Quiet

You’ve got to hand it to Paul Simon. Just, hand it to him. On every level. He’s pretty amazing for an old guy. Which might sound glib, but he’s one of a very few artists whose late-life work has entered the play rotation, with no caveats, right alongside the early stuff. In fact, I’ve been listening to his post-2000’s material more than the 70’s albums. Graceland will remain an undisputed masterpiece, but I’ve always felt that the post-Garfunkel years kind of sagged a little. Sure, there were hits, a lot of hits, really great hits. But it felt like Simon needed time to really find a strong voice as a solo artist. And he’s found it as an old geezer, which suits him just fine. Someone needs to meditate on age and mortality, and Paul Simon’s the guy to do it. This song may not be about Paul Simon facing the idea of death, but it’s totally about facing the idea of death. It’s about passing peacefully and with grace to a better state of being. Maybe it’s not meant to literally evoke Christian heaven, though Christian-heaven-believers will surely find it evocative, but it’s certainly about finding peace and grace, if only in the sense of leaving petty concerns to the young and learning not to worry so damn much. I imagine that somebody, somewhere has already asked for this to be played at their funeral.

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Questions for the Angels

One thing about Paul Simon hasn’t changed; he still loves New York City. It may just be his lifelong muse. As much as he likes to safari, he always comes back to those familiar images of city streets. Now he’s a white haired old man with nothing left to prove and nothing to do but observe the eternal flow around him. There may be a shout-out to Jay-Z just to mark us in the present, but the cityscape hasn’t changed much either. Billboards and buildings may come and go, but the city’s role as the quintessential American pilgrimage place hasn’t wavered. It’s still all things to all people, and for Paul Simon, it’s home.

Proof of Love

I highly recommend Paul Simon’s new (as of last year) album. It’s an acclaimed hit! It’s thoughtful, lovely music, which is what Paul Simon does best. It reminds us that mastery of gentle rumination should not be overlooked. It may not be the engine that drives popular music, but it’s no small talent. Soothing music isn’t just for coffee shops, y’all. And honestly, if it’s that easy to ignore it’s not soothing, it’s just boring. Soothing means to actively make you feel better, and I think Paul Simon does that. He does that not by being boring or trite, but by being thought provoking (and yes, sometimes still a little angsty.)

Pigs, Sheep and Wolves

Paul Simon is in the middle of a late in life revival. He’s enjoying a string of acclaimed and well selling albums, ever since You’re the One marked his comeback in 2000. He’s proof than when your career isn’t based on cockstrutting, the perspective of well earned wisdom can be one hell of a lot more interesting than than of growing pains. It’s also worth noting that Paul Simon, unlike nearly every single one of his contemporaries, never really had a low point. His career low was one flopped musical in the 90’s. He had his partnership with Garfunkel in the 60’s, established himself as a solo artist in the 70’s, and he did some of his most successful and important work in the 80’s. The failure of his Capeman project was a rare humiliation, but he bounced back from it quickly enough. Simon has been as consistent throughout the decades as any artist, which is remarkable, given that most artists have been granted a full decade or two of sucking to balance out their highs.

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

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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

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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

 

Old

Yes, Paul Simon, like many of his peers, is indeed old. Not many of his peers, though, accept with quite this much good humor. He always knew how to get a wry little chuckle out of serious things, and of course now he can laugh about being an old man – he never carried the burden of being a sex symbol. He’s still exactly the same lovable dweeb he’s always been. Putting it in perspective doesn’t hurt, either. The Koran is old! The Bible is old! So many great wonders are old. Old is natural and old is something we should be grateful for, if we achieve it. We need to not think of it as a humiliating punishment for failing to stay young. I want to be old and fabulous and laugh at my stupid younger self and no longer care about the dumb shit that young people care about. Say goodbye to the downsides of youth and beauty, maybe grow into some wisdom, fucking enjoy being alive.

Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard

The million dollar question is, what were you and Julio doing down by the schoolyard, anyway? Unfortunately, even Paul Simon doesn’t know;  “I have no idea what it is… Something sexual is what I imagine, but when I say ‘something’, I never bothered to figure out what it was. Didn’t make any difference to me.” There you have it. Imagine what transgressions you like most. It’s that open-ended mystery that makes it the most risque Paul Simon song. I don’t think Paul Simon has ever written a genuinely risque song, so you really have to plug the innuendo in yourself. And in contrast to any possible filth you might be picturing in your head right now, Simon presented an adorably wholesome little video of himself playing sports with inner-city youth at his very own alma mater in Queens. Stop being so lovable all the time, Paul Simon! (If the video looks like it might have been filmed in 1988 while the song was released in ’72, well, that’s because Paul Simon is a time lord, obviously.)