2018 turns out to be a year brimming with nostalgia, looking back, and uncovering things from the past.
Here, in no particular order, are my Top-5 albums of 2018:
I was made aware of the Australian band Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever through my friend Dave Enright, who is one of the few people who consumes popular music in a fashion and to a degree more than I. Dave was in town for a short while earlier in the summer and mentioned, offhandedly, that Rolling Blackouts C.F. was a band to check out (suggesting that I start with the EPs). I took note of it, but didn’t follow up until several months later when I was John-Cusacked(?) or, perhaps, High-Fidelity’d(?) at my favorite record shop. I happened to be in Cincinnati for work and visited Shake It when an irresistible song started playing in the store. I chose to surreptitiously Shazam it to figure out what it was and it turns out it was the closing track on Hope Downs– “The Hammer.” I just had to buy the album right then and there. To be honest, I’m not sure that that had ever actually happened to me before, for as much time as I spend in record shops.
Hope Downs is solid front to back with jangly guitar-driven pop songs. They certainly haven’t reinvented the wheel, but every time I feel like guitar-driven pop has been done to death, a band like Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever comes around shows that you can do it right. I find that the bands with multiple songwriters that sing their individual songs add a certain amount of added interest (e.g. The Beatles, Wussy, Uncle Tupelo, etc.) There’s not a dud on this record.
Angélique Kidjo has been on my radar for a while, but it’s been a while since she’s made an album that I just had to have. Her album Remain In Light is an NPR special- I heard the promotional interview on NPR one morning, and while the concept was enough to grab me before hearing it, her interview was very insightful and uplifting, not to mention the execution.
The thing that struck me most about the interview was her comments about cultural appropriation. While I support the movement about being conscious of one’s inspiration, source material, etc.; and to be conscious of attribution, I do believe there is a difference between being inspired by something and cultural appropriation. I thought Kidjo’s comments were spot on and concisely mirrored my perspective.
The concept is simple and clever- she, being an African artist, was amazed to hear white American artists Talking Heads playing (and openly attributing their influences) African-inspired music, on their 1980 album Remain In Light, which she first heard in 1983. At the time, while many critics and fans were mistakingly lauding Talking Heads’ new sound as a product of their creativity, Kidjo heard the bands’ true inspiration – the influence of different cultures of Africa on the individual songs, particularly that of famed Nigerian artist Fela Kuti. That has always stuck with her, and nearly forty years later, she decided to do a track-by-track cover of the Talking Heads classic, taking out the 1980s new-wave sounds and distilling the original African influences, as well as a contemporary African sound.
I dare you to listen to this album and try to sit still. While the original still holds up well in my opinion, Kidjo was able to breath a new life into the record. Both have been on heavy rotation in our home this year. If you don’t know either of them, do yourself a favor and get both, they make great companion pieces. While there isn’t a low-point on this album, Kidjo’s take on one of my favorites “Crosseyed and Painless” is a juggernaut.
I think this album should be the start of a fantastic trend. Let’s get a trad blues album of Led Zeppelin I or something like that.
There is always a nagging thought when I laud albums made by my friends or acquaintances, not wanting to seem biased or like the dreaded fan-boy; sometimes you just can’t help it. Such is the case when it comes to Wussy. The follow-up to 2016’s Forever Sounds, is a slower-burn, and somewhat mellower sleeper hit of 2018. It focuses somewhat more on the softer sounds of Wussy’s songwriting while maintaining the tension I attribute to their sound. The word I keep coming back to for What Heaven Is Like is ‘undulating’.
I remember talking to Chuck Cleaver, one of the songwriters of Wussy, about the final Ass Ponys (his former band) album. He said of the album that the country songs were more “country” and the rock songs were more “rock”, and to paraphrase, they were somehow still complimentary to each other. That memory coupled with a relatively recent interview (by fellow Cincinnatian Yoni Wolf) about the creative process, wherein Cleaver says that as a band Wussy doesn’t ever want to retread anything- and to paraphrase Cleaver, that they want to make an album that they want to listen to. While I can only assume that they do want to listen to What Heaven Is Like, I feel like they’ve successfully found a way to further distill the sounds that make Wussy Wussy. Forever Sounds was huge and loud and angular and tinny and anxious, whereas What Heaven Is Like is thoughtful, ponderous (I mean that in a complimentary way) and resonant (literally and figuratively). And both sound like Wussy. The layered guitars on What Heaven Is Like are less angular than the previous record, but just as churning. Listen to the way the guitars meld into fellow songwriter Lisa Walker’s echoing ‘ooohs’ on the opening track “One Per Customer” is just haunting and hits me right in the feels. Listen to the overlapping lyrics and voices on “Tall Weeds” washing over you like waves hitting the wall of guitars and organ noise. And to close out the album, perhaps their most ethereal song yet, “Black Hole” pulls away like a tide.
On a side note, I never really considered Wussy or Cleaver’s former group to necessarily be very political other than perhaps tangentially in Cleaver’s study of the backwoods Midwestern human condition or his and Walker’s study of pop-culture and what that means about us- they’ve always been very introspective songwriters. But I find their inclusion of The Twinkeyz “Aliens In Our Midst” to be rather poignant and an interesting inclusion considering the current political debate over immigrants. I’m not sure how conscious a decision that was, or if it was just a fun song to cover, but it did stand out on my first listen.
While I do consider myself a consistent if not ardent fan of Stephen Malkmus, I was surprised to hear of the then-impending release of Sparkle Hard. It has been a while since Malkmus and his Jicks have released anything- not following the common every-two-year-pattern most bands adhere to these days. Moreover, I was surprised to hear about it through a Washington Post article– not my regular source of music news. While not nearly as dramatic as other labels refusing to put out an album, I was intrigued to hear of a keyboard-based album by a guitar-hero like Malkmus and that while, as I type that previous phrase, I can see why a label might not rush to put out that record- Malkmus has been nothing if not consistent- why not put it out? And I was ready to dislike this record, if only because of Malkmus’ seemingly all-to-easy capitulation and submission of these songs he had in his back-pocket. But, I find myself consistently returning to this record. Sparkle Hard is really good!
Sparkle Hard has everything you want from Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks: easy sunny grooves (“Middle America”), prog (“Rattler” and “Kite”), sleazy rockers (“Shiggy”), even a country song (“Refute” – what I wouldn’t give for Malkmus to bite the bullet and put out a full album of country songs, he’s clearly into them), and more! Malkmus, not unlike Wussy, has always been introspective, psychedelic if not ambiguous; but never really commenting on specific topics of the day. On Sparkle Hard there’re references to #MeToo and a whole song taking the piss out of the lazy bourgeois feelings of the benefits of bike lanes to the murder of Freddie Gray (“Bike Lane”). What does it say about our times, when even the introspective artists are commenting on current events?
And for all the guitars on this record, I have to say, I really love Mike Clark’s keyboard work on this album. I can’t say as I’ve really paid much attention to it before, but it varies from delightfully 70s to synthy-as-hell-80s, and I kind of dig it.
My brother Isaac Hand and his friends Arthur Brum and Nader Atassi quietly released, under the moniker Latter, the collaborative record Friendship-In-Exile, aptly named as the trio recorded the record’s individual parts and sent them to each other to add their respective parts or to affect or produce them (in the music recording sense), not unlike the Postal Service‘s process. To my knowledge, there is only one song where more than one member was ever in the same room for this recording- “Tram Tell Me Set Me”, where Hand and Atassi recorded the guitar parts together. To add to the mix, interestingly, Brum is not actually a trained musician- which I find as positive influence on the songs. While I’m not entirely sure what parts were provided by Brum (or Hand or Atassi), not to take anything away from any of the performances, there is an innocence and excitement that is palpable throughout the record.
While the songs on this album are unclassifiable, and I find “experimental” to be too vague to be descriptive, these songs range from ambient, weird folk, and electroacoustic or folktronica. There are some delightful moments on this record for fans of Animal Collective, J Dilla, The Books, or even Joanna Newsom. Friendship-In-Exile starts off strong with “Horned Dried Blunder” which one could mistake for a queasy Prefuse 73 or a J Dilla cut moving to the glitchy “Automatic Want” that recalls a quiet Tim Hecker track and expands from there. This album sounds incredible. As a musician and ersatz producer I found myself trying to figure out how certain sounds were made. As I listener, I found myself not caring.
I found myself listening to this album on flights or at night, I suggest you do the same- with headphones.
My Favorite Video of the Year:
I was skeptical of Unlce Bob’s sudden reboot of Guided By Voices, but they’re hella good! And though Space Gun didn’t grab me as much as other GBV albums, I couldn’t stop playing this song and love the video. That was me as a child- listening to Kinks in my bedroom at full volume.
Honorable Mentions (Why I need to not limit myself to five):
The following are some albums that were released that didn’t get quite as much play-time as the five above.
John Coltrane – Both Directions at Once (The Lost Album)
The Breeders – All Nerve
Knife In The Water – Red River
Parquet Courts – Wide Awake!
Guided By Voices – Space Gun
Old Heavy Hands – Mercy
Tal National – Tantabara
The Ophelias – Almost
Colorlist – Full Circle
Belly – DOVE
…and some I, quite honestly didn’t get to (or into), despite my best intentions:
Kurt Vile – Bottle It In (This just came out too late in the year for me to fully absorb it.)
Father John Misty – God’s Favorite Customer
Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer
Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel (I gotta say, after the collaboration with Kurt Vile, I was really looking forward to this one, and it never really grabbed me.)
Neko Case – Hell On
Here are some bands/artists that I discovered (and dug) this year:
Colter Wall – Songs of the Plains
Sons of Kemet – Your Queen Is A Reptile
And, as a footnote, I’d like to note the release of a 7″ single by my band Woodrow Hart & the Haymaker, Portraits on the Wall. We’re rather proud of it, it was fun to record, and we’re excited about things to come in 2019. Please check it out.