2016 Didn't Suck That Much (At Least Not Musically)

There’s a rule in music…well, there’s a rule in my musical world:

If they hang out with Josh and Garth of The Rutabega, they make damn fine music.

This has held true through numerous events and opening acts. Really, the only exception I can think of is myself and, well, I don’t make any music at all. The rule certainly applies to what I deem my favorite find of 2016 (I really should come up with a name for this…the Golden Needle Award? The Drop Of The Year? Or maybe I shouldn’t).

I’m speaking of Jake Simmons & The Little Ghosts. I caught them while playing with The Rutabega at McCormick’s in South Bend and, while the late night show was making me feel a bit old, the music of JS&TLG revived me in a way I haven’t felt since I was a punk-ass kid watching Dave Kirchgessner of Mustard Plug hang from that weird bar above the two-inch stage at the original Intersection (cheers if you remember what I’m talking about).

JS&TLG make solid rock music, with high-energy dives into punk rock, blues, and, seemingly, whatever the hell sound they deem appropriate for each song. The bleeding guitars are best played on high volume and, hey, don’t be shy about singing along. Jake’s lyrics traverse the realms of quirky, angry, and sentimental, never once feeling anything but genuine.

As is often the case for me with my end of year favorites, most, if not all of the JS&TLG music I’m speaking of was released prior to 2016, but , hey, this was the year that I discovered it (you could chalk this up to my being slow and behind, but I prefer to blame it on the massive amount of great music being made today).

I’ve put together a Jake Simmons mixtape for you to check out some of my favorites. Make no mistake, though, as anything short of picking up the entirety of every release is simply shorting yourself of rock and roll greatness. And why would you do that to yourself? Check out that mix tape over on Spotify:

AtND Jake Simmons & The Little Ghosts Mix Tape

As for the rest of 2016, well, many claims have been made as to the negative nature of the year thanks to numerous deaths of our heroes, bad news stories, and the embarrassing and horrific election of Trump to the White House, but remember, nothing is all good or bad. Whatever else aside, 2016 certainly was a solid year for good music:

(Note: If you’re playing catch up, click on the album or song title to purchase the music from Amazon and help AtND pay the bills at the same time!)

Car Seat Headrest gave us Teens Of Denial, a rock album that finds new depth with each listen.

Amanda Palmer has found a prolific stride thanks to her reliance on Patreon, using the direct support of her fans to give us a constant supply of new and excellent music. It was by fortunate coincidence that AFP’s tour had hit my region the weekend after the election (not to mention the death of Leonard Cohen), giving me a place to process my shock, disappointment, and upset. The concert featured an emotional evening of music, with sing-alongs, scream-alongs, stomping, and crying. Amanda brought along guests, inviting Peter Sagal of NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me and the Vice President of Illinois’ Planned Parenthood to deliver messages of love and action. Her husband, author Neil Gaiman, was in the room as well. He performed a reading (with Amanda backing him musically) of Leonard Cohen’s “Democracy” before spending much of his evening with their son in the back of the room, teaching him to walk a few feet from where I was standing (I put my fanboy away and just watched the moment in awe). Speaking of that reading of “Democracy”, you can pick that track up and, in the process, help out PEN America’s efforts to defend free speech by going here.

The Avett Brothers gave us their best album in years with True Sadness. You can check out my review of that here. I saw them too the weekend after the election, a last minute addition to my concert schedule that was the usual emotion packed evening from TAB, heightened so by current events. With protestors expressing similar feelings just around the corner from the Van Andel Arena, the crowd roared in defiance the line “your life doesn’t change by the man that’s elected” during “Head Full Of Doubt, Road Full Of Promise“.

Swet Shop Boys brought us the Indian/Pakistan/American hip-hop album Cashmere, full of anger and commentary about our culture’s treatment of those of Middle Eastern descent (and not to mention all of those sick beats).

If you somehow missed it, Drive-By Truckers certainly broke new ground with American Band, giving us the American rock album we desperately need in our current culture.

And Charles Bradley gave us Changes, reminding us the true meaning of the word “soul” and recording an amazing cover of, oddly, Black Sabbath.

And we can’t forget all of the awesome coming from Grand Rapids’ The Crane Wives, giving us the epic Foxlore when I was still busy singing along with Coyote Stories and Safe Ship, Harbored. Watch for them in 2017. I expect amazing things.

Justin Wells returned from the ashes of Fifth On The Floor with one of the best American rock albums I heard all year in Dawn in the Distance, about his life as a musician, an outcast, and a father.

PUP gave us The Dream Is Over, a mischievous, loud, and ultimately fun punk rock record worthy of losing one’s voice while screaming along and playing far too loud.

So much good music. So whatever the “dumpster fire” view of 2016 you may have, remember unrest and upset makes for some fine music and certainly gives us a soundtrack for fighting the battles ahead. And, oh, do we have battles ahead.

I want to thank you all for another great year of support. Remember, if you love what we do, you can support us directly at our Patreon campaign or visit any of our sponsor links.

Let’s finish 2016 with our heads high and our hands ready for the battles of 2017. Until then, here’s to life.

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The Year Ahead

Most writers have likely given you their lists of accomplishments and goals from the year past, as well as their thoughts and desires on the new one in which we find ourselves. However, as you’ll soon find out, I rarely operate on the expected schedule often determined to be the best path in life.

I spent a fair portion of 2015 in front of this computer, talking, writing, and exploring the vast world of music and culture. The opportunities afforded to me in the past year went beyond the expectations I have given myself. I was fortunate enough to connect with a varied list of talented and interesting people; struggling musicians and their popular national counterparts, proprietors of venues and cultural centers, and makers of all things food, art, and life-affirming. I have been able to spend significant portions of my time awash in the parts of life I love the most. To quote South Bend musician Dena Woods, in 2015 I found “that which is soul-filling.”

My path was not always one that pointed obviously toward professionally delving into my interests. I look back to my years following high school, when friends and peers moved on and away to pursue dreams and create careers. I stayed behind in rural Michigan, unsure which road to travel, unsure how my personal interests translated into the future set before me. I toiled in jobs of every variety, from factory work to tending bar, from retail to janitorial, from nearly every role available in an eatery to each task one can accomplish out of a toolbox. As I saw my friends creating their lives, I concerned myself with how I would appear when reunited with them. I worried often that I’d missed an important page in life’s instruction manual.

Nothing feels more natural to me than writing. It is a task I have occupied myself with as long as I can recall, one that satisfied my boredom and carried me across the struggles of life. While I worked to figure out where my life should lead, I turned to the emerging world of blogging or, as we referred to it then, “writing”. I made friends and gained community here and across the globe. I found like-minds and encouragement that instilled confidence and led me to exploration and adventure. I found my way to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and into the highlands of Scotland. I picked up a camera and started making movies. I grabbed a pencil and started creating stories. I convinced musicians and artists to sit and talk with me. I continued my writing and found an audience willing to read it.

We have a motto at Anywhere The Needle Drops: “life is an adventure, life is a story.” The spirit of that motto is that there is no correct or safe path in life. Certainly, more secure paths exist and there are people who can tell you about them. I am not one of them, though I do advise you listen to their counsel. I also advise you to then bend those rules and, occasionally, even break a few.

As you look into the future, into the new year, or simply into next week, remember that it’s important to pursue that which speaks most to you. Remember that the adventure of life is a short one that ends in the same place for everyone. Remember that, as Shepherd Book once told the audience of Firefly, “the journey is the worthier part.” Remember that, if you find yourself uncomfortable, you are probably doing something right. It will not be easy, but anything worth doing rarely is. It will not be the sure and secure path in life, but to quote Julia Cameron “safety is an expensive illusion.”

In 2016 and any year that follows, pursue that which speaks most to you. If a guy in rural Michigan who loves music and movies can find a way to speak to his favorite artists, write and talk about the culture he loves, and have an audience that reads and listens to him, then that is proof enough that you can achieve what you set out to do.

These piece created in part for Justin’s weekly column in Off The Water.

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