black women – specifically – have suffered within what is, without question, a violently oppressive white supremacist patriarchy. Though often painful, Lemonade is uplifting; Beyonce offers catharsis through pain and anger, strength through sisterhood, solace in family and community, and in the end, forgiveness and redemption through love.

Formation

Sorry

Hold Up

3. Hopelessness – Anohni

hopelessness_front_cover

Anohni cornered the market on mournful chamber pop years ago. She’s lent her unearthly voice to everything from Marina Abramovic installations to singing backup for Lou Reed. Not to mention, of course, the beautiful albums she made fronting Antony and the Johnsons. This, her solo debut, is a step in entirely new – though still mournful as fuck! – direction. She’s adopted a more modern, uptempo sound; and a newfound, keening rage. It’s an album about destruction, a dying earth, the devastation of war, the oppression of a society fast approaching digital totalitarianism.

Drone Bomb Me

Hopelessness

I Don’t Love You Anymore

4. Skeleton Tree – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

skeleton_tree_album

This is Nick Cave’s elegy to his dead son. It’s a horrific irony that the singer, so long fascinated by the furthest and most macabre extremes of the human condition, was struck by such a tragedy. It’s a testament to something – call it the redeeming power of art, call it the human spirit, call it a coping mechanism, call it damn plain stubbornness – that he went straight back in the studio, and there reexamined every idea he’s been writing about all these years, coming back with a record that makes those old murder ballads look like so much innocent posturing.

Jesus Alone

Magneto

I Need You

5. This Is Acting – Sia

Thisisacting_albumcover

Not everyone had a terrible year of roiling turmoil. Sia, the one-time professional songsmith turned celebrity, has had the best couple of years of her career. Having become a pop star at an age when most pop stars are long out to pasture, Sia feels ambivalent about the tricky balance of fame, identity and creativity. This album is a collection of songs she wrote for other, bigger stars to sing, all of which had been rejected. It is, in a way, a concept album, the concept being; what exactly is a pop star and who exactly are you as an artist if you’ve spent most of your career furthering the careers of others? There’s no clear answer to that, but Sia does prove one thing – that flagrantly commercial pop music can be a vehicle for ideas of great complexity, when presented by the right artist.

Alive

Cheap Thrills

The Greatest

6. Wonderful Crazy Night – Elton John

Elton-John-Wonderful-Crazy-Night

Well, Elton John, for one, isn’t trying to drive home any heavy concepts. He’s not here to deliver any messages of great complexity. He’s just having fun; he’s got his mojo back and he’s celebrating. He’s spent some of his past years in the wilderness, both personally and professionally. In the last few years, though, he’s been steadily revitalizing his career and enjoying some very well earned personal happiness. Musically, he sounds like a man truly enjoying himself, he’s brought back some of his best collaborators, and he reminds us what made him so great in the first place – his unmatched ability to deliver an emotional wallop all the way to the back rows, but effortlessly and with nuance and humor.

Looking Up

Wonderful Crazy Night

Blue Wonderful

7. Joanne – Lady Gaga

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Lady Gaga continues to gratifying evolve. This record shows a little bit less pop monster, a little bit more real person. Though Gaga’s talent for hooks and choruses can still be heard, that isn’t the point here. The point is she’s capable of showing real emotion as a singer and songwriter, not afraid to show her naked face.

Perfect Illusion

Million Reasons

A-Yo  

8. Stranger to Stranger – Paul Simon

stranger_to_stranger_cover

Back in the 60’s Paul Simon was one of the angstiest songwriters around, full of hyper articulate college boy alienation. Now, he’s the opposite. He writes about the absurd world with empathy, humor and gentle self-deprecation. His age seems to suit him fine; the older he gets the more he seems to be enjoying himself. He’s also, in his own discreet way, a trailblazing sonic experimenter, always on the lookout for unexpected influences and unheard-of instruments.

Wristband

Cool Papa Bell

 The Werewolf

9. Super – Pet Shop Boys

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How long since Pet Shop Boys have been relevant? You may ask that, and the Boys are asking themselves the same question. Once pioneers of synthpop and electronic dance music, they’ve now become elders. How to deal with aging out of the scene you helped create? If you dedicated the first half of your life to being cool kids, what do you become when you’ve grown up? Those are deep questions to ask on a dance record, but balancing pop hooks with introspection has always been PSB’s specialty, and this is as wise, poignant and self aware as they’ve ever been. Don’t worry though, it’s still fun, and if anything, wittier than ever.

The Pop Kids

Say It to Me

The Dictator Decides

10. AIM – M.I.A.

aim

M.I.A. has said that this will be her final album. She’s hardly the first star to threaten retirement, and few who do tend to stick with it. She’s still young, and wildly creative. Let’s hope it’s an empty threat – we need her. She’s been an outspoken provocateur, unafraid of being unpopular and determined to call out every bit of bullshit tossed her way. Her music remains equally fearless, an exuberant collage of ideas, found sounds, and cultural influences. Though she may not relish the condition of celebrity that it brings, she loves her art, and this record skews more joyful than angry.

Borders

Bird Song

Freedun

 

Panic in Detroit

David Bowie imagines the apocalyptic breakdown of civil society. In Detroit of all places, because of course Detroit. It was 1973, and the point of reference was probably the 1967 Detroit riots, as well as the general sense of unrest in the United States at the time. Today Detroit has become as close as any place in America to an actual post-industrial wasteland. Oh, and urban America has been engulfed in rioting and violent unrest, repeating the exact same pattern as before, with the same players in the same roles. All of which makes this an eerily prescient portrait of normal life descending into chaos overnight. The more things change, eh? What was relevant in 1973 is if anything more relevant today. Why does it seem that every dystopian speculation eventually winds up coming true? Is it because people are fundamentally stupid and short-sighted and inevitably bound to repeat the same calamitous mistakes as soon as the previous ones begin to fade from living memory?

Outside

Perhaps I’m one of a few, but the opening notes of David Bowie’s Outside give me the shivers. Hindsight offers new perspectives on a great artist’s work, and in coming years, Outside is going to be held up as one of Bowie’s most ambitious achievements. For one thing, it’s a culmination and fulfillment of the experimental techniques he and Brian Eno pioneered in the Berlin years. Whereas those acclaimed records were sonically daring, emotionally fractured, and only loosely thematic, Outside is fully conceptualized. Bowie and Eno returned to the use of flash cards, oblique strategies, characterization, in – studio improvisation, multi-media, cut and paste narrative and other techniques they’d originally developed in the 70’s. This time they tied it together in a self-contained narrative of near-future dystopia, with commentary on the value of art and human life in a deteriorated, image and media saturated society not far off from our own. Bowie initially talked of Outside as the first in a series of albums documenting the final five years of the millennium, which he admitted was ‘over-ambitious’ but also ‘a once-in-a-lifetime chance.’ Like many of Bowie’s overly ambitious concepts, it was never followed through. However, the Outside sessions were meant to yield enough material for a trilogy, and that material is presumably just waiting for somebody to come dust it off. Perhaps, sometime soon, Brian Eno may take it upon himself to finish the project. (If he doesn’t, sooner or later someone else will.) Although it’s a bitter disappointment that David Bowie, with his famously short attention span, lost interest in this particular project, for my money, his entire career was a once-in-a-lifetime series of overly-ambitious albums documenting the end of the millennium in a dystopian science fiction near-reality parallel to our own.