2019: Year in Review

Marcia and I are hitting the road tomorrow for New Mexico (where we’ll see out 2019, having welcomed it in Paris, France), so it seems a good time for my annual recap and summary of stuffs and things here as a final blog post from a big year, on a wide range of fronts for our family, most of them documented within these pages.

ON THE BLOG:

This is the 70th post on the blog this year, up from 41 in 2018, 35 in 2017, and 27 in 2016. A very positive trend (if not as many posts as I used to poop out annually a decade or so ago), and a good indicator that getting off of social media (a goal established in last December’s “Year in Review” post) was a good way to redirect time and energy to pursuits that I consider more rewarding. Traffic was up a solid 40% over the prior year as well, confirming once again that volume drives reads, as long as quality remains acceptable. As satisfying as that is, given my own goals for the year, I doubt that I will hit the same high post mark in 2020, as I plan to work on some projects for potential professional or commercial purposes, and don’t intend to share them until I know there’s not a market for them. But I do have a couple of new ideas for public writing for pleasure knocking around in my brain, so I may surprise myself.

I completed my planned Credidero writing project this week, an act of thinking out loud in public over the past year about a dozen concepts of interest, looking to see what beliefs might emerge from such active reflection and analysis. It was satisfying to click the final “publish” button, seeing that effort to fruition. Of course, I’m lousy at letting things go cleanly, so I will re-read and mull the entire project output soon, and write one last summarizing article in January, to assess themes or thoughts that emerge from between the lines for me.

As I report each year, here are the ten most-read articles among the 70 new posts here in 2019:

And then here are the ten posts written in prior years that received the most reads in 2019. It always fascinates me which of the 1,100+ articles on my website interest people (or search engines) the most, all these years on since the first 1995 post on an early version of this blog, long before any of us knew it was to be called a blog. (I exclude things like the “About Me” page or the generic front page from the list, even though they generate a lot of my traffic). Here’s hoping that people realize that the perpetually-popular “Iowa Pick-Up Lines” post is a joke . . .

ON THE WEB:

I begin my day, every day, reading two utterly brilliant sites: Thoughts On The Dead and Electoral Vote Dot Com. My deeper thoughts on the former are here, and on the latter, suffice to say they’re my main online source for hard political/electoral news and analysis at this point, and have been since the early ’90s. I will admit that it is hard, sometimes, to decide which one of the worlds they describe in glorious detail (the first a semi-fictional universe built around the exploits of a time-traveling Grateful Dead, the second an academically rigorous view of our Nation’s electoral processes) is the most absurd and unbelievable anymore. I definitely would prefer to live in Thoughts On The Dead’s universe some days when I read the reports on Electoral Vote Dot Com and cringe at the idiocy, if not outright evil, of our ruling class. Beyond that, I didn’t add any new crucial web sites to my roster of favorites this year (see the “Regular Reads” block in the right side-bar), which I suppose is another good indicator that I spent less time trawling and more time creating in 2019 than has been the case in recent years. Good on me.

TRAVEL:

As noted above, we greeted 2019 in Paris, France and will see it out in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We also celebrated our 30th anniversary in June with a great trip to Greece, and our first retirement trip was a jaunt to Spain. In the middle of all that, we consolidated our household in Des Moines, Iowa, after having split time between there and Chicago for three years. I traveled less for work in 2019 than I had in the four prior years (it’s harder to get anywhere from Des Moines than it is from Chicago), though I still got to enjoy my fifth Tour des Trees, this time in Kentucky and Tennessee. Next year the team will ride in Colorado, with Iowa as the target destination the year after that. I hope that health and schedule allow me to continue rolling with them, minus my management responsibilities. At bottom line, 2020 will be mainly about the travel that Marcia and I choose to do, not that we need to do. That will be refreshing. We have trips to Arizona, Ireland, Spain, Costa Rica and Iceland in the family’s conceptual hopper at this point, and we shall see what else the next year brings. Here’s my 2019 map, as a benchmark (with this week’s trip to New Mexico already penciled in):

RECORDINGS:

I’ve already posted my Most Played Songs of 2019 and Best Albums of 2019 reports, and consider 2019 to have been an outstanding music year. After completing the latter article, I acquired the new self-titled album by The Who, which would have made the list had it been released on its originally announced date, so that I could have given it enough spins to properly evaluate it. But it slipped, so it didn’t. That said, I do think it’s the best thing Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend have done since, oh, I guess I’ll say Quadrophenia (1973), so I heartily recommend it. These old dogs may not have many new tricks, but they’re really, really good at doing the ones they know, even without their classic era rhythm section, RIP.

LIVE PERFORMANCES AND ART EXHIBITIONS:

Alas, this is the one section of my annual report that’s ready for retirement, with us having left Chicago. We saw dozens of shows (of both types) each year when we were living just off of The Loop, and we’ve seen, well, close to none, since we moved back to Des Moines. The one concert that stands out was our final one as Chicago residents: King Crimson at Auditorium Theater, where we had front row seats to watch the Seven-Headed Beast work its magic. A wonderful and fitting chapter closer for four great years of concert-going and museum-strolling in a world-class cultural city.

BOOKS:

I set a goal to read more books in 2019. I did read more books in 2019, once again demonstrating the perfidy that Twitter and its ilk impose upon us as time sucks and soul wasters and dumb-down distractions. Here’s the list of my favorite nonfiction works, novels and short story collections of the year. I feel smarter having read them.

FILMS:

We’ve seen a lot of movies this year, many of them quite good. (We’re pretty astute at just not going to see things that we think are not going to appeal to us, so I don’t often get exposed to garbage). Here’s my Top 15 of the year, thus far, in alphabetical order:

  • A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
  • The Art of Self Defense
  • Booksmart
  • Brittany Runs A Marathon
  • Dolemite Is My Name
  • The Farewell
  • Ford v Ferrari
  • Good Boys
  • Jojo Rabbit
  • Knives Out
  • The Lighthouse
  • Midsommar
  • Parasite
  • Ready Or Not
  • Rocketman
  • Us

I still have some Oscar Bait late-in-the-year or below-the-radar films that I would like to check out: Pain & Glory,  The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Monos, and Hagazussa. I’m iffy on The Irishman, as I have a hard time wanting to sit through anything that long, especially a gangster movie, as much as I like the (most of) the film’s cast and director. I thought Little Women was unwatchably bad, so I’m flying in the face of critical consensus on that. In theory, I will amend this to create my final list after I catch the ones I’m going to catch, though once the Academy Awards show rolls around, I usually lose interest in catching up, and start looking ahead to next year.

AND  THEN . . . .

. . . onward to New Mexico and beyond. I assume that I will be back here at my desk (wherever my desk lives at that point) in December 2020 with a similar report (as has become my habit), marveling at that which was, and eagerly anticipating that which is yet to come. See you then?

Most Played Songs of 2019

Last night I reset the play counts on all of  our family iPods, as I’ve been doing every twelve months or so since we got our first iPod in 2007. I used to wait until the very end of the year to reset the counts, but now I generally reprogram everything soon after I complete my Best Albums report, and then push the magic button that zeroes out play information for all 15,000+ songs stored on my hard drive. Boom! New music year!

We still have seven iPods in use in various locations (car, living room, bedroom, gym, etc.), and I’ve been scavenging online to build  a little trove of models I like (old Shuffles and Nanos, mainly) to keep my current listening paradigm going as long as it can. But, as has been a recurring theme for me over a lifetime of listening, I do recognize that I’m once again fighting a rear guard battle as playback technology makes another of its seismic shifts from a purchased media file model to streaming services, delivered over our phones or other smart devices, and designed so that we never actually own anything musical anymore, but just rent it. That said, Marcia needed to get a Spotify account for her yoga instructor class this fall, and we used that and a BlueTooth speaker exclusively while we were in Spain, and that worked out fine. So I suspect this may be the last year that I base this report solely on iPod usage. Grumble.

Since we synch all of our many fiddly widgets to one computer and one master iTunes account, the “Most Played Songs” list on that account represents the aggregated play counts from all of our iPods. This means that the “Most Played Songs” of the year are often unexpected, since they represent the heart of a musical Venn Diagram where our family’s tastes most closely overlap, even though each of us individually may like and listen to very different things. I spin a lot of Napalm Death every year, for example, but they very, very rarely show up on these lists, since they’re never played when Marcia and Katelin are around. The grind is for me time only.

With those usual preambles aside, here are the Smith Family Top 40 Most Played Songs for the past twelve months. Maybe the list will inspire you to check some of the songs and artists out. They’re all great, guaranteed, and you can even play them in polite company. Mostly.

1. “Time Is The Killer” by Rain Phoenix (Featuring Michael Stipe)

2. “Jeannie Becomes A Mom” by Caroline Rose

3. “Winona Minnesota” by The Weasels

4. “Embryonic Journey” by Jefferson Airplane

5. “Happy With You” by Paul McCartney

6. “Good Shepherd” by Jefferson Airplane

7. “Jack-A-Lynn” by Jethro Tull

8. “The Second Shift” by Virginia Wing

9. “The Creator Has A Master Plan” by Leon Thomas

10. “The Oak” by The Albion Band

11. “I’ll Be All Right” by Jorma Kaukonen

12. “Another Song About The Moon” by Buggy Jive

13. “Marrow” by Jealous of the Birds

14. “Song For The North Star” by Jorma Kaukonen

15. “Names of the Stars” by Weyes Blood

16. “Clementina” by Jealous of the Birds

17. “Long Island Ice Tea, Neat” by The Coup (Featuring Japanther)

18. “After the Gold Rush” by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris

19. “We Took the Wrong Step Years Ago (Acoustic)” by Hawkwind

20. “No Man’s Land” by Imperial Wax

21. “God Bless the Child” by Ernest Dawkins

22. “Sleep Song” by Hot Tuna

23. “Genesis” by Jorma Kaukonen

24. “Get Me Out Of This Town” by Andy Prieboy (Featuring Tony Kinman)

25. “There’ll Always Be Music” by Dolly Parton

26. “I’ll Let You Know Before I Leave” by Jorma Kaukonen

27. “Colour of Water” by Rose Elinor Dougall

28. “Blues for Mr. Mu” by Acoustic Alchemy

29. “Inkulu Into Ezakwenzeka” by Nontwintwi

30. “Easy to Slip” by Little Feat

31. “Finnegans Wake” by The Weasels

32. “Larf and Sing” by Family

33. “Confidante” by Paul McCartney

34. “Fall on Me” by R.E.M.

35. “Heaven and Hell” by William Onyeabor

36. “Love Theme from Spartacus” by Yusef Lateef

37. “Everybody’s Talkin'” by Harry Nilsson

38. “Water Boy” by Don Shirley

39. “Genesis Hall” by Fairport Convention

40. “I Believe You” by The Monkees

Michael Stipe and Rain Phoenix nab most played kudos for 2019. Click the image to hear their glorious duet.

 

Best Albums of 2019

With the holidays and a heavy travel schedule sneaking up on me in the month ahead, I deem it time for my 2019 Albums of the Year Report. This edition marks the 28th 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. I usually post it in late November or early December, figuring that I need to live with an album for a month, at least, before I declare it among the best things I heard over the course of a year. I typically do an update or supplement in January or so if I feel like I need to add anything truly notable that slips in after that.

To provide some perspective on the choices I’ve made over the years, here is the complete reckoning of my published Albums of the Year from 1992 to 2018. (I had yearly favorites before then, obviously, I just didn’t hang them out for others to look at). I don’t quite know what I was thinking in some years, retrospectively, but I made my choices in public and I stick with them as a point of principle:

  • 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: First Aid Kit, Ruins

2019 was a very good year for new music, a true plethora of riches that left me with far more viable contenders for my list than I usually consider at this time of the year. That holds true not only for the list as a whole, but also for the top of the list. I count half-a-dozen albums that I’d feel good about declaring Album of the Year, so picking just one is going to be a challenge for me as  work through this. There are stalwart favorite artists on the list and thrilling new pokes from artists who I didn’t know existed 12 months ago. I love that type of balance of fresh and familiar.

Also noteworthy: I would suspect that this is among the most gender-balanced lists that I’ve posted over nearly three decades, with both female soloists and bands featuring women all over the final roster. (Of the 30 finalist albums referenced below, 15 are by or prominently feature female performers). It’s good to see more equity on that front than is typical in some of the sausage party genres I routinely trawl. On the flip side, I note a dearth of records from categories that normally appear fairly heavily on my annual lists: rap/hip-hop and extreme metal. When I noticed that I wasn’t finding a lot of things that excited me within those genres a few months ago, I started scouring various other sources and lists to see if I was missing something that moved me. Not much did, unfortunately. I know there are great releases out there in both genres, as there always are, but few things clicked strongly with me this year. Guess I just wasn’t in the mood, or perhaps it’s just a sign of me getting soft in my old age. We’ll see in 2020.

As I normally do when I post lists like that, I have two final notes to make up front. First, this is all subjective, and it’s all my opinion. But of course it is. If music criticism were objective, we’d all end up with one mutually-agreed upon list at year’s end, and what would be the fun in that? Second, I can only rank and review what I actually hear in a given year, so that’s limited by (a) what I like to listen to, and (b) what I actually acquire to spin. So I’m sorry if I missed your favorite Kalimantan skater boi raga jazz record this year, and I’ll happily read about it on your list when you post it. Please feel free to share that list with me, and you really don’t need to add a “Dude, you suck” preamble to it.

I’m going to start this year’s review with ten Honorable Mention albums, in alphabetical order by artist name. They are all very enjoyable in their own ways, and at various times over the year, I had them on my list-in-progress, but when we get to rug-cutting time, they did not make the Top 30 that I will review in more detail below. Still worth exploring (click the links to do so),  and still deserving of kudos for accomplishment:

Also of note, I do not generally include EPs in my Album of the Year list, but there were two examples of that format that I covered earlier this year in an article celebrating the slight but welcome return of wonderful EP releases (like, say, Slates by The Fall) in the digital era, and I document them here as they also include some of the year’s best songs, just not as many of them:

And now the final countdown, from my #30 Album to my #1 Album of the Year for 2019. Hold on tight. There’s going to be a lot of abrupt and juddering swings back and forth between various genres, styles, and techniques, some calm, some extreme, some inspirational, some soul-crushing, some wobbling at the very cusp of explainability. But that’s what makes for a good ride, innit? I think so. As above, the links will help you explore further.

#30: Piroshka, Brickbat: The debut album from an all-star alt-rock ensemble (Miki Berenyi of Lush, K.J. McKillop of Moose, Mick Conroy of Modern English and Justin Welch of Elastica) is edgy, angular and angry at times, though the riffs and melodies are sweet enough to stick and stay. The sound evokes the stylings of its parent members’ bands, and it’s great to Berenyi’s voice again, two decades on from Lush’s demise.

#29. F-DORM, COMMUNE: I don’t usually use artists’ own press materials to describe their work, but F-DORM’s summary of their sound is so perfect that I just can’t top it: “Comprised of cold grinding electronic repetition and perversely distorted, bloated vocalizations.” Yes. That. A great and harrowing experimental project from Chicago’s Connor Camburn and Conor Ekstrom, on SCRAPES Recordings, a brilliant label.

#28. Pip Blom, Boat: This young Dutch quartet follow the early P.J. Harvey rubric, where the singer-songwriter and the band share the same name, complicating conversation about them. But that difficulty aside, the songs the singer crafts and the arrangements within which her band plays them are infectious, offering a fresh take on guitar rock that feels easy and familiar, by virtue of being well-crafted and original.

#27. Generationals, Reader As Detective: Louisiana’s Generationals (singer-songwriter-guitarists Grant Widmer and Ted Joyner, supported by contributing producer Dan Black) offer 10 sparkly, infectious, and dance-ready gems on their first proper studio album since 2014. It’s always a treat to be reminded that really good pop music doesn’t have to pander stupidly to the lowest common auto-tuned denominator.

#26. Sacred Paws, Run Around the Sun: More smart pop from another sharp duo, this time from the other side of the Atlantic. Rachel Aggs and Eilidh Rodgers make a truly joyful noise, with ebullient paired vocals, rich arrangements, clever rhythms, memorable melodies and Aggs’ spectacular Highlife-style guitar work, which is busy in all the best ways, like a swarm of audio bees making sweet musical nectar. Tasty!

#25. Iiro Rantala, My Finnish Calendar: A delightful album from Finland’s best known jazz pianist, featuring 12 songs, each one named after and inspired by a month of the calendar year. The recording is warm and inviting, the songs are evocative (it’s fun to scramble them and guess which month is which), and the liner notes are priceless, as Rantala frankly and humorously describes how Finns experience their chilly climes.

#24. The Specials, Encore: A welcome return, and a welcome return to form, even if only three of the great 2 Tone group’s members (singer Terry Hall, singer-guitarist Lynval Golding, and bassist Horace Panter) are carrying the torch these days. There’s no time for nostalgia here, and the social and political topics covered here are timely and trenchant, with great beats you can dance to.

#23: Focus, Focus 11: I say “Focus,” and you invariably think “Hocus Pocus.” Which is great, but the Dutch masters offered so much more than that one yodel-fortified hit. Their technical prowess and composing skills are on full display on Focus 11, and Pierre van der Linden (one of two classic-era members, along with Thijs van Leer) offers some of 2019’s most choice drum work, in the sweet spots between jazz and rock. Listen.

#22. Pom Poko, BirthdayThis young Norwegian four-piece get jaw-drop reviews for the live shows, and while I’ve not caught them in concert, I can clearly hear how this album’s material would be nuts in concert. The songwriting careens all over — post-punk, power-pop, prog-puree — sometimes in a single song, and the players are all conservatory grade talents. Bonus points for this video, the stuff of smart nightmares.

#21. Korn, The Nothing: Korn put out an album. I put in on my year-end list. That’s how it goes, because they’re great. Then someone from the critoisie invariably chides me for my choice, because we’re supposed to shake our heads about Korn’s popularity, not embrace it. But they deserve kudos, here and anywhere, and this is a top five album in their deep catalog. Jonathan Davis moves me, and his bandmates are boss. Deal with it.

#20. Thighpaulsandra, Practical Electronics With: Four long, squelchy, disturbing songs from the provocatively creative artist whose mother knew him as Tim Lewis, and whose work with Julian Cope, Spiritualized and COIL made all of them better. The flavor here is most closely comparable to the late COIL Live series (Thighpaulsandra was a crucial contributor there), and it oozes darkness of the brightest varieties.

#19. Sasami, Sasami: The cover of this album, featuring Sasami Ashworth stepping precariously across ice sheets in an Arctic landscape, is perfect for the music’s tone: it’s chilly, it’s wobbly, it’s cool, yet it always creates a sense that it could dump you elsewhere unexpectedly, at any time. Lots of stick-in-the-ear melodies here, thoughtful lyrics, and arrangements that are all deliciously awry and unpredictable. A great debut.

#18. Mekons, Deserted: Most emphatically not a debut, Deserted marks the 40th anniversary of the Mekons’ audaciously primitive debut album The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strnen. Their new disc finds the Chicago-to-UK eight piece taking their many instruments and voices and styles out for a creative foray in the dry country, their stories and sounds evoking a perfect sense of heat-haze craze and tumbleweed twang.

#17. Cup and Ring, Cup and Ring: Guitarist Gavin Laird wrote a haunting cyclical finger-plucked figure, looped it, and sent it to several collaborators with these instructions: start a song with it, end the song with it, and do what you want in between. Eight songs so created comprise Cup and Ring, a wonderful, creative suite, various styles and techniques flowing around that mysteriously evocative central figure. Sound magic!

#16. Jenny Hval, The Practice of Love: Norway on the list again, this time courtesy of accomplished artist Jenny Hval’s seventh solo album, which is actually an international affair as collaborators Vivian Wang, Laura Jean and Félicia Atkinson recorded their parts in Singapore, Australia and France. Love is the central consideration, in all of its wonderful weirdness, as the brilliant music deftly balances challenge and accessibility.

#15: Goon, Heaven is Humming: There’s a marked dearth of white American boys playing alt-rocky guitar on this year’s list, but California’s Goon represent that side and do it very well. They have an identifiable sound that stands out in mixes, and they offer it while playing in a wide range of contemporary styles and arrangements, from the stripped down and elegant to the big and furry and lumbering. Sublimely solid, all told.

#14. Pere Ubu, The Long Goodbye/Montreuil: Technically two albums, but packaged together, so I rank them as one. The Long Goodbye is a new studio work initiated while leader David Thomas was home-bound, facing serious health issues. Montreuil is an audacious live take on that album, played while the songs were still poppin’ fresh. A perfect pair, touching all facets of the unique, decades-long Ubu oeuvre and process.

#13. Daniel Kahn, Bulat Blues: Daniel Kahn is an expat American in Germany, working with The Painted Bird, a “Klezmer Yiddish Punk Cabaret” ensemble. Bulat Blues is an album of chansons by Soviet-era composer Bulat Okudzhava, translated into English by Kahn, who performs them accompanied by Russian guitarist Vanya Zhuk. I’d never heard of any of them a year ago. Now they’re indispensable listening. More, please?

#12. Ezra Furman, Twelve Nudes: Ezra Furman, on the other hand, I’ve been listening to regularly since chancing upon his band when he was a college student in Boston, circa 2008. He’s a Chicago native, so I’ve seem him there several times too, and he is a stunning talent, getting better by the year. Twelve Nudes is the most raw sounding, energetic and confessional record in his catalog, closely capturing his stellar live vibe.

#11. Xiu Xiu, Girl With Basket of Fruit: Xiu Xiu have been regulars on my annual lists for a lot of years, offering album after album of extreme to really-extreme material, both sonically and lyrically. Girl With Basket of Fruit falls in the really-really-extreme bucket, to the point where it was almost off-putting at first, even to me. But I succumbed to its dark charms eventually, and now I see and hear it as one of their best.

#10. Black Midi, Schlagenheim: It’s rare to hear a standard guitar-guitar-bass-drum outfit do something unexpected and original, with virtuoso chops. But when young UK quartet Black Midi played a live set on KEXP, which went viral, we saw and heard that, and then some. The brilliant, creative precocity of that performance translates fully to their thrilling debut album, which sounds like nothing I’ve heard before, seriously.

#9. The Hu, The Gereg: I have deep fondness for Central Asian throat singing and extreme metal. So when my wife shared an NPR report about a Mongolian band that merged those two musical loves, that was a no-brainer buy for me. Amazingly, it lived up to its promise. It’s not as hard as NPR implied, but is better for that, making throat-singing and Mongolian melodies as accessible and rousing as I’ve ever heard them.

#8. Holly Herndon, PROTO: Holly Herndon’s PROTO is another album that sounds like nothing I’ve heard before. The Tennessee native merges hearty call and response gospel singing with glitchy electronics, deploying an artificial intelligence named Spawn as a collaborator in dicing and splicing these incredible tracks, teaching it to sing with the humans in the process. Bring on our robot overlords if this is their music.

#7. Alice Merton, Mint: As with Generationals and Sacred Paws down-list, this album is chockablock with smart, chop-stocked pop, and it was apparently really popular, too, since I’ve heard some Mint songs played in public by others over the past year, which is rare for me, given what I usually listen to. I guess I should not be that surprised though, since, Holy Moly, is this album punchy-catchy! An auspicious debut. An artist to watch.

#6. Heilung, Futha: A Tuvan throat-singer, a Blixa Bargeld impersonator, and a Valkyrie walk into a mead hall in the middle of a battle and start singing. No, it’s not the set-up for a joke, it’s a description of what Futha sounds like. Heilung hail from Denmark, Germany, and Norway (another entry!), and refer to their work as “amplified history” and “primeval music concrete.” Both apt descriptions. Beautiful and frightening fare.

(A Brief Pause: As we move to the five finalist albums this year, I again want to note how hard it has been for me to even separate these five from those below them, then to sort them in a meaningful order, then to pick one that’s better than the rest. It’s a game of inches this time around, when it comes right down to it. I suppose I could just cop out and declare a tie, or do one of my head-to-head round-robin competitions, but the last time I did that, I didn’t end up with a winner that had legs in the years beyond its title. I will note that the legacy issue is a factor as I consider the album that I pick this year: if I keep doing these reports — and I have no reason to think I won’t, bar death or dementia — I will keep opening the annual article with the list of all of my prior Albums of the Year, so each of those single list-topping records ends up being the one item representing that year in new reports going forward, while the others often disappear into the dusty corners of the mental and digital jukeboxes. So as I look at these five finalists, and try to decide which one will best represent my sense of 2019 on my lists for however many years I keep doing this going forward, I think I see a winner. Okay. Back To The Countdown).

#5. Malibu Ken, Malibu Ken: Aesop Rock is a ridiculously verbose MC. Tobacco is an analog synth wizard whose occasional verbal declarations are always warped through vintage vocoders. Malibu Ken is their first collaboration, and it’s a doozy. This was the first new album I acquired in 2019, and it’s never left any of the various machines on which we listen to tunes in our house. Tobacco’s music is viscous and ripe, rhythmically rich and perfectly suited for Aesop’s flow. And flow he does, with his trademark self-deprecation and story-telling skills in full effect. Highlights include the laugh-out-loud “Churro” (which describes the day when a popular eagle’s nest cam caught Mama Birb feeding her chicks a kitty) and “Acid King,” a graphic, historically accurate re-telling of the dismal Ricky Kasso story. A brilliant pairing. Here’s hoping for Malibu Ken II soon.

#4. Imperial Wax, Gastwerk Saboteurs: I wrote a full review of this album upon its release, placing it in context (three fourths of Imperial Wax were the final line-up of the late Mark E. Smith‘s The Fall), and then assessing the new record on its own rich merits. My esteem for Gastwerks Saboteurs has only grown since then, as my brain adapts to hearing the group in its own right, rather than as The Fall with a new singer. Which it is not, and that’s a very good thing, as singer-guitarist Sam Curren is formidable and well-suited for the robust set of songs that Gastwerk Saboteurs offers. I also still hold the ex-Fall members in highest regard, as they’ve been brilliant at respecting and protecting the legacy of MES and The Fall, rather than just trading on their names. A sharp new single bodes well for further greatness, in their own voices, with their own touch. Choice!

#3. Buggy Jive, The B-Side: Professor Buggy Jive is an Upstate New Yorker whose work I’ve been admiring since our paths first crossed in Albany in the mid-’90s. He broke my heart in the most beautiful ways with this record’s advance single, “Another Song About The Moon,” which I wrote about in full here.  Even without the personal resonance and relationships described there, I’d cite “Moon” as 2019’s video of the year, easily. Watch it here. Seriously. Go do it. I’ll wait. [Waiting waiting waiting]. You back? Guess what. That’s not the only great video from The B-Side. Go dig “Stole My Stealing From Eliot” too. No rush. Get on. [Waiting waiting waiting]. Amazing, huh? Well, so is the rest of this record, which when coupled with 2018’s The Buggy Jive Mixtape finds this master in a creative hot streak of stunning and scintillating strength.

#2. KOKOKO!, Fongola: I wrote about the ways that I first encountered and experienced African music, and how important it has been to my listening habits, earlier this year in my eulogy for the great Johnny Clegg. I cited Fongola as a current/recent example of the best music that his home continent had to offer, and as 2019 winds down, I find myself amending that statement to say that Fongola contains some of the best music that the world presented to me over the past twelve months. KOKOKO! are the musical wing of a Kinshasa-based artists’ collective, including musicians, dancers, singers and performers united to celebrate the spirit and culture of the Congolese people. Fongola features makeshift instruments crafted from the industrial and consumer detritus of the Western cultures and businesses that consume The Congo’s natural resources without care for its people, the sharp electronics of Belgian producer/DJ débruit, and the thrilling vocal stylings of Makara Bianko. The overall effect is explosive and engaging, even without the linguistic skills to get the lyrics’ meanings. Here’s a video introduction that demonstrates the vibrant energy of this great music. Fongola brings that into the comforts of your own home, with an edge.

#1, My Album of the Year for 2019: Lingua Ignota, Caligula: St. Hildegard of Bingen was a 12th century mystic, composer, scientist and philosopher, most celebrated in the 21st century for her music; there are more of her compositions known today than from any other composer of the Middle Ages, making her one of the most recorded composers of Medieval plainchant in all of history. She also developed the lingua ignota (Latin for “unknown language”) and its associated alphabet, ostensibly through Divine inspiration, and for purposes unknown to modern scholars. Singer-musician-composer Kristin Hayter adopted the name of Hildegard’s constructed language for her ongoing musical activities, onstage and in the studio, and she has released three albums and an EP under its banner. It’s a perfect moniker for her work, evoking mysticism, art, communication, history, inspiration, and the spaces and places where women can and do create deeply personal work for their own purposes, in their own ways, free from psychic or physical interference from those who would silence their voices. I first encountered Hayter when she sang, with frightening power, on four cuts from The Body’s I Have Fought Against It, But I Can’t Any Longer, #7 on my 2018 Albums of the Year report. On Caligula, she now takes all the glorious intensity of The Body’s best work, drapes it with nearly orchestral arrangements of organic and electronic instruments, and delivers 11 terrifying, deeply personal texts atop her great musical compositions, twining the experiences and emotions of a domestic violence survivor with the words and story of the decadent and depraved Roman Emperor whose name this album bears. The music throughout Caligula offers crushing and breath-taking dynamism, and Hayter’s voice is a thing of wonder throughout, ranging from sweetly melodic whispers through glorious pure operatic arias to layered shrouds of shrieking, nearly-wordless anguish, made sound. Lyrics are inspired and exceptional, though almost unrelentingly dark (song titles include “May Failure Be Your Noose,” “Spite Alone Holds Me Aloft,” and “Butcher of the World,” among others), but the few moments of uplift, and release, and freedom from pain are all the more powerful in contrast to that which surrounds them. All told, this is a genius, cathartic work, inspired on all fronts, and inspirational in its ambition and impact. It’s also arguably the least accessible, most challenging Album of the Year that I’ve named since Jarboe’s Anhedoniac in 1998, but it truly deserves to be heard widely, and celebrated, along with its creator, for its bravery, bite and brilliance. Brava!

And with that, I’m done for the year. See you here again in 2020 . . .

Southernism in Song

I was reading an article about Dolly Parton’s heart-tugging 1971 hit “Coat of Many Colors” today, and it referenced a 2005 survey done by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to identify the 100 greatest songs of the American South. I had to see that list, of course, and finally found it on an old Prince fan site. “Coat of Many Colors” came in at #10, while Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit” topped the list. That “winner” is an epic, important, amazing, historic song, for sure, though it kind of stings to think that lynching turns up as the subject of the most notable song from/about the region that spawned me and my kin for generations and generations. (And, yeah, for many of those generations, my ancestors trafficked in human misery as slave-owners, so maybe “Strange Fruit” is the right song for such a list, hmmm, and alas).

But that point of musical and historic darkness didn’t stop me from thinking about my own most meaningful Songs of the South, the ones that speak to my own experiences and understandings of the region over the past half-century, in all of its weirdness, implicit and explicit. My songs may not be as important or topical or well-known as the ones on the Journal-Constitution‘s list, but they do take me home when I hear them, or at least make me want some boiled peanuts and okra and country ham while they’re spinning. Here’s a baker’s dozen worth of the ones that resonate most strongly with me, for one reason or another, most of those reasons not anchored in explainable logic.

For those readers from the region, which of your favorites did that old newspaper and I miss?

“Smoke From A Distant Fire” by The Sanford-Townsend Band

“Midnight Train to Georgia” by Gladys Knight and the Pips

“Heartbreaker” by Nantucket

“Satan’s River” by Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner

“Moving to Florida” by Butthole Surfers

“The City of New Orleans” by Arlo Guthrie

“Driver 8” by R.E.M.

“Creek Bank” by Mose Allison

“Breakfast Song” by Minister Cleo Clariet

“I Love” by Tom T. Hall

“I’ll Take You There” by The Staples Singers

“Down On The Farm” by Little Feat

“What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?” by Washington Phillips

 

(Don’t Go Back To) Five Songs You Need To Hear

In which we return to our occasional mini-series, for links to five songs that I know and love, and you probably don’t, but you should, so now you can, no excuses. These five cuts were all released in the past year, all culled from albums that you’ll likely read (much) more about in my “Best Albums of 2019” feature coming in a month or so. Fresh baked, as it were. Warm and tasty. Ready? Open wide your brain, and dig in . . .

#1. “Hollow” by Sin Fang

#2. “Three Sisters” by Daniel Khan (featuring Vanya Zhuk)(Audio Only)

#3. “Spite Alone Holds Me Aloft” by Lingua Ignota (Audio Only)

#4. “Almost It” by Sacred Paws

#5. “Wolf Totem” by The Hu

My Top 200 Albums Of All Time (2019 Update)

I’ve been keeping lists of my favorite albums since the very early ’70s, when I was a grade school Steppenwolf fan. My tastes have evolved dramatically over the years (though I still like Steppenwolf), so I review and update this list periodically, dropping things that haven’t aged well, and adding new things that excite me and seem to have staying power. It’s been 18 months since a freshening, so today seemed a good day to update.

For many years, this was a “Top 100 List,” but as I’ve gotten older, I feel entitled to expand the roster beyond the century mark, since I’ve listened to a whole lot more music now than I had when I was younger. I also used to exclude “Greatest Hits” and other compilation or live albums, but I’ve gotten less uptight about that, too, since for some artists, their best work may have appeared on singles that only saw long-form release in the form of “Best Of” collections.

So here’s the update, in alphabetical order by artist name. As soon as I post this list, I will invariably change my mind about something, but that’s the beauty of updates, right? Watch this space in 2020 to see what I got wrong this time!

  1. AC/DC: Back in Black
  2. Allison, Mose: Swingin’ Machine
  3. Bauhaus: The Sky’s Gone Out
  4. Beef: Stink, Stank, Stunk
  5. Beefheart, Captain and the Magic Band: Clear Spot
  6. Beefheart, Captain and the Magic Band: The Spotlight Kid
  7. Birthday Party: Junkyard
  8. Black Flag: Damaged
  9. Bogmen: Life Begins at 40 Million
  10. Bongwater: The Power of Pussy
  11. Bonzo Dog Band: Keynsham
  12. Bonzo Dog Band: The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse
  13. Bowie, David: “Heroes”
  14. Bowie, David: Lodger
  15. Bowie, David: Blackstar
  16. Buggy Jive: The Buggy Jive Mix Tape
  17. Burning Spear: Marcus Garvey
  18. Bush, Kate: Hounds of Love
  19. Bush, Kate: The Dreaming
  20. Butthole Surfers: Hairway to Steven
  21. Butthole Surfers: Locust Abortion Technician
  22. Camberwell Now: All’s Well
  23. Cave, Nick and the Bad Seeds: Henry’s Dream
  24. Cave, Nick and the Bad Seeds: Tender Prey
  25. Chance The Rapper: Coloring Book
  26. Chap: Mega Breakfast
  27. Christian Death: Catastrophe Ballet
  28. Clash: Combat Rock
  29. Clutch: Book of Bad Decisions
  30. Clutch: Elephant Riders
  31. Clutch: Robot Hive/Exodus
  32. Coil: Backwards
  33. Coil: Horse Rotorvator
  34. Coil: The Ape of Naples
  35. Collider: WCYF
  36. Coup: Sorry to Bother You
  37. Coup: Sorry to Bother You: The Soundtrack
  38. Cramps: Bad Music for Bad People
  39. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young: Deja Vu
  40. Dälek: Absence
  41. Dälek: Gutter Tactics
  42. Davis, Jed: Small Sacrifices Must Be Made
  43. Death Grips: Ex-Military
  44. Death Grips: Government Plates
  45. Department of Eagles: The Cold Nose
  46. Devo: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo
  47. Diamond, Neil: Tap Root Manuscript
  48. Dogbowl: Flan
  49. Dolphy, Eric: Iron Man
  50. Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment: Surf
  51. Dunnery, Francis: Tall Blonde Helicopter
  52. Eagles: Desperado
  53. Earth, Wind and Fire: All n’ All
  54. Einsturzende Neubauten: Halber Mensch
  55. Einsturzende Neubauten: Haus der Luge
  56. Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Tarkus
  57. Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Trilogy
  58. Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Brain Salad Surgery
  59. Eno, Brian: Here Come the Warm Jets
  60. Eno, Brian: Another Green World
  61. Eno, Brian: Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)
  62. Eno, Brian: Before And After Science
  63. Fairport Convention: Unhalfbricking
  64. Fairport Convention: What We Did On Our Holidays
  65. Fall: Hex Enduction Hour
  66. Fall: The Real New Fall LP (Formerly Country on the Click)
  67. Fall: Imperial Wax Solvent
  68. Fall: New Facts Emerge
  69. Family: Bandstand
  70. Family: Fearless
  71. First Aid Kit: Stay Gold
  72. First Aid Kit: Ruins
  73. Fleetwood Mac: Future Games
  74. Fleetwood Mac: Rumours
  75. Focus: Live At The Rainbow
  76. Funkadelic: Maggotbrain
  77. Gabriel, Peter: Peter Gabriel (III/Melt)
  78. Gang of Four: Entertainment!
  79. Gay Tastee: Songs for the Sodomites
  80. Genesis: Duke
  81. Genesis: Abacab
  82. Genesis: The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway
  83. Genesis: Wind and Wuthering
  84. Good Rats: Birth Comes to Us All
  85. Good Rats: Tasty
  86. Grateful Dead: American Beauty
  87. Grateful Dead: Workingman’s Dead
  88. Hall, Daryl: Sacred Songs
  89. Hanslick Rebellion: The Rebellion is Here
  90. Hawkwind: Doremi Fasol Latido
  91. Hawkwind: Space Ritual
  92. Hitchcock, Robyn and the Egyptians: Element of Light
  93. Hot Tuna: America’s Choice
  94. Hot Tuna: Yellow Fever
  95. Human Sexual Response: Fig. 14
  96. Human Sexual Response: In a Roman Mood
  97. Husker Du: Zen Arcade
  98. Idles: Brutalism
  99. Idles: Joy As An Act of Resistance
  100. Imperial Wax: Gastwerk Saboteurs
  101. Jarre, Jean-Michel: Equinoxe
  102. Jesu/Sun Kil Moon: Jesu/Sun Kil Moon
  103. Jethro Tull: Songs From the Wood
  104. Jethro Tull: The Broadsword and the Beast
  105. Jethro Tull: Heavy Horses
  106. Jethro Tull: Thick as a Brick
  107. Jethro Tull: A Passion Play
  108. Joy Division: Unknown Pleasures
  109. Joy Division: Closer
  110. Juluka: Scatterlings
  111. Kamikaze Hearts: Oneida Road
  112. Kaukonen, Jorma: Quah
  113. Keineg, Katell: Jet
  114. Killdozer: Twelve Point Buck
  115. King Crimson: Starless and Bible Black
  116. King Crimson: In The Court of the Crimson King
  117. King Crimson: Lizard
  118. King Crimson: Meltdown: Live in Mexico
  119. Kraftwerk: Trans-Europe Express
  120. Kraftwerk: Minimum-Maximum
  121. Kurki-Suonio, Sanna: Musta
  122. Lateef, Yusef: Eastern Sounds
  123. Lateef, Yusef: The Complete Yusef Lateef
  124. Malibu Ken: Malibu Ken
  125. Michael Nyman: A Zed and Two Noughts (Original Soundtrack)
  126. Minutemen: Double Nickels on the Dime
  127. Mitchel, Joni: For the Roses
  128. Mitchell, John Cameron and Stephen Trask: Hedwig And The Angry Inch
  129. Mos Def: The Ecstatic
  130. Napalm Death: Time Waits For No Slave
  131. Napalm Death: Utilitarian
  132. Napalm Death: Apex Predator — Easy Meat
  133. New Order: Movement
  134. New Order: Power, Corruption and Lies
  135. Octopus: Restless Night
  136. Parliament: Chocolate City
  137. Pere Ubu: The Modern Dance
  138. Pere Ubu: Terminal Tower
  139. Phair, Liz: Exile in Guyville
  140. Pink Floyd: The Dark Side of the Moon
  141. Pink Floyd: Animals
  142. Pink Floyd: The Wall
  143. Presley, Elvis: Peace In The Valley: The Complete Gospel Recordings
  144. Public Enemy: Fear of a Black Planet
  145. Public Enemy: Apocalypse ’91 . . . The Enemy Strikes Black
  146. R.E.M.: Life’s Rich Pageant
  147. Renaldo and the Loaf: Songs for Swinging Larvae
  148. Replacements: Let It Be
  149. Replacements: Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash
  150. Robbins, Marty: Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs
  151. Rolling Stones: Exile on Main St.
  152. Rose, Caroline: Loner
  153. Roxy Music: For Your Pleasure
  154. Rundgren, Todd: Healing
  155. Rush: Signals
  156. Sanders, Pharoah: Karma
  157. Schnell Fenster, The Sound of Trees
  158. Sepultura: Roots
  159. Shriekback: Oil and Gold
  160. Simon and Garfunkel: Sounds of Silence
  161. Smiths: Louder Than Bombs
  162. Snog: Last of the Great Romantics
  163. Soulfly: Ritual
  164. Special A.K.A.: In the Studio
  165. Steely Dan: Aja
  166. Steely Dan: The Royal Scam
  167. Steely Dan: Can’t Buy A Thrill
  168. Steppenwolf: Gold
  169. Stevens, Cat: Buddha And The Chocolate Box
  170. Swans: Filth
  171. Swans: Holy Money
  172. Talking Heads: Fear of Music
  173. Television Personalities: Closer to God
  174. This Heat: Deceit
  175. Tosh, Peter: Mama Africa
  176. Tosh, Peter: Equal Rights
  177. Tragic Mulatto: Italians Fall Down and Look Up Your Dress
  178. Tsukerman, Slava et. al.: Liquid Sky (Original Soundtrack)
  179. Utopia: Utopia
  180. Utopia: Swing to the Right
  181. Wailer, Bunny: Blackheart Man
  182. Wall of Voodoo: Happy Planet
  183. Wall of Voodoo: Seven Days in Sammystown
  184. Wasted: We Are Already in Hell
  185. Weasels: Uranus or Bust
  186. Weasels: AARP Go the Weasels
  187. Weasels: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow
  188. Ween: Quebec
  189. Ween: The Mollusk
  190. Who: Who’s Next
  191. Wings: Band on the Run
  192. Wings: Venus and Mars
  193. Wire: The Ideal Copy
  194. Wire: Send
  195. XTC: Black Sea
  196. XTC: English Settlement
  197. Yes: The Yes Album
  198. Yes: Fragile
  199. Zappa, Frank and the Mothers of Invention: One Size Fits All
  200. Zappa, Frank: Joe’s Garage, Parts I, II and III