ACL 2016: The Year in Review

john-baldessariMany people will be glad when this year is over.  Even a short list of the world’s headlines is enough to give one a headache: Brexit, bombings, the U.S. election.  Thank God we’ve had music to help us through it.

Our amazing cover image is part of John Baldessari’s six-sculpture series Beethoven’s Trumpet (with Ear) Opus # 127, 130, 131, 132, 133, 135, 2007.  Visit Beyer Projects for more.

Our site is about to celebrate its 5th anniversary, which in these times is a sign of longevity.  During this time, we’ve published thousands of reviews, recently passed 2 million site hits (not counting spam!) and accumulated 13,000+ followers.  Over the years, we’ve prided ourselves on carefully choosing the music we highlight from a much larger list; our only regret has been that we’re only able to review a fraction of what we receive.  But while we’ve been focusing on the quality of the music we review, we haven’t given much thought to its impact ~ until now.

calmThis year, we began to notice something that we’ve always suspected but never examined.  In the days after terrible events (regardless of location), we began to see spikes in attention to our calmer albums, mostly in the ambient section but also in modern composition.  The correlation: 100%.  While the sample may seem too small to be statistically significant, our thought is that whenever the world turns frightening and we begin to lose our faith in humanity, music can provide a solace ~ or at least a counterbalance.  This part may seem intuitive.  But our site activity provided a new piece of information: that in the midst of public despair as well as private, people begin to look for new music instead of simply relying on the old.

In one sense, the opposite of creation is destruction.  But in another, the opposite is stagnation: the blank page, the empty score, the unopened journal.  To create is to declare that our imaginations are not yet broken.  The world may seem a horrid place ~ and to people in Syria and other war-torn provinces, it is a horrid place ~ but all is not lost, as long as artists still live and breathe and create.  Every creation is a statement that there are still new things coming into the world, implying that the tide may yet turn.

blue-lagoon-iceland-airwavesSo where does music head next, especially instrumental music?  It’s tempting to think that ambient music may surge in sales as people seek comfort and calm.  But it’s not the whole story.  A number of years ago, I was in Iceland when the entire country went bankrupt, an event that was followed musically by a noticeable shift from the twee to the nearly hardcore.  This shift has since died down, and Iceland’s fortunes have somewhat returned (political scandals excepted), leaving behind a resurgence of national pride.  But their reaction tells us that we really can’t predict what comes next, only that it will not be more of the same.  Our nations change, our feelings change, and our music changes as well.

But here’s what we do know: music is a force for good.  Music can stir us to revolution or bring us to tears; it can unify a stadium or lull an infant to sleep.  Wordless music taps into something deeper in the human psyche, touching the heart and in some cases, even unlocking the mind.  Freed from the distraction of lyrics, listeners may play instrumental music in the background, or use it as motivation for their own creative endeavors.  Whether subliminal or overt, it has an effect: charms to soothe the savage breast.


When I tell people that I listen to instrumental music, I usually get blank stares in response.  Then I share that they listen to the same music as I do; they just don’t notice it, because they concentrate on the visual aspects: TV, film, video games.  Instrumental music is everywhere.  And while I’ve come to hate the cliché, “a soundtrack for the mind”, this season I’m going to make an exception, because the mind is so often filled with bad things ~ fear, anxiety, distrust ~ that it could use a better soundtrack.  12-step programs refer to repeated, self-defeating phrases as “old tapes”; the alternative is (literally) new tapes: music to wash away the negative feelings, to provide rest and relaxation to some, courage and catharsis to others.

thank-youA huge thank you to everyone who makes music, whether for an audience of one or for an outdoor festival, whether digital or physical, whether reviewed or not reviewed.  We honor your creative spirit, as well as the stamina it takes to see a project through.  You may not know it, but you’re helping.  The world needs your contribution, and benefits as a result.

And speaking of contributions, we’ve got two new charity-themed compilations to tell you about, so if you’d like to donate to a good cause or two this season and get some great music for your money, here’s your chance!  The first comes from Hawk Moon Records, includes artists such as Drombeg, Library Tapes and Endless Melancholy, and benefits Naomi House and Jacksplace, which tend to the needs of child hospice patients in England; the second comes from Hibernate Records, includes artists such as Antonymes, offthesky and Olan Mill and benefits stray Romanian dogs.  Please give generously; you can make a difference!


marble-machineAnd finally, our year-end lists highlight some of the best music we’ve heard this year, along with some extras: the best labels, the best covers, the best packaging.  We’ve got two new lists, as Best Film Scores has graduated to a year-end feature and Best Video Game Soundtracks has joined the club.  Two of our lists have already appeared: Music for Haunted Houses, published just in time for Halloween; and The Year’s 10 Best Music Videos, a revision of an earlier article.  The rest will follow over the course of the next two weeks.  We hope that you’ll find something you’ve missed: an album to cherish, an artist to inspire you, a song to give you hope.  The world is still filled with goodness; in the new year and beyond, may your cups overflow. (Richard Allen)


  1. Ben

    Always my favorite time of the year! Thank you so much for yet another year.

  2. Henrik

    I simply love your reviews! And your year-end lists is always my main source for “catching up” with the music year!

  3. Pingback: Where Will Music Head Next? | a closer listen

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