Top Ten Albums of 2018

As a rule, I acknowledge trends in music only grudgingly, believing the creative process is ultimately far more elusive — and operating on chronologies likely quite different from that suggested by the release schedules — than perception bias allows. The desire to see a year of excellence in pop culture as a collective statement is mighty, but it strikes me as false, especially since any individual’s list, no matter how far afield they’re willing to go, is more of a telling representation of personal taste.

Without many deductive leaps, I can finds all sorts of parallels among the ten albums that follows, but the only thing I know for sure is that several artists issued music that deeply spoke to me over the course of the past twelve months. And that’s all I really want and need.

monae dirty

1. Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer This is so clearly the album Janelle Monáe has been building to her whole career, each previous tentative statement of self leaving another hairline crack in whatever barriers she had in place. Few other albums felt like such manifestos of claiming power than never should have been denied in the first place. It echoes the pinnacle works of her funk, soul, and R&B ancestors and then, through sheer force of will, transcends the obvious comparisons. It’s relentlessly marvelous.

mitski be

2. Mitski, Be the Cowboy Mitski’s follow-up to the properly beloved Puberty 2 is a contained furnace of feeling. The songs are artfully constructed to heighten tension, and Mitski delivers them with a steely delicacy. Or maybe it’s a delicate steeliness. Either way, Be the Cowboy is enveloping in its sonic beauty and has the emotional potency of tear-softened journal pages written so forcefully that the pen occasionally tore the paper.

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3. Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour Working with a handful of simpatico collaborators, Kacey Musgraves writes plainly perfect songs, steeped in the country music of her Texas youth and yet always poised to pirouette off to any other nearby style with a gracious smile. Pristine in production and thoughtful in manner, Golden Hour hints that Musgraves can do just about anything.

4 Spiritualized

4. Spiritualized, And Nothing Hurt I feel like the latest from Jason Pierce has gone somewhat undervalued, as if his luxurious soundscapes are now familiar enough from previous releases — infrequent as they may be — that they’re easy to take for granted. They shouldn’t be. There is rich, disarming artistry still on display.

calvi hunter

5. Anna Calvi, Hunter Raw and lean, the third album from Anna Calvi is so fervent it becomes beautifully discombobulating. There’s an unmistakable similarity to early P.J. Harvey, if only in the album’s scalding assurance. Calvi’s distinctiveness repels comparisons, though. Hunter is often pop as unsettled abstraction, simultaneously wild and enticing.

rose loner

6. Caroline Rose, LonerThe third album from Caroline Rose boasts piquant songwriting and tracks that stalk the land like cunning predators. Individual tracks can seem like a half dozen musical ideas colliding in the middle of busy intersection, but Rose’s personality keeps the whole endeavor smartly unified.

beach 7

7. Beach House, 7 As is often the case with the strongest offerings from Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally, 7 is haunting, its layered surprises emerging over time and after repeat listenings. The duo’s seventh album is another strong entrant in a truly sterling body of work.

lucy historian

8. Lucy Dacus, Historian There’s a lot of forlorn reflection on the sophomore album from Lucy Dacus, but the tinge of sadness comes across as quietly triumphant. The songs are cathartic and piercingly true, crafted with reserved complexity. The novelistic details in the lyrics add to the album’s already considerable weight.

neko hell

9. Neko Case, Hell-On Simply put, Hell-On is a master being masterful.

rolling hope

10. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, Hope Downs The debut full-length from Australia’s Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever is modern indie rock channeling a playlist from an extra cool college radio station, circa 1988. I am utterly powerless to resist.

Previously…

Top Ten Albums of 2011
Top Ten Albums of 2012
Top Ten Albums of 2013
Top Ten Albums of 2014
Top Ten Albums of 2015
Top Ten Albums of 2016
Top Ten Albums of 2017

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #800 to #797

bullens desire 800. Cindy Bullens, Desire Wire (1978)

There was a lot of slow build music business background preceding Desire Wire, the debut album by Cidny Bullens, then performing as “Cindy” while living apart from his true gender identity. Bullens was a well-traveled backup singer, with professional stints behind nineteen-seventies powerhouses Elton John and Rod Stewart. Several tracks recorded for the movie Grease also boast Bullens’s pipes, and the material on his debut album, Desire Wire, suggests the blockbuster soundtrack was on everyone’s minds as Bullens moved to the forefront.

“High School History” is the clearest example of Bullens delivering material that sounds like a great lost Grease showstopper. Preliminary positioned as a classic girl group teenage tragedy song, the cut pivots to something more sweet and benign (Well, the gym was getting mighty hot/ We both were giving everything we got/ You know we danced till a quarter to three/ The rest is high school history”). It’s retro rock ‘n’ roll with an extra cherry soda fizz to it. The classic 45s for a modern age vibe is also present on “Anxious Heart,” which lands somewhere between Dave Edmunds and Juice Newton.

Placing the album more squarely in its era, “Survivor” is like Laura Nyro with more of a rock undercurrent. A lot of the album falls into that mode, especially on the slightly weaker second side. It’s solidly engaging but less distinctive than the revival rock. The only time it skews into the problematic is when the music slows down, as on the ballad “Knee Deep in Love.”

Bullens released one more album in the nineteen-seventies before largely retreating to concentrate on family life. There were little stabs at returns to the field in the eighties and nineties, with a more full-scale reengagement around the turn of the millennium. He announced he was a transgender man in 2012, eventually building an acclaimed performance piece around his experience.

 

pearl harbor

799. Pearl Harbor and the Explosions, Pearl Harbor and the Explosions (1980)

It started with a talent contest run by noted San Francisco bizarros the Tubes. They were recruiting local, amateur talent to join their riotous stage show in the mid-nineteen-seventies and a recent transplant to the Bay Area calling herself Pearl A. Gates was one of the lucky winners. Jane Dornacker was also part of the rollicking road show and moonlighting by starting up a band called Leila and the Snakes. Gates joined in, meeting other musicians in the process, including brothers Hillary and John Hanes, who, in keeping with the punk rock times, adopted the new last name Stench. With that duo and Peter Bilt, Gates formed her own band: Pearl Harbor and the Explosions. In short order, they were signed to Warner Bros. and working on their self-titled debut album

Single “Drivin'” was the true attention-getter, if only for the way it exemplified the emerging new wave sound. The entirety of Pearl Harbor and the Explosions is vibrantly well-realized, though, whether the twanging, agitated “Don’t Come Back,” prowling kiss-off “So Much for Love,” or the funky “Get a Grip on Yourself.” Maybe the clearest example of the potential held by the band is in the track “Shut Up and Dance,” which sounds like the missing link between the New York Dolls and the Divinyls.

As enjoyable as it would have been to watch the group develop further, it wasn’t meant to be. Pearl Harbor & the Explosions was the sole studio album before the band fell apart. Gates moved to London where she recorded a solo album under the name Pearl Harbour and married Paul Simonon, bassist for the Clash. Both were busts. The solo album went nowhere and the marriage ended in divorce before the decade was up.

 

grateful street

798. Grateful Dead, Shakedown Street (1978)

Derisively tagged “Disco Dead” by many stalwart fans, Shakedown Street found the San Franciscan inspirers of countless slow, wavy dances in flowing hippie garb trying out new little wrinkles to their cemented sound. Residents of the road, the Grateful Dead had taken a couple year hiatus in the middle of the decade, and the album arguably caught them as they were trying to find their collective artistic voice again. Produced by Lowell George, of Little Feat, Shakedown Street is an odd mix, spurring off in several different directions, sometimes within the same song. To a degree, they were — as charged — seeking a radio hit, one accomplishment that had almost entirely eluded them to that point in their already storied career. The shimmying title cut was the prime offender.

“We were trying to sell out: ‘Oh, let’s make a single and get on the radio,'” drummer Mickey Hart later conceded. “We failed miserably once again. I mean, we could never sell out even if we tried – and we tried.”

The commercial aspirations provide some focus, at least. So much of the album is like a distraction put down on tape. Shakedown Street opens with a cover of “Good Lovin'” that maintains the easygoing party of the famed Young Rascals recording and adds a tempered version of vintage Dead musical meandering, And it features Bob Weir pushing his thin vocals into powerful blues man territory where they don’t belong (a flaw that recurs on “I Need a Miracle” and “All New Minglewood Blues”). And the odd little instrumental “Serengetti” flits by like daydream, which is probably what should be expected when the two drummers write a song together.

There are still signs of the Grateful Dead simply locking in and doing what they do best, establishing an easygoing groove that insinuates itself like a calming inoculation. “Fire on the Mountain” practically feel it taking warm-up stretches in advance of yoga-sprawling out to at least twice its length in live performance form. And “If I Had the World to Give” is an overt attempt by guitarist Jerry Garcia and his regular writing partner, Robert Hunter, to prove they could knock out a fairly straightforward love song just like all their contemporaries. It ultimately succeeds by staying on the right side of sappy, making it a palatable version of all the many Eric Clapton blues ballads of treacly sentimentality.

The album didn’t deliver the commercial breakthrough the band sought. That was still several years away. The identity crisis told hold fully, though, persisting to at least the band’s next album, the misbegotten Go to Heaven.

 

raunch dang

797. The Raunch Hands, Learn to Whap-a-Dang (1986)

Smashing their way out of New York City in the mid-nineteen-eighties, The Raunch Hands were part of the mini-movement that wanted to bring a little more sleaze into the retro rock boom that took the Stray Cats to the upper reaches of the charts and gave several more guitar-slingers more modest but sustainable careers. If the Cramps were the royalty of greasy revived rock ‘n’ roll, the Raunch Hands were convivial hooligans cavorting in the back of the great hall.

From blazing album opener “What Yer Doin'” on, Learn to Whap-a-Dang drops a brick on the accelerator pedal, lights up a smoke, and leans back to enjoy the ride. Listeners are advised to do the same. The album mixes covers — such as a bouncy version of “Chicken Scratch” — with originals, the level of slyness only of the only things qualities showing the seams between the two. Sneaky seediness is set aside in favor of far more urgent innuendo on tracks like “Chicken of the Sea.” That’s all right, though. The band is eager to let everyone in on the joke.

 

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

From the Archive — Ben Folds Five

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The airing of the Kennedy Center Honors this week kicked up all sorts of online enthusiasm for Adam Lambert singing Cher’s “Believe” and Kelly Clarkson paying tribute to Reba McEntire by belting out “Fancy” (which strikes me as more of a honoring of Bobbie Gentry, the original songwriter and performer of the song, but what do I know?). I’m far more intrigued by St. Vincent bringing her otherworldly guitar mastery to a Philip Glass composition, but it’s a performance that I don’t believe made the broadcast which presumably hold the most weight with my immediate friend circle: Ben Folds and Regina Spektor performing a number from Hamilton. (Truthfully, it’s not even clear to me that the performance is part of the official Kennedy Center Honors event, but the institution itself hashtagged it as if it is.) And that’s prompt enough to dust off this piece of writing, originally published as part of the Flashback Fridays feature at my former online home.

1995: Ben Folds Five is released

Ben Folds Five formed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, an especially nurturing area for bands. There were a lot of intriguing angles to the group that undoubtedly helped garner them attention. The Five, for one thing, was a misnomer since the total population of the band numbered three. Then there was a complete absence of a guitar in the band’s line-up, a fairly brave move given the time they launched.

Ben Folds Five was a lovely island of melodic musicianship in the murky seas of the Great Grunge Flood of the nineteen-nineties. After the success of Nirvana and, probably more influentially, Pearl Jam, any band that could make their wall of guitars sound a little like a dirt avalanche could get precious airplay on the “new rock alternative” stations that sprung up across the country like an inflammation of teenage acne. Stalwarts like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Sonic Youth, and The Jesus and Mary Chain released records in 1995 that only got the most cursory attention, but a band like Silverchair could ape Pearl Jam so effectively that it almost sounded like the start of “Weird Al” Yankovic parody record and receive saturation airplay for the effort. I was working in commercial radio at the time, so I was busy being not part of the solution and dutifully following our computer-generated playlists, therefore spending an awful lot of time listening to five different charting songs from Bush’s affront on respectable music taste Sixteen Stone. I didn’t get to play it much on air, but the self-titled album from Ben Folds Five was a blessing.

I read about the album in the review section of CMJ New Music Monthly, itself a vital lifeline to the varied land of college radio that I left behind. The publication came with a CD every month, and the disc affixed to that issue included the song “Underground,” which managed to sound wonderfully, wildly different from everything else at time while also brilliantly mocking the angry self-importance that saturated the music scene. With little other prompting, I visited my friendly neighborhood record store and sacrificed some food money to get the CD.

The album was everything I wanted and needed it to be. It was  funny without degenerating into unbearable joke rock, moving in surprising ways, tinged with a melancholy I could relate to and even occasionally veered towards sentiments that could have been transcribed directly into my own autobiographical confessions. I was working a ludicrous number of hours across four different jobs at that point in my life, and every free moment was a blessed moment. I spent a lot of those alone in my upstairs bedroom, soaking in every note of this album, letting it wash away the residue of bad Collective Soul and Filter songs.

There were also plentiful raves about the quality of the band’s live show, so I made a point of seeing them when they played locally at Club de Wash. But that’s another story.

One for Friday — Was (Not Was), “Somewhere in America There’s a Street Named After My Dad”

was not was

Thirty years ago, in the autumn of 1988, Was (Not Was) released the album What Up, Dog? Officially the third full-length from the group, the album showed up just as one of the two individuals who adopted the last name Was was experiencing an elevated presence in the music industry. Within the next year, Don Was took the producer or co-producer credit on Bonnie Raitt’s Nick of Time and Cosmic Thing from the B-52’s, both massive, career-redefining records. Here, he was simply one part of a team that cooked up a decidedly strange and careening album.

What Up, Dog? largely eschewed the gimmickry of its predecessor, Born to Laugh at Tornadoes, which recruited an oddball assortment of guest lead vocalists. Instead, those duties were largely given to Sweet Pea Atkinson and Sir Harry Bowens, terrifically talented soul singers who’d never gotten much of a break previously. And then the Was boys went to work crafting songs that were maybe tongue in cheek, maybe sweetly earnest, maybe some loopy amalgamation of both.

At my college radio station, the songs that tipped toward novelty got the most airplay, especially “I’m in Jail,” which layered screeching vocals atop music that sounded like a malfunctioning video game with an acid jazz combo inside. But when it felt like prying eyes weren’t around — so round about 1:30 a.m. of my weekly late night shift — I found myself gravitating to the track that shimmered with classic pop polish, as if the band harbored a secret desire to revive Burt Bacharach lush lullabies with a modernized nervous system. It was the sillier material that eventually paid off big for Was (Not Was), but remain most enamored with the cuts that are the ideal playlist additions for the elegant version of Top 40 radio that’s never existed. If it had, “Somewhere in America There’s a Street Named After My Dad” would surely have been a chart-topper.

Listen or download —> Was (Not Was), “Somewhere in America There’s a Street Named After My Dad”

(Disclaimer: Is What Up, Dog? available in a physical format that can be procured from your favorite local, independently owned record store in a manner that compensate both the original artist and the proprietor of said shop? Beats me! It doesn’t look like it, but that seems a little implausible, since it contains the group’s one significant hit. Regardless, the track is shared here not as an alternative to commerce, but rather as encouragement for such an exchange of currency to receive musical art. If not this record, then think about getting something else that one of the Was fellows put his fingerprints on. I believe I’m operating under the legal principle of fair use, but I do know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove this song from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

Now Playing — Mary Queen of Scots

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Much as the wholly understandable current cineaste lament centers on eager franchise chasing and pursuit of brand recognition that limits originality in the various major studio’s dwindling slates, it’s worth remembering the retreat to the tried and true is hardly a new endeavor. Over the years, Mary Stuart, the sixteenth century monarch of Scotland, has been played by Katharine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave, Samantha Morton, and, in a teen drama CW version, Adelaide Kane, who also menaced the Power Rangers. I think that makes it fair to expect that a new rendering of this particular swath of British history offers something unique. Mary Queen of Scots beckons audiences back to the damp, drafty castles when intrigue plays out, yet has very little new or interesting to say.

Officially adapted from a 2005 biography written by John Guy, the film purports to be a more accurate rendering of Mary (Saoirse Ronan) than has come before, especially in presenting her strength in dealing with the various challenges to her rule that accompanied he return to Scotland as a young widow. Focused attention is given to her fraught relationship with Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie), her cousin and Queen of England. Among other contentious points, Mary believes she has a claim on the kingdom’s throne that is at least the equal of Elizabeth’s. The screenplay by Beau Willimon (best known for presiding over the the U.S. version of House of Cards) builds much of its drama around the intricate machinations of power. It aspires to dizzying political chess, but mostly settles into plodding tedium. The nice details scattered throughout are overtaken by a sense of narrative futility bereft of deeper insight. The storytelling is shockingly inert.

Other individual elements of Mary Queen of Scots at least show some promise. The visual sense of Josie Rourke, a British theater director making her film debut, is strong and casually resplendent without lapsing into overt fussiness that can infest period pieces. And Robbie is very strong as Elizabeth, tapping into brittleness borne of the ruler’s insecurities, essentially providing another version of the poisonous privilege found in Olivia Colman’s turn in the far superior The Favourite. None of this is enough to transcend the flaws built into the work, typed onto the page and stubbornly unfixed, maybe unfixable. Mary Queen of Scots fails on the most fundamental level: establishing a compelling reason for being.

Playing Catch-Up — Winter Light; Blockers; Eighth Grade

winter light

Winter Light (Ingmar Bergman, 1963). I’m not sure where the stereotype about smothering Swedish gloom originated, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover the precise genesis point resides somewhere within the frames of Winter Light. In the characteristically lovely and measured rendering by director Ingmar Bergman, the film settles in with a weary pastor (Gunnar Björnstrand) proselytizing to a dwindling parish. He’s particularly tested when called upon to counsel a suicidal man (Max von Sydow) and, in a very different way, and respond to the declarations of romantic devotion from a school teacher (Ingrid Thulin). Although informed by a wry, understated sense of humor, the film is mostly the sort of methodically paced grim appraisal of humanity fans and detractors alike associate with Bergman. The cinematic expertise is evident, even if the narrative’s oppression gives the film a distant chill.

blockers

Blockers (Kay Cannon, 2018). A trio of female friends forge a pact to lost their respective virginities on prom night. Their parents catch wind of the scheme and launch a anxiety-riddled counteroffensive. The feature directorial debut of Kay Cannon, scripter of the Pitch Perfect films and a veteran of the 30 Rock writers’ room, doesn’t recede from its ribald premise. But there’s a unique injection of humanity amidst the dirty jokes, providing a welcome empathy as the clamorous doings mount. As the mother of one of the sexually questing teens, Leslie Mann brings her usual crack comic timing, especially in the sharpest moments, and Gideon Adlon (daughter of Pamela Adlon) has a nice, promising turn as the member of the friend group with the most questionable investment in the night’s endeavors. Among other attributes, it’s some kind of triumph that the only noteworthy nudity in a teen sex comedy is provided by a middle-aged man.

 

eighth grade 3

Eighth Grade (Bo Burnham, 2018). The feature directorial debut of Bo Burnham is astonishing in its insights and piercing truth. It’s also funny, warm, uncompromising, and laudably invested in an uncommonly accurate depiction of the burden of living a digitally interconnected life. Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is moving tentatively through her final days of middle school, worried about her social standing and saddened by the distance between her hopes and her reality. Not much of true import happens in the film, and yet everything is freighted with troubled meaning. Fisher is resoundingly impressive in the lead role, playing Kayla’s awkwardness with detailed honesty that accentuates the moments of escalating social dread. Josh Hamilton plays her fretful but persistently positive father with a delicate astuteness. Burnham’s screenplay is awash in tender wisdom, and his visual storytelling is superb. Eighth Grade is remarkable.

Now Playing — Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

spider verse

Nearly thirty years after Tim Burton’s Batman became a box office behemoth, around fifteen years after Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man set a proper template for big screen superhero adventures, and ten years after Jon Favreau’s Iron Man launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there remains an aversion to acknowledging the comic book origins of cinematic subgenre that currently rules the movie business. That’s changing in increments. Thor: Ragnarok, directed by Taika Waititi, was rightly lauded for its sharp comedy, but what truly distinguished it was the embrace of endless possibilities of superhero storytelling, where believability is based on establishing basic rules and then adhering to internal logic, earthly facts be damned. These are beings equipped with superhuman abilities who don colorful costumes to fight similarly enhanced and garbed evildoers. Wild imaginings should come with the territory.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the most beautifully unbound and freely imagined superhero story yet flashed onto a theater screen. It comes remarkably close to stirring the sort of thrilled sensations I experienced in my boyhood when I eagerly raced through monthly periodicals produced by Marvel and their distinguished competition. In part because working in animation makes gravity that much easier to defy, the film — co-directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman — is vividly, riotously committed to gleeful inventiveness.

A simplified but accurate description of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is that it presents the origin story of Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), a character introduced on the page in Marvel’s Ultimate Universe line. The film takes place in an alternate universe in which Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) is killed in action, fortuitously around the time Miles suffers familiar side effects after an irradiated spider chomps on him. Miles tentatively tries to step up and fill Peter’s wall-crawling shoes, getting assistance from a cadre of unique web-slingers from other dimensions (including an older, gone to seed version of Peter) yanked into the timeline by a colossal reality warping machine funded by the hulking mobster Wilson Fisk, also known as the Kingpin (Liev Shreiber).

The concept of divergent versions of Spider-Man teaming up is drawn from a comic book storyline that sprawled across a variety of titles a few years back. Enthralled by its own pained convolutions, that comic saga was dreadful, but it cracks open the freewheeling spirit of the form in the way it’s handled in the film. Trope-tweaking master Phil Lord developed the story for the screen and co-wrote the script with Rothman. They know the assemblage of bounding heroes needs to have a deeper purpose to avoid becoming mere narrative clutter, and so the characters represent a cross-section of the comic book form, including manga (Peni Parker, voiced by Kimiko Glenn) and funny animal stories (Peter Porker, the spectacular Spider-Ham, voiced by John Mulaney, a stroke of casting genius that deserves an award). Repeatedly returning the images of comic books as visual scorecards to discern among the players further emphasizes the loving homage.

Visually, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a knockout. The directors employ slightly different styles as further signifiers of the derivations of the different characters, managing to make it all meld with friction that drives that story but doesn’t obliterate needed consistency. The images are striking and densely full of wonder. Other superhero films, even those rendered in animation, have compacted the characters and scenarios in evident attempts to sate the skeptical. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse remains true to itself, inviting the viewer to meet it where it is. The journey is worth taking for anyone who longs to stand agog before the brightly impossible.