Category Archives: #features

2018 in Review: 15 Favorites

Happy New Year’s Eve, y’all! I’m clicking publish on this just before picking up my kids from daycare and heading to a neighbor’s house to send off 2018 in style. It was a really weird year. Good in lots of ways, bad in many other ways, but I’d argue that the music was truly excellent. Here’s one more list — the albums I loved that didn’t fit into the other categories (EPs, Jazz, Blasts from the Past, and RVA), ordered alphabetically. There’s even a quick list of other jams I enjoyed at the bottom.

Thank y’all wonderful people for sticking with this dusty old blog in 2018. Be safe out there tonight. See you in 2019.

Arctic Monkeys — Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino

File this under “Things I didn’t know I needed…” If you would have come up to me and said, “One of the bands you like is going to make a completely sincere album about a space casino,” I’m not sure how I would have reacted, or if I would have guessed Arctic Monkeys were the band. Then again, you could argue that the seeds for Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino were planted in the making of A.M., in which Alex Turner found a new and uniquely convincing narrative voice as a chronicler of messy late night interactions. That’s what makes Tranquility Base work so well: It doesn’t sound like Turner is acting, even though it couldn’t be clearer (ahem, space casino) that what he’s singing about is imaginary.

As a side note, I listened to this almost exclusively while on a non-imaginary trip to Las Vegas earlier this year. My first time there. Alex Turner was my spirit guide. Like I said, “Things I didn’t know I needed…”

Car Seat Headrest — Twin Fantasy

This year’s winner for Difficult Album Categorization. It’s not a reissue, since the songs have been rerecorded, but the original Twin Fantasy was released all the way back in 2011, so this doesn’t exactly feel like a new album. In the end, none of that matters, because there’s power baked into these songs, their themes, and their memorable melodies that transcends how they’re presented. And I genuinely enjoy how Will Toledo forces you to examine your assumptions about whether recording a song means it’s “finished.”

Honorable mention for difficult album categorization goes to Ryley Walker’s excellent rework of Dave Matthews Band’s Lillywhite Sessions, which were never actually released, making Walker’s album the first official Lillywhite release? I guess?

Phil Cook — People Are My Drug

This album has all of spiritual buoyancy of Cook’s Southland Mission album, and it arrived at a time when his brand of relentless optimism is needed most. I’ll never forget giving it a spin when my faith in humanity was especially low, after a creepy encounter I had while canvassing here in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District for Abigail Spanberger. I got home, put this on, made a pot of chili, and the world felt right again. Well, almost as right as it did when Spanberger won 🙂

Jonny Greenwood — Phantom Thread OST

Cooking with mushrooms will never be the same in the Jones household. Not sure what I mean? See the movie, and then try to cook with mushrooms while this soundtrack is playing in the background and not get creeped out. It’s impossible.

Lonnie Holley — MITH

Holley is a true original. I’ll never forget how his 2017 show at the Broadberry was staged — Holley on keys and two cellos. Tons of improvisation. It was wild. I follow him on Instagram, and I still haven’t seen that arrangement repeated. I was ready for anything when MITH came out, and while there’s still a wildness to the way Holley delivers his songs, there’s a sharp thematic focus to the album, with “I Woke Up In A Fucked-Up America” leading the way.

As a side note, this made the Bitter Southerner’s Best Southern albums of 2018 list, and I loved the way Chuck Reece’s podcast explored “I Snuck Off The Slave Ship.”

Jump Little Children — Sparrow

Off Your Radar readers know about my love for Jump Little Children. I was so thrilled to see the band had gotten back together and recorded a new set of songs, but given how much time had passed, I was cautious in terms of my optimism. Lead single “Hand On My Heartache” was a great start, though — and a big hit in the Jones household, given that my daughter loved it right away — and the rest of Sparrow ended up following suit. We’ve listened a bunch as a family, which I love because of how I first learned about the band from my older sister.

I had a really hard time picking a song to feature for this one, because so many of these songs demonstrate what’s been great about Jump Little Children all along. I ended up going with the title track, which opens the album with a nice balance of quiet moments and anthemic builds.

Adrianne Lenker — abysskiss

I fell hard for “cradle,” which I first heard while on a trip to Maine with my family. It seems so fitting in retrospect, and not just because I listened to the song while I was literally putting together a Pack ‘n Play. There’s such a wonderful sense of intimacy to the album. Even when Lenker is singing “No one can be my man/No one can be my woman,” the closeness of her voice makes you feel like you’re on the inside of some warm, small space that she’s constructed with her words and arpeggiated chords. I love spinning the album at home and feeling grateful for the warm, small space in the world my wife and I have constructed together.

Buck Meek — Buck Meek

The two brilliant Big Thief solo albums are back-to back alphabetically! How perfect is it that? Meek is Big Thief’s guitarist, and I love his approach — restless and inventive, not unlike Blake Mills’. I even hear some of the same guitar tones. Meek’s lyrics are just as gripping. I could go on and on about “Joe By The Book.” Who knows how many times I’ve listened to it. It doesn’t even cross the two-minute mark, but it’s a study in how details enrich lyrics, with colloquialisms like “Who’d you fool to borrow this race car?” and “You should get paid to waste my time” that feel so true-to-life that I wonder if they’re one side of a real phone conversation. Either that or the most economical short story I’ve heard since “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Blake Mills — Look

Speaking of Blake Mills and restlessness… Look came out later in the year (I’m actually still waiting for my online order for a vinyl copy to be fulfilled), and I’m still getting to know it. But I love how Mills is constantly looking for new muses — in this case it’s Japanese guitar synthesizers from the 1970s. According to an interview I read, Look is a document of Mills’ learning to use them — like a sketchbook kept by an artist mastering a new technique. Yet Look sounds like mastery to me, and I envision spending a ton more time with it.

Mountain Man — Magic Ship

This one has been within the vicinity of my record player since it came in the mail. In all seriousness, I don’t think it’s left that room. I’ve reached for it in so many situations: Cooking dinner, first waking up on the weekend and making coffee, during chaotic kid dinners. It pairs with solitude and serious contemplation just as well as it accompanies lighthearted moments of communion. Can’t wait to see Mountain Man at Capital Ale House in the coming year. Get your tickets here if you haven’t already.

John Prine — The Tree of Forgiveness

Much of what I said about Both Directions at Once in my jazz post applies here as well, since this is Prine’s first album of original material since I started getting to know his music. But I’m inclined to think this contains some true all-timers. “Summer’s End” packs an incredible emotional punch and reminds me a little of the power of “Hello in There,” and “When I Get to Heaven” offers a beautiful example of Prine’s benevolently dark humor.

RosalĂ­a — El Mal Querer

Hypnotic spareness. Arresting, beautifully ornamental singing that lays bare the link between cante flamenco and musical traditions rooted farther east. Production from the brilliant El Guincho, who shows as much of a knack for listening here as for building out rhythm and atmosphere. Add in a track that incorporates the melody from “Cry Me A River” and you have an unreasonably generous feast for the ears, especially if you’re interested in the interconnectedness of styles from around the world.

Jeff Tweedy — WARM

I guess I never really stopped to think about the opaqueness of Wilco’s lyrics. There’s always been so much to dig into musically, especially since Nels Cline joined the band and became a focal point unto himself (one of the reasons I love Sky Blue Sky). But this whole narrative about how the lyrics on WARM are direct in a way Tweedy’s haven’t been in the past — I totally buy it. It really does feel like a refreshing creative left turn, and I feel like I understand him a little better after listening to WARM. That’s pretty incredible, given how much time I’ve spent with his work over the past decade or so.

Brocker Way — Wild Wild Country OST

I loved Wild Wild Country, and I especially loved the way it used Bill Callahan’s “Drover” in the series’ climactic scene. In that moment, the lyrics of “Drover” bring the show’s dark and complicated narrative full-circle, and the show brings out shading in the lyrics that I wouldn’t have heard otherwise. When I first saw this album at Small Friend Records & Books, I thought it would be more of a soundtrack, with songs like “Drover” included, but this is the original score, which was done by Brocker Way, brother of the creators of Wild Wild Country. When I saw it had been pressed to maroon vinyl, I had to snag it. I’m glad I did, because it’s haunting in really interesting ways — controversially so.

As a side note, you’ll see an honorable mention below for Callahan’s Live at Third Man Records album, which (coincidentally?) includes a version of “Drover.” Did I mention the song is where the show got its name?

Thom Yorke — Suspiria OST

Creepy, pretty, and perfectly suited for pumpkin carving. Thom Yorke’s first foray into the world of film scoring. Really impressive. Looking forward to hearing more from him in this format.

10 more 2018 albums I enjoyed:

Nathan Bowles — Plainly Mistaken
Bill Callahan — Live at Third Man Records
Father John Misty — God’s Favorite Customer
Mary Lattimore — Hundreds of Days
Lindi Ortega — Liberty
Screaming Females — All at Once
Shovels & Rope — Busted Jukebox Volume 2
Ryley Walker — The Lillywhite Sessions
Wilco — Live At The Troubadour L.A. 1996
Neil Young: Roxy — Tonight’s the Night Live

More 2018 in Review:

2018 in Review: EPs
2018 in Review: Jazz
2018 in Review: Blasts from the Past
2018 in Review: RVA Part 1

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2018 in Review: RVA Part 1

This year’s going to be a little different. I’ll be blurbing about more of my favorite Richmond releases from 2018 over at The Auricular, so call this 2018 in Review: RVA Part 1. Here are eight of the in-town albums I got the most enjoyment from spinning this year.

Beltway Recording Company — Outer Sounds From the Inner Loop

There’s so much to say here, but I don’t want to ruin the surprise. This album is not what it says it is — somehow it’s even more. More to come about this one (I hope) in the coming year. For now, please enjoy the seemingly well-worn groove of “River Road,” an exceptionally catchy tune with lyrics that happen to fit the River Road in Richmond suspiciously well…

Butcher Brown — Camden Session

All day, every day. In the studio, live in the studio, live at a show: Yes to Butcher Brown. Can that be a new ad campaign for Richmond music? Just “Yes to Butcher Brown”? I would wear that t-shirt. Someone please make it so I can buy two: one to wear around regularly and one for when the pits of the first one get gross.

What we were talking about? Oh right — hell yes to Butcher Brown and their in-studio Camden Session. True story: I almost bought it from England when it was first announced, not knowing then that it would be available at stores in town around the same time it became available online.

Lucy Dacus — Historian

From the post I wrote when “Night Shift” came out late last year:

It was that exceptional coda that stood out when I saw her perform “Night Shift” at The National in 2016, but having an opportunity to sit with the quieter moments has been rewarding, as is always the case with Dacus’ music. Forgive me if I’ve said something similar in the past while singing her praises, but Dacus’ lyrics comprise some of my favorite writing anywhere, in much the same way that John Darnielle’s Mountain Goats lyrics feel like they transcend their form.

Fly Anakin & Ohbliv — Backyard Boogie

Next time you’re in the vicinity of Scott’s Addition pretending to have legitimate errands so you can tack on a brewery stop, head to the intersection of West Clay Street and Roseneath Road, park your car, walk a few paces east on Clay, and then look left. There you’ll find one of the most stunning murals in all of Richmond: a Nils Westergard work depicting the two Backyard Boogie collaborators, Fly Anakin and Ohbliv, gazing upward. It’s a fitting tribute to a thriving Richmond hip-hop community, and Backyard Boogie is among the year’s finest releases in any genre — a perfect marriage of Fly Anakin’s relentless energy and Ohbliv’s endlessly innovative approach to producing.

Michael Millions — Hard to Be King

I reconnected with Hard to be King while working on my year-end playlist for Off Your Radar. “Apologize Less” will zoom across the finish line as one of my favorite songs of 2018, with moving piano-laced production from Brandon “NameBrand” Bass and a chorus payoff that feels like a fitting resolution, New Year’s or otherwise: “What what I feel, apologize less.”

Nickelus F — Stuck

My first visit to Vinyl Conflict was long overdue. I finally stopped by in December to pick up a copy of Stuck after hearing that supplies of the yellow-vinyl version were dwindling. I had the best time chatting with Bobby Egger, who owns the store and runs the label that reissued Stuck on vinyl. His enthusiasm for his new, hip-hop focused Fantastic Damage imprint was inspiring, as was the way he talked about Nickelus F’s complete mastery of music making, from production to lyricism. Listen to “Yea Aight” below to hear a true auteur at work.

Opin – Drifters EP

Speaking of limited-run releases, Opin pressed just 50 copies of this four-song EP, which includes a wonderfully extrapolated and brightly lit version of the fabled Japanese pop song “Shinzo no Tobira.” Clear vinyl. Lathe cut. Harding Assembly Lab. I couldn’t put my order in fast enough.

Natalie Prass — The Future and the Past

I go to great lengths to keep track of the albums I listen to each year, but my concert-going is way more chaotic. I can’t seem to keep a list of the shows I go to, and I’d guess that I went to fewer shows in 2018 than any year in recent memory. That said, I know damn well what my live music moment of the year was: Watching in awe as Angelica Garcia and Kenneka Cook provided backing vocals for a stripped down version of “Lost” at the Broadberry. You know it was a powerful moment when you get goosebumps again just thinking about it. Man, was that something.

More 2018 in Review:

2018 in Review: EPs
2018 in Review: Jazz
2018 in Review: Blasts from the Past
2018 in Review: 15 Favorites

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2018 in Review: Blasts from the Past

I know there’s virtue in living in the moment. We could all stand to put down our phones and more fully appreciate what’s happening right in front of us. Then again, escaping the present is pretty damn attractive these days. Nostalgia is a thriving racket, and to be fair, not all musical blasts from the past are about wishing for a time machine. From archival releases that uncovered hidden gems to reissues that made owning a piece of history a little easier, here are some noteworthy old sounds that were made new again in 2018.

Duck Baker — Les Blues Du Richmond

I picked up some pretty snazzy Record Store Day stuff this year, but this is a clear favorite. I didn’t actually get it on Record Store Day, though; it wasn’t really on my radar, but the more I read about Duck Baker and his Richmond connections, the more intrigued I was. Fortunately, a copy was still available a few days later. This set ranges from highly templated tunes like “Maple Leaf Rag” to discursive compositions that wander to unexpected places before reemerging. Really interesting, really fun. The folks at Tompkins Square do really great work with archival releases like this one. So glad I didn’t miss out on this.

Jack DeJohnette — Hudson

A blast from the recent past. This was released just last year, but it got a snazzy new vinyl reissue on Record Store Day in April of this year. I’m crazy for John Scofield’s guitar tone, so getting to hear him “sing” on creatively constructed versions of Dylan, Hendrix, and Band songs is a real treat.

Jonny Greenwood — Bodysong. OST

For a number of years, I’ve had a 45 with two “extras” from the Bodysong. score, so I was thrilled to see they were reissuing the score itself, which is wonderfully varied, creepy, and intense. Now I just need to see the film…

Hiss Golden Messenger — Devotion: Songs About Rivers and Spirits and Children

This was one of those “Whoa they made this just for me!” moments. Early Hiss. A rarities disc. Liner notes by Amanda Petrusich. I couldn’t resist, though parting with my old copies of Haw and Bad Debt wasn’t easy, even if it was the sensible decision. I think that copy of Bad Debt might still be at Deep Groove, if anyone’s interested. (And dammit you should be! It’s an incredible album.)

Jason Isbell — Sirens of the Ditch

I’d been meaning to get to know this album better, and I was happy to see some non-album tracks included here. While the new-old songs are well worth a listen, “In a Razor Town” remains a masterstroke.

Jess Sah Bi & Peter One — Our Garden Needs Its Flowers

An absolute gem from the gang at Awesome Tapes from Africa. This album radiates a powerful sense of warmth, even as it deals with themes as weighty as Apartheid.  I have the proprietors of Small Friend Records & Books to thank for this being on my radar. I saw it on their Instagram, listened, loved it, and zoomed to Shockoe Bottom to pick it up. I have a feeling it’s going to be an even more radiant listen in the spring.

Ben Kweller — Sha Sha

I’ve written about why Ben Kweller occupies such a special place in my heart. It has to do with my dad’s recommending Kweller’s old band Radish when I was young and in the process of learning how to play the guitar, and how the meaning of that recommendation has grown over time. I hope reissues of On My Way and Changing Horses are also (forgive me) on the way. The latter exists on vinyl, but I’ve never seen a copy in real life.

Joseph Spence — Bahamian Folk Guitar

While the reissue game can seem like a cash grab at times (especially when there are plenty of reasonably priced used copies available online), this is a great example of how upping supply can make spinning something really special — and Joseph Spence’s loose, complex playing is truly a wonder — less of a pipe dream. What a wonderful album to put on at home. If you have this on as background music, the air in the room feels lighter. If you listen intently, it’s like following discursive but gripping storytelling.

Sufjan Stevens — The Avalanche

If I could magically conjure stats on which I’ve listened to more — Illinoise or The Avalanche, I’m not sure The Avalanche wouldn’t win out. As far as extras albums go, it’s uncommonly strong. And I’d consider it an essential part of a full appreciation of Stevens’ gift. His is a story of impossible productivity, and few artists throw away ideas of this quality.

Gillian Welch — Soul Journey

I jumped on the Gillian Welch bandwagon with both feet when The Harrow & The Harvest came out in 2011, and I ended up ranking it as my favorite album of that year. But I’ve been slow to listen backwards in the Welch-Rawlings universe; so slow that — and I know I’m writing this on the Internet but please don’t tell anybody — I confused the announcement of the Soul Journey reissue with news of an upcoming album. WHATEVER. I’ve had the good fortune of seeing Welch and Rawlings perform a number of these tracks live in the last few years, though I’m not sure any of them tug at my heartstrings like “Back in Time” does. “I wanna go back” is right, am I right?

More 2018 in Review:

2018 in Review: EPs
2018 in Review: Jazz
2018 in Review: RVA
2018 in Review: 15 Favorites

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2018 in Review: Jazz

I think I’ve found a formula that’ll work going forward for which of these lists to do at the end of the year: One for EPs (posted that yesterday), one for archival or reissued albums, one for Richmond artists, one for albums that don’t fit into any of those categories, and then one more for a genre that stood out in some way during the course of the year. Last time around it was Americana, with exceptional releases by the likes of David Rawlings, Willie Watson, Dori Freeman, and Jake Xerxes Fussell. This year, jazz resonated especially deeply, so I thought I’d highlight five albums I was grateful to get to know.

John Coltrane — Both Directions at Once

I’m a big believer that you’re likely to feel a special connection to the first new album that comes out after you get into a band or artist. (The example I usually cite is Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief — an album many folks view highly but that I would rank one or two spots higher in their discography than others might.) Getting to have the Hail to the Thief experience with John Coltrane is such an unexpected treat, and Both Directions will always feel a little more meaningful to me as a result.

Julian Lage — Modern Lore

If you haven’t yet had a chance to read the Off Your Radar issue from November about Julian Lage’s Arclight album, I hope you’ll take a moment to have a look. Arclight is such a wonderful album — so fascinating in terms of the connection between the notes you hear and the tools used to create those notes. Modern Lore is cut from very similar cloth and features the same ensemble, and I’ll cosign it with just as much enthusiasm as I did Arclight.

Makaya McCraven — Universal Beings

This may be the most perfectly packaged album of 2018, and it’s not just about the weight of the paper used to make the cover or the art that adorns it. Each side of my vinyl copy — four total — features a distinct group of musicians, all united by Makaya McCraven’s exploratory process. Start side one and you’re in New York. Flip the disc, you’re in Chicago. Grab the second disc and you’re in London. Flip that and you’re finishing in L.A. No two sides sound the same, even though they share an approach that’s indebted to sampling yet unmoored via improvisation. Somehow, amid all the repetition, you still feel like anything can happen. That’s the brilliance of a hip hop producer like J Dilla, and McCaraven has managed to capture that electricity with live instrumentation. It’s as inspiring as it is fun to spin, whether you’re zoning out or zooming in.

The Nels Cline 4 — Currents, Constellations

Nels Cline and Julian Lage in the same ensemble? Yes please and thank you. They’re two of my favorite guitarists, and while they’re divergent enough in terms of style, there are still moments on Currents, Constellations when you get to wonder who’s playing. They’re both such inventive, intuitive musicians, and I love that they join forces from time to time. I haven’t spent much time with their Room album, but I plan to ASAP.

Kamasi Washington — Heaven and Earth

This dude. His band. This album. His last album. His show at the National in November. His show before that at the National. All of it can be overwhelming — not because it’s too much, or because his albums are lengthy and generously built-out (which they are), but because there’s an abundance of goodness you don’t find very often. Most musicians can tell you the story of why their tracks are titled the way they are, or what inspired a certain instrumental piece, but when Kamasi Washington tells you about how a song was created and why, it’s wildly compelling and convincing. He has a poise when he speaks that stands in stark contrast to the fury he can conjure when he plays, and the only way to reconcile those two states is to understand that what he’s presenting is the absolute truth as he sees it. Seeing him play means seeing what he sees so vividly. I believe in Kamasi Washington’s truth. You should too.

More 2018 in Review:

2018 in Review: EPs
2018 in Review: Blasts from the Past
2018 in Review: RVA
2018 in Review: 15 Favorites

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2018 in Review: EPs

I’m a year older. So is everyone I know. The Warriors have another championship. Sea levels are rising. Each day brings new horrors to America’s increasingly sad and bizarre political stage. Time continues its inexorable march forward.

Then again, some things are exactly the way they were at the end of 2017! Yet again:

  • It’s the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
  • I’ve spent the year tracking the albums I listened to (125 in total this time around) via a shoddily organized spreadsheet.
  • I’ve waited too long to start turning that spreadsheet into best-of lists.
  • I’m using last-minute panic as fuel to finish those lists, which mean more to me than they probably should.

Without further ado, let’s get this retrospective party started with a handful of alphabetically ordered EPs that I particularly enjoyed this year, starting with a two-parter that I recommend highly if you haven’t heard it/them yet:

Jackie Cohen — Tacoma Night Terror Part 1: I’ve Got The Blues

Some albums feel like fully formed universes — like you’re being invited to join something vivid and different that’s already in progress and has been for some time. That’s how it felt first encountering Jackie Cohen’s music via Spacebomb’s communication channels. From the off-kilter album art that accompanied Tacoma Night Terror Part 1 to the EP’s sound, which immediately called to mind the girl groups of the 1960s but felt more gothic and organic, somehow. It was one of those exciting “I don’t know what this is, but count me in” moments. To this day, it still feels like I’m entering and exiting a world when I start and finish this EP. Not something you come by often.

Jackie Cohen — Tacoma Night Terror Part 2: Self​-​Fulfilling Elegy

When Part 2 of the Tacoma Night Terror project was released, I started getting my hopes up about an eventual vinyl release that would compile both parts and bring the whole project full-circle, literally and figuratively. Vinyl Me Please to the rescue. The subscription service named Cohen a VMP Rising artist and pressed the Tacoma Night Terror set to gorgeous purple and blue vinyl. Its arrival and time spent on my turntable have provided a fitting sense of punctuation to a musical thread that’s run throughout my 2018.

The Fearless Flyers — The Fearless Flyers

Following along with the release of the Fearless Flyers EP was my way of peering into the greater Vulfpeck universe and looking around a bit. I’m really glad I did, because this is an exceptionally fun and funky set of songs, with a top-notch cover of “Under the Sea,” drums by the great Nate Smith, and a guest spot from Blake Mills, who contributes truly filthy slide guitar to the Flyers’ version of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours.” Take a listen:

Panda Bear — A Day with the Homies

This got the 2018 party started on my end. Released January 12. Exclusively on vinyl, so no sample tune to share. I find that a good measure of how the year went is looking back at the first album you really dug into in the new year and thinking about how long ago that feels. It feels like this record was release about 12 years ago. It’s a good one, though, and I’ve brought it out consistently when I’m cooking dinner and in a good mood. It’s not that the music is aggressively buoyant or anything; I think the title has really shaped my perception of the music, as has the fact that I can only listen while at home — where I tend to be more distracted and less able to zoom in on lyrics.

Moses Sumney — Black in Deep Red, 2014

“Rank & File” is one of the year’s best songs, and it may not even be the best song on this three-song EP. (Don’t sleep on the wordless “Call-to-Arms.”) I’m so glad Sumney decided to share this brief collection of tunes, which have thematic roots in 2014, when a grand jury decided against indicting the police officer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. I wrote about “Rank & File” in RVA Magazine earlier this year, and I zoomed in on one lyric in particular: “If we make you nervous, what is your purpose?”

That question calls attention to the mangled power dynamics at work during protests like the one Sumney attended in honor of Michael Brown — complexity that finds a musical parallel in the song’s time signature.

More 2018 in Review to come…

2018 in Review: Jazz
2018 in Review: Blasts from the Past
2018 in Review: RVA
2018 in Review: 15 Favorites

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CD Monday

We have the Easter Bunny (hi, Mom!) to thank for the return of CD Monday.

Joan Baez’s latest was waiting for me in one of the Easter baskets hidden for my daughter to find, and I went ahead and started spinning it this morning. “The President Sang Amazing Grace” was playing when I made it to work, and I had a hard time leaving the car. It’s a really gripping and direct tune (written by Zoe Mulford), and Baez’s performance reminds me a little of her rendition of Bob Dylan’s “With God On Our Side” in how faithfully it renders the song’s sturdy structure. Maybe this is a leap, but both illustrate for me how you tend to cling to something solid when you’re shaken, physically or emotionally.

Joan Baez — “The President Sang Amazing Grace” (Zoe Mulford cover) [Spotify/Discogs]

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2017 in Review: 25 Favorites

Last list, I promise. I limited this post to 25 albums, which is totally arbitrary, but I had to wave the white flag at some point. I always start writing these year-in-review posts with high hopes of streamlining the process in an effort to siphon as little time as possible from holiday celebrating with family, but something in me can’t help getting absorbed then overwhelmed. It’s a moth-to-the-flame thing. Odds are good it has something to do with mortality/the passage of time/wanting to hold onto and contain experiences so they — and by extension, I — don’t quietly disappear into a scary, nebulous past… but you didn’t come here for existential hand-wringing, did you? Oh, you did? Great! Let’s be sure to catch up after about physical media as an ineffectual bulwark against death!

A few notes before we get started:

  • I made some additions to the previous lists — Steve Gunn’s tour-only Dusted album was added to the list of live jams, and Elkhorn’s Black River album was added to the Americana list. I snagged both at Steady Sounds with Christmas money and it’s still 2017, so…
  • This is just the non-live, non-reissue, non-Americana, non-RVA top 25. Doing a ranked top 25 this year would have been really tough. I held on especially tightly to the music I loved this year. Maybe because I needed the distraction. Maybe because new music was just really good this year. It’s probably a little of column A, a little of column B.
  • Like the other lists, this one is ordered alphabetically.
  • I kinda regret not doing a list of EPs. Ian Chang’s Spiritual Leader EP was awesome, as was Delicate Steve’s Cowboy Stories. There’s also Kamasi Washington’s Harmony of Difference — I’m still getting to know that one, but I’m fairly certain it’ll become a favorite, based on what I heard at his show at the National earlier this month.

Enough preambling. Here are the best of the rest:

Ryan Adams — Prisoner

I didn’t end up connecting with the self-titled album that came before this one, in part because of the sound palette he was working with — more focused on 1980’s guitar sounds than is usually my cup of tea. Prisoner draws from the same well, but he seems more present in this one. And “Do You Still Love Me?” is a truly dynamite opening track. I was hoping he’d open his March show at The National with it, and he delivered. Love when bands do that.

Ryan Adams — “Do You Still Love Me?” [Spotify/iTunes]

(Sandy) Alex G — Rocket

I went a little nuts over this one. Step 1 was hearing the album and digging it. Step 2 was finding out that he played on Frank Ocean’s Blonde album. Step 3 was feeling crushed when I saw that a first pressing of the album had sold out via his Bandcamp page. Steps 4-18 involved various internal arguments about whether to order the first pressing from an online reseller — something I hate doing. I eventually caved. Not sorry one bit. It’s about as varied an album as I can remember spending time with this year — so many different flashes of brilliance.

(Sandy) Alex G — “Powerful Man” [Spotify/iTunes]

Dan Auerbach — Waiting on a Song

Did you know that John Prine has a writing credit on the title track? Or that Prine is pictured on the back cover? These are things I didn’t learn until I snagged a vinyl copy of Waiting on a Song the night Auerbach opened for Prine at The Altria Theater here in Richmond. What a show that was. That’s when this album went from something I enjoyed to something I really loved.

Dan Auerbach — “Waiting On A Song” [Spotify/iTunes]

Bedouine — Bedouine

There’s a quiet strength that runs through this whole album. It feels elemental. Inextricable. The Spacebomb flourishes are welcome and wonderful, but that strength never strays from center stage, making for an exceptionally compelling listen.

Bedouine — “One Of These Days” [Spotify/iTunes]

Father John Misty — Pure Comedy

I believe Pure Comedy was recorded before the last presidential election, and politics aren’t the focal point here, but I’ve found it to be of great comfort these days. Sometimes you need someone to point out life’s absurdities so you can maintain a little distance. As lyrically dense as these songs are, the net effect — for me at least — is like taking a breath of fresh air, or like hitting a reset button.

Father John Misty — “Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before The Revolution” [Spotify/iTunes]

Fleet Foxes — Crack-Up

Speaking of dense… I’m not sure I’ve really cracked the surface of Crack-Up. Listening to the episode of Song Exploder about “Mearcstapa” was startling, in that I didn’t realize how much about the album’s sound was flying under my radar. That said, it’s absolutely gorgeous, and I’m wildly curious as to what this album will mean to me in five or 10 years.

Fleet Foxes — “Mearcstapa” [Spotify/iTunes]

Godspeed You! Black Emperor — Luciferian Towers

Part of an unholy trinity of excellent albums I’ve been playing loudly when I’m working from home in an empty house. Lots of tension and anger here, but so much light as well. The climaxes of these tunes can feel joyous — the melody at the end of “Undoing a Luciferian Towers” sounds like it could have been lifted from a Christmas carol written a hundred years ago.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor — “Undoing A Luciferian Towers” [Spotify/iTunes]

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard — Murder of the Universe

Another member of the unholy trinity. It occurred to me recently that King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard could be the Russell Westbrook of the musical world. Both band and baller set ridiculously ambitious goals for themselves (five albums in a calendar year for KG&tLZ, a season-long triple-double for RW) and it looks like both will be successful. Just amazing. Of the albums they put out in 2017, Murder of the Universe was my favorite by far. It’s pure fun — fast paced and delightfully creepy. On vomit splatter colored vinyl, no less.

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard — “Altered Beast I” [Spotify/iTunes]

Pokey LaFarge — Manic Revelations

Pokey’s sound has grown bigger and bolder, as has the St. Louisan’s writing voice. “Riot In The Streets” speaks to the Ferguson, Missouri protests, concluding:

Our past won’t go away
It haunts us to present day
There’s so much left to learn
As the bullets fly and the buildings burn

Pokey LaFarge — “Riot In The Streets” [Spotify/iTunes]

Kendrick Lamar — DAMN.

I decided not to rank this year’s list, but this probably would have been #1. Lamar is this generation’s lyricist of record, in my opinion. To Pimp a Butterfly may have been more musically immersive, but DAMN. is just as vital to understanding our country and its culture.

Kendrick Lamar — “LUST.” [Spotify/iTunes]

Landlady — The World Is a Loud Place

A few words from my February post about the album:

I had a chance to see and hear a few of these new tunes when the band came to Hardywood in August [2016] — “Driving In California” for sure, and I think “Nina” and “Electric Abdomen” made appearances as well. It’s a fantastic album, every bit as imaginative, tightly executed, and soul replenishing as Upright Behavior. In fact, Landlady has become one of the bands –maybe you have a similar list — whose shows are more like exercises in spiritual fulfillment than just a pairing of people playing music and people watching those people play music.

Landlady — “Nina” [Spotify/iTunes]

Aimee Mann — Mental Illness

A very, very good album that was there for me in a difficult time. Here’s what I said in an April post after typing out the lyrics to the chorus:

What a thing to have sung to you while standing in the backyard of your new home on a windy night, watching clouds zoom past the moon. That place she’s describing — the pocket of time before life grabs hold of the course you’ve plotted and adds twists and turns to it — that’s exactly where my family is right now.

Aimee Mann — “Patient Zero” [Spotify/iTunes]

Mdou Moctar — Sousoume Tamachek

From the post I wrote after seeing Moctar perform in October as part of a screening of his Purple Rain remake, Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai:

I also walked away with a vinyl copy of Moctar’s newest LP, Sousoume Tamachek, signed by the three-man band I’d just seen in-person and onscreen. I’ve been spinning it nonstop — it paints a really varied and intimate picture of Moctar’s approach, with a nice mix of acoustic and electric guitar.

I’ve been seeing Sousoume Tamachek in other year-end lists, which makes me happy. Especially after hearing during the screening’s Q&A how tenuous the initial connection between Moctar and Sahel Sounds owner Christopher Kirkley was. A couple of missed phone calls and this album might not have been in my life.

Mdou Moctar — “Sousoume Tamachek” [Bandcamp/Spotify]

Mount Eerie — A Crow Looked at Me

I listened all the way through once, cried at my desk at work, and decided I needed some time before I listened again. I haven’t gone back yet, though I did almost buy a used copy at Reckless Records in Chicago while we were there on a family trip in November. It’s such a powerful album, and I could imagine it being there for me when I need it, but I never want to need it, and just thinking about needing it is terrifying. I have seen people talk about how listening to A Crow Looked at Me has actually been a life-affirming experience, and I get that, since it made me want to reach out to the people I love and let them know how much they mean to me. Still… it’s a little like looking directly into the Sun, emotionally speaking.

Mount Eerie — “Ravens” [Spotify/iTunes]

Mutoid Man — War Moans

This completes the unholy trinity! Come for the masterful riffing, stay for the lyrics about impregnating Satan’s daughter!

Mutoid Man — “Kiss Of Death” [Spotify/iTunes]

The National — Sleep Well Beast

This is the first National album that has grabbed me. Two contributing factors: 1. Reading this Amanda Petrusich piece about it, and 2. Listening for the first time when I was very sad for reasons I’m not sure I want to share here. What I will say is that I found exactly the right kind of musical sadness to soundtrack a moment of real life sadness, and that sense of harmony helped me find peace where I probably wouldn’t have otherwise.

Sleep Well Beast — “The Day I Die” [Spotify/iTunes]

Orchestra Baobab — Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng

One of my favorite assignments this year was writing about an earlier Orchestra Baobab album for Off Your Radar. I hadn’t spent a ton of time considering why that album — Specialist in All Styles — had wormed its way so deeply into my consciousness, and I came out the other side loving it even more. I’m enjoying this one a great deal, as well. Here’s what I said about it in that Off Your Radar piece:

[Original band member Ndiouga Dieng’s] death prompted the band to reunite and release a new album this year called Tribute To Ndiouga Dieng, which I can’t recommend highly enough. Gone is Barthelemy Attisso’s virtuosic guitar — he’s back in Togo tending to his day job as a lawyer — and in its place you’ll find oodles of kora noodling. While I initially missed that brilliant, nimble guitar work, I’ve come to appreciate deeply how different this new release is. Another masterful move from a band whose musical chessboard spans the globe.

Orchestra Baobab — “Mariama” [Spotify/iTunes]

Rostam — Half Light

I feel like this was one of the year’s most misunderstood albums. While it was reviewed reasonably well, I feel like the reviews I saw missed something crucial about how bold the album is in making his voice the center of attention and using it as a muse for experimentation. This was his big moment to step into the spotlight, and he did so in a way that strikes me as exceptionally brave. It reminds me of a one-word answer he gave in an interview earlier this year when asked what he hopes people will remember him for:

Fearlessness.

Rostam — “Gwan” [Spotify/iTunes]

Skyway Man — Seen Comin’ from a Mighty Eye

From my May post about the album:

Seen Comin’ from a Mighty Eye is tailor-made for someone embroiled in exactly [my] obsessions, with the spacey aspects of Cosmic American Music, the voluminousness and spirituality of gospel, Tyler’s exploratory spirit, and references to early 1980’s production that remove songs from the present moment, like they’re wandering untethered by time. It’s all here, along with the signature Spacebomb sounds that consistently fill my heart with joy.

Skyway Man — “Wires (Donny Angel and the Opening Wide)” [Spotify/iTunes]

Devon Sproule — The Gold String

Another artist I nominated for Off Your Radar consideration. Here’s what I said about The Gold String in May:

I learned just this week that Sproule put out a new album earlier this year called The Gold String, and it’s lovely in all the ways I Love You, Go Easy is, especially when it comes to the way the lyrics flow. In fact, she touches on a similar idea in the title track when she imagines an endless strand that connects everyone and everything. Her description of it is nothing short of elegant, in large part because form and theme are one; she describes this inspiring connectedness using verses that lead into one another and this amazing rolling rhyme scheme that weaves together phrases in ear-pleasing clusters. Her words become the string she’s singing about. It’s really incredible.

Devon Sproule — “The Gold String” [Spotify/iTunes]

St. Vincent — MASSEDUCTION

So my daughter, who is three and half and loves the color pink, keeps choosing this when I tell her to go pick a record from the shelf that has 2017 albums on it. Let’s just say the cover art is quite the conversation starter. Also, “New York” is one of the best songs of the year. Hands down.

St. Vincent — “New York” [Spotify/iTunes]

Moses Sumney — Aromanticism

The only album I could envision ranking above DAMN. It’s a towering achievement, both in terms of vocal performance and emotional articulation. While I didn’t manage to win a Vinyl Me, Please pressing at the Triple Crossing listening party in October, I managed to find a used VMP copy on the trip to Reckless Records I mentioned earlier. I know I put way too much stock in getting this or that pressing and having a physical copy of something that I can listen to online, but I love that Vinyl Me, Please did a pressing. It gave me an opportunity to sit around a table with new and old Sumney fans talking about all the ways in which Aromanticism is incredible.

Moses Sumney — “Lonely World” [Spotify/iTunes]

Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau — Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau

From a Friday News and Notes post earlier this year:

Quick story — when Bob Dylan’s Tempest album was announced and I saw “Scarlet Town” on the track list, I desperately hoped it would be a cover of the Gillian Welch song from The Harrow & The Harvest. It wasn’t. So when I saw that a “Scarlet Town” was on this Thile/Mehldau album, I braced for disappointment…

No disappointment here. Just an hour and three minutes of next-level interpretation and collaboration. And, yes, it’s the “Scarlet Town” I was hoping for.

Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau — “Scarlet Town” [Spotify/iTunes]

Tinariwen — Elwan

This is the year I truly fell in love with Tuareg desert blues. So glad BK Music had a copy of this. I was wearing out Sousoume Tamachek.

Tinariwen — “SastanĂ qqĂ m” [Spotify/iTunes]

The xx — I See You

I liked the first two xx albums, loved Jamie xx’s solo album, and found this to be a great middle ground. It’s funny this comes last alphabetically, because it was the first top-tier album released this year, and it makes me think about how fucking long 2017 has felt. Good lord. Hey 2018, maybe don’t be like that?

The xx — “Say Something Loving” [Spotify/iTunes]

More 2017 in Review:

2017 in Review: Live Albums
2017 in Review: Blasts from the Past
2017 in Review: Americana
2017 in Review: RVA

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