Pedro the Lion’s “Phoenix” seems like a loose memoir in album form. Apparently the album arose from the time when David Bazan, the main songwriter, took a side trip to visit Phoenix and the home he grew up in. Actually, the album doesn’t feel as much like a memoir as it does like a semi-autobiographical novel, because there are other stories besides Bazan’s that come through in these songs (primarily about his family, on songs “Model Homes,” “Piano Bench,” “Circle K,” and “Leaving the Valley”). The album pulls out memories and anecdotes (“Black Canyon,” features ‘Uncle Ray’, a paramedic who responds to an attempted suicide-by-car on the Black Canyon Highway; it’s a chilling song and one of the best on the album) and details from the past to recreate a whole world that’s now gone.
The whole album’s vibe reminds me a little bit of the first few lines of Wilco’s “Misunderstood”: “When you’re back in your old neighborhood/the cigarettes taste so good/but you’re so misunderstood/so misunderstood/There’s something there that you can’t find…” It’s all burrowing into resurrected feelings, the thrill of being able to revisit these memories alongside the attendant sadness of summoning these details (sometimes at less than high fidelity) from a past that will never exist again.
“Yellow Bike” was the first single and it’s my favorite song on the album, a recollection by Bazan of receiving and learning to ride his first two-wheel bike. It’s high-energy nostalgia, with Bazan’s vocals sounding somehow celebratory and mournful at once. There is a pretty great moment 40 seconds into the song, when the other guitars kick in, that brings a rush to the song, a little simulation of tearing off down a hill on a one-speed bike.
There was a lot of good music in 2018 (this is the kind of trenchant commentary that brings readers here). Below is my list of favorite albums and songs, presented in no particular order.
I admired a lot more music than what’s represented below, but what’s in the list is what I listened to most and what brought me the most enjoyment. As always, anyone seeking more comprehensive lists that are presented in more attractive ways, with better prose, would do well to check out the year-end lists and mixes at Said the Gramophone and Fluxblog.
Nils Frahm – All Melody
Nils Frahm is always good. This album feels superficially ‘light’ over the first few listens, but over the long term reveals itself as being complex, dramatic and grave.
The beginning of the song is bleak, rough, austere: cascading drums, bass. “Sending current down the barbed wire/burning currency in bonfires….” and “Whether we ask for it or not/deliver us to suffer again and again.” Matt Flegel’s lyrics read like a manifesto and he declaims them like a manifesto. There aren’t many people who sing with the same stentorian ferociousness as Flegel; every time he sings “Whether we ask for it or not…” it sounds like he’s rallying people on a battlefield.
Antidote takes on a different shape midway through. The drums trip over themselves, the pattern shifts. Flegel sings (utters) with flat, dead resignation: “Information overdose/looking for antidotes/uneven ratios/under a microscope.” (and variations of that). You get fed up with what’s happening all around, the sickness of it, but then it overwhelms you, there’s nothing to be done, you’re left searching—in a futile and perfunctory way—for answers that don’t exist.
It is staggering, watching the time-lapse evolution of the planet. First: accretion. Then it was a ball of hot iron and nickel. Volcanism reigned. Lava was everywhere, moving, spurting, flying all over and inside. Meteors hit, brought water (maybe?), and the moon was ejected, too weird and wicked to be a part of the planet. Atmosphere began to pile up, slow and steady, from the volcanic exhalations. Oceans pooled. Then everything was on fire again for a while. Then the planet cooled again and everything started to get its act together. It was a great time. Some chemicals and proteins and acids mixed together and flowed towards and away other chemicals. Then everything was on fire again.
“Unfolding” is the first single from Rival Consoles’s forthcoming new album, “Persona.” The song builds and annihilates itself. It collapses and rises up again. Subduction, erosion, eruption. It is beautiful and massive, pulsing, vivid, wild.
I wrote the following about “Not For Me” originally, but I think it works even better for “Ages Ago.”
Remember chaotic shows, in small theaters, in basements, in a hot attic in Virginia? Early morning Wawa donuts, coffee, and cigarettes. Sitting on brick walls. Someone always brought back handfuls of candy from work. Food, we were always searching for free food. Racing against the clock to get beer before midnight. Our friends snuck into the pool at the Holiday Inn, but we stuck with the one in our apartment complex, full of leaves and dead spiders. We went to see bands in Richmond and Newport News, bands that then dissipated like they’d never existed. You went to Fredericksburg and never came back.
I was a little surprised not to see more widespread or prominent discussion about this album, but music doesn’t quite occupy the same space in pop culture that it used to. “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” is a vibrantly weird, funny, and beautiful album, and “Four Out of Five” is its most spectacular song–so many good lines from Turner, with an ending that remains one of my favorite moments of music of the year.
“Wide Awake!” is another one that didn’t seem to get a whole lot of attention. I think this is Parquet Courts’ best album overall, and it’s so fucking fun too. It’s hard not to love an album with a lead track that references Dutch soccer, collectivism, and ends with the line “And fuck Tom Brady.” (and an album with a song titled “Freebird II”)
I loved the Clipse and I love Pusha, so it was thrilling to listen to “Daytona,” which was not only new Pusha music, but great Pusha music, the essence of Pusha’s aesthetic delivered in dense but accessible form. And then “The Story of Adidon,” which really is probably the most thrilling thing I heard this year–the only music I’ve heard in a long time that actually produced in me the same feelings of awe and surprise that usually come with watching something incredible happen in live sports (e.g. seeing someone hit a perfect rabona cross in the midst of a soccer match, etc.).
Jay Som released two great albums in two years, and now there’s a 7” of outtakes from the sessions that resulted in the absolutely unbeatable “Everybody Works.” Both “Pirouette” and “Meet Me Underwater” fit, in terms of quality, with the other songs on that album and have the same kind of energy. “I pray for answers/beneath the moon” Melina Duterte sings, seeking clarity, and then, halfway through, the song leaves the earth and lifts off into space. Incredible.
The more I listened to Topdown Dialectic’s self-titled album, the more I liked it. Some electronic music doesn’t give you much to hold on to, but this album has great melodies and rhythm and fascinating soundwork. It’s both expressive and restrained.
“Mood” is an insanely good song–I think I could listen to the outro to this track for an hour or two and not get tired of it. “Hive Mind” is an amazing album and includes what is probably my favorite musical moment of the year in “Come Over,” when Syd cues a scything guitar solo from Steve Lacy with a sweet, casually whispered, “Steve…”
This is a beautiful song about naked, wild yearning, sung beautifully. It all builds from slow, tender strums and whispered declarations into crashing electric turbulence. “Need you/want you.” What a simple phrase to express a humble and real truth. Sometimes you need someone so badly, it feels as if you’re about to burst right out of your own body—this song effectively renders that feeling in musical form.
“Alle Sauvage” is a car chase on a quantum level, through different dimensions. “>>>” feels like BEAK>’s most accessible and open album, ending with a song that is, for them, surprisingly tender and pretty, “When We Fall.” Every time a new BEAK> album comes out, I lament the fact that Geoff Barrow isn’t working feverishly on new Portishead music, but it’s hard to be disappointed when he’s making music like this.
All of Autechre’s “NTS Sessions” are on streaming services, so you can listen to the whole thing online through the service of your choice. I don’t think I’d heard much Autechre before I listened to the sessions when they were first streaming through NTS Radio, but I was captivated by it all, the breadth and depth of it, some of it just unparseable to my ears, but all of it fascinating. “All End” is the last track and it is mammoth: an hour-long ocean of static, shifting in tides and waves.
“Konoyo” is a striking and gorgeous album and seems far away from what Hecker has done previously. It’s filled with new and alien sounds, though there’s a moment in the middle of “Across to Anoyo” that sounds familiar: a guitar riff emerges that (I swear) seems like an allusion to a Godspeed You! Black Emperor riff; like a slantwise rhyme or half-rhyme to that riff.
Belle and Sebastian – How to Solve Our Human Problems (Parts 1-3)
Not their best, but better (I thought) than “Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance.” Lots of good songs, a couple great ones, including “Everything Is Now (Part Two),” included here thanks only to this enterprising mash-up of the song with footage from “The Royal Tenebaums.”
I listened to “WARM” a whole lot last month. Jeff Tweedy’s first real solo album is better and more listenable by far than the last couple Wilco albums, and there are some songs on “WARM” that rank up there with his best. “How Hard It Is for a Desert to Die” is one of those; it starts with the heartbreaking line “I hear your laugh/in my laughter,” a reflection on his father’s continuing presence after his death.
I have a half-remembered line in my head from someone’s critique of Jonathan Ames, which I think he himself referenced somewhere: “For once, Jonathan, try writing with both fists.” “Sparkle Hard,” more so than other recent Jicks albums, feels like Stephen Malkmus writing with both fists–there’s a lot of urgency and energy in these songs, and they’re better for that. I think “Middle America,” “Solid Silk,” “Bike Lane,” and “Difficulties – Let Them Eat Vowels” are all late-career highlights.
I don’t know how Earl Sweatshirt is able to make music that so effectively feels both tossed-off and deeply considered, but he does it. This album seems so casual at first listen, like it’s coming together as you listen to it, but over the course of five or six more listens, you hear how weird and strange the music is, and how many ideas Earl packs into each brief track. It’s a feat.
Another incredible release from Wah Wah Wino, the Irish label responsible for last year’s astounding “Short Passing Game,” by Davy Kehoe. WINO-D feels wilder than Kehoe’s work, flightier and less focused, but just as entertaining and mysterious.
New Art Brut! The first one since 2011’s “Brilliant! Tragic!,” and “Wham! Bang! Pow! Let’s Rock Out!” feels like the product of a band that has been reinvigorated. Extreme energy on this album from the very first track, “Hooray!,” which sounds like Los Campesinos filtered through the Art Brut aesthetic (I’d never before considered the relationship between the two bands, but both Eddie Argos and Gareth David have a similar lyrical sensibility). The whole album has that background vibe of enjoyable collaborative creation: like everyone involved in the record reveled in the act of making music together. And there are some stone-cold classics on this album that could sit next to other Art Brut all-timers: “She Kissed Me (And It Felt Like a Hit)” inverts The Crystals’ “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)” to compare new love to the power of a ‘song of the summer’ pop song, with Argos closing out the track with a group chant of “Number one/all summer long!”. “Veronica Falls” is a beautiful, slightly gentler Art Brut song, about not cheating on one’s girlfriend, that sounds like a late 90s Britpop tune (something about the guitars make me think of a “Bends”-era Radiohead B-side). And the title track is one of Art Brut’s best in a long time, a distillation of their whole vision set to incandescent guitars: “There’s a fire in my soul/I can’t put it out” Argos declares after the group sings “Wham! Bang! Pow! Let’s rock out!” Staying out late, partying, meeting new people, an earnest belief in the power of music: these are the things that matter for them. It’s a fun album.
Black Belt Eagle Scout played in Tacoma, Washington, over the weekend, at an all-ages venue called Real Art Tacoma. Right before Black Belt Eagle Scout went on, a local band (of high schoolers, maybe?) called Cat Puke played and they were legitimately very good; we heard maybe 3 or 4 songs of theirs, all of which were sort of melodic post-punk, catchy/great vibes. Since it was an all-ages venue, the crowd was pretty age diverse, which was great to see and reminded me of how much I used to love going to see shows at the First Unitarian Church in Philly (also an all-ages venue). The audience was feeling Cat Puke, but they were all very psyched to see Black Belt Eagle Scout (scores of teenagers crowded close to the stage when the band started to set up).
The band is Katherine Paul, but for the tour she was playing with a bass player (Gillian Frances) and a drummer (whose name I didn’t catch), both of whom were great, and they played most of the songs from “Mother of My Children” plus one other. It was all incredible. Paul is an insane guitarist and she stretched out the guitar parts of a few songs, like “Soft Stud,” “Indians Never Die,” and especially on “Sam, A Dream,” which was totally wild and kinetic. The recorded versions of the songs on “Mother of My Children” are already thrilling, but it was so invigorating and inspiring to see the band play these with such energy and invention. Go see them on tour if you get the chance.
“Robotronic” is a humongous song, threatening, wild, and furious, but it starts off mostly quiet. The song comes together from disparate pieces, with a long intro that features a two-note guitar pulse, an intermittent second-guitar ping, and Jerry Fuchs’s seemingly random outbursts on the drums. I love songs like this, songs that seem like they’re building themselves from small, discrete components. Two minutes in, a distorted guitar line announces a change of form and Fuchs starts pounding out a more regular rhythm. And in the next minute, another transformation: topology as sound. Turing Machine, and especially on their first album, “A New Machine for Living,” are probably the only band I’ve heard who actually sound like math rock, like the band sat down and wrote their songs less from meandering jams or notation but from legitimate calculus. A lot of that has to do with Fuchs’s drumming, which is inventive and hyperkinetic (the kind of drumming that makes you want to air-drum no matter where you are, the kind of drumming that makes you think you could run forever or tear a phone book in half, etc.). There’s really nothing else like this album out there—18 years old and it still sounds fresh.
Anna St. Louis’s “If Only There Was a River” feels like it could have come out sometime between “Niño Rojo” and “Ys.” It’s a gorgeous album, full of well-written songs whose constituent parts are mainly voice and guitar (and occasional strings), and in that way it’s got a vibe like a Smog or Bonnie Prince Billy record. St. Louis has a fascinating voice, like a country singer crossed with an old-style crooner, and it’s that charismatic voice that makes the record as compelling as it is. She sings about love, wanting, understanding, and counterfactuals (i.e. on the last song on the album, “River,” she sings “If only there were a river,” in an interesting grammatical change from the title of the album—this suggests that wherever she’s singing this line is definitively arid and there’s not even a remote possibility that a river might emerge, as opposed to the title of the album, which suggests that a river is possible). She also incorporates natural imagery throughout her songs, singing about water (on “Water” and “River”), wind (“I lean into the wind/and drown” on “Wind”), and big skies.
On “Desert,” especially, she creates a kind of Western vignette out of this natural imagery. Someone has been left to eke out a living in the desert while waiting for a beloved to return, all while observing the actions that take place out there: “nobody knows/nobody sees…that the back roads seem kind of wild/that the dust blowing around for miles/the pilgrims are hoping to find/their rivers had not run dry.” Resigned to isolation and abandonment, she sings, accompanied by lightly distorted guitar and strings, that “nobody sees/this deserted maze that is wrapped around me/and the fire went out/honey/long ago/But still I pretend that you’re coming home.” A beautiful song about a bizarre relationship.
“Certainty Waves” is the Dodos’ new album and it’s wonderful. I did not expect a new album from the Dodos, especially not after Meric Long’s solo debut, “Barton’s Den,” as FAN (understated & great), but that solo album actually plays a pretty big part in “Certainty Waves,” which exhibits much more diverse soundcraft and instrumentation than some of the band’s previous albums. Synths were a big part of “Barton’s Den” and feature in a number of the songs on “Certainty Waves,” either undisguised or as inspiration for other sounds (Long mentioned that the guitar tone on the latter part of “Center Of” is modeled on the sound of a distorted synth), and it gives the band a lot more versatility.
The pleasures that come with every Dodos album are here, of course: the astounding and kind of insane percussion work of Logan Kroeber; Long’s gentle but assured singing; the coiled energy that both Long and Kroeber display; the melodies that shift and slide in playful and unexpected ways. And while the last few Dodos records have felt a little elegiac to me, “Certainty Waves” has an even stronger vibe of resignation and valediction.
“Coughing” is one of my favorite songs on this album, though “Center of,” “Excess,” “Ono Fashion,” and “Sort of” are also remarkable. “Coughing” starts as a beat-heavy groove, and then a more expressive guitar comes in. The song is mostly Long leveling criticisms at someone: “Not like you to/give a shit anyway/always coughing/always coughing.” And then the song changes and dissolves near its end, into quiet cymbals and finger-picked guitar, with Long singing, almost apologetically, “How can I ever ask you to be/more than I need/How can I ever/expect you to be/more than I am.”
New Jay Som, in collaboration with Justus Proffit. Melina Duterte’s lovely vocals are the driving force and focus of “Tunnel Vision,” the third song on the “Nothing’s Changed” EP. It’s a quiet, subdued song at first, Duterte whispers “You were clean/you were calm/standing in the doorway/singing afterthoughts,” with a simple guitar figure repeating alongside her voice. A minute in, the song opens up for a moment: percussion, another guitar, and Justus Proffit’s voice echoing Duterte’s. But the voices recede, and the last two minutes of the song are composed of commanding bass notes, shifting and fluttering percussion, heavy keys. Where Jay Som’s “Pirouette” lifted off into space, “Tunnel Vision” has a different trajectory, drilling downward, inward.
Guerilla Toss’s “Twisted Crystal” is a fun and confounding album. The band’s music is inventive and vibrant, with a bright-color palette and wild, abrasive melodies. These songs are at once lovable and slightly irritating, which I love; the melodies live in the interstice between great pop songs and unrelenting commercial jingles (see “Magic Is Easy” for a good example of this, it’s catchy but it also has an edge, a little wobble, something that’s off. Same with “Hacking Machine,” where Kassie Carlson sings “I think it’s sick/what do I know/computer worm or/a vi-a-rus” in such a way that those lyrics will stay in your brain until you die). “Twisted Crystal” is busy, cartoonish, lit-up—it’s got excess, filigree, ideas packed into every second, bursting with creativity. The album sticks with you, the songs stick with you.
“Green Apple” is a beautiful song that takes the form of a tornado, picking up new sounds every few seconds, whirling, advancing and retreating, leaving the earth, touching back down, then dissipating.
Do you like pensive, autumnal piano music? Do you like the look of wet pavement illuminated by streetlights? Are you a connoisseur of gray skies? Do you know your trees? Your elms and larches and conifers? Do you find the sight of a good moon stirring? Did you, as a child or in adulthood, rake leaves from a yard? Do you read through old emails and letters? If offered a cup of hot cider by a friend, would you drink it immediately or blow on the surface a few times before taking your first sip?
“Return,” by Dmitry Evgrafov, is an EP of compelling compositions, mostly piano, with some doctoring here and there. It’s a good fit for the fall, brisk and beautiful.