It hasn't been an easy year. For pop culture—now more than ever inextricably tied to politics in the labyrinthine structures of social media, cable TV news and the 24-hour cycle of atrocity entertainment—2016 has been a series of breathtaking blows delivered by a disparate group of reporters, from CNN pundits to anonymous Twitter accounts (along with Anonymous' Twitter account) to Beyoncé.
Not to get all obvious, but the year's going down as a turning point in history, like '68, like '39, like '29. In music, an avalanche of serious losses—from Bowie to Prince to Sharon Jones—broke our hearts in real ways while callously clearing slates for new defining voices. Beyoncé. Kanye. Frank Ocean. All released records this year as definitive as anything in pop history, especially considering the cultural contexts in which they were birthed.
Rock 'n' roll had a quiet year, contributing even less to the conversation than any previous year in this decade so far, which ain't saying much. But what does say a lot is how rock 'n' roll maestro David Bowie designed Blackstar—his walk off into the beyond—by ignoring and avoiding the genre completely, to paraphrase his longtime producer Tony Visconti.
Like many, the records meant the most to me this year were Lemonade, Blackstar, The Life of Pablo and ANTI. Here in Tucson, musical pleasures were decidedly downsized. Most of 2016's most alarming records were intimate and modest, away from the grand statements made elsewhere. This column will feature some of those releases that soundtracked my year as a Tucsonan. These are not in any order, and certainly not one of preference. But each of them, in their own way, provided a respite from the events of the most consequential 12 months in at least a generation. A second Tucson best-of will appear next week.
Sea Wren, Sea Wren (Lolipop)
Featuring almost an identical line-up to the more high-profile Resonars, but highlighting the song craft and singing of Cherish Rendon, Sea Wren exacted a more laid back, breezy jangle-pop experience than the Resonars and most of the '60s-inspired records that make their way out of Midtown Islands Studio. Rendon's downsized and intimate portrayals resembled nothing more than the early-'80s Los Angeles Paisley Underground, where psych served as a road to a state of sensuality in sonics, rather than pseudo-spirituality.
Lenguas Largas, Abba Daddy (Red Lounge)
On their two previous full-lengths, Lenguas Largas was focused, brief and sharp. Even on ephemeral releases like Ese Culito, the weirdness quotient went up but the impact was the same. On this album, which plays like a throwaway stopgap, until repeated listens reveal its strength: looseness and lack of direction coalesce into a surreal universe where the inversion of qualities that make this band great still make this band great.
Trees Speak, Trees Speak (self-released)
Almost a combination of the two above selections, Trees Speak—the latest musical venture from Daniel Martin Diaz and Amelia Poe—creates a miniature sound world out of fragments of the past, in this case Krautrock and the Cocteau Twins, and plays like one long piece of rainy-day mood, but one where a muted kaleidoscopic rainbow is occurring simultaneously.