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!

People Make the Mission

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column from the December 2018 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.

As I write my final column for 2018, we are deep into TREE Fund’s annual year-end operating appeal. I’ve worked in the nonprofit sector for a long time, so I’ve come to associate these appeals with the season: there’s turkey, there’s shopping, there’s revelry, there’s resolutions, and in the midst of all that, there’s a last push to raise funds, to give donors both “feel-good” experiences and year-end tax benefits.

I wrote here back in September about how changes in Federal law may impact the tax benefit of those gifts, but also how important it is that we all still “keep charity charitable,” empowering and celebrating the good work that nonprofits do in so many ways, in so many places, for so many people. That charitable intent is particularly important when it comes to the unrestricted operating funds that many year-end appeals support. They may not have the pizazz of brick and mortar giving, nor the permanence of endowments, but they are crucial to what we do.

For some folks outside of the nonprofit world, that phrase — “unrestricted operating funds” — may have unintended negative connotations: “Wait, you can do anything you want with it? Are you going to just spend it on overhead? Is that okay? Maybe I’d better give to this restricted endowment pool instead.” But all it really means is that we have the flexibility to support our “areas of greatest need” internally, and for TREE Fund, that need largely equates to people!

When you remove grants we pay from our operating budget, about three-quarters of the remaining expenses pay for the folks who actually do the work to fulfill our mission — and do it well, if it’s not inappropriate for me to say so. That’s Barb managing the grants, Karen communicating our research findings, Monika educating our donors, Maggie managing community engagement, including the Tour des Trees that Paul directs, Dipika keeping the books, and Russ ensuring our computer systems support it all. Plus me, often on the road, doing my best to champion tree science and the professionals who benefit from it.

Some of those folks you may know, some not. Some are employees, some are contractors, some part-time, some full. All are passionate about our mission, work hard to pursue it, and are largely supported by unrestricted operating funds, secured via appeals, partnerships or events. So anytime you email, call, engage on social media, read a newsletter article, share a research finding, or see a TREE Fund team member in person giving you great service in pursuit of our shared goal, then that’s what “unrestricted operating funds” are all about: it’s the people who make the mission.

 

You can click the advert to donate online. Do it for the people!!

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

For Your Consideration: TREE Fund’s Year-End Appeal

Dear Friends of TREE Fund:

It’s a simple fact: people need trees as an essential component of their healthy, sustainable communities. But like anything worth having, the trees we live with require special care. Trees did not evolve to coexist with people, buildings, roads, and modern community infrastructure, so if they are to thrive in our urban forests, they need the best care possible, provided by professional arborists, drawing on fact-based, replicable research. That’s where TREE Fund comes in — but only with continued support from faithful donors and believers like you.

TREE Fund has been a leading source for tree science funding since 2002, with hundreds of projects awarded and countless valuable results shared across the global tree care community. To cite but one example, Dr. Brian Kane is a long-time TREE Fund Researcher who has contributed profoundly to the global tree care knowledge base over the years; I have attached an article from our September Research Report about Brian’s work to give you a sense of his progress.

This month, I asked Brian to co-sign a “new friends” appeal with me to about 5,000 prospective donors, asking them to join us in supporting the ever-expanding body of research and science necessary to keep our urban forests healthy, sustainable and beautiful. In that new donor letter, we noted that many practices in arboriculture and urban forestry will change in the years ahead as urban environments evolve, just as they’ve evolved since you first became a TREE Fund supporter. With your help, we have been one of the few organizations funding applied research to help today’s tree care professionals anticipate tomorrow’s burning questions before they detrimentally impact our trees — and the communities that benefit from them.

Our generous supporters allowed us to fund over two dozen research projects in the past year, including Brian’s crucial ongoing work. Can we count on your help again as we work to sustain our urban forests and empower the skilled professionals who care for them? You may make a contribution to support our work by clicking here.

Your gift will truly make a difference, now and for years to come.

Click The Donate Tree to support TREE Fund’s Annual Year-End Appeal

Best Albums of 2018

Note: This list was updated in January 2019 to add a late-year entry: The Weasels’ The Man Who Saw Tomorrow.

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. So with no further preambles, 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. Goat Girl, Goat Girl: The U.K. music press has been well and fully agog this year over South London’s Goat Girl, a very 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 they poke you in your 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 a few skippable filler bits between the killer songs, let’s give the Goats credit for including them, since I guarantee they did so over their label’s objections, just because they wanted them there. Rock on, you. Winning.

29. 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.

28. 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!

27. 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.

26. 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.

25. Ministry, AmeriKKKant: I was surprised by the number of negative reviews that 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. Bonus points: brilliant, perfect samples of Charlie Chaplin’s “Look up, Hannah” soliloquy from The Great Dictator. This speech kills fascists.

24. 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.

23. 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?”

22. 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.

21. 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.

20. 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, and what a joy it is to hear Marsh, Andrews and the Partridge Sisters in full voice together, all these years on.

19. 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).

18. 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.

17. 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.

16. 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?

15. 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!

14. 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!

13. 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.

12. 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.

11. 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!

10. 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 truly hackle-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!!

9. 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!

8. Caroline Rose, LONER: Caroline Rose’s third album finds the erstwhile indie-country-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. You’ve gotta watch her official videos, too, since the musical talent’s just part of the equation of the persona. She’s quite the hoot, at bottom line!

7. 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.

6. 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!

5. The Weasels, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow: The Weasels (of Albany, New York) 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 14 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. Note: Click here for my complete review of this album.

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 of 2018” set sometime soon (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.