Music fans suffered a tumultuous 2016. The year that took David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Glenn Frey, Leon Russell, Sharon Jones, and so many other greats also saw the release of musical projects that were as politically charged and troubled as the year as a whole, though no one has yet accused Russia of trying to covertly influence Kanye West and Beyonce albums. In Phoenix, a slew of festivals and an ever-increasing number of concert venues provided us with a dazzling array of entertainment options. In short, a lot happened this year, both locally and nationally. Here are the 10 best things I heard this year.
The Deafening Screams of Tens of Thousands of Teenage Girls at the 5 Seconds of Summer Concert (Monday, September 11, at Ak-Chin Pavilion)
I went to the 5 Seconds of Summer concert at Ak-Chin Pavilion looking to rip the band to pieces. But no one screams quite as loudly at concerts as teenage girls, and when nearly 20,000 of them unleashed their full vocal passion for 5 Seconds of Summer, I realized it represented something I haven't seen in years: a massive crowd of young people cheering a rock band of its own generation. Sure, the music was catchy and poppy and not super-interesting, but the guys in the band were total naturals at being rock stars. The guitarists could shred; they all could sing. They displayed a level of musicianship that I frankly didn't anticipate. "Hell," I described in what is probably my favorite sentence I wrote all year, "these little Nickelback-loving pop-punks from Australia put on a clinic on how to play an engaging rock show Saturday night."
The legendary sounds of Black Sabbath (Monday, September 21, at Ak-Chin Pavilion)
2016 was a year of legends dying and legacies ending, and that includes Black Sabbath — the band announced 2016 would be its final year touring, with Phoenix slated to host one of the band's final concerts. Singer Ozzy Osbourne's voice sounded straight out of 1970, guitarist Tony Iommi played with seasoned polish, and Geezer Butler played with trademark "lead bassist" style, throwing out riffs that both ventured outwards and held down a groove. The band took its time running through its set, rushing nothing and allowing the audience to savor every plodding note and every evil riff. The legends came to Phoenix, and they disappointed no one.
"Drunk Drivers/Killer Whale" — Car Seat Headrest (from Teens of Denial, 2016)
You can intellectualize music all you want, but in the end, one of the most important metrics for a song is simply how loudly you want to sing along to it while driving. In 2016, the song that inspired the highest number of car concerts for me was "Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales," a song by 24-year-old songwriting whiz kid Will Toledo, who calls the full-band version of his project Car Seat Headrest. The song is six minutes, 14 seconds long, and not a single second of that time is wasted. Drunk driving becomes a metaphor for living life as a performance for others as Toledo sings, "You build yourself up against others' feelings / and it left you feeling empty as a car coasting downhill." But as depressing as that sounds, the song explodes into a hopeful, soaring chorus: "It doesn't have to be like this, killer whales." What do the whales signify? I'm not exactly sure. But do I enjoy belting it at the top of my lungs? Absolutely.
Phoenix Freaks: A Concert featuring Goth Brooks, Okilly Dokilly, and HotRock SupaJoint (Saturday. August 27, at Pub Rock Live in Scottsdale)
Goth Brooks, Okilly Dokilly, and HotRock SupaJoint threw one of the most memorable concerts I went to all year. Goth Brooks mashes country and goth music, sure, but the approach draws more from the sampling tradition of hip-hop than anything else. Its debut album, Moonshine and Mascara, is a surprisingly layered affair. The premise might be a joke, but the execution is deadly serious. Same goes for Okilly Dokilly: these guys' commitment to the idea of a metal band made up of stupid, sexy Flanderses involves wearing matching costumes and writing song lyrics based around lines of Flanders dialogue from the show. And HotRock SupaJoint is so committed to weed, he's practically a walking piece of performance art. Between acts there was a vaudevillian freak show called Obscure Entertainment, in which audience members were invited to use a staple gun to affix dollar bills to various parts of the body of "clown slut" Scarlett Elizabeth Xander — including the soft parts. It was wild.
Laughter at the Adele concert — (Tuesday, August 16, at Talking Stick Resort Arena)
We all know Adele's got one-in-a-million pipes. We also know that her songs are all typically about heartbreak and that period of unhinged depersonalization that can occur after a breakup. Pretty dark stuff. That's why it came as such a surprise to see her live at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Contrary to the tone of her songs, Adele's personality is bubbly, and between songs she sounds like a stand-up comedian. I expected to like the songs I heard at the concert, but the patter was just as good.
"Ugo" — The Dead Pirates (from Highmare)
Music can engage; it can distract. It can inspire, inform, demand attention, or conquer. Sometimes music acts subtly, quietly giving a room energy or sparking a conversation. Other times it soothes, calms, helping to dull the jagged edges of life's obstacles. This year, whenever I wanted to tune out of the world for a bit, I turned to the Dead Pirates' brilliant stoner rock album Highmare. The song I came back to most was "Ugo." There's something eerie yet captivating about how the song plods along. The band deserves a much wider audience.
"It's So Easy" — Guns N' Roses (Monday, August 15, at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale)
Guns N' Roses' "It's So Easy" might be the best concert opener I've ever heard. The song just drips with swagger. The song appeared on the band's seminal album, Appetite for Destruction, and no better song sums up the way global fame turns everyone around you into a sycophant. This version of Guns N' Roses hadn't played together in 20 years, and to open the tour with this song simply made perfect sense. The band reportedly made $3 million each night it played. For a band like GN'R, everything looks so damned easy.
"You Can Be A Fascist, Too" — Playboy Manbaby
Playboy Manbaby released "You Can Be A Fascist Too" in early November, but the song has been part of their set for much longer than that. When the song was written, the idea of Donald Trump winning the presidential election was laughable. But after the unthinkable happened, singer Robbie Pfeffer's lyrics start to seem eerily prescient. The song's opening line — "Society's in the gutter, man, it's really in the pits / Wouldn't life be better without those undesirable bits?" — seems straight out the playbook for those who think America was better off if everyone looked, acted, and thought just like them.
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Mega Ran Dissing Alex Trebek
In October, Alex Trebek took a pot shot at a Jeopardy! contestant by saying that her interest in nerd rap made her a "loser." Well, those were fightin' words to Mega Ran, Phoenix's nerd rapper extraordinaire, and he responded in true hip-hop fashion: He dropped bars. Mega Ran's diss track on Trebek remains the funniest beef any Phoenix rapper has had in recent memory. "It's easy to be snarky when you're holding all the notecards," the rapper chided the host, in a victory for indignant nerds nationwide.
Kurt Elling's Description of What Makes a Good Song
Aficionados consider Kurt Elling to be one of the best singers in jazz for a very good reason. In addition to his monstrous range, the singer has painstakingly transcribed some the great instrumental solos and written lyrics for them, a practice known as "vocalese." I interviewed him a few weeks before he came to the Musical Instrument Museum, and I asked him a deceptively simple question I like to ask musicians — what makes a good song? He said that a song must have emotional resonance with the listener, but it's the humble description of his process that sticks with me: "I have notebooks full of stuff that has failed. Or that I haven't been 'writer' enough to pull off yet. Or aren't thematically grounded enough. Or that I just haven't lived long enough to know what the answer is to whatever that creative question might be."