Best Albums of 2018

With Thanksgiving sneaking up on us, and a heavy travel schedule on the docket for me around and after the holidays, I hereby declare it time for my 2018 Albums of the Year Report. This edition marks the 27th consecutive year that I’ve publicly published such an annual report in either traditional print or digital formats, so it’s a venerable personal tradition for me at this point. To provide some perspective on the choices I’ve made over the years – some sublime, some not quite so – here is a complete reckoning of my Albums of the Year from 1992 to 2017:

  • 1992: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Henry’s Dream
  • 1993: Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville
  • 1994: Ween, Chocolate and Cheese
  • 1995: Björk, Post
  • 1996: R.E.M., New Adventures in Hi-Fi
  • 1997: Geraldine Fibbers, Butch
  • 1998: Jarboe, Anhedoniac
  • 1999: Static-X, Wisconsin Death Trip
  • 2000: Warren Zevon, Life’ll Kill Ya
  • 2001: Björk, Vespertine
  • 2002: The Residents, Demons Dance Alone
  • 2003: Wire, Send
  • 2004: The Fall, The Real New Fall LP (Formerly “Country on the Click”)
  • 2005: Mindless Self Indulgence, You’ll Rebel to Anything
  • 2006: Gnarls Barkley, Elsewhere
  • 2007: Max Eider, III: Back in the Bedroom
  • 2008: Frightened Rabbit, The Midnight Organ Fight
  • 2009: Mos Def, The Ecstatic
  • 2010: Snog, Last Of The Great Romantics
  • 2011: Planningtorock, W
  • 2012: Goat, World Music
  • 2013: David Bowie, The Next Day
  • 2014: First Aid Kit, Stay Gold
  • 2015: David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock
  • 2016: David Bowie, Blackstar
  • 2017: Dälek, Endangered Philosophies

2018 was a very good year for new music: I explored a lot of exciting things, there were a lot of viable contenders for the Album of the Year honoree, and I enjoyed a wide mix of tunes from old favorites and thrilling new pokes from people who I didn’t know existed 12 months ago. While there may be one or more records that come out in the next few weeks that could have made this list if I had waited longer to publish it, I generally find that I need to listen to something for at least a month before declaring it a worthy Album of the Year contender anyway, so those years when something strong does emerge at the back end, I either write up a supplement in January or just carry those late surprises forward into the report that follows a year later. No worries.

Though I shouldn’t have to note this, I know from prior experience that I do: my list is obviously built from the things that I actually listened to in the prior year, and as musically omnivorous and curious as I am, there are some genres of music that I just don’t get around to sampling. So as much as I love dialog and discussion about music, please resist the urge to write a knee-jerk note telling me that I am a cultural imperialist bastard because I do not recognize the overwhelming genius of your favorite Seychellois trip-hop bassoon and gamelan collective. I am glad to know that their latest album will top your own list when you write it, so please share that link when you do, and then we can talk. Thank you.

That nicety (or not) aside, and with no further preambles necessary, here’s my list of the 30 Best Albums of 2018, working up from #30 to my Album of the Year selection. Strap on your seat belt and let’s do this thing . . .

30. The Dodos, Certainty Waves: The long-running duo of Meric Long (guitar and vocals) and Logan Kroeber (percussion) had their moment in the bright indie rock sun a decade or so with their breakthrough/crossover album Visiter and its single “Fools.” While the fickle finger of fame has pointed elsewhere since then, the pair have plowed on, and this year’s Certainty Waves marks a new career highlight, with the usual strumming, picking, clattering and keening supplemented with some excellent studio gimcrackery, synth torturing and suchlike.

29. Goat Girl, Goat Girl: The U.K. music press has been all agog about South London’s Goat Girl, a talented all-female four-piece who make angular art rock with just enough sweet hook-mastery to grab a listener’s ear and hold it, even as it pokes the soft belly parts with uneasy bits and dark sentiments and dire pronouncements and spiky arrangements. They’re scrappy, they are, and while this album contains some of dismissible little filler bits between the killer songs, give the Goats credit for putting them out there, since I guarantee they did it over their label’s objections.

28. Sons of Kemet, Your Queen Is a Reptile: Sons of Kemet are a British jazz quartet fronted by bandleader/composer and sax/clarinet-player Shabaka Hutchings. In their third album’s liner notes, Hutchings observes that “Your Queen is not our queen, she does not see us as human,” and this nine-song treatise paints a world ruled instead by strong black queens like Harriett Tubman, Albertina Sisulu, Mamie Phipps Clark, and others. It’s bracing, unique (two drummers, tuba and sax, anyone?), brilliant, political, and highly relevant in our sad post-Brexit/Trump world.

27. Caroline McKenzie, The November Meteors: The prolific Glaswegian composer and sound manipulator has issued eight releases since 2017’s epic The Drowning of Ophelia, with new work ranging from traditional-length singles through to long-form, one-song EPs, and this, The November Meteors, a three-song suite released by the venerable David E. Barker via his resurrected Glass Miniatures imprint. “Heatherstorm” from Meteors may be my favorite ever song from McKenzie, a sixteen-minute excursion in textures, tones and tempos that grabs, holds and delivers. Perfect!

26. Teleman, Family of Aliens: I’ve been listening to the Sanders Brothers (Thomas and Jonny) and Peter Cattermoul since their earliest days working together with Pete and the Pirates, and they just keep getting better and more compelling at their craft. They’ve made regular appearances on my year-end Best Of lists both with their original band and since rebranding (with the addition of drummer Hiro Amamiya) as Teleman in 2012; this is their third full-length under the current moniker, and it’s a corker, anchored by utterly killer krautrock-pop song “Cactus,” my Single of the Year for 2018.

25. Anna von Hausswolff, Dead Magic: We had the pleasure of seeing Swedish singer-songwriter-keyboardist Anna von Hausswolff performing with The Joffrey Ballet in Alexander Ekman’s exquisite “Midsummer Night’s Dream” (no, not that one) last spring, and the next morning I went to my mailbox and found my copy of Prog magazine (nerd!!) which contained a review of her excellent new Dead Magic. It was a sign, clearly, so I queued up lead track “The Mysterious Vanishing of Elektra” (now my Video of the Year for 2018), and was hooked, you bet, for good.

24. Ministry, AmeriKKKant: I was surprised by the generally negative reviews that Uncle Al Jourgensen’s latest slab of industrial Repuglican-slaying jams received, since I thought (and think) this record provides a perfect palette cleanser for that bad stale vomit taste the Trump administration leaves in my mouth. It’s not as blistering in its assault tempos as some of Ministry’s Bush 41 and Bush 43 era records, and it plays better as a suite than as a set of standalone singles, but I still find Uncle Al’s artistry and general fighting spirit to be worthy of my time and support, always.

23. The Joy Formidable, AAARTH: I adored The Joy Formidable’s spectacular 2008 EP “A Balloon Called Moaning” but none of the Welsh trio’s full-length albums since then have grabbed and rocked me quite as well as that first foreign foray did – until now. AAARTH is just a gem of a record, with killer songs, ace arrangements, vocal and guitar pyrotechnics and a rich production that makes these tracks jump out of your stereo in the most aggressive of ways, making your heart go pitter-pat and your fist pump and your chin raise in admiration. Well done, you. Repeat.

22. The Damned, Evil Spirits: In which everybody’s completely dysfunctional vampire punk rock survivors improbably bring in brilliant Bowie buddy Tony Visconti and make the best record they’ve made since, oh, I dunno, let’s call it Strawberries in 1982, just for grins. The damned damned damned thing even sold well, too, breaking the British Top Ten for the first time, just a year or two after a band documentary (Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead) essentially demonstrated how such a thing could and should never, ever happen. Essential. Even The Captain says “Wot?”

21. Nine Inch Nails, Bad Witch: I was a fairly active Nine Inch Nails fan back in Trent Reznor’s earliest days as an industrial provocateur spinning off of the essential Chicago Wax Trax scene (see also Ministry above), but as he kinda sorta became a big deal and started winning Oscars and lifting weights, you know, ennhhhh, I just haven’t paid as much attention to him. Until this year, when I read a review of this short album that cited it as his Blackstar-inspired Bowie move, which (thankfully) caught my attention, as this is a great little cranked-up experimental noise record, reminding me how very much I liked the David-and-Trent team on “I’m Afraid of Americans” way back when.

20. Caroline Rose, LONER: Caroline Rose’s third album finds the erstwhile indie folk favorite emerging from her woodshed chrysalis surrounded by a spray of synth squiggles and a blast of brassy bossy beats, her country caterpillar now improbably reformed as a delightfully squiggly flying thing, zipping hither to yon, lighting on your psyche just long enough to lay a perfectly sweet or pleasingly fun little pop gem on you, over and over and over again. Improbable and sublime in its delightful embrasure of perverse wrongness in pursuit of something so, so very righteous.

19. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, Hope Down: In the quarter-century plus that I’ve made lists like this, almost every year an album shows up that’s a regular on playlists, filled with familiar songs that I like, and that grab other people too – and yet every time I hear one, I think “Now, who was that again?” This is that, this year. Love the record, it’s the real deal, and this Australian quintet with one, two (count ‘em) three singer-guitarist-songwriters getting the job done is well worth your attention. But as soon as I finish this blurb, I will forget their name again, dammit. Sorry guys. I try.

18. Soulfly, Ritual: Max Cavalera just moves me, you know? There’s something about his approach to writing, singing, performing and recording metal music that’s unique, distinct, powerful and always grabs me, whether he’s doing his thing with Sepultura, Cavalera Conspiracy or Soulfly. This latest slab from the ‘fly finds Max’s son Zyon at the drums where his brother Igor once whaled, while long-time foil Marc Rizzo delivers the killer lead guitar licks and newcomer Mike Leon ably wrangles the bass. Verdict: the best from Max since 2008’s Conquer, I’d say. Sim!

17. Shriekback, Why Anything? Why This?: I’ve admired Shriekback since before I heard a note by them, so wowed was I by the very idea of a band with Barry Andrews (XTC) and David Allen (Gang of Four) in it. The goods held up to their billing, and with guitarist Carl Marsh and drummer Martyn Barker, the Shrieks achieved admirable ‘80s success without sacrificing the weird juju of their sound. Fast forward to 2018, and the story’s still the same: this weirdly wonky, organically ooky, scintillatingly shouty gem of an album is their best since 1986’s Big Night Music.

16. White Denim, Performance: James Petralli and Steve Terebecki have been playing together as White Denim since 2006, supported by a variety of colleagues; on this latest disc, keyboardist Michael Hunter and drummer Conrad Choucroun fill in the spaces around their vocals, bass and guitars. The music is engagingly eclectic, welding jazzy, proggy, jammy and jangly bits to a groove-fortified homespun Texas-style chassis. I was lukewarm about their 2016 album, Stiff, but this one is a welcome return to top form: accessible, intriguing and warm, soup to nuts.

15. Let’s Eat Grandma, I’m All Ears: Britain’s Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth are formidably precocious talents, with a pair of ace albums and half-a-dozen attention-getting singles under each of their belts before either of them has hit a twentieth birthday. I’m All Ears is a superb sophomore slab, anchored in a sweetly melodic sense and acutely observational lyrical approach, all then morphed, sludged and glitched to excellent experimental effect. Song structures are all over the place too, culminating with an astounding 11-minute freakout called Donnie Darko. Wow.

14. Uriah Heep, Living the Dream: I know, this is the kind of pick where you cool kids expect me to explain my choice ironically, or to make a “guilty pleasure” argument, or to craft some tortured narrative about how the Heep’s trademark organ, opera and wah-wah guitar sound has under-appreciated importance to rock’s evolution, or whatever. But I’m not gonna do any of that, dammit, because this is just a fine rock record, period, an excellent addition to a deep, deserving canon by a classic rock band who will kick your ass in concert, still. (I saw them. They did). Heep! Woo hoo! Yeah!

13. Jonathan Davis, Black Labyrinth: Another one where hipper-than-thou readers might be rolling your eyes and making dismissive noises before peeking ahead to read about the stuff that critics are supposed to like. But you’re missing the mark if you do, and I don’t care, because I sincerely believe KORN’s Jonathan Davis is modern metal’s most compelling, original singer, and his first full solo disc offers an excellent collection of electro-metal brushed with jazz tinges (mostly courtesy ace bassist Miles Mosley) and Eastern textures (violinist Shenkar in the house).

12. The Residents, Intruders: 2018 has been a tough year for the Rez, with mainstay Cryptic Corp manager Hardy Fox having de-cloaked as their primary composer and musician, just before he was diagnosed with and died from glioblastoma. But on his personal website, Hardy noted that he’d worked with Cryptic collaborator Homer Flynn to have Eric Drew Feldman (Beefheart, Pere Ubu, Frank Black) take his place, and the first fruits of that line of succession are fine fare on Intruders, which also features fellow long-standing collaborators Carla Fabrizio and Nolan Cook.

11. Hailu Mergia, Lala Belu: I collected a lot of African music in the ‘80s when I was specializing in that continent’s politics as part of my studies at the U.S. Naval Academy. One of my prized possessions on that front was an astounding recording by Hailu Mergia and The Walias called Tche Belew, capturing the sounds of Addis Ababa’s finest band during the dark days of the post-Selassie Derg regime. I was thrilled to learn that Mergia is making music again, now in the States, and his Lala Belu is a jazz-flavored delight rich with inspired and inspiring keyboard work.

10. Hawkwind, Road to Utopia: As with Ministry (see above), I’ve been surprised by negative reviews of this latest project from formidable BLANGA warriors, Hawkwind, who here reinvent seven classic songs and offer two instrumental originals, all with orchestral assistance from Mike Batt, of Wombles fame. If you take off your too-tight, too-serious hats, though, and relax a little bit, then you’d realize that this record is just a goofy delight, where you can tell that everyone involved is having fun. Remember fun? It feels good. You’d like it. Lighten up. Give it a try, yeah?

9. IDLES, Joy as an Act of Resistance: I raved about IDLES’ debut album, Brutalism, in last year’s report here, citing the English five-piece as “a potent young band, well worth rooting for in the years ahead.” 2018 counts as a year ahead of 2017, so I’m sticking with that assessment, with an upgrade to say that they may just be the potent young British band to mind these days, as their rousing, positive, anthemic rock is winning rave responses in concert, on television, through video, and on this sophomore album here. Formidable and fearsome fare. I’m a believer!

8. HOGG, SELF-EXTINGUISHING EMISSION: HOGG are a pair of Atlanta-bred, Chicago-based women who make thrillingly horror-filled and haunting post-industrial music of the most visceral, vibrating and violent varieties, mostly using only electronics, drums, bass and their astounding voices, processed in the most hair-raising ways. There’s something dark magic(k)al about the sounds they create here and on earlier discs, transcending rinky-dink instrumentation to craft vast, terrible soundscapes capable of evoking night terrors among the awakened. Brrr!!

7. Napalm Death, Coded Smears and More Uncommon Slurs: I’m on the record as claiming Napalm Death as my current favorite band, but even loving them (or anybody) as much as I do, the prospect of a dense two-disc collection of B-sides, split 7” recordings, out-takes and studio leftovers from the past 15 years didn’t really fill me with any sense of burning urgency or excitement when I first read about it. But then I listened to this collection, and holy moly, Napalm’s leftovers are better than just about any other metal band’s finest fare. Amazingly essential. Huttah!

6. Ezra Furman, Transangelic Exodus: I first heard Ezra Furman over a decade ago when he was playing with his college band in Boston, The Harpoons. Since moving to Chicago (his hometown), I’ve been glad to have the chance to see him live a few times (he’s dynamite), especially with his tight post-Harpoons band, The Boyfriends. Transangelic Exodus is a brilliant addition to his catalog, a conceptual road trip type album about growth, change and identity, wherein Furman (a gender fluid observant Jew of acute social intelligence and with a confessional creative sensitivity) and his still-ace band (now called The Visions) ably stretch their craft and chops to produce a vibrant, visceral song saga journey, perfect for uncertain and unsettling times like ours. Bravx!

5. The Body, I Have Fought Against It, But I Can’t Any Longer: Lee Buford and Chip King make some of the darkest, bleakest, hardest music imaginable together as The Body, and this early 2018 disc (they’ve put out another full-length since) finds them at the top of their game. With a title culled from a famous suicide note, this record deploys crushing electronics, grinding guitars, thunderous drums, shrieked vocals, tape looops and occasional sweet(er) leavening from singer Chrissy Wolpert to plumb the dark, lonely and desperate spaces where everything hurts, always.

4. Clutch, Book of Bad Decisions: Clutch launched this album with a quartet of videos exploring shitty electoral politics, hard touring tales from meth-addled Kansas, teen-aged sci-fi fantasias, and a killer crab cake recipe, all making it clear that the venerable Maryland quartet aren’t taking themselves too seriously these days. That fun and relaxed air permeates this thunderous 15-song studio collection and is ultimately a key to its success, along with the group’s decision to enlist Nashville producer Vance Powell, who provides a fresh sense of swing to the proceedings.

3. Paul McCartney, Egypt Station: I listen to Wings more than I do The Beatles, so my Macca biases and bona fides are firm as I declare this record to be among Sir Paul’s greatest efforts. He’s been working with the same band (Rusty Anderson, Brian Ray, Paul Wickens and Abe Laboriel, Jr.) for longer than he played as a Beatle, his songwriting is clever, sharp and strong, and that voice is still, well, that voice. This isn’t “a fine album for his age” or “a good album comparatively” or “a strong later period record,” – it’s just a great album, period, extending his epic canon once again. Bonus points: the fact that Paul ends this album with not just one, but two, long, ridiculous multi-part suites of the “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” or “Band On The Run” variety, still not content to just write stuff, still sticking stuff together to make bigger, better weirder fun along the way. Bravo, sir! Keep up the good work, you dotty ageless oldster you!

2. The Coup, Sorry To Bother You: The Soundtrack: What a torturous path this album followed to fruition: The Coup’s main man Boots Riley wrote the screenplay to his bizarre and thrilling Sorry To Bother You over a decade ago, couldn’t get it financed, put out a brilliant (but imaginary) film soundtrack with the same title, which helped get the movie into production, earning massive plaudits from all comers, and generating (in due time) another real soundtrack with the same title. Got it? If not, get it, in both meanings of that phrase. This record is a funky bomb of the very finest flavors of goodness, with Riley’s usual Coup band mates in raging organic form, supplemented with contributions from TuneYards, Janelle Monae, LaKeith Stanfield, Killer Mike and others. I’ve made a mix of the two Sorry To Bother You soundtrack albums (2012 and 2018) along with ancillary recent singles and songs from TuneYards and Stanfield’s MOORS project, and it’s about the most thrilling thing I listen most ways, most days.

1. (2018’s Album of the Year): First Aid Kit, Ruins: Surprise!! They did it again!! And I say that not to you, nor to them, but to myself, honestly, since I’ve been kicking this list around for a month or so in anticipation of this article, and I looked at a lot of records in a lot of ways, and I just kept coming back to this one as the one that gave me the greatest sense of concentrated accomplishment and joy since I finished my 2017 list a year ago. Which is a conclusion that I did not expect. In fact, I honestly found it somewhat improbable when I named this Swedish sister act’s 2014 Stay Gold as that year’s Album of the Year, but damned if it wasn’t a brilliant record at the time, damned if it hasn’t aged really well (unlike some of my other Album of the Year choices), and damned if they haven’t done it again with this year’s supremely accomplished and bittersweet Ruins, surprise, surprise, surprise!! Klara and Johanna Söderberg aren’t just blessed with incredible voices that work together in the most haunting and beautiful fashions, they’re also skilled songwriters and arrangers who produce songs that are unique and recognizable, almost instantly, but also have deep resonance and fit perfectly into the long traditions of American country, folk and pop music catalogs. Their music is timeless and universal enough (in the best senses of those words) that I suspect it will be played, covered and rediscovered for decades to come by artists of all stripes, even as these songs sound current today, or would have sounded current 20 years or more ago. So kudos to Klara and Johanna, and to the Söderberg sisters’ long-time live colleagues Melvin Duffy, Scott Simpson and Steve Moore; we caught the quintet in concert in Vancouver and they delivered one of the most engaging and delicious shows I saw or heard this year, providing a perfect accompaniment to this brilliant studio document, a truly deserving Album of the Year for 2018.

And there we have it, another year on the books. I’ll be posting my “Most Played Songs” set sometime in December (as I do each year), and then it will be time to blow up all of the set lists and begin a new year of listening, eagerly anticipating what 2019 might bring me, hoping it’s as good as what the past twelve months delivered. Music matters, and I’m glad to experience and share it, always!

No vinyl records were pretentiously purchased in the making of this list.

C + CC = 50

The C+CC main entrance, October 2018.

Of my salaried nonprofit jobs since leaving Federal service in 1996, the one I held the longest was the position of Director of the Chapel + Cultural Center at Rensselaer (C+CC), working for the Rensselaer Newman Foundation (RNF) on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). (That’s a lot of Rensselaers, more on them later!). For the past two years, I have served on the Board of Trustees of the RNF, so I have had the distinct pleasure of returning to Troy, New York twice a year for Board meetings and for the wonderful Committee of 100 Dinner, where our supporters gather each October (including last weekend) to celebrate the prior year’s accomplishments, and to bestow the prestigious Sun and Balance Award upon a prominent and deserving member of the community.

2018 is a very special year in the C+CC’s history as we celebrate the amazing building’s 50th anniversary. We mark this observance from a unique position of pride, having recently been added to the National Register of Historic Places, the youngest building in the country to currently be so designated. I could wax at length here about how the C+CC is special and deserving of this honor, but I’ll defer to two (more) tightly edited sources on this front — here and here — to put this year’s gathering in context. At bottom summary line, the C+CC has been cited by numerous experts over the years as the quintessential example of how churches in America best responded to the opportunities arising in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. It’s a cool place, and cool things happen there, for the campus, for the community, and for the church.

In 2015, I was the keynote speaker at the Committee of 100 Dinner, and I posted my remarks here — The Power of Plus — for posterity’s sake.  Riffing on our stylistic use of the plus sign in the name of the C+CC, I discussed several of the key additive factors that make the facility and its home communities so special to me: it’s a chapel + it’s a cultural center, it marks a place where the sacred + the profane can enter into dialog, it is a home base for town + gown in Troy, its highest annual award is the Sun + Balance medal, and its blended campus and parish community allows old + young to gather together on a nearly daily basis.

This year’s keynote speaker, David Haviland, is a retired RPI administrator, a 40-year trustee of RNF, a great personal friend, and a member of the committee that hired me all those years ago when I first came to the C+CC. He delivered an exceptional talk that was anchored in the hymn “What Is This Place?,” with lyrics published in 1967 (while the C+CC was nearing completion) by Huub Oosterhuis, atop an old Dutch melody called “Komt Nu Met Zang,” originally published in 1626 in a hymnal called Nederlandtsche Gedenck-clanck by Adrianus Valerius. This hymn was sung in the mass immediately preceding the Committee of 100 Dinner, per the liturgical calendar of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Dave’s talk explored the ways in which the song’s lyrics tied to the amazing senses of place, word and sacrament embodied by the C+CC for so many who have entered it over the years, while also placing its old Dutch melody in the context of the van Rensselaer family and their history; they were the Patroons of the Manor of Rensselaerswyck, from which RPI takes its name, and from which the modern Capitol Region of New York State emerged with its quirky Dutch-English culture. Dave also touched upon the fascinating life of Huub Oosterhuis, a former Jesuit whose commitments to social justice and equity often put him at odds with the Catholic Church; more on his story here.

At the end of his remarks, Dave turned the lectern over to our fellow Trustee, Nathan Walsh. When I arrived at the C+CC to serve as its Director, Nate was a resident student in Slavin House, the connected rectory that stands as an integral part of the C+CC campus. We spent a lot of time together over the next couple of years, managing the C+CC and all of its operations in a very hands-on fashion together. You cannot direct at the C+CC if you are not also willing to do. At our Trustees’ meeting before the dinner, Board members were asked to approve an expenditure for a new snowblower for the C+CC; Nate and I smirked together about the ancient smoke-belching orange beast we used to push around the property on snow days, which still sits in the Slavin House garage, both of us believing we are entitled to go grab some knobs or bolts from it to carry as sacred relics in its memory.

It has been a delight to see Nate graduate from RPI, enter the working world, get married, have children, and grow into a poised professional in his new home in Baltimore, while still remaining a key leader in the C+CC community; he was actually the Chair of the Nominating Committee that brought me back to Troy as an RNF Trustee. Nate’s job at the Committee of 100 Dinner was to introduce this year’s recipient of the Sun and Balance Award, Father Edward Kacerguis, known to most around the RPI Campus as “Fred” (Fr. + Ed = Fred). Father Ed has been at RPI in one capacity or another since 1989, and he has lived at Slavin House for the lion’s share of that time. Nate drew a great laugh when he noted how hard his job was that evening, introducing a man who needed no introductions, in his own house . . . Sorry, God.

I was deeply touched to see Father Ed receive the Sun and Balance Award. I count him among my dearest friends, and I marvel on a regular basis at the impact he has had on the parish and campus communities around the C+CC through the past three decades. We first met when I was working at a notable independent school in Albany, for which he served as the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany’s representative. My time there ended awfully, as I was essentially railroaded out for missing a development committee meeting while burying my father. (Yes, seriously . . . insert anecdotes about corporate sociopaths here with regard to my employers at the time). Father Ed helped me land smoothly after that tragedy, introducing me to the C+CC community and shepherding my candidacy through the hiring process. I am a deeply grateful to him for that, among many other things over the years.

At our Trustees’ meeting, Father Ed announced that under canon law, he will be retiring as Pastor of the University Parish of Christ Sun of Justice and Resident Roman Catholic Chaplain at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as of June 30, 2019. That will mark the end of a profoundly significant era in some ways for the C+CC, though the unique organizational structure of the RNF means that he may still be involved in some other ways in the life of the campus, the parish, and our Foundation. I certainly hope that’s the case, in any event, though we will not know for sure until we work through a variety of strategic planning efforts in early 2019.

Regardless of how all that pans out, this year’s Committee of 100 Dinner was Father Ed’s last in his current roles, so once again, what a profound delight it was to see him honored with long and heart-felt ovations by his parishioners, colleagues, friends, students, alumni and board members. Over the years, I have seen him preside over weddings of students and alumni, baptisms of countless babies, funerals for the elderly and the young alike (the C+CC is a place of sanctuary and respite at times of crisis on the RPI campus, and few crises hurt as much as the death of a student there), more masses than I can count, dinners for all of the varsity sports teams at RPI (his Canadian Thanksgiving Dinners for the hockey team were particularly epic), fundraising activities for charities domestic and international, and any number of cultural, educational, spiritual, or social events at the C+CC and around Troy. He makes a difference, and he does it with a smile.

Those of you who know me best may observe that there’s a lot of references to the Catholic Church above, and that I am not Catholic myself. That’s neither a worry nor an obstacle when it comes to life at the C+CC. One of the most beautiful elements of the space and its University Parish of Christ Sun of Justice is the motto “All Are Welcome.” I stumbled in there at a difficult time in my own life, and I was welcome. Countless others have done the same over the years, and they were welcome. It is the C+CC’s operating policy to keep its doors open for all who care to visit, 365 days a year, and in his remarks, Father Ed shared a story of how he found a young woman who he’d never seen before weeping at the altar one Christmas afternoon; she told him that her life was falling apart in a variety of ways, and that she had driven around the Capital Region for hours looking for an open church where she could pray for solace, and they were all closed to her — except for the C+CC. She was welcome too.

It’s a profound joy to have played a small part in the life of the C+CC over the years, and to have shared in fellowship with so many important people in its history. Beyond Father Ed, Dave Haviland and Nate Walsh (all mentioned above), there are far more names and stories worthy of mention than I can cite in a short article like this, but I will close with two anecdotes about two very special people in the life of this unique community, and the small ways in which my life intersected with each of theirs.

First, Stephen Wiberley: For the better part of two years, I helped Steve write, edit, design and illustrate his autobiography. It was a deeply interesting project, and one that remains of historical value to RPI, the C+CC and the City of Troy. There were a lot of famous folks, mostly scientists, passing through the pages of his life’s story (Fermi, Heisenberg, Van Allen, Kuiper, Teller, Pauling), plus guest appearances by the likes of Bette Davis, astronaut Jack Swigert, NASA deputy administrator George Low and the 1985 NCAA Hockey Champion RPI Engineers. The final manuscript ran to about 320 pages and had about 240 illustrations, photos or figures, all of which I scanned, treated or restored to the best of my abilities, then nested into the book. When Steve dropped off the finished, bound product, we admired it together, with a little bit of wistfulness, since I think on some plane he felt like his life’s work was done with that project completed. I told him at the time that my fee for helping him was that I expected him to give me an update and addenda ten years later, and that he had to do some exciting stuff to make it worth my while. Steve laughed at that and agreed to my terms, but I never got to collect that debt, since he passed away a couple of years later. I wrote a poem about the experience of working with Steve called “They All Shine On,” based largely on how he would often say to me “Oh, I wish you could have met my wife, Betty, she was such a wonderful lady!” as we toiled over the book project together. Father Ed actually read that poem at Steve’s funeral service, which was very moving for me, needless to say.

Second, Father Tom Phelan: Father Tom was the founder of the C+CC and the RNF, and his epic life’s journey and accomplishments cannot readily be distilled into manageable form, though here is a brief summary. He was a vital, vigorous, charismatic man by all accounts, though by the time I arrived at the C+CC, he was in failing health with Parkinson’s, a frail gentleman loved by all, but no longer able to stand as the community’s vibrant central figure. Father Tom’s final illness followed a fall at the C+CC that happened when I was there, and in my role as the facility’s Director, I supported Father Ed in managing all of the countless logistics associated with the visitation and funeral mass that were held onsite after his passing. The line to pay respects to Father Tom wound far around the block all day long on that last day before his burial, which was to be held early on the morning after, in a private family ceremony. At the end of that long day — after all of the visitors had gone their various ways, after our work study students had departed, and after Father Ed had gone home to Slavin House — Father Tom’s mortal remains lay in state in the sanctuary at the C+CC. I was the last person left to turn the lights out and lock the doors on him, on his last night in the profound place he built, through force of will, faith and personality. It was a sublime and sacred moment in my life, as I sat on the step below the C+CC’s altar and reflected for quite some time, alone before Father Tom’s casket, marveling at the amazing differences one man can make in the world around him — and also at the humbling commonality that all of us will face when our mortal times in this world draw to a close, our vibrancy quieted at last, only to live on here in remembrances.

There have been many such remembrances this year as the C+CC celebrates its 50th Anniversary — but there have also been many commitments made to carrying its work forward for another half century or more. The space was built to last, fully adaptable to an ever-changing world, and its governance structure was developed with skill and acuity to also survive and thrive even when and if key partner organizations are no longer able or willing to carry their share of the mission. What a gift it is to have been a part of the C+CC’s history, and to play an ongoing role as a Trustee in its dynamic present and exciting future.

You need to visit this incredible space if you’re ever in Troy, New York. Go there by daylight, any day of the year, and I can guarantee that it will be open to you.

All are welcome. Always.

David Haviland at lectern, Father Ed Kacerguis on the big screen.

ORD to DSM

Over the summer of 2015, Marcia and I transitioned personally and professionally from Des Moines to Chicago. I started my job at TREE Fund that August, knowing that my travel commitment in the job was going to be something of a bear for us, since getting from Chicago home to Naperville office and back was a three-to-four hour per day commitment, plus all of the national trips that my work required. That seemed manageable, though, since Marcia’s work was close to home — at least until unexpected professional transitions resulted in her primary base of operations shifting back to Des Moines four months after I started at TREE Fund.

Because of those changes, we have maintained two residences (one bedroom apartments in Chicago and Des Moines) with significant periods of separation for nearly three years now. As I type this, we are in Day 10 of a 12-day continual separation, to cite the current, but not atypical example.  Needless to say, this is wearing on us on a variety of physical, emotional and financial fronts, and we have decided that this is no longer a viable long-term situation for us. After carefully considering a wide variety of possible remedies, we now plan to re-consolidate our household where we have the lowest living expenses and where our daughter makes her home: in Des Moines. And driven by a lease renewal deadline, we recently advised our condo owner that we will be leaving our Chicago home in March 2019.

I discussed this decision with the TREE Fund Board of Trustees, and after a good series of conversations over a couple of weeks, we all agreed that it was in our mutual best interests that I continue to serve as the organization’s President and CEO. So that’s what we’re going to do, embracing the ever-more-decentralized way in which people work in the 21st Century, with me becoming a remote employee, getting the job done without being tethered to a single site.

After we get through the various personal moves we need to make, my home office in Des Moines will be declared my primary work location effective May 1, 2019, and I will be there for standard work day hours with full connectivity to all constituents via phone, email and video conference. I will then travel to spend one week per calendar month onsite with staff in the Naperville office, and I will participate in one conference or other trip for TREE Fund each month as well.

I am relieved by this solution that allows me to continue working in a job I love, while dramatically reducing the time I spend away from the wife I love, and significantly increasing the time I spend with the daughter I love. Win-win-win. I will miss Chicago a lot, though, and I plan to stay in the city when I’m back for work at Naperville, so I can enjoy the evening activities here rather than hunkering down in a generic suburban hotel somewhere.

I also very much like the fact that my professional world will not be restricted to Des Moines and its immediate environs upon my return. It will frankly be easier for me to live there when I am not entirely beholden to the region’s nonprofit, cultural, political and philanthropic communities, whose values and priorities often did not align well with my own. (Look what has happened to my beloved Salisbury House since I left it, to cite but one particularly painful example). So I am glad I will be in the Des Moines community, but not of the Des Moines community, if you get the subtle distinction there. That is also a win-win situation for me.

Of course, there are things about Chicago that I have come to dislike and will not miss when I leave here, so I’ll probably do a report about them when I head out next spring, too. Fair’s fair, after all. No place is perfect, and managing expectations is key to making moves like this work well, I think, though that’s been a lesson learned the hard way in a couple of cases over the years.

In closing, I should note that Marcia and I have come to greatly appreciate condo/apartment living with a small footprint. We do not intend to buy a house again in Des Moines, but will just continue to rent, leaving the grass-cutting, sidewalk shoveling, driveway plowing, roof replacements, window washing, shingle painting, Christmas decorating, and lawn-watering to others. We bankrolled our earnings from our last home sale and are saving them for the retirement years, whenever those arrive, maybe sooner, maybe later.

It’s nice to have that sort of flexibility in planning the next step(s). Options make everything better.

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More adventures together, please. I’m too dumb to be on my own . . .

A Lifetime of Listening

A friend over at the Fall Online Forum (FOF) recently started a discussion called “Music Formats and You.” There had been a little sparring among members about digital vs analog formats in various threads, so to pull the conversations into one place (and possibly to reduce bile levels elsewhere), he framed a new discussion with a simple statement and question:

All of us on here, I’m presuming, started out with music in an age where vinyl/cassettes were the norm. But music purchasing/listening has undergone a radical transformation over the last thirty years or so — so what has your experience been?

I responded to the question there in the community thread, and my answer turned out to be longer and more complex than I would have thought. So I decided to bring it over here and flesh it out a little in a couple of places, to see if stimulates any of your own reflections about how you’ve chosen to tickle your ear buds, then and now, and maybe tomorrow.

Here ’tis . . .

Being a child of the middle ’60s, my parents had a record player, and so I played records. (Nobody called records “vinyl” back then. I wonder when that affectation started?) From my earliest sentient years, I can remember having my own little record player, I think inherited from older neighbor kids. It was a little portable job, with red and white checkered paperboard casing and a white plastic handle, perfect for playing 7-inch singles like “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron” by The Royal Guardsmen, over, and over, and over again. It had 16, 33, 45, and 78 rpm settings, which added to the amusement factor when those singles were played at the wrong speeds.

At some point, I moved into fiddling with my parents’ record player. It was a bit more complicated, and I wasn’t sure why the discs on their platter were bigger than mine were, with smaller holes in the middle. But I persevered, and started trawling through their albums, with some unexpected consequences, in one notable case.

When I was living with or near my grandparents intermittently during the late ’60s and early ’70s during my dad’s military tours overseas, my aunt (who was just a few years older than me) had one of those groovy space ball 8-track tape players, so I used to play her 8-tracks a lot when I was there. Steppenwolf Gold is still a fave album from having overplayed it for years on 8-track, but I still expect to the hear the distinctive ker-CHUNK sound in the middle of some cuts that were split for time sequencing reasons.

My Dad was in the Marines and liked tech, so when he came back from Japan some time in the early ’70s, he had a cassette tape console for the home stereo. I had friends who were using little reel to reel recorders to tape songs off the radio, so I had a leg up on them in being able to make better mix tapes from radio and records, and to listen to the mix tapes that my Dad made. I am pretty sure we were ahead of the curve as a family on this format, since I do not remember other kids having cassettes so early.

I got my own little “all in one” stereo for my bedroom in 7th grade. It had radio, record player and 8-track, but no cassette. (We were still ahead of the curve on that front, apparently). I started earning my own money around this time with various small jobs and most it went to buying records. I mostly stopped making mix tapes since I had to be down at the family stereo to do that, and I preferred being up in my bedroom alone. As one does.

I got a knockoff replica of a SONY Walkman in 11th grade, and since I was not making many tapes in my bedroom at the time, I started buying pre-recorded ones so I had stuff to listen to while walking about, and later driving. When I went to the Naval Academy, we were not allowed to have any stereos or other music playing devices throughout the entire plebe year, but I carried this Walkman and a dozen favorite tapes in with me to Annapolis, and listened to them late at night under the covers. Plebe Year offered many challenges, and for a music junkie, being starved of tunes might have been among the most formidable of them, psychologically speaking.

Sophomore year at Navy, I got both my own modular stereo (now radio, records, dual cassette recorder) and a TEAC Tascam 4-track recorder. I bought tons of albums through college, and I made tons of mix tapes, along with recording my own music.

Compact Discs emerged during the latter part of my time at Navy. The first one I heard was Pink Floyd’s The Wall at high volume in an audiophile friend’s room and it was awesome. But by this time I had a collection of about 2,000 records and big carrying cases full of cassette tapes, and I really did not want to re-purchase everything in a new format. I knew that once I switched to CDs and embraced their (seeming) convenience, sound quality and durability, it was going to render my record collection obsolete, so I resisted CD’s charms for a long time.

My wife Marcia brought that era to an end one Christmas when she got me a CD player. I think the first CD I bought was Hawkwind’s Masters of the Universe compilation. As predicted and expected, over the next 15 years or so my CD collection grew, often as a result of trading off my records for store credit which I immediately used to buy shiny silver discs. I still made a lot of mix tapes from CDs to cassettes in this era, mainly for listening in the car (early automotive CD players were terrible), or to send to friends.

I got online in 1993 and quickly found a group of music nerds to hang out with in various communities, one of which had a mix tape trading group called TATU (“Tapes Across The Universe”). Sometime in the late ’90s the core of the TATU team (now mostly moved over to a little online Tree House called Xnet2) switched to trading CDs, so I acquired the ability to play and burn CDs on my computer instead of just via the home stereo.

I will note here, though, that I was among a probably small number of people who actually acquired the needed adapters and plugs to record between CDs and tapes and back on the computer, rather than on the stereo. That was a short and pointless technological cul-de-sac, and it was just a world of little shiny discs for a long time afterwards, until file sharing emerged.

With some probably unwarranted sense of pride, I note that I saw Napster as an ethical monstrosity and I never had an account for that or any other platform for stealing music that I had not purchased. Artists united, represent!! As a result of that particular paradigm shift, though, I did watch all the brick and mortar record and CD stores in my town bite the dust in rapid succession as the world moved away from physical ownership of music and into a world of bits and bytes alone. That was a great tragedy in this story arc, I think, and one from which we’ve never really recovered.

And so enter the iPod and iTunes era. As had been the case with my records when CDs emerged, I resisted this brave new world, because I knew, once again, that when I jumped to another entirely new platform, I would buying the very same things for a third or fourth time, and my CD collection would be shed like a husk at some point.

As was the case with my records, it was Marcia who eventually pushed me into the new paradigm, when she asked for an iPod as a Mother’s Day gift in 2011. I had to get it for her, of course, and I had to acquire an iTunes account so I could put music on it, though in the beginning I still just converted stuff from CDs to digital files, rather than buying songs from iTunes.

Being somewhat averse to Apple products (I still do not like Mac computers), when I finally decided to find a way to buy music online, I chose eMusic, which was more heavily weighted toward indie and underground music while iTunes just had the hits early on. I liked eMusic’s subscription model too: you paid a certain amount each month, and could download a certain number of songs from any album or single during that month. The download rights did not carry over from month to month, so I actually explored and acquired a lot of stuff that I would not have otherwise this way.

But over the years the variance between their model and iTunes’ model closed and it just became easier to have the single account within the Apple Empire. I got my own iPod at some point, and then we got one for the new iPod compatible family stereo, which was a relatively tiny box with relatively tiny speakers, so the old Bose Speakers and CD player and amp and all the other things that had defined the Hi Fi experience went out the door when we moved from New York to Iowa.

That remains the status quo as of autumn 2018: I have an iTunes account on my computer with about 14,000 songs available to me, all backed up on an external 1.0 terabyte hard drive. I manage six iPods for myself and my wife, making new mixes as new things come in for all of the various players. Apple recently ended their own “gadget era” (e.g. no more standalone music players, since you supposed to get music on your phone or tablet), so these great little players are on their way out, and I have acquired a stockpile of Nanos and Shuffles to rage against the dying of this paradigm as long as I can. Yeah, I could play stuff on my phone, but I don’t like carrying it around, since I have a big phone, while a Shuffle fits nicely in my pants pocket.

I still purchase all of my music online, album by album and song by song, though more often than not I actually pay for it with points that I can get from my credit cards (rather than getting airplane miles or whatever). I have not yet made the leap to Spotify or any of the other similar subscription streaming music services as I still like “owning” and not “renting” my music — even though the physical embodiment of my ownership is just a bunch of data in a little little six-inch by six-inch by two-inch black box, not the glorious milk crates of musty smelling cardboard and plastic of yesteryear.

At some point, yeah, I know I will have to jump forward again, and Marcia will probably deploy the cattle prod to make it happen at some point. But for now, I’m fighting it, knowing that I will ultimately lose this battle, as I always do.

I guess it’s the struggle that inspires me. Along with the tunes.

It sounded like crap, but no playback device ever looked as cool as the Weltron 2001 Space Ball 8-Track Player

Skycrane!!

We live on the 27th and 28th floors of a building with a view of Chicago’s busy heart, so we’re accustomed to seeing and hearing helicopters at or below our balcony level, doing police work, traffic reports, or stunts for movies and the gazillion stupid TV shows filmed in our neighborhood.

Today, though, soon after I brought Marcia her morning coffee, the helicopter noise was a bit more prominent than usual. I walked outside and had a GAWP! moment as a huge Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane buzzed right by me, and then settled slowly to hover above the corner of Randolph and Columbus, half a block away. Wow!

The Skycrane made two round trips from that corner up to the top of AON Tower — two buildings over with a rooftop just a smidge over 1,000 feet tall — carrying new transformers up and ferrying old ones down. Over the course of an hour or so I snapped and snapped and snapped, whee!

Here are some of the better shots from this morning’s entertainment, for the aviation dorks. Click for bigger versions, if you’d like, though I might have to apologize for my camera’s graininess if you do.

Research Without Frontiers

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column as a preview teaser of the forthcoming October 2018 edition of TREE Press, the monthly gazette of TREE FundYou can read the latest and back editions, and subscribe to future installments, by clicking here.

Earlier this month, I attended the International Urban Forestry Congress in Vancouver, British Columbia. The Congress was a unique gathering presented by Tree Canada, Pacific Northwest Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), University of British Columbia, Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation, and other partners. Nearly 800 people from 30 countries participated, and we were blessed with fascinating and useful lectures, engaging panel discussions, exceptional networking opportunities, and an unparalleled “battery charging” opportunity to spend time with colleagues away from our proverbial trenches, sharing our passions for urban forests around our ever-more-connected (for better or worse) tiny blue marble of a planet.

It was good to be reminded that TREE Fund is part of that global research network, and not just an Illinois corporation, nor just a United States nonprofit, nor just a North American charity. This is reflected in our grant-making programs: we typically award two Jack Kimmel International Grants in partnership with the Canadian TREE Fund annually, and a growing number of grants from our other programs have been going abroad in recent years too.

I know some readers may not consider this a positive trend, since I have had domestic partners challenge me on why they should support us if we are sending money overseas, just as I have had ISA Chapters ask why they should support us if researchers in their regions are not receiving TREE Fund grants. Regionalism is a strong force among human beings, nationally and internationally. But trees (and their symbiotic companions and parasitic predators) do not recognize property lines, nor do they hew to municipal borders, nor do they heed state lines, nor do they respect international borders.

Trees are migratory organisms across our ever-changing world, as they slowly and naturally respond to global environmental changes, or rapidly stake out new turf when we select them to line streets and shade homes on continents where nature never would have taken them. And while human preferences and prejudices vary widely from nation to nation, both native and non-native urban trees living in temperate Mediterranean climates like those found in Beirut, Perth, Los Angeles, Rome, Tunis and elsewhere may benefit from exactly the same areas of rigorous scientific inquiry, regardless of where the researchers disclosing it work and live.

I say all this as an older, pragmatic and practical American professional, and not as an inexperienced, pie-in-the-sky Utopian. Trees are a global resource, and tree science is globally relevant, regardless of any of our social, economic, religious or political leanings. TREE Fund is a small — but mighty — player in this planetary network, and we become stronger every time we gather with colleagues from around the world on behalf of the planet’s urban canopies.

Okay, so maybe this Vancouver tree does want some boundaries . . .