2020 in Review Part 8: 31 Favorites

Part 1: Duos
Part 2: Covers
Part 3: Survival Sounds
Part 4: Jazz
Part 5: Live
Part 6: Blasts from the Past
Part 7: RVA
Part 8: 31 Favorites (You are here!)

Here we are. The last list in this series — 31 uncategorized favorites from 2020. I’m not a big Baskin Robbins person or anything; that’s just the number I ended up with after shuffling between lists and writing as much as I could over the last few months to pay tribute to the music that mattered to me this year. That makes 87 blurbs and 13,083 words across eight posts. If you’ve been following along, I hope you’ve found something new to put in your ears, or a perspective that opened up new avenues of enjoyment. And I know I’ve said it elsewhere, but if you made one of the albums below, thank you for making a difficult year significantly better. I’ll close with an excerpt from the intro to Amanda Petrusich’s year-end list, which communicated this specific sense of gratitude so beautifully:

I’ve always believed that some amount of optimism, conscious or unconscious, is inherent to the art-making impulse—that to dedicate oneself to something as difficult and thankless as creative work, one has to believe that the world is still good enough and open enough to be transformed, even briefly, by beauty. The musicians who managed to hold onto that feeling—to go on believing in the essential decency of humankind and the various ways in which art can elevate us—kept me afloat through some strange days.

John Calvin Abney — Familiar Ground

From September’s Bandcamp Friday post:

This is another one where anticipation runs high. How high? So high that my very first act after gaining consciousness on Tuesday morning was checking the Black Mesa Records site to see if the preorder was available. You know you’re excited for an album to be announced when you literally can’t and don’t wait for the announcement to go out.

Fiona Apple — Fetch the Bolt Cutters

I cut way back on TV watching in 2020, and the last hour or two of my night is now typically spent at my desk instead of the couch. Sometimes it’s work, sometimes it’s music writing. Lately I’ve been squinting at runout lettering while retroactively building my Discogs collection. (Currently working my way through my Beach Boys and Beatles sections. Send help.) One fun side effect of this shift is that I’m usually at my laptop at midnight on Thursday night/Friday morning, which means I can listen immediately to new albums I’m especially excited about. I’ve never forget my Fetch the Bolt Cutters midnight listening party. It was momentous. It was fun. It was everything I could have hoped for and more. No reviews to bounce what I was hearing off of. No worrying over which vinyl pressing I’d get my hands on. Just me and a new set of mind-meltingly good songs by one of the most brilliant musicians of our time.

Kate Bollinger — A word becomes a sound

From August’s Bandcamp Friday post:

If there were ever a chorus to keep in the front of your brain in order to maintain sanity during a global pandemic, it would have to be:

Grey skies, they don’t scare me
I find them unnecessary
There’s no tellin’ when the bad’s gonna come around
And it’ll come around no doubt

It’s like a badly needed pat on the back from a friend who’s reassuring you without bullshitting you. And Kate Bollinger’s gift for phrasing means the words slide through your consciousness so gracefully the toxic parts of your psychology don’t have a chance to play defense.

Bonny Light Horseman — Bonny Light Horseman

I called this a “perfect album” on Instagram and I stand by that 100%. It was very rewarding seeing this get as many Grammy nods as it did. So stunning. It’s not just that they’ve given new life to old songs; I hear something in the combination of vocals by Anaïs Mitchell and Eric D. Johnson — a space they carve out that’s not old or new but separate from time, and endlessly inviting. The rare instant classic that will continue to grow on you, no matter how much you love it right away.

Phoebe Bridgers — Punisher

“Garden Song” is my song of the year. The experience of hearing the first verse for the first time was wild. I was already blown away by how gracefully she incorporates the idea of killing and burying a skinhead neighbor — like one does — but then I got to “I grew up here till it all went up in flames / Except the notches in the doorframe” and did one of those blinking-while-shaking-your-head-slightly double-takes, like “Well hello there, One of the Greatest Song Lyrics of All Time. Nice to meet you…” That line is totally transcendent — the layers go on and on, from the the words themselves and the way they’re delivered to the exquisite connection between their literal and figurative truths and the bittersweet irony you’re left with. I’m in awe.

True story: I was listening to this on a run and passed by a house with a raised garden bed with prop feet sticking up out of the dirt. A glitch in the matrix, if I’ve ever seen one.

Dogwood Tales — Closest Thing to Heaven

Back in July, I wrote a few words about “Hard to Be Anywhere,” a song from Closest Thing to Heaven that means a lot to me:

It’s an incredibly moving song, and it’s no exaggeration to say I needed to hear it right now. The start of the chorus certainly hits home, no pun intended:

It’s hard to be in the right place for the right thing all the time

The more connected we all are electronically, the more it can feel like you’re never where you’re supposed to be… Even now, at a time when my family is swimming in, ahem, quality time, that sense of togetherness is short-circuited by the strange shape of this situation — limitations on where you can go and what you can do, daily risk assessment, constant stress, and the fortunate-yet-crazy-making task of folding parenting into working from home. At any given moment, it’s hard to know whether “the right place” is at my laptop, being the work version of myself, or in our backyard, pushing the kids on the saucer-shaped swing I hung from a sturdy branch of our maple tree near the start of this mess.

Bob Dylan — Rough and Rowdy Ways

My relationship with Bob Dylan’s music changed significantly this year, mainly owing to a fantastic limited-run Aquarium Drunkard radio show called Pretty Good Stuff. Run by central Virginia’s own Bob Dylan scholar James Adams, the show compiled bootleg live cuts from various points in Dylan’s career, and I found myself totally transfixed by Adams’ combination of keen curation and intriguing narration. Dylan is famous for being unknowable, but Pretty Good Stuff made the mystery seem so much more approachable than it had in the past.

Case in point: The first time I heard “Murder Most Foul,” I couldn’t get past the absurdity of it — the way the lyrics seemed to drift, the length… It felt like something it was easier to set aside than to contend with. After several hours of Pretty Good Stuff, and several more spins of “Murder Most Foul,” I’m convinced it’s totally groundbreaking. If you consider things like melody, narrative, and form to be elements that help ground music in a listener’s expectations, this song is like grabbing a big bundle of balloons and floating off into the stratosphere. It’s also deeply romantic, in the non-sexy sense, such that it reminds me of the love for early rock and roll that my father maintained late into his life. There’s something in this fever dream of a song that I think I could stand to be reminded of, and even though I can’t exactly put my finger on it, I know I’ll keep coming back to try to find it.

Fleet Foxes — Shore

Another Glitch-in-the-Matrix moment, and I swear this is true: I was about to start writing a blurb about how I feel like I’ve only started scratching the surface of this album’s wonderfulness, and how I’m looking forward to getting to know it even better when my physical copy arrives early next year, and Mrs. YHT walked into the room and handed me a postcard she’d just retrieved from the mailbox. On the front was a pretty design made of two shades of blue, in the bottom left corner were the words “Fleet Foxes,” and in the bottom right is the word “Shore.” On the back was a message from Robin Pecknold thanking me for my pre-order, and for my patience. Really. That happened. At this point, it seems abundantly clear that we’re all living in a simulation, and that whoever’s in charge of the simulation is drunk. That or Robin Pecknold is just really thoughtful. One of the two.

Tim Heidecker — Fear of Death

I cracked open my copy of this album on a chilly December morning — one where I was feeling especially low. Imagine you’re out getting ice cream, and there’s not much of your flavor left, yet the person doing the scooping reaches way down in the tub and scrapes together a perfectly shaped confection that makes your day. That’s what Fear of Death did on that December morning; the bright sound and wry gallows humor scooped a soul that was stuck to the bottom of its container and made it feel new again. (Coffee also helped.) To truly beat this analogy into the ground, I’d compare the countrified opening of “Let It Be” to the moment when you’re finally handed your cone and pure joy floods in. I hadn’t heard this upbeat version of the Beatles classic for a month or two, and when it kicked in, I felt such gratitude for the fact that this album exists.

Lilly Hiatt — Walking Proof

I owe Lilly Hiatt, big-time. Walking Proof was my first curbside pickup purchase — the first album I bought from a store here in Richmond after the pandemic took hold. In a very real sense, this album got me out of my house at a time when I was profoundly freaked out, and it was such comfort knowing there was a way I could safely patronize record stores again. Not unlike the album’s color-your-own insert art, Walking Proof helped me start repainting a map of the outside world that had turned grey and ominous in early March. It did the same for the household throughout the year, as the brightness of Hiatt’s songwriting changed the mood in the house for the better every time I put it on the turntable.

Horse Lords — The Common Task

You often see music described as experimental, but not many bands feel as connected to the scientific method as Horse Lords. They take a mathematical approach to elements like time and tone, and while that may sound dry or clinical, The Common Task is a wildly fun and energizing album. I would typically put this on around 4 p.m., when I needed a musical boost to get me through to the end of the day. In fact, it’s about that time as I’m typing this, and I’m going to go spin it again right this minute.

Yves Jarvis — Sundry Rock Song Stock

I loved this interview Yves Jarvis did with Jason P. Woodbury for the Aquarium Drunkard Transmissions podcast. That conversation spent a fair amount of time on Jarvis’ creative process, and it made evident that the talented Canadian multi-instrumentalist and producer harbors a rare and highly intuitive artistic integrity, one that pushes him into territory that’s unbound by typical conventions of form and songwriting. He’s a true original, as you’ll hear immediately if you give Sundry Rock Song Stock a listen.

Lianne La Havas — Lianne La Havas

One of my weirdest musical memories of 2020 is contained on this album. My family spent an afternoon in Hampton, VA, attempting a socially distanced beach day fairly early in the summer, when it wasn’t all that clear how distanced was distanced enough. I was incredibly anxious, to the point where I was getting on everyone else’s nerves, and at one point I stayed in my beach chair while the rest of the family went down to the water to enjoy themselves. I didn’t have headphones, but I put on Lianne La Havas’ version of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes” anyway, holding my phone up to my ear so I could hear it over the sound of wind and waves and other people having a great time. I won’t say I was comforted — more validated in my discomfort. Despite the fact that the song mentions fish and the ocean, it’s not exactly something you’d put on your fun in the sun playlist. Its lyrics talk about a devotion so intense you fall off the side of the earth, hit bottom, and disappear, and listening to “Weird Fishes” in that setting did feel a little like a disappearing act. I won’t say I ended up having fun afterward; it was a stressful experience. But good music is big enough to absorb something like that and keep you coming back, and I’ve returned to Lianne La Havas’ self-titled album many times throughout the year. (Thankfully in the comfort of home.)

Adrianne Lenker — songs and instrumentals

I mentioned that I enjoyed not having reviews in mind when listening to Fetch the Bold Cutters — I had the opposite experience with songs and instrumentals. Philip Sherburne’s review for Pitchfork points out something I’d missed, which was that by listening to this album from start to finish and thinking about one side of a vinyl pressing at a time, you’re witnessing a disappearing act. The first side is the most layered/produced, the second is more stripped down while still featuring words and singing, the third features just Adrianne Lenker’s guitar throughout, and on the final side, guitar gives way to wind chimes, and then the silence that follows the album’s conclusion. I’m a big fan of trying to put yourself in the artist’s shoes when it comes to why songs are presented the way they are, and I love the idea that Lenker had this idea of vanishing in mind. It’s made the album an even more rewarding listen.

Also rewarding? This profile of Lenker penned by Amanda Petrusich. In truth, “rewarding” is a dramatic undersell; I’m not sure I’ve read a more compelling and meaningful profile in my life.

Blake Mills — Mutable Set

The fact that Mutable Set rarely operates above a whisper makes it easy to underestimate, but don’t be fooled — as far as melody, harmony, and overall musicianship go, there’s a riot going on. I don’t know enough theory to pick up on the subtleties just by listening, but I did follow along with some Instagram live sessions Mills did around the time the album was released — sessions that essentially amounted to high-level guitar classes where he calmly and quietly walked through the complex chords he used. The techniques, the rationales, the implications. His mastery is astonishing, but not flashy in the slightest. He’s fiercely disinterested in making the same record twice, yet Mutable Set sounds more like him than anything else he’s made. Maybe it’s a type of innovation via interpolation. What I do know is that if Blake Mills is whispering, it’s worth listening extra closely to what he has to say.

Mink’s Miracle Medicine — Thumbs Up Angel

I’ve never managed to get a set of Spotify Wrapped stats that seemed accurate. For years, I shared an account with a brother-in-law more interested in metal than I am, so that would result in some hilariously disjointed results. Then there’s the Frozen factor; “Into the Unknown” was my song of the year in 2020 for reasons that will be immediately clear to anyone with a six-year-old. But the other big factor this year was Bandcamp — the fact that I started downloading music again, and that I spent as much time listening to those downloaded songs as I did Spotify, especially when they were singles made available before the release date of something I’d preordered. Thumbs Up Angel is a great example. I snagged this near the end of October’s Bandcamp Friday, then spent the rest of that evening listening to nothing else but “Spots on the Sun” and “Watch the Horses Run” over and over and over, marveling at how great they both are. And I spent part of the following day doing the same thing. I may not have stats that reflect the great Mink’s Miracle Medicine binge of 2020, but it happened, and it was glorious.

John Moreland — LP5

The cover art and title of LP5 may fly under the radar, its impact is anything but ordinary. His songwriting is so sharp, singular, and affecting — to the point that it feels like we can go ahead and save a best-albums list spot for any full-length he releases.

The Mountain Goats — Getting Into Knives

So much of what I said about John Moreland applies to John Darnielle. According to Wikipedia, Getting into Knives is the Mountain Goats’ 19th studio album, and I’m amazed at the consistency with which Darnielle’s writing draws me in. He’s got such a gift for building imagined narrative spaces, and I love how he changes the scope from project to project; sometimes the album itself represents a narrative universe like with Beat the Champ or Goths, and other times he gives individual songs more space to form worlds of their own. My favorite in that respect on Getting into Knives is “Picture of My Dress,” which grew out of a tweet by poet Maggie Smith.

Aquiles Navarro & Tcheser Holmes — Heritage of the Invisible II

I’m wildly impressed and inspired by the versatility Aquiles Navarro and Tcheser Holmes of Irreversible Entanglements exhibit. So many styles are represented on Heritage of the Invisible II, from free jazz to soul to Afro-Caribbean — it’s like getting to explore parallel universes within the same timeline. I’m not sure I’d ever seen “imagination” among the instruments in a set of liner notes, but it’s entirely fitting here.

Nadia Reid — Out of My Province

I almost put this on my RVA list, because the in-town ties run deep on Out of My Province. The Spacebomb House Band, an illustrious list of additional Richmond instrumentalists, production from Matthew E. White and Trey Pollard, engineering from Adrian Olsen… all in support of stunning songwriting — conversational and incisive, inviting and arresting. Reid’s voice comes through so clearly on Out of My Province — sonically, narratively, and artistically. A triumph all around.

Gil Scott-Heron — We’re New Again: A Reimagining by Makaya McCraven

Should this have been on the Blasts from the Past list? I certainly would have guessed that’s where this would end up, but what Makaya McCraven has done feels so fresh and… well, there’s no way to avoid saying it… new. The source material itself — Scott-Heron’s inimitable voice — is made new by McCraven’s knack for sonic recontextualization via the editing process. (Fans of McCraven’s work on the International Anthem label know all about that.) And We’re New Again is so colorfully rendered, with such caring attention to detail, that I hear new things each time I listen. What an achievement this is. McCraven is one of the most thrilling musicians to follow right now, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Andy Shauf — The Neon Skyline

Another brilliant builder of narrative spaces is Andy Shauf, and his imagined dive bar, The Neon Skyline, is absolutely bursting with life. I’d love to know more about Shauf’s process — how his personality sketches start, and how he fills them with such uncanny detail. Just as I eagerly ate up both novels John Darnielle has written, I would be first in line for a copy of anything Shauf decided to pen down the road.

Shormey — God Bless Bob Ross: A Collection Of Low Fidelity Recordings

A snippet of a post I published in June:

The hardest thing about making a mix in honor of Bandcamp’s June 6 event was deciding which track from God Bless Bob Ross to include. The whole thing is stellar. I ended up going with “honeydipper,” which is intoxicatingly propulsive and wildly inventive in how it builds and releases its kinetic energy.

Sturgill Simpson — Cuttin’ Grass – Vol​.​1 (The Butcher Shoppe Sessions)

Yes. Just… yes. The album art, the sound, the playing, the line of sight into Simpson’s songwriting… Happy camper over here. And Vol. 2 kicks (gr)ass in all the same ways.

Skyway Man — The World Only Ends When You Die

Weird story, fitting for an album about death: I was listening to this while sitting in my car outside Walgreen’s waiting to get a drive-thru COVID test when I saw a tweet calling the presidential election for Joe Biden. It wasn’t a news source I was familiar with, but I figured those would follow suit shortly thereafter, and during the 20-minute ride home after my test, I thought I was enjoying my first real taste of the post-45 era. The air felt lighter and clearer, and The World Only Ends When You Die was a great companion for that delightful (albeit illusory) experience. The real call didn’t come until a day later, when I was visiting my mom in Norfolk. We’d taken my daughter out for a run/bike ride around my old neighborhood, and someone stringing Christmas lights shouted down from the top of the ladder, “Did you hear? They called Pennsylvania!” It felt like a movie scene — something from 100 years ago. So much better than a tweet in the Walgreen’s drive-thru. We celebrated by letting my daughter stay up late to watch the acceptance speeches (she decided immediately that she wanted to visit Vice President Harris), and on the drive back to Richmond the next morning, I listened to The World Only Ends in full, the air feeling nice and light once again.

Eric Slick — Wiseacre

From a post I wrote back in July about the first single to be released from Wiseacre:

Direct and indelible, the song represents an elegant marriage of form and function — a beat that shines via understatement, and a lyrical hook that elevates the elemental: “I’m a simple person / When it comes to down to it.” It’s an idea that expands as you spend more time with it, and it ends up (for me, at least) taking on an aspirational quality. There’s peace in being able to say those words with confidence, and getting there can involve lots of hard work.

Early in 2020, Slick started posting drum cover videos to his Instragram, and while there’s been plenty of complexity to marvel at, from Rush and Zappa to CAN and Outkast, my favorite clip of all might have been his take on Andy Shauf’s “The Magician.” In the caption, Slick described the song as “deceptively simple,” and he praised the album it’s on (The Party — a favorite of mine as well) in saying “you can hear the hours of rewriting to make it effortless.”

I hear that exact same magic in “When It Comes Down To It.” Take a listen below, and click here to pre-order Wiseacre.

Bartees Strange — Live Forever

As I did in October’s Bandcamp Friday post, I want to thank Steven Hyden for the recommendation here. It’s been so fun watching the accolades roll in for Live Forever from my cozy seat I snagged on the Bartees Bandwagon™ a few months ago. This album is a demonstration of a bold and broad artistic skill set, and it’s an invitation to connect with so many strands of your own musical universe. I also count this among the most versatile albums in terms of what I was doing when I spun it — cooking, puttering around in middle of the afternoon, running, hitting tennis balls against a wall… I’m pretty sure there’s no bad time to listen to Live Forever.

Moses Sumney — græ

The level of artistry here is just astounding. The overall concept, the songs themselves, Moses Sumney’s voice, even the packaging for my physical copy… it’s all so next-level. Overwhelming, even. This is another album where it feels like the full picture will continue emerging over time, and I’m in no rush.

Sunwatchers — Oh Yeah?

I mentioned in my live albums post that the list of bands I got to see perform this year is short but illustrious, and Sunwatchers is on that list. What a gift it was to see them live. Tons of energy, intensity, and complexity, and Oh Yeah? does a great job of bottling those traits. Did I mention it includes a 19-minute song called the “The Earthsized Thumb.” Can we all agree that’s just tautologically awesome?

William Tyler — Music from First Cow

From August’s Bandcamp Friday post:

I’d totally planned see this movie before I bought the soundtrack. That seemed like the right order of events — as if there were a “wrong” time to buy a William Tyler album. (There’s not.) Then I listened to Music from First Cow a third time, and a fourth time, and I feel hard for how beautiful, musically economical, and evocative these pieces are, and I started to develop the kind of emotional responses you might expect to have after actually having seen the film, like how “The Arrival” triggers the kind of nostalgia you feel when something’s not even over yet but you already miss it… I’m still going to see this movie, but I’m not waiting to but its soundtrack a moment longer.

Waxahatchee — Saint Cloud 

Yielding my time to share this bit from Steven Hyden’s best of 2020 list for Uproxx:

In a year of so much chaos and tragedy and idiocy and fear, listening to Saint Cloud felt like hanging out with that friend who always manages to put things in perspective. No matter what happens today, the lilacs keep drinking the water, marking in the slow, slow, slow passing of time.

More 2020 albums I enjoyed:

Anteloper — Tour Beats Vol. 1
Matt Berninger — Serpentine Prison
J.R. Bohannon/Ben Greenberg/Ryley Walker — For Michael Ripps
Bright Eyes — Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was
The Budos Band — Long in the Tooth
Bill Callahan — Gold Record
Car Seat Headrest — Making a Door Less Open
Ian Chang — 属 Belonging
Tyler Childers — Long Violent History
Drive-By Truckers — The Unraveling
The Fearless Flyers — Tailwinds
Futurebirds — Teamwork
Lonnie Holley — National Freedom
Christian Lee Hutson — Beginners
Jason Isbell — Reunions
Pokey LaFarge — Rock Bottom Rhapsody
Roberto Carlos Lange — Kite Symphony, Four Variations
Hamilton Leithauser — The Loves Of Your Life
Kevin Morby — Sundowner
Nathan Salsburg — Landwerk
Sylvan Esso — Free Love
Thao and the Get Down Stay Down — Temple
Jeff Tweedy — Love Is The King
M. Ward — Migration Stories
Sven Wunder — Wabi Sabi

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.

Rosalía — 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

Gold Connections

I’ve lived my whole life along the I-64 corridor in Virginia — Norfolk until I graduated high school and then Richmond for college and beyond. It’s a stretch Gold Connections frontman and leading creative force Will Marsh knows just as well, given his Charlottesville roots and his time spent at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg. His drive between home and school probably wasn’t too different from mine — between an hour and a half and two hours if the traffic was kind. Worse on summer weekends when the Outer Banks were in business.

We had the opportunity to speak over the phone early in June. The first full-length Gold Connections album, Popular Fiction, had come out a few weeks before, giving me more than enough time to fall hard for Marsh’s writing and knack for studio decision-making. I’d also gotten a kick out of tracing the way standout tracks like “Salt” and “Isabel” evolved from versions he recorded in 2014 with W&M contemporary Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest for the self-titled Gold Connections EP, which didn’t end up being released until 2017. Hearing more about how those two projects took shape and the tremendous care Marsh puts into how his music is presented was really interesting, and it got me thinking about I-64. Whether long or short, there’s something sacred about the time between recording and releasing music. How many times did those songs provide a uniquely private soundtrack to a drive along that stretch of road? What else might the people next to us on the highway be carrying with them? What hopes, problems, and creations?

All that said, Marsh is looking and driving squarely forward, with an outstanding debut LP and the backing of Richmond’s EggHunt Records. Click here to read the River City Magazine article I wrote about our conversation. It’s in the inaugural issue of River City as a standalone publication, and I’d love it if you grabbed a copy around town or checked it out online. You can hear yet another version of “Isabel” below, from a Bridge Room Session I’d recommend highly.

Car Seat Headrest

Have y’all checked out Dust Up Mag yet? Some truly talented and dedicated folks have set their sights on covering live music in Richmond and beyond (the site’s motto is “Get to the gig”), and they were kind enough to let me review the Friday Cheers finale from last week. Here’s a link. This was my third time seeing Car Seat Headrest since Teens of Denial came out, and I walked away wildly impressed yet again. Hope a fourth time isn’t too far off — there’s something beautiful and therapeutic about singing along with Toledo’s songs. Read the full review here.

Car Seat Headrest — “Fill In The Blank” [Spotify/iTunes]

Friday Cheers

fridaycheers2017-logo-color-highrez

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year…”
-Christmas song written by someone who hasn’t witnessed a Friday Cheers schedule rollout

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Friday Cheers is my favorite part of the year. It’s warm but not sweaty, the weekends feel longer, since the early Cheers start times mean you’re outside and enjoying yourself ASAP… it makes me so happy. Here’s the full schedule. Things are going to be a little nutty this year, given that Mrs. YHT is set to deploy Baby YHT #2 in early May, but here are three of the shows I’m hopeful that we/I/y’all will be able to make:

Lee Fields & the Expressions with Kings — May 5

This show being announced was my Lee Fields wake-up call. I see his records nearly every time I go to Steady Sounds, and I keep meaning to learn more about him — now’s the time. I’m doing it. You can’t stop me. Friday Cheers has hosted two of the best soul shows I’ve ever seen — Charles Bradley and the late great Sharon Jones — so this one shouldn’t be missed.

 


Conor Oberst with Big Thief — June 2

Already snagged a ticket for this one. I wrote a short time ago about how psyched I am for his special-guest-heavy upcoming album Salutations, and since it’ll be out by the time this show rolls around, I’ll almost certainly be spending some quality time at the merch tent on June 2.

 

Car Seat Headrest with Gold Connections — June 30

OK, so I saw them twice last year. I don’t care — as Toddler YHT’s hero Ariel once said so poignantly “I want more…” Speaking of wanting more, I managed to find a used copy of Teens of Style, the album prior to Teens of Denial, and I was surprised by how many of the older (relatively speaking — he’s released ocean of material already) songs I knew. I recommend prepping for this show by diving into Will Toledo’s earlier stuff, which can be found on Bandcamp.

Hope y’all are getting excited as well. Here’s another link to the full schedule and here’s a link to an article I wrote last year about Friday Cheers that includes an interview with Venture Richmond Festival Manager Stephen Lecky.

 

2016 in Review: Top 10 Albums

Last 2016 in Review post — I promise. That said, I lied about the “Top 10” part. I’ve included the rest of my top 25 at the bottom, as well as some albums that I couldn’t resist mentioning, because they’re also amazing.

Without further ado…

1. Lucy Dacus — No Burden

Lucy Dacus

Earlier in December, in a New Yorker piece about her favorite songs of 2016, Amanda Petrusich wrote something that helped me name the reason I so badly wanted to place Lucy Dacus’ No Burden at the top of this list:

Whole musical worlds were invented this year, and, perhaps most notable, listeners seemed better equipped than ever to accept and navigate them. I sensed both a collective ache for progressive work and a willingness to metabolize it.

Between the in-town excitement that accompanied the February release of No Burden, the wave of national acclaim that rushed in, the consistently excellent shows she played all over town, and the poised atmosphere she commanded at each of those performances, Dacus really did establish her own new world here in Richmond. It never ceases to amaze me how truly talented musicians can create something out of nothing but their own experiences and insights. It feels like an exception to the rule in physics that energy can neither be created nor destroyed.

The second part of the Petrusich quote above also resonated — the idea that audiences are looking for something progressive. Something that will move us forward. I sense that in Dacus’ music in large part because meaningful change hinges on truth, and her writing displays an honesty that’s both outwardly and inwardly directed. It’s why she was such a joy to interview, and it’s why her lyrics have so much substance. Would this country still be in the mess it’s in if people took a hard, unflinching look at their own motivations? Probably, but the mess might not be quite so bad.

In these last days of December, I find it impossible to imagine what this year would have been like — what my world would presently be like — without No Burden in it. For that reason, it’s #1 in my book.

Lucy Dacus — “Strange Torpedo” [Spotify/iTunes]

2. David Bowie — Blackstar

David Bowie

In a word, transcendent. Blackstar turned out to be RVA Magazine‘s #1 album, and I was given the opportunity to write about it. I tried to put in context why it loomed so large over 2016, and talking about it ended up being strangely therapeutic. Here’s the first bit:

2016 will be remembered as at least these three things: The Year We Hated and Wanted to End Early, The Year Donald Trump Was Elected and Brexit Happened, and The Year All the Famous People Died. David Bowie’s death in January, just days after he released his dark and jazzy masterpiece, Blackstar, cast a pall over months ahead in which we lost one towering cultural figure after another. Like Prince, Bowie dying felt especially cruel, because of the life-affirming, self-empowering spirit he brought to his art. Bowie was evidence that you can take control of your identity and invent yourself in the image of your choosing, and he carried that artistic approach with him from life into death. His last artistic act was nothing short of transcendent.

David Bowie — “Girl Loves Me” [Spotify/iTunes]

3. Frank Ocean — Blonde

frank-ocean

It was an honor to blurb this one as well for RVA Magazinetake a look here. I couldn’t help throwing a little shade at the start:

While plenty of artists in the realms of pop and R&B were out there cultivating a public persona drenched in faux sensitivity, Frank Ocean was quietly at work, making some of the most powerfully vulnerable music I can remember hearing.

Frank Ocean — “Self Control” [Spotify/iTunes]

4. Radiohead — A Moon Shaped Pool

radiohead

Another one I wrote about for RVA Magazine’s year-end bonanza. Such a beautiful album, such heavy subject matter. A Moon Shaped Pool acts as a reminder that lists and rankings pale in comparison to the lived experiences that make music and lyrics possible.

Radiohead — “Burn The Witch” [Spotify/iTunes]

5. Car Seat Headrest — Teens of Denial

car-seat-headrest

To say that Teens of Denial grew on me would be misleading — you usually hear people say that when they were unsure about an album initially but learned to love it. But Teens of Denial did grow in my estimation in the sense that, every time I listened, Will Toledo’s genius would seem more profound. I was one of the people for whom Car Seat Headrest’s newest album acted as an introduction, despite the fact that Toledo’s already released more albums than many artists release in a career and a half. That said, I recently snagged a used copy of 2015’s Teens of Style at Plan 9, and I hear that same undeniable (sorry) gift for fusing melody and energy. I may be late to the party, but it’s great to be here regardless.

Car Seat Headrest — “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” [Spotify/iTunes]

6. Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam — I Had a Dream You Were Mine

rostam

This one probably has the highest ratio of number of times I listened to it to number of words I wrote about it. I did write a quickie review of it for the Winter RVA Magazine, and here’s how I closed it:

Hamilton Leithauser’s smoky vocals ascend seemingly without limit; when paired with Rostam Batmanglij’s knack for producing in styles both old and new, that voice — “the same voice I’ve always had” — soars with an inspiring freedom.

Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam — “Sick As A Dog” [Spotify/iTunes]

7. Drive-By Truckers — American Band

drive-by-truckers

Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley are in a really interesting position right now. They have roots in a red state but personal politics that lean blue, and because they’ve been consistently making some of the best and sludgiest Southern rock around for decades, they have the ears of fans from all over the political spectrum. In my mind, that’s why this album was and is so important — it represents a bridge spanning the huge chasm that separates America’s populated coasts from its rural center. It’s honest, just as the band is honest at their shows about where they stand when it comes to social justice. (“Black Lives Matter” was prominently displayed in their stage setup when they came to The National in November.) At a time when social media algorithms are making it harder and harder to encounter opinions that conflict with your own, the Truckers make me hopeful. Fingers crossed people are actually listening.

Drive-By Truckers — “Surrender Under Protest” [Spotify/iTunes]

8. Bon Iver — 22, A Million

bon-iver

I thought Bon Iver’s self-titled album would be a tough act to follow — maybe impossible — given that it was the realization of such a big, colorful, well-rounded vision. But 22, A Million is proof that Justin Vernon’s vision is a renewable resource. An unexpected joy this album has brought is seeing who it resonates with — identifying other people who like their musical beauty laced with a healthy dose of obfuscation. It’s like we looked at a Rorschach and all came up with the same answer.

Bon Iver — “22 (OVER S∞∞N) [Bob Moose Extended Cab Version]” [Spotify/iTunes]

9. Paul Simon — Stranger to Stranger

paul-simon

In terms of style, Stranger to Stranger is cut from cloth similar to that of Graceland, Paul Simon’s 30-year-old masterpiece. That said, his new album doesn’t feel retrograde, in part because Simon’s witty, acerbic writing seems sharper than ever. (Who else could turn concert wristband drama into a genuinely enjoyable, insightful song?) A piece of advice: If you missed Simon on this year’s tour — I did :/ — check out his recent Austin City Limits performance. It’s excellent and has probably earned squatter’s rights on my DVR by now.

Paul Simon — “Wristband” [Spotify/iTunes]

10. Angel Olsen — MY WOMAN

angel-olsen

I thought about splitting this year’s lists into weirder categories like “Albums I Was Going To Like No Matter What” (Hiss Golden Messenger, Sturgill Simpson) and “Albums I Know I’m Going to Like Later But Haven’t Spent Enough Time With” (Beyoncé, Solange). MY WOMAN made me want to create a category called “Albums By Artists Who Had A Whole Other Gear We Didn’t Know About.” I thought Angel Olsen had truly found her form with her last album, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, but Olsen’s direct, intense writing is just as effective in a setting that calls to mind early rock and roll. This may be my dad’s Memphis roots talking, but I hear a ton of Roy Orbison in MY WOMAN, and “Shut Up Kiss Me” is quite simply one of the strongest songs of the year.

Angel Olsen — “Shut Up Kiss Me” [Spotify/iTunes]

Here’s the rest of the Top 25 I submitted for RVA Magazine

11. Hiss Golden Messenger — Heart Like a Levee
12. Wilco — Schmilco
13. Lambchop — FLOTUS
14. Clair Morgan — New Lions & the Not-Good Night
15. Sturgill Simpson — A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
16. Steve Gunn — Eyes on the Lines
17. Allen Toussaint — American Tunes
18. Dori Freeman — Dori Freeman
19. A Tribe Called Quest — We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
20. The Lumineers — Cleopatra
21. Julian Lage — ARCLIGHT
22. Solange — A Seat at the Table
23. Avers — Omega/Whatever
24. Durand Jones & the Indications — Durand Jones & the Indications
25. The Head and the Heart — Signs of Light

…and here are 15 more albums I loved dearly but am too tired to rank…

Thao & the Get Down Stay Down — A Man Alive
Chance the Rapper — Coloring Book
Cian Nugent — Night Fiction
Daniel Bachman — Daniel Bachman
Kyle Craft — Dolls of Highland
Nels Cline — Lovers
The Avalanches — Wildflowers
Colin Stetson — SORROW
Anna Meredith — Varmints
Carl Broemel — 4th of July
Blood Orange — Freetown Sound
Animal Collective — Painting With
Negative Gemini — Body Work
James Supercave — Better Strange
Andy Shauf — The Party

OK, I swear I’m stopping now. If you’re still reading, you’re a peach. See you in 2017.

Friday News and Notes

rostam

Just a few quick things this Friday. Hope y’all have an awesome weekend ahead!

  • Be on the lookout for the return of CD Monday next week…
  • Haven’t seen it yet, but NPR has video of The Head and the Heart performing their new album at NYC’s City Winery. Definitely watching that. That album is very, very good.
  • And hot damn, is the Hamilton Leithauser/Rostam album good. “The Bride’s Dad,” y’all. You gotta hear it. NPR is streaming it — click here to listen and click here to sign my petition asking for them to be a band forever and for that band to be called RostHam.
  • Car Seat Headrest was excellent at the National on Monday. Was not expecting a Frank Ocean cover (“Ivy”) but was so excited when he announced it was about to happen that I guiltily videoed the whole thing. Then I listened to it on the way home and felt… OK, still guilty but I’m happy I can revisit it. Here’s a video someone took of him doing the song Asheville.
  • Lumineers tonight at RIR. The same RIR Denny Hamlin kicked ass at last weekend. OK, so it’s technically at an amphitheater near the track, but whatever. Something tells me the smell of victory (burnt rubber, beer, pee) is still floating around that place. Might need to wear some #11 merch tonight to soak the win in fully.
  • If you’re looking to go out Saturday night, there’s Ben Folds at the National and I heard from bass player Ted that Angelica Garcia is playing as part of a trio called Whatever Honey at Poe’s Pub.

Friday News and Notes

HyperFocal: 0

Late-breaking Friday News and Notes!

  • Happy reissue day to Lucy Dacus, and happy release day to The Head and the Heart! Also to Wilco, though I grabbed a copy of Schmilco at BK Music’s listening party on Tuesday. It’s excellent. It sounded more understated and mellow when I was listening at BK, but listening at home was a whole other story. Very tense, like bottled up emotions slipping out a little at a time, with more fun weirdness and ornamentation than I heard at first.
  • Speaking of BK, while I was there on Tuesday, I flipped through their amazing new bluegrass/country section and found a copy of Tony Rice’s Manzanita. I’ve been looking for his stuff since I learned that the cover of Daniel Bachman’s Miscellaneous Ephemera and Other Bullshit album was an homage to one of Rice’s. Is Manzanita a good Rice starting point? They had a couple of others, but I kept seeing Manzanita described as a landmark/watershed album when I looked it up, so it seemed like a good bet.
  • Enjoying Amanda Shires’ new album — check out the First Listen over at NPR.
  • Another First Listen worth a… listen… Blake Mills produced Dawes’ new album. I’ve only heard a few songs, but they’re wildly interesting so far. Mills is a brilliant dude.
  • Insane run of shows coming up. Car Seat Headrest at the National on Monday, The Lumineers at RIR on Friday, then The Mountain Goats at the National the Monday after. There’s even a Willie Nelson show somewhere in the middle, though that one’s sold out. Someone please hold me to this promise: I will see him next time he comes to town.

Friday News and Notes

Heart

That’s a heart-shaped leaf I found on the sidewalk, because I love all you weirdos. And these are Friday News and Notes!

  • Congrats to Adam Henceroth — Mr. EggHunt Records himself — on this great Style Weekly profile. EggHunt is on one hell of a winning streak, and the albums they’re putting out are serious points of pride for this city. Adam is also just a very friendly person, so it’s nice seeing him get this kind of recognition. Applause emojis all around.
  • Anyone else think this fairly snazzy new Britney Spears song would sound right at home on The 20/20 Experience? Is that you I hear, Timbaland? And can someone tell me why I have to look up the spelling of Britney Spears’ first name every time I type it?
  • Really wish I would have found out about this Durand Jones & The Indications album before it’s resell price got up to $75…
  • Y’all see that they just pressed John Prine’s In Spite Of Ourselves to vinyl for the first time? Feel very fortunate to have snagged a copy at BK. It’s a fantastic album of duets, and the title song might be my favorite song of his.
  • I’m enjoying the hell out of next week’s Off Your Radar album, Dear Bo Jackson by The Weeks. Not sure what I’m going to say about it, but it’s definitely getting filed under “How on Earth did I miss this?” Southern rocky, soulful, horns, pedal steel — like shooting fish in my musical preferences barrel.
  • Just bought a bunch of concert tickets I’d been meaning to get. Car Seat Headrest and Mountain Goats are coming to the National on consecutive Mondays — that’s going to be a fun week. And Drive-By Truckers just went on sale today, and I grabbed a couple for the Friday show. That Thursday show is pretty tempting as well, though. Hm.
  • Did y’all know that video killed the radio star?

Hope a great weekend awaits each and every one of you, and that random heart-shaped things pop out at you wherever you look.

Car Seat Headrest

Car Seat Headrest

That’s one of several crappy iPhone photos I took at the Car Seat Headrest show in D.C. last week.

It’s a borderline miracle that I was there. Deciding to go was a last minute thing — I saw they were playing at the Black Cat that morning, and I’d only been listening to his/their stuff for maybe 48 hours. Plus I’d sworn off weeknight shows in D.C. and Charlottesville. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told people (with a not-entirely-subconscious “Look how adult I am” tone) that I just can’t make those trips anymore. It’s too hard. I get so tired the next day, and my completist instincts make me want to swear things off entirely to protect myself from the pain of missing out on individual parts of that thing, if that makes any sense.

And here’s the kicker: I was getting sick. I sorta-kinda knew it at the time but was playing the denial game, and I ended up with a fever the next night. But Mrs. YHT was hosting book club that night, so I was going to be out of the house either way, and I just… I had to do it.

Going under masochistic circumstances turned out to be fitting. A few days after the show, I read an interview with Pitchfork that Will Toledo did and saw an applicable quote:

For a long time, concerts were not really my bag, because I thought it was a needlessly painful experience—between the noise of the music and having to just stand there for hours, there wasn’t a lot of enjoyment for me. But I saw Swans a year ago in Seattle, and it really blew me away. I had heard a lot of cautionary bullshit about how loud they are and how it’s the most damaging concert you’ll ever see, so I was a little concerned. But for some reason, the fact that Swans were supposed to be kind of painful actually made it more enjoyable for me.

And man was CSH loud. My friend Coyle and I were standing just a dozen or so feet away from the stage right speakers — a few rows of people behind Bob Boilen, incidentally — and I felt that rush of “Is this safe? Am I in danger?” that instinctively accompanies sensory extremes. It’s been ages since I felt that at a show. (Thanks to my pasty skin, I feel that way every time I go to the beach, but that’s a different conversation.)

But volume wasn’t the whole story. Far from it. The band was excellent, in part because “loud” is only one of the gears they can choose. There were so many changes of pace — quick left turns where distortion abruptly gave way to quiet (and the other way around), nimble lead guitar that was clear as day in spots and blissfully muddy in others, a generous emotional range, from funny to sardonic to downright angry… Toledo is a gifted, restless writer, and the group he’s put together definitely takes advantage of that.

That said, there is a constant, and it’s Toledo. His voice, especially. He conveys a deadpan manner both between songs and during them, and that matter-of-fact tone makes the language in his lyrics absolutely dance in relief. I won’t be the first or last to make this comparison, but the way Toledo emphasizes certain words via long, extended vibrato-less notes reminded me of Bob Dylan, and I ended up thinking a lot about Dylan during the band’s set. Kurt Cobain, too (probably because of the quiet-loud transitions, which Nirvana did so well). Looking back, I’m struck by how Toledo’s words and delivery represent both achievement and promise: The present seems even more impressive because of how bright the future looks for him.

Saying so might make me sound older than I am, but the truth is that I was thinking about my age almost constantly at the show. It wasn’t the crowd — there was a healthy age distribution — it was everything else. It was the fact that I knew I was getting sick but was pretending I wasn’t. It was the fact that I’d told so many people that I don’t go to D.C. shows on weeknights anymore… yet there I was. And I was there listening to guitars that were louder than I’d heard in a long time.

I think a lot about a study I saw (can’t find it at the moment) that showed how people’s taste in music calcifies between 30 and 40. I tend not to worry about that, because I love learning about new bands almost as much as I love listening to the music I already know I love — and I’m fine knowing that the brilliant new musicians I’ll be learning about in the future will, for the most part, be younger than me — but it’s weird to think that the people at the shows I go to will keep getting younger by comparison. Even though the difference wasn’t especially pronounced at the Black Cat, that idea really started to sink in, and I can’t figure out whether that bothers me or not. I’d like to think it won’t, but I’m not sure. Hopefully asking and answering the question now will help in the long run.

A few days after the show, I saw that Car Seat Headrest will be playing in Richmond in September. I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time, because I’m really glad I went to this one. It didn’t make me feel spontaneous, like I thought it might. I guess I ended up feeling like myself, which isn’t a thing that should be taken for granted. In fact, I’d go a step further and say that’s one of art’s highest callings — helping people inch closer to who they really are.

Car Seat Headrest — “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” [Spotify/iTunes]