The Albums Of Our Lives

I was reminded recently of an old interview with (great) writer Chuck Klosterman where he deflected a “best album ever” type question by citing a list of his favorite albums from each year of his life. Probably no surprise to those who are regular readers here, but that made me say “Ooooo! I need to do that too!!”

So I did. And it was an interesting process to develop the list. Some thoughts and observations:

  • The key word is “favorite:” I didn’t try to pick “best,” but rather the things that I enjoy the most, right here, right now, really hewing to the true definition of “favorite” in all of its subjective glory. The difference between “favorite” and “best” is significant, since I know that I love some bad things, and I also know that I hate some good things. Such is the essence of taste.
  • I used my Top 200 Albums Ever list as a starting point, but that quickly stopped being useful, primarily because there are some years where literally dozens of my favorite albums were released (e.g. 1977, with David Bowie’s Low and “Heroes,” Eno’s Before And After Science, Wire’s Pink Flag, Pink Floyd’s Animals, Steely Dan’s Aja, the Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks, Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express, Meatloaf’s Bat Out Of Hell, and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, just to cite the top of the pile), and other years when I had to deep dive into my collection to find a single album that I considered worthy of being on this list. As much as I always espouse my non-nostalgic “the best music ever made is the music being made right now” rubric, in truth, objective music quality and import over time is a lumpy graph, and that really shows up in a project like this.
  • I had what would seem to be another quality resource available to me in developing this list, with my own “Best Album” reports from print or digital outlets going all the way back to 1992. But interestingly enough, I did not receive much utility from that list either, as there were loads of years where my identified “Best Album” entries from those long gone years either didn’t have long-term legs and do not please me as much now as they did then, or where I still like those old records well enough, but saw them supplanted by things I only heard some year or years after their original releases. Perspective changes over time, for sure.
  • The final list I developed here is a little bit more of a Caucasian Sausage Party than I probably would have preferred. That said, I am glad to see that the trend lines for diversity generally move in the right directions as we careen into 2019.
  • Chuck Klosterman is younger than me, but we do have two albums in two years where we overlap in our lists. See 1990 and 1993. I’m highly skeptical of any self-proclaimed music critic/nerd if he, she (or you) does not agree with me and Chuck on these two. 1990 and 1993 are years where there’s not a lot of room for negotiation. Seriously.
  • If the first year presented in this list seems incongruous to you in terms of what you think you might know about my life’s timeline, let’s just say that I come from a grand old South Carolina family where such piddling insignificances as “When was I born?” or “When was I married?” or “What year is it, really, and how much does it matter, darling?” are highly negotiable in one’s personal narrative. Suffice to say I’m old enough that it’s rude to ask for clarification on such matters, so don’t.

And with all of that as preamble, here’s the list I’ve developed of my favorite albums, right now, from each year of my life:

1965: John Coltrane, A Love Supreme

1966: Simon and Garfunkel, The Sounds of Silence

1967: Yusef Lateef, The Complete Yusef Lateef

1968: Bonzo Dog Band, The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse

1969: King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King

1970: Grateful Dead, American Beauty

1971: Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Tarkus

1972: Jethro Tull, Thick As A Brick

1973: Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon

1974: Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

1975: Wings, Venus and Mars

1976: Steely Dan, The Royal Scam

1977: Steely Dan, Aja

1978: Jethro Tull, Heavy Horses

1979: David Bowie, Lodger

1980: Peter Gabriel, Peter Gabriel (III)

1981: Kraftwerk, Computer World

1982: XTC, English Settlement

1983: Swans, Filth

1984: Christian Death, Catastrophe Ballet

1985: Kate Bush, Hounds of Love

1986: R.E.M., Life’s Rich Pageant

1987: Butthole Surfers, Locust Abortion Technician

1988: Butthole Surfers, Hairway to Steven

1989: Einstürzende Neubauten, Haus der Lüge

1990: Public Enemy, Fear Of A Black Planet

1991: Public Enemy, Apocalypse ’91: The Enemy Strikes Black

1992: Television Personalities, Closer To God

1993: Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville

1994: Ween, Chocolate and Cheese

1995: The Bogmen, Life Begins at 40 Million

1996: Sepultura, Roots

1997: Katell Keineg, Jet

1998: Clutch, Elephant Riders

1999: Coil, Musick To Play in the Dark, Vol. 1

2000: Warren Zevon, Life’ll Kill Ya

2001: Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Original Cast Recording)

2002: The Residents, Demons Dance Alone

2003: Ween, Quebec

2004: Xiu Xiu, Fabulous Muscles

2005: Coil, The Ape of Naples

2006: Kamikaze Hearts, Oneida Road

2007: Dälek, Abandoned Language

2008: The Fall, Imperial Wax Solvent

2009: Mos Def, The Ecstatic

2010: Snog, Last Of The Great Romantics

2011: Death Grips, Exmilitary

2012: Napalm Death, Utilitarian

2013: David Bowie, The Next Day

2014: First Aid Kit, Stay Gold

2015: Napalm Death, Apex Predator — Easy Meat

2016: David Bowie, Blackstar

2017: The Fall, New Facts Emerge

2018: First Aid Kit, Ruins

1965 was a very good year to be born, hypothetically and musically speaking . . .

The Trees That Move Us

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column from the February 2019 edition of TREE Press, the monthly gazette of TREE Fund. You can read the latest and back editions, and subscribe to future installments, by clicking here.

Last summer, I wrote a Leading Thoughts column on “trees as inspiration,” sharing my affection for a wonderful work-in-progress book about ginkgos by Jimmy Shen, a professional botanic photographer based in east China. Last month, my column focused on another book, The Overstory by Richard Powers, a powerful novel about the ways that trees can shape our lives, from birth to death, and maybe beyond.

I received more feedback on those two columns than I did from any of the others I’ve written here, I think because those of us who count ourselves as “tree people” generally don’t leave our interest in trees at our work sites but are also awed and moved by them in our personal lives as well. We look for and admire great trees in the cities, fields and forests where we work, live and travel, and then we also seek out opportunities to celebrate trees in books, art, music, and in all of the other myriad of creative arts.

On one of our recent snow days, I bundled up and walked over to the Art Institute of Chicago – my favorite place in my favorite city, hands down – and wandered around the various galleries there as I often do. In the 19th Century European Art collection, I saw a wonderful painting that I’d not noticed before by Albert Bierstadt, depicting a glorious stand of birches around a rocky waterfall, and I shared a photo of it in on the TREE Fund Twitter feed.

And then I decided to have a full tree day at the museum, walking through every gallery, seeking out great trees in the collection. It was a wonderful way to re-experience galleries that I’ve seen more times than I can count, looking through a different lens at paintings, decorative arts, sculptures, and more. I found abstract trees, photographic trees, and impressionist trees. I was awed by the ways that artists were inspired by trees over centuries and around the world. I shared my findings on social media, and they were widely liked, commented on, and retweeted.

A couple of weeks later, I was home again and the song “The Trees” by the BritPop band Pulp came up on my stereo. Once again, thinking about trees, I decided to have a tree music day, going through the 14,000+ songs that I have on my computer, looking for great ones about trees, woods, forests, and more. I posted my 25 favorite tree songs on my personal website and once again got loads of comments, feedback, and response from others about their favorite tree songs. People just love tree art, in all of its forms.

I recommend you have your own museum tree day, or make a tree song playlist, or look at some other creative idiom through tree lenses. It’s truly rewarding to actively consider how the trees we care for professionally enhance our lives beyond their scientific and landscape value.

The Albert Bierstadt painting that inspired my Tree Day at the Art Institute.

Tree Songs

I was puttering around the apartment this morning, appreciating being indoors as the snow swirled in the cold north wind of a winter storm, and the Family iPod randomly queued up the BritPop band Pulp’s 2001 UK hit song “The Trees.” It’s a moving, melancholy song about love and loss, wherein Jarvis Cocker sings despondently “the trees, those useless trees, produce the air that I am breathing / the trees, those useless trees, they never said that you were leaving.” The song isn’t about trees, exactly, but they shape its narrative and its imagery, and it’s a lovely autumnal work, one of the group’s finest pieces, and a longtime fave of mine.

When it was done, I got to thinking about my other favorite tree-inspired or tree-related songs, and the list was (not surprisingly) fairly long and lush when I actually sat down to compile it. I share the best of the best with you below, working upward (as trees do) from #25 to #1, and with links so you can check ’em out yourself, and then perhaps think about and compile your own list. Please share it in the comments section if you make one, so I can add some new tunes to my new green playlist!

#25. “Fig Tree” by Bunny Wailer

#24. “Forest” by Robert Wyatt

#23. “Tall, Tall Trees” by Roger Miller

#22. “In Dark Trees” by Brian Eno

#21. “A Forest” by The Cure

#20. “The Trees” by Rush

#19. “Back To The Apple” by The Count Basie Orchestra

#18. “Bare Trees” by Fleetwood Mac

#17. “Lemon Tree” by Peter, Paul and Mary

#16. “Red Barked Tree” by Wire

#15. “Aria: Ombra Mai Fu,” from Handel’s Serse by Andreas Scholl

#14. “Leaf and Stream” by Wishbone Ash

#13. “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)” by The Coleman Hawkins Quartet

#12. “Fruit Tree” by Nick Drake

#11. “The Oak” by The Albion Band

#10. “The King in the Tree” by Shriekback

#9. “The Saw and the Tree” by Tim Finn

#8. “Sugar Magnolia” by The Grateful Dead

#7. “The Trees” by Pulp

#6. “Deep in the Woods” by The Birthday Party

#5. “Bury Me in Willow” by Asia

#4. “The Green Boy” by Peter Blegvad

#3. “Battle of the Trees” by Katell Keineg

#2. “The Sound of Trees” by Schnell Fenster

#1. “Songs from the Wood” by Jethro Tull

Let me bring you songs from the wood . . .

The Weasels: Smart Music for Stupid Times

The Weasels, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow (Mustella Furioso, 2018)

The Man Who Saw Tomorrow is the seventh studio long player from The Weasels of Albany, New York, who have been offering exquisitely crafted uneasy listening to discerning audiences since the early 1990s. Anchored as always around the songwriting partnership of Dr Fun (who also provides lead vocals, woodwinds, keyboards and sundries) and Roy Weäsell (guitars, vocals, keyboards, programs, etc.), The Man Who Saw Tomorrow features 15 new cuts that apply the duo’s sardonic worldview to a surprisingly topical and timely palette of subjects, creating a very smart, very classy record that’s very much a choice product of its time, never mind how very, very stupid its time happens to be.

Examples: “Et tu Harvey” and “I Sing The Weiner Electric” draw their inspirations from media coverage surrounding the base behavior of notorious #MeToo-era creeps Harvey Weinstein and Anthony Weiner, but then project those galling stories’ awful sensationalism through a twisted surrealist’s lens, turning them into a pair of modern morality parables that have good beats, to which you can cha-cha. “Wokeflake” and “New Black” also tap into current phrases, feelings, and fetishes, and both are charmingly wistful, even as they stomp the broken butterflies of youthful idealism, and deftly nestle today’s traumas into a spectrum of spectacles stretching back a cool century, most especially via the delicious “Wokeflake” chorus text of “Hello America and all the ships at sea / Goodnight Miss Calabash, wherever you may be.” (Walter Winchell and Jimmy Durante there, kids. Google ’em).

And the hits keep coming. “Winona Minnesota” is a heart-worm infected modern love song (“If I loved you like I hate you, all our troubles would be over”) that rides a ridiculously sinuous bass line from guest Weasel Baba Elefante. “Finnegans Wake” is, well, Finnegans Wake, flush with Joyce-isms (e.g. words that don’t quite make sense, but add up to something more than they would if they did), all set to a jolly drinking tune and with Dr Fun stepping away from the microphone to give Weäsell his customary once-per-record lead vocal turn. “Cherry Of Course” and “Gold Medal Flower” have rolling, repetitive, romping, rhyming lyrics that creep pleasurably close to Edward Lear  territory, the former over a rollicking country swing, the latter atop a synth-fortified funk strut. “George Barely” offers a zesty effervescence to the record’s mid-latitudes, all cheer and bubbles and fun, though with a hanging, unfinished chorus line — “and if I ever get the urge to play the blues or sing a dirge . . .” — that adds a pinch of piquant to the proceedings as you ponder just how Fun might finish that phrase.

I could readily and enjoyable unpack every one of The Man Who Saw Tomorrow‘s thirteen lyrics (one song’s an instrumental; more on that latter) at essay length, but for general review purposes, let me settle for saying that these songs are smart beyond reproach, and truly invite and reward active, deep listens. The Weasels’ deft deployment of word play, story-telling, random asides, cryptic references, literary allusions, broadcast bromides, sampled media snippets and other subliminal mutterings are engaging and entertaining, and the depth of meaning gets stronger and stranger as you peel the lyrical onion layers back, trying to figure out just what’s going on, and just how Fun and Weäsell managed to make earworms from such unexpected turns of phrase.

On the musical/instrumental front, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow is mostly delivered by a crack core band of Dr Fun, Roy Weäsell, guitarist Chuck D’Aloia and drummer Art Bernstein. The quartet have chops to spare, and D’Aloia is particularly and notably on fire throughout this album’s run, delivering tasty licks and titanic solos, soup to nuts. With decades and decades of stage and studio experience between them, the core quartet have got the skills to deliver the goods in rock, jazz, folk, country or pretty much any other idioms that inspire them, often pivoting on a dime between genres within a single song, like when an unexpected little breakbeat-EDM-electroclash thingie breaks out at the end of the clattering Bernstein-driven Vaudeville blues of “Fancy That.” There are also a pair of terrific traditional blues numbers with laugh out loud clever lyrics (“Ointment for My Stump” and “Yuge”) and a chunky, funky instrumental groove called “Planieren Sie Die Mond,” which upon closer inspection turns out to be an instrumental remake of “Bulldoze the Moon” from The Weasels’ 1995 sophomore album, Leon’s Mystical Head; the new version of the song features Fun on — wait for it — amazing jazz flute stylings.

Production and sound are as exquisite here as they ever are on a Weasels record (I’m not the only person to have compared them to Steely Dan when it comes to studio fastidiousness), with group co-founder and prodigal sound man Chris Graf returning to the fold (along with Scott Apicelli) to deliver a deep, rich mix that’s a joy on good speakers and (old school) headphones, with all sorts of touches layered atop, between and beneath the obvious bits that you catch on first listen. It’s never busy, but it’s textured in all the right ways. I know The Weasels’ catalog well, and I’ve had a lot of time to spin this disc over the past month and a half with some trans-Atlantic flights and long train trips along the way, and I’m inclined to place The Man Who Saw Tomorrow beside 1998’s Uranus or Bust as their two finest records. (Both Tomorrow and Uranus, as it happens, feature cover art from Michael Oatman, who co-created the “Weasel Vision” multi-media extravaganza back in the days when The Weasels were a live concern). It’s a classic, instantly. And no doubt for years to come, too.

As something of a coda, I want to close this review by discussing opening and closing tracks “Nostradamus is Dead” and “When in Rome” in a bit more detail, as they perfectly frame this exceptional album, lyrically, contextually, and musically. The opener’s got the ballsiest rock riffs on the record, as it spins a tale about, yes, “the man who saw tomorrow,” knitting in narratives about Nostradamus’ fellow traveler seers, hucksters, and seer-hucksters, famous and otherwise, from days gone by, days disgustingly present, and days yet to come. “The world is ending in a horrible fashion,” Fun sings, before noting that we sure could sure use a future-seeing warlock now to help us pierce the fog of worlds on fire and flying saucers crashing and skies turned red and such like. Jesus even makes an appearance here (in his 900-foot tall form), and the song ends with Fun calling out “hey” to a swirling litany of the semi-famous dead, none of whom ever answer.

“When in Rome” opens instrumentally like some lost Earth, Wind and Fire ballad, then rides a killer D’Aloia lick into a tale about an unnamed “he” (or maybe “He” is more fitting) who plans a special celebration, which is described in loving detail, and sounds utterly delightful, until He suddenly and unexpectedly cuts all of His guests’ heads off, mounts them on poles, and later eats pudding from their scooped-out skulls. And that’s just in the first verse! Verse two then explores a world gone crazy (“its brains run out its nose”) where “even Jesus prays that he can make it through the night,” until . . .

” . . . And when the nails were driven, not a fuck was given.
When in Rome, you do as Romans do.
And when the thorns were woven, and the spear was drove in,
when in Rome, you do as Romans do . . .”

Things then dissolve into a swirling fever dream of striking images and incantations (“a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy is a monkey”), culminating with the song’s and the album’s final words — “I fear we’re not in Kansas anymore” — after which D’Aloia solos us out into oblivion, world without end, amen, amen. “When In Rome” is an absolute masterpiece lyric, and a superb companion to fellow album closer “Doubting Thomas” from 2013’s AARP Go The Weasels, which also evoked the passion of Christ in trying to capture just what’s helplessly wrong and perverse about the world around us, and just what we all did to make it that way. Jesus wept, indeed.

It’s heavy, it’s profound, it’s sad, it’s funny, and EWF’s Philip Bailey could totally sing it if he wanted to, because the song itself is so damn funky, and soulful, and sweet. That deeply incongruous and deeply effective/affective (both apply) approach to lyric-writing and music-making has always provided the magic at the heart of The Weasels’ now 100-song strong catalog. What a pleasure it is, every few years or so, whether we deserve it or not, to look up in wonder at a new constellation of wonderful Weasels weirdness, sparkling above the wan and wasted plain of modern musical mediocrity.

LINKS AND REFERENCES:

The Weasels Website (Includes album ordering information)

The Weasels on Twitter 

The Weasels at Wikipedia (History and full discography)

The Man Who Saw Tomorrow on Spotify

J. Eric Smith’s Top 30 Albums of 2018 (Including This One)

2018: Year in Review

The shortest day of the year approacheth, by God, and that puts me in a reflective mood, meaning it’s time for my annual trawl through “The Year That Was” to capture the “Most This” and “Fave That” and “Best The Other” for those interested in such reckonings. (If that doesn’t include any of you, well, then at least I’ve given myself a nice summary of the year for future reference, and satisfied the list-making monster that gnaws on my brain stem like Níðhöggr as December 31 draws nigh).

ON THE BLOG:

I posted 41 articles on the blog this year, up from 35 last year, and 27 the year before. A positive trend, though still nothing approaching the 77 posts I wrote back in 2015, and more in years prior. I doubt I’ll ever see those levels of productivity here again, for a variety of reasons, but this seems like a good and satisfying “new normal” level for me at this point. I have a 2019 writing project in mind, so will announce that here via a separate post at some point soon.

The ten most-read articles among those 41 new posts here in 2018 were these:

And then here are the ten posts from prior years (this blog archive goes back to 1995, y’know) that received the most reads in 2018. It always fascinates me which of the 1,000+ articles on my website interest people (or search engines) the most, all these years on. I mean, why does the transcription of my 1999 chat with relatively obscure Son Volt guitarist Dave Boquist perennially appear on this list, while interviews with much more well-known artists never do? And people do realize that the “Iowa Pick-Up Lines” and “Coffee and Crystal Meth” articles are jokes, right? Hmmm . . .

ON THE WEB:

Outside of my own sandbox, I found 2018 to be a mostly dismaying year online as the constant barrage of shrill electoral and political messaging, all of it requiring my attention RIGHT NOW . . . and RIGHT NOW . . . and RIGHT NOW . . . and RIGHT NOW AGAIN . . . RIGHT NOW . . . eventually just overwhelmed me by the time we got to the elections. Once I crashed, literally, on that screaming digital beach-head in November, I just decided to put myself on a social media time-out program, and I intend to stick to it in the year ahead. Enough is enough is enough is enough. And enough is what I’ve had, and enough is all I need. Enough.

I need to keep Twitter for work purposes, but I’ve unfollowed everything on my personal account, including some good friends there. I am sorry about that, and hope that we’ll keep in touch elsewhere in other ways. You can still follow me at Twitter if you want to get tweets alerting you when I post something here on the blog, but I won’t be putting any new content there, and will need to find a new outlet for all of those little wordy bon mots, I guess. Similar situation with LinkedIn: I need it for work, my posts here will get cited there for information when they go live, and then that’s it. Read the blog if you want to keep up with what I’m doing, at bottom line, or email me, or call me. I’m always happy to talk. Seriously. Let’s do lunch. My treat!

Back to Twitter for a minute: I should note that I hit the 10,000-tweet mark (after about eight years) right around the time that I bailed on the platform. If we figure that my average tweet was about 200 characters long (I straddled the 140-character and 280-character epochs), and that the average English word is composed of about five letters, then that’s about 400,000 words, or several novels worth of bullshit spewed into the ether between 2010 and 2018.

Oof!!! That’s an awful lot of writing, just done gone, which probably explains why my blog volume dropped so precipitously in recent years. (To my own credit, I saw this coming). While I can’t get those words back, at this point, I definitely don’t want to add any more volume to that rambling stream of unedited piffle and tripe on one of the very same platforms that Russian trolls and their handlers used to wage cyberwar on us all, with terrible, terrible consequences. No mas. I’m out. See ya ’round. Done, done, and gone.

On a macro basis, I think the whole social media era may be drawing to a close for me. I also think that our descendants and their historians will look at how we collectively acted online over the past decade or so with disgusted bemusement as to how freaking stupid we all were in the nascent days of our lives as a digital species. I’m glad to have been an early adopter of lots of these technologies, and I’m equally glad to kick them to the curb when they have exhausted their utility in my life, or when they make me into a dumber, slower, sadder human being. This here internet thing was supposed to be fun, remember? I want to make it more of that, for me, starting right now, if not yesterday.

Also on that web and app front: while I am acutely aware that our Nation’s chief executive is a blithering, blundering, uncultured, unindicted co-conspiring buffoon, and that his enablers in the U.S. Congress, on FAUX News and its ilk, and in State Houses around the country will go down in history as some of the most criminally inept and amoral politicians and media figures ever to serve their citizenry, I do not need to be reminded of what those people are doing more than once or twice a day. Being alerted on a minute-by-minute or hour-by-hour basis about the crooked cabal’s misdeeds and idiocy doesn’t make me any more woke . . . it just makes me more morally exhausted and depressed than I would be otherwise.

So I am finished with doing that to myself, too. If a website or phone app has a “refresh” button (literal or virtual) on it, then I really don’t want to read it anymore, lest I get stuck, pressing “reload” over and over again, waiting for the next hit of inane and sulfurous nothing to flash up on the glowing screen before me, to nobody’s betterment, ever. For the past month or so, I have chosen to get my political news from three good sources, once or twice a day, at most: I read my long-time web favorite Electoral Vote Dot Com every morning on the train, along with a print copy of the Chicago Sun Times, and then I read The Economist when it arrives in my home mailbox each week. America’s educated working classes functioned for decades, if not centuries, with once-a-day newspapers or news shows on radio or televisions, and we did just fine all that time. Better than we’re doing today, actually, by most metrics.

I want to return to that model in my own news-consuming life, reading professionally edited articles by qualified journalists, researchers and reporters, just a couple of times a day. That’s enough. That’s all I need. Please, Jesus, stop shouting at me beyond that, all of you. Thank you. My new writing project will probably touch on some of these themes more in 2019, so that’s all I’m going to say about that, for now. Watch this space.

On a more positive front online, and outside of the agitating news and social media worlds, Thoughts on the Dead remains my clear favorite and most happily read website, with the ever-prolific Mr TotD continuing to build and manage the best semi-fictional universe EVAR!!! Dive in, the water’s warm, though that might be because somebody’s nephew peed in it, and the pool also might be dosed with acid, so keep your mouth closed while you splash about. Also, the Donate Button may be sentient there, so you should befriend it and curry its favor soon, lest your cell phone ring unexpectedly, and Kim Jong-Un be on the other end. Just saying. It happens more often than one might expect.

My favorite new (to me, not to others) website/blog of the year would be Messy Nessy Chic, an utterly fascinating and well-curated deep dive into amazing art, culture, stories, pictures, and stuff, in all of stuff’s glorious stuffishness. Gorgeous, fascinating, and fun — and Nessy’s ongoing “13 Things I Found On the Internet Today” series is the best recurring catalog of its sort that I’ve seen anywhere online in ages and ages. Every edition’s a gem, filled with literal wonders. My other favorite regular reads online in 2018 are listed in the sensibly named “Regular Reads” column in the right sidebar here, so I commend them to all of you, too, once you’ve had enough here.

TRAVEL:

We greeted 2018 in Key West, Florida, and we will see it out in Paris, France, unless the Yellow Vest protesters burn it down first. I did a lot of professional travel this year, atop some fun family trips, and a really strenuous Tour des Trees in Northeastern Ohio, so my travel itinerary for the year remained almost as busy as 2017 and 2016.

With our move to Des Moines in March, I’ll be making a lot more trips between Iowa and Chicago, but I am planning to limit my work travel to one professional trip per month beyond that, with my board’s blessing. It will be nice to see this spaghetti chart get a little bit less tangled in 2019, even as a good chunk of long-haul travel will remain. (We have Greece and St. Kitts already booked on the 2019 itinerary, along with next year’s Tour des Trees in Kentucky and Tennessee, so those are exciting benchmarks upon which to build other adventures).

RECORDINGS:

I’ve already posted my Most Played Songs of 2018 and Best Albums of 2018 Reports, and I updated my Top 200 Favorite Albums list to reflect 2018 listening. After I issued the latter list, The Weasels released their outstanding new album, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, which is certainly a best of the year, and will be getting its own review addendum here at some point soon. You can go buy it now, so you’re prepared.

LIVE PERFORMANCES:

We experienced a lot of performances in a lot of idioms and venues this year, so rather than list a Favorite Opera, or a Favorite Play, or a Favorite Classic Rock Show, here are the 15 live performance events of all stripes that moved me the most this year, in chronological order, and all in Chicago unless otherwise noted; the most amazing and compelling of the bunch was The Joffrey Ballet’s incredible Midsummer Night’s Dream (no, not that one, Shakespeare was not involved here). Wow!!

  • Turandot, January 13, Lyric Opera
  • Blind Date, January 27, Goodman Theater
  • The Antelope Party, February 23, Theater Wit
  • Uriah Heep, March 11, Arcada Theater (St. Charles, Illinois)
  • Faust, March 18, Lyric Opera
  • Women Laughing Alone With Salad, March 31, Theater Wit
  • The Residents, April 17, Old Town School of Folk Music
  • The Doppelganger: A Farce, April 29, Steppenwolf Theatre
  • Midsummer Nights Dream, May 5, Joffrey Ballet, featuring Anna von Hausswolff at Auditorium Theater
  • Jesus Christ Superstar, May 16, Lyric Opera
  • Todd Rundgren and Utopia, May 22, Chicago Theater
  • George Clinton and the P-Funk Allstars, July 15, Petrillo Stage, Taste of Chicago
  • First Aid Kit, October 2, Queen Elizabeth Theater (Vancouver, British Columbia)
  • Tom Hanks: “Uncommon Type,” November 2, Harris Theater, Chicago Humanities Festival
  • Familiar, December 16, Steppenwolf Theatre

ART EXHIBITIONS:

I saw every exhibition that opened at the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago Cultural Center and Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago this year, probably amassing more gallery time in 2018 than in any other year when I didn’t actually work in a museum. I think the Art Institute had a curatorial banner year in 2018, though probably not for the big, splashy, media-friendly exhibitions that most folks would cite. (I was very underwhelmed by their John Singer Sargent and Chicago’s Gilded Age show, for example, having seen a much more compelling collection and interpretation of Sargent’s works at The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown many years ago; this one felt very forced and “second city” to both Marcia and I). MCA mostly underwhelmed me this year, I am sad to say, and while the Cultural Center had some great shows in their smaller spaces, programming in their larger galleries also did not live up to the some of the creative thrills they’ve offered me in recent years. With that as macro preamble, then, here are the ten exhibitions that rocked my world the most this year at those three venerable venues. The Art Institute’s Hairy Who? 1966-1969 was unquestionably the best art event I saw this year: I have visited it about a dozen times at this point, and it reveals new wonders each time I walk through its generous galleries. Bravo!

  • Hairy Who? 1966–1969, Art Institute of Chicago
  • Volta Photo: Starring Sanlé Sory and the People of Bobo-Dioulasso in the Small but Musically Mighty Country of Burkina Faso, Art Institute of Chicago
  • Charles White: A Retrospective, Art Institute of Chicago
  • Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush, Chicago Cultural Center
  • Bronzeville Echoes: Faces and Places of Chicago’s African American Music, Chicago Cultural Center
  • de-skinned: duk ju l kim recent work, Chicago Cultural Center
  • Tomma Abts, Art Institute of Chicago
  • Howardena Pindell: What Remains To Be Seen, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
  • Flesh: Ivan Albright, Art Institute of Chicago
  • Painting the Floating World: Ukiyo-e Masterpieces from the Weston Collection, Art Institute of Chicago

BOOKS:

I am embarrassed by how few new books I read in 2018, which is another one of the reasons behind me saying enough when it comes to social media soul-sucking time: tons and tons of words passed through my eyes and into my brain this year, yes, but very few of them added wisdom or produced pleasure. Yucko, I am done with that, and I need to read more books in 2019! Let’s do this!

The best books I read this year were actually released between 2015 and 2017. N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy — The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky — marked the finest example of timely and timeless world-building that I think I’ve enjoyed since the original Dune books. These are the right books in the right time when it comes to the ways in which we write about and read the fantastic, and how the fantastic mirrors and reflects real issues in our real world, and the series absolutely deserves the trio of Hugo Awards bestowed upon it, among many other honors. Very enjoyable reading, and I was very happy to have gotten lost for a couple of months in Jemisin’s sublime The Stillness.

The best new fiction releases I read in 2018 were The Cloven (the final book in B.K. Catling’s sprawling Vorhh Trilogy), Suah Bae’s exquisitely surreal Recitation and Sarah Perry’s engaging Gothic Noir Melmoth. I have Richard Powers’ The Overstory queued up next, and I expect to start and enjoy that before the year is up. On the nonfiction front, I liked Jorma Kaukonen’s autobiography Been So Long: My Life and Music, and Joel Selvin’s expose on the post-Jerry days of the Dead, Fare Thee Well because I’m interested in the subjects — but I would not cite either of them as a particularly great example of contemporary rock literature.

And that’s pretty much it for me in terms of books released in 2018. Did I mention that I am embarrassed by this? Well, I am. Goddamn you, Twitter!! Curse you to hell, Russian Trolls!!

FILMS:

We have two good movie theaters within easy walking distance of our condo, not to mention Amazon Prime and Netflix, so we watch a lot of movies every year. At the time of this writing, here are my Top Fifteen Films of 2018, though I note that I have some Oscar Bait movies that I want to see between now and early January (e.g. If Beale Street Could Talk, Can You Ever Forgive Me, Creed II, Vice, Leave No Trace, etc.), plus some sub-Oscar contenders in genres I like (e.g. Suspiria, The Sisters Brothers, etc.) so I’ll be updating this list a bit in the weeks ahead before the dust finally settles on 2018:

  • Annihilation
  • The Death of Stalin
  • Isle of Dogs
  • Sorry to Bother You
  • First Man
  • The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
  • Never Goin’ Back
  • BlacKkKlansman
  • Thoroughbreds
  • A Simple Favor
  • First Reformed
  • Hereditary
  • Green Book
  • The Favourite
  • Roma

AND  THEN . . . .

. . . that’s it, I think. I’ll disclose my planned 2019 writing project here at some point soon, and then Marcia, Katelin and I will spend Christmas together in Chicago, and then Marcia and I will jet off for London and Paris, and then the proverbial wheel will click through one more annual revolution, and instead of looking back at the rut it has left behind us, we will look forward at the path over which it’s going to carry us in the months ahead. Which will go quickly, as they always do once one reaches a certain age (ahem), so vultures willing and the creek don’t rise, I’ll be back here in December 2019, marveling at that which was, and that which is yet to come. See you then?

Mine beloved and I returned to Vancouver this year after a 28-year hiatus. We’ll be celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary in June 2019 in Greece, so there’s one adventure I know you’ll read about here 12 months hence, if not sooner!

Most Played Songs of 2018

Last night I reset the play counts on all of  our family iPods after a year of continual music spinning, as I’ve been doing every twelve months or so since we got our first iPods in 2007. I used to wait until December 31 to reset the lists, but I’ve found that we usually want fresh mixes and tunes through the hectic holiday and year-end work seasons, so now I just reprogram everything soon after I complete my Best Albums report each year, and then push the magic button that resets play counts on all 15,000+ songs stored on my hard drive. Kaboom!! New musical year for all of the Smiths!!

We still have a lot of iPods in use at this point, and I’ve been scavenging online to build  a little treasure trove of replacements for 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 while I am fiddling with these little gadgets, I’m once again fighting a rear guard battle to keep using what most folks already see as antiquated devices, while playback technology makes another of its seismic shifts from a purchased (or stolen) 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. I won’t reiterate all the reasons why I hate this (they’re in the referenced article above, if you want to read them), but I do, and it sucks, and I’m going to keep raging against the dying of this particular light as long as I can, because that’s what I do. Harrumph.

ipods

As I note every year, 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 my daily train commutes, my business travel (two iPods, so I never run out of juice on a long flight), our shared car, Marcia’s gym, Marcia’s apartment in Des Moines, and the collaborative family iPod that stays in our Chicago apartment stereo dock and is played by whoever is home at the time.

So 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 very different things. I listened to a ton of Napalm Death, HOGG and The Body in 2018, for example, but none of them show up on the “Most Played Songs” list because Marcia and Katelin immediately veto, skip or over-rule them anytime they happen to play in their presence. Not everybody in our household likes the grind, y’know?

So . . . here are the Smith Family Top 40 Most Played Songs for the past 12 months, with exhortations to explore any and all of them, since I can guarantee that all of us like them enough to play them regularly, and we’ve got good taste, by golly. Happy listening, and bring on the new music, now!

1. “Lost” by Vulkano

2. “500 Miles” by Peter, Paul and Mary

3. “God If I Saw Her Now” by Anthony Phillips

4. “Dust” by Fleetwood Mac

5. “Morning Fog” by Kate Bush

6. “See How We Are” by X

7. “Time Will Show The Wiser” by Fairport Convention

8. “The Silent Sun” by Genesis

9. “Kenny” by TC&I

10. “Sunday Candy” by Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment

11. “There Is A Mountain” by Donovan

12. “Life Goes On” by The Damned

13. “Eshet Eshet” by Ethio Stars (featuring Mulatu Astatke)

14. “The Belldog” by Eno, Moebius and Roedelius

15. “Portfolio” by Fairport Convention

16. “It’s a Shame” by First Aid Kit

17. “Nothing Has To Be True” by First Aid Kit

18. “Float On” by The Floaters

19. “Busy Doin’ Nothin'” by Jed Davis

20. “A Dream of Winter” by Sun Kil Moon & Jesu

21. “Old Marcus Garvey” by Burning Spear

22. “Sunny Side of Heaven” by Fleetwood Mac

23. “Lovely Anita” by The Gods

24. “Born Together” by Plush

25. “Hounds of Love” by Kate Bush

26. “Deliver Your Children” by Paul McCartney and Wings

27. “Be Thankful for What You Got” by William DeVaughn

28. “Afterglow” by Genesis

29. “I Don’t Know Where I Stand” by Fairport Convention

30. “Whither Goest the Waitress” by The Weasels

31. “three waves (xii, xiii, ix)” by Caroline McKenzie

32. “Hale-Bopp” by The Weasels

33. “For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me” by Jethro Tull

34. “Night of a Thousand Hours” by Judy Dyble and Andy Lewis

35. “We Are The Battery Human” by Stornoway

36. “The Wherefores and the Whys” by Toe Fat

37. “C’est Bon” by Vulkano

38. “I.O.I.O” by The Bee Gees

39. “One Day” by Genesis

40. “This Summer’s Been Good From The Start” by Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci