I had never heard Lucy Dacus before “Addictions” was released as a single off her March 2 album, Historian (Matador). Her 2016 debut went right by me, so the restrained voice I was hearing, backed by this subtly grinding lead guitar and hippity-skippity percussion (and were those horns?) was an utter novelty. “Huh,” I thought. “That’s solid.” Last.fm tells me that I played “Addictions” 30 times in 2018, one of over 150 times I played a song off Historian in my kitchen, in my car, or on the train. I couldn’t stop.
Every song on it is a gem. Elements emerge and then recede, and songs grow inside other songs (the title reference to “Night Shift” doesn’t come until three minutes and 20 seconds into the song, and it’s, like, a whole new thing. The second repetition of it knocks you off your chair). “Nonbeliever” is probably my favorite song of 2018, and its late-verse echo, “everybody else looks like they’ve figured it out” feels like my year’s tagline. For my church music friends, “Pillar of Truth” even has a nod to that ubiquitous praise chorus, “Sanctuary.” I try to avoid hyperbole, but LITERALLY EVERYTHING ABOUT HISTORIAN IS PERFECT.
That’s it, then. The year in music for 2018 ends with the album that dominated what I listened to all year. Here’s to more great music in 2019. Happy New Year, and thanks for reading.
My grown up music wheelhouse is the folk, Americana, and even country of lyrical crooners and brooders. But pop music is my DNA. Synthesizers are in my blood, and big, dramatic vocal hooks are in my bones. Blame it on the top 40 radio countdowns I devoted my weeknights to in junior high.
Here are three albums from 2018 that brought out the aspiring pop star in me.
Death Cab for Cutie fans will resist a “pop” label, but the band is on a major label and gets played on commercial radio. Also (and this didn’t really register for me until I saw them live last month), their gig is shot through with the distortion and despair of mid 80’s new wave that dominated pop radio in the early 80’s. There’s New Order in there, for sure.
Thank You for Today (Atlantic) marks the second consecutive Death Cab album that I’ve flipped for after ignoring their first nine. I think their sound has solidified (or something). Kintsugi was full of heavy guitar riffs, and the vocal distortion was dialed back, and I loved it–all of it. Thank You . . .relies quite heavily on distortion, by contrast, and is more synth-heavy. But the songs are all expertly crafted, lyrically insightful, and deeply enjoyable with repeated listens. “Gold Rush” and “You Moved Away” are the ones I love the most. “60 & Punk” is exactly how to close an album.
Chvrches are Scottish, which puts them even more squarely in the center of my musical panoply. Del Amitri, Frightened Rabbit, The Proclaimers: the Scots do poetic, melodic, angst better than anyone. And while Chvrches, an electronic duo, don’t naturally fit with their guitar strumming countrymen on any kind of list, what they do tickles the same spot, at least for me.
Love Is Dead (Glassnote) is Chvrches third major studio album. It does what its predecessors did, so much so that it took me months to really get around to it. What I mean is that listening to and loving a Chvrches album doesn’t feel like discovery. It’s the leftover pizza you’re saving in the fridge as you experiment with that risotto recipe in the cookbook you got for Christmas. You know it’s going to be satisfying, so you can wait for it.
If you like layered synthesizers and sweeping choruses, Love Is Dead is for you. Start with the refrain-fueled “Never Say Die” and then move to “Graves,” which will make you wonder what you’re doing with your life (“You can look away/while they’re dancing on our graves/but I will stop at nothing”).
In 2014 I fell hard for TV En Francais, a pop rock album by a duo from Claremont, CA (where I was living) called We Are Scientists. They made another album in 2016, but my life was too garbled up with a move to spend any time with it. So when they started releasing singles from a new album in 2018, I made sure to add them to my library. Then the album was released in late April.
I remember taking the scenic route to work that morning to enjoy the early summer Chicago sun and spin all 31 minutes of Megaplex (100% Records). Song after song got added to my “2018 Radio” playlist–songs I want to keep. These soaring choruses and lead guitar riffs, these synthesizers and . . . wait for it . . . claptracks! It starts with the lead track, “One In, One Out,” and marches straight through “Notes In A Bottle” (the guitar solo on that song is 10 bars of Def Leppard-worthy goodness) all the way “Properties of Perception” at the end. When it’s over you naturally start it all over again.
Alright, there’s one more of these music of the year posts to go. It only has one album on it, the one that stood out, out, out for me as the biggest musical revelation of the year. Look for that on Monday.
Amos Lee’s My New Moon (Dualtone) has some absolute gems on it, like “Louisville,” “Crooked,” and the first single released from the album, “No More Darkness, No More Light.” It’s on the strength of those three records that I recommend this album, but the other eight on the album don’t disappoint. In the end it’s a smidge uneven, but My New Moon is my favorite Amos Lee project since his 2005 debut.
I am the only Freddy and Francine fan I know. Honestly, nobody else I talk about music with knows them, and the ones who do aren’t all that enthused, with the random exception of my wife’s best friend, who lives in France. After a hiatus that included a breakup, my favorite LA-based romantic/musical duo got back together and made a new album. Barely. Moonless Night (self-released) is six songs stuffed in a 21 minute package, short enough for me to listen to it twice all the way through on my morning commute the morning it was released.
“Hail Me A Cab” is one of my favorite songs of the year. It’s mournful and beautiful, and it balances the more playful side of the album on songs like “Sweet on You.” You won’t regret at least checking this album out.
Lake Street Dive made my EP list already, but their real contribution to the year in music was Free Yourself Up (Nonesuch Records), the LP they put out in early May. It is absolutely crammed with the kind of funky folk appeal the band has been known for since their 2010 self-titled debut Signature Sounds, or, for most people, since they released the single “Bad Self Portraits” off their 2014 follow up.
Landon doesn’t go for the “Bonnie Riatt” vibe, but I honestly can’t get enough of it. The songwriting is self-aware and elevated by a certain honesty about the way of things in romantic relationships (“Good Kisser” and “Dude”). And still, the earnest notes of ballads like “Musta Been Something” and “I Can Change” just ache with longing. Rachel Price sings like nobody’s business, too.
“Evenutally” is a Tame Impala song that the duo Lucius covered on Nudes (Mom+Pop), and that I played so much in the car and in the kitchen that my 10 year-old daughter now sings it without even realizing she’s doing it.
Nudes is the most interesting project on this list, because it was recorded over two days and includes a bunch of stuff that the quartet has made centerpieces of their live shows, including their own songs and covers like “Eventually.” I’ll be honest and say that I wasn’t blown away when it came out in the spring, but songs from it kept finding their way into my rotation, and by the end of the year I had to include it. “Right Down The Line” and a Roger Waters collaboration, “Goodnight, Irene” are the real standouts.
Today I give you five albums from 2018 that appealed to my country receptors. I don’t know what brought it on, but I endured a major country music phase in high school, and those years left behind a serious sensitivity for twang, particularly twang tinged with indignation. I haven’t stomached commercial country music since the mid 90’s, but every year I go loopy for a few steel guitar, rockabilly, whiskey-soaked crooner acts.
This year that soft spot found albums by four acts I’d heard before and one I hadn’t. Three of them have the same distribution agency.
The Black Lillies are a band I knew from their 2013 album Runaway Freeway Blues, a Grand Ol’ Opry style country collection that I liked a lot in certain moods. I couldn’t really find the mood for their followup to it, but I heard rumors about a sort of Black Lillies reboot in 2018, so I jumped on Stranger to Me (Attack Monkey Productions/Thirty Tigers) the day it came out.
The reboot essentially trades swoon for muscle. Trish Gene Brady and her sultry vocals are gone, and the songs on Stranger to Me are driven by electric, not steel, guitars. They’re louder and edgier, although there’s still space, as on “Ten Years,” for an organ, and Cruz Contreras’s voice is all country. You mostly feel the reboot on songs like “Weighting,” when Sam Quinn is singing.
It’s a solid collection. I like the reboot, both what it kept and what it added.
Neko Case made an album in 2018 too. That’s always a good sign. She hasn’t done that since 2013. This one she produced herself.
Neko Case is one of the busiest musicians working today, what with her recording and touring with collaborations like The New Pornographers and 2017’s case/lang/viers, so a self-produced solo album creates a ton of expectations. Hell-On(Anti-Records) does not disappoint.
She’s just such a terrific songwriter. “Last Lion of Albion” is like nothing you’ve ever heard (she did a Song Exploder for it that’s great listening), and the title track contains the lyric, “God is a lusty tire fire.” The songs on the album are vocally delicate, too, like “Halls of Sarah” and “Sleep All Summer,” a lovely collaboration with Eric Bachman).
More than any other album released in 2018, Hell-On rewards repeated listening. There are layers here, guys.
The second album on this list distributed by Thirty Tigers is Parker Milsap’s Other Arrangements (Oklahoma Records/Thirty Tigers), the countriest of country albums you’ll find here.
I fell hard for this guy in 2014. “Truck Stop Gospel” was one of my favorite songs of the year. He was back in 2016, but The Very Last Day didn’t do a ton for me. Other Arrangements, though, did a lot.
These songs are driven by Milsap’s scratchy vocals and lead guitar (the album art tells the story, really). Strings are employed sparingly and effectively. “Your Water” and “Gotta Get to You” are my favorites.
From the most country to the least, then. Pinegrove are an five man band from Montclair, New Jersey whose songs refer to ampersands and amulets with vocals you shouldn’t like but can’t resist. Their debut LP, Cardinal, was one of my favorite albums of in 2016, so I was ready for a follow up. Skylight (self released) was what I was waiting for.
There’s a story here, too, having to do with the band’s lead singer and songwriter being accused of sexual misconduct, disappearing for awhile, and then facing the music. Quinn Moreland at Paste explained it all helpfully in his review of Skylight. It’s why the album was self-released and why the proceeds from all the sales are going to charity.
The songs on Skylight are shorter than you want them to be (11 songs in 30 minutes?), and they hit a certain emo/pop nerve, even while being awash in a twangy soundscape. “Lush” is the word I’m looking for. “Rings” and “Angelina” are my favorites.
To Will Hoge, Skylight is long by about a minute. His quick-and-dirty 2018 album My American Dream(EDLO Records/Thirty Tigers) is the last one on this collection and is only 29 minutes long.
This guy has been recording albums since 2001, but I hadn’t heard any of them until now. I read a review on American Songwriter and added it to my Spotify library but didn’t get around to playing it until “Nikki’s A Republican Now” came up during a shuffle of my entire song library. I was like, “Who is that?” and I played the whole album that minute.
28 minutes later I canonized it in the 2018 albums list. I mean, if you’re looking for a collection of angry foot-stomping protest songs, you can hardly do better. “Thoughts And Prayers” is the center of gravity, and the song that birthed the project. Hoge wrote it in response to that phrase’s gross usage by political leaders after yet another school shooting (Parkland). Then he let loose on income disparity, racism, and xenophobia, to name but a few social ills.
The Year in Music rolls on with the first full-length albums I’m keeping from 2018. They’re both from pop-friendly punk acts that have never really tracked with me before.
My friend Jeff sent me a Smoking Popes song in mid-October with a note that they’re a punk band he’d sort of lost track of. I’m sure I’d heard the name and been turned off. But I played it, because I turn away no music recommendations. It was catchy and edgy and had a conscience. I was hooked.
Into The Agony came out on October 12th on Asian Man Records. The first time I played it, I kept expecting the next song to be the one that put me off it. It never happened. “Simmer Down” is aggressive but relatable. “When You Want Something” is nearly beautiful. “Get Happy” is a Judy Garland song, for Pete’s sake. “No Tomorrow Tonight” is a bit schlocky. But then “Little Lump of Coal” and “Melting America” are the punk-infused protest songs the day calls for. Count me a fan.
There are two songs from Bayside’s 2016 album, Vacancy on my song list from that year. Beyond that, the band hadn’t really registered with me in the 14 years they’ve been putting out albums (and it turns out that Vacancy was itself a repackaging of one of their earlier albums). They’re as far out on a punk limb as I go, and that’s not very far.
Acoustic, Volume 2 came out in late September on Hopeless Records. “It Don’t Exist” was actually released as a single first, and I played it a bunch of times. I took the artist to be some new-on-the-scene folk/Americana act. It wasn’t until “Sick, Sick, Sick” that I figured out who I was actually hearing: an album of acoustic versions of old Bayside songs I’d never caught the first time around. I was kind of blown away by the revelation and sent “Sick, Sick, Sick” to Landon alongside its 2011 original with the question, “How can these be by the same band?”
I read a quote from singer Anthony Raneri about Acoustic . . .: “This album is strictly for the fans.” I hate to tell Raneri he’s wrong though, at least in my case. I became strangely devoted to this album on its own terms and not as an outpouring of years-long loyalty; I’ve still not heard the original versions of some of these songs. It’s just great. It’s how to do a reinterpretation of your own work: your fans will love it, and you’ll make some new ones at the same time.
It’s the next installment of the year in music, this blog’s annual exercise in working out its author’s need to categorize and share the songs and albums from the previous 12 months the he liked. It’s not for everyone. But you might find something useful.
Today, EPs. EP stands for “Extended Play,” and it refers to a release that isn’t long enough to be considered an album, or “Long Play” (LP). They’re cheaper to produce, and many release LPs before an album. Increasingly, it seems like established acts are releasing EPs though, often in the same year that they release an LP. Both The Decemberists and Lake Street Dive did that this year, presumably in order to publish music they recorded for, but did not ultimately include on, their albums.
There were four EPs that I spent a lot of time with this year. One I’m sure you’ve heard. One I’ve already mentioned. Let’s start with that one.
Freak Yourself Out was released by Lake Street Dive in late November. Because I saw the band about a month earlier, I had heard most of it already. Frankly, if I hadn’t I don’t think it would have registered with me. Still, “Daryl” and “Angioplast” showcase the band’s delightful versatility.
Brett Dennen released two EPs in 2018, and I considered listing them together as an LP. Taken together they’re a solid collection of the folk singer/songwriter’s uptempo turn, but by themselves they kind of make individual statements. They are Dennen’s first recordings for Downtown Records, home to Cold War Kids and David Gray. I’ve known of Dennen for about a decade, but I haven’t loved anything he’s done until these. In particular “Already Gone,” and “Live in The Moment” are total earworms. “Jenny and Jill” has just the loveliest, loveliest harmonic chorus.
Finally, the one I’m sure you’ve heard. In late October, Matador Records released boygenius, a self-titled six-track collection from a female indie rocker supergroup nobody saw coming. Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker who have both recorded for Matador, teamed up with Phoebe Bridgers, whose debut album last year on Dead Oceans was one of my yearly favorites. The result is just stunning, vocally, rhythmically, and lyrically. No doubt, boygenius is one of the best things to happen in 2018 music. There are only six songs, so they’re all standouts. But “Me & My Dog” and “Stay Down” will stay with you.
Here, then, is my hard call on the ten songs I’m taking with me into 2019, listed, not ranked. Each inclusion represents a decision. There are lots of songs denied a spot on this list that I listened to more, but that I decided were not as good, not as important to me, as the 10 left.
Listening to music is rewarding. Reading about music is less so. Here you go then.
In addition to my own annual music lists, Spotify makes one for me (posted below). I love this about Spotify. It pays for the subscription all by itself. There’s another service called Last.fm that I have used for years that does something similar, collecting data on music you’ve streamed across a variety of platforms and showing it to you across seven day, 180 day, and 365 day stretches. But because, until September, it was mixing together both mine and Kiddo’s listening histories, there’s way too much Hamilton and Camila Cabello to sift through to find my music.
Also, not only does the service compile a playlist for you of the 100 songs you’ve listened to the most during the year, it accompanies that list with a web-based presentation about your music listening habits since January.
I listened to 25,104 minutes of music this year.
I listen to “non-mainstream” artists 71% more than the average Spotify listener.
The oldest song I streamed all year was the 1954 track, “Keep Your Hand on The Plow” by Mahalia Jackson.
I am so much of a sucker for this.
Listening through this automatic “Your Top Songs” playlist is actually a reflective exercise. Sure, a bunch of what’s in there is stuff I picked and played repeatedly on purpose, and most of it was released in 2018 and so overlaps with this playlist. But there’s a lot of surprises in there that break down to a couple of things that were true about 2018 for me.
I spent a lot of time building a shared playlist with a friend from seminary, trying to get him to expand my musical palette and teach me some of the American music history that my suburban Top 40 radio upbringing deprived me of. That list accounts for a lot of what I spent time with, stuff I would not otherwise have been listening to (Billy Bragg, Buffalo Tom, Grandpa Boy, The James Hunter 6).
I also, because of my job, spend hours driving vans full of teenagers. I make playlists for these drives, and I’ve started inviting the students to contribute. Those trips have a discernible footprint on this playlist. They account for the Walk The Moon, Portugal. The Man, a-ha, Earth, Wind, & Fire (!), Miley Cyrus, Journey, and Barenaked Ladies (one group of students demanded “Don’t Shuffle Me Back” practically every time we got in the van.)
I listen to a lot of music. In the morning making Kiddo’s school lunch, on the train to work, in the office, on the train home, in the kitchen making dinner, in the car. I have music on almost all the time.
I choose the music intentionally. Spotify has a mind boggling array of radio stations that will play music for you: at this very moment the home page is recommending a station it’s created called “Have A Great Day,” one full of “Today’s Top Hits,” and then a seasonal recommendations–“Christmas Coffeehouse.”
I have no use for any of these.
For me, the true power of streaming music lies in the ability it gives me to curate my own library, with up-to-the-minute new releases, and to make my own lists. Spotify specifically lets me make lists with friends, which is amazing. One list a buddy and I have made has 921 songs on it, and we only started it at the end of last December.
I keep a running list of both songs and albums released in a given year. In December I share them. It’s December.
This is the list of songs released in 2018, either on albums or as singles, that were my favorite. It’s simple: if I liked it when I heard it, it went on the list. Over time, some songs came off the list. There’s a more exclusive list I’ll share later of my top, top, top songs of the year. That’s not this.
I went to a choral concert my niece was performing in, and it was amazing. I came away with a few observations:
It’s hard to put on a program of excellent choral music without hymns and other religiously-themed pieces. This concert featured “I Sing Because I’m Happy,” “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and “Dirshu Adonai.” Choirs’ repertoires would be badly impoverished if you took away all their religious material.
One of the conductors invited the audience to sing along to “America The Beautiful.” “Singing kids come from singing families!” she chided us, and I wanted to add, “and churches!” I am increasingly grateful for the work the Church does teaching people to sing–particularly young people–because it’s an activity that popular culture has associated with celebrity. The good news must be sung as well as preached. In our day and age, choirs and hymnals are kind of revolutionary.
“Teaching kids to sing is an emergency,” said another conductor. I’ve never heard such urgency associated with arts education. The statement struck me as unassailably true.
Lastly, I need more live music in my life. As someone who accumulates, digests, and shares gobs of recorded music, I barely ever seek out live performances, and that’s a shame. Something like an emotional massage happens when a good piece of music played live hits your ears.