2018

Best of 2018: I Sing for You, Dear

1. “I Feel Energy”–Dirty Projectors, feat. Amber Mark (Lamp Lit Prose)
2. “Yere faga”–Oumou Sangare, feat. Tony Allen (Mogoya)
3. “October in New York”–Steve Perry (Traces)
4. “Movin’ On”–Paul Weller (True Meanings)
5. “The Ultracheese”–Arctic Monkeys (Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino)
6. “Count It Up”–Field Music (Open Here)
7. “Julus”–Shye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood, and the Rajasthan Express (Junun)
8. “Summertime Magic”–Childish Gambino (single)
9. “Marijuanaut’s Theme”–Sleep (The Sciences)
10. “Scorpio Rising”–Soccer Mommy (Clean)
11. “Americans”–Janelle Monae (Dirty Computer)
12. “Smoke”–Tracey Thorn (Record)
13. “Duality”–Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band (Body and Shadow)
14. “Made for Now”–Janet Jackson, feat. Daddy Yankee (single)

“I Feel Energy”–Dirty Projectors, feat. Amber Mark
I have a weird suspicion that Dave Longstreth is probably a scent nerd. (Perfume being the thing besides music that I spend the most money on and that occupies a similarly sized chunk of real estate in my brain.) In the song “See What She Seeing” from 2012’s Swing Lo Magellan, he sings about orchids and bergamot, and in this song we get raptures about “lingering perfume in the midsummer night.” I have absolutely nothing more than these bread crumbs to base that suspicion on! But it’s so rare for there to be explicit crossover between scent art and other creative media that, even if it’s baseless speculation, it just makes me happy to even contemplate.

Plus, of course, this song bangs! This whole 2018 mix is sort of secretly about Janet Jackson (more on which later), and I love that Longstreth here manages a successful homage to her ’80s production style without making it sound pastiche-y, while still also incontrovertibly sounding like the Dirty Projectors.

“Yere faga”–Oumou Sangare, feat. Tony Allen
I’ve always loved the promise of the internet, even though it’s so rarely fulfilled. The idea of having instant access to an infinite variety of knowledge and information and connection to other people around the world is too often now steamrollered over by literal propaganda, the same handful of hot takes espoused by an interchangeable cadre of professional opinion-havers, and of course the constant drumbeat of banal revelation courtesy of whatever loose acquaintance posts most often in one’s own social media window.

That being said, sometimes the idealized promise of the internet can still be realized. The trail of magic that led me to this song is one such instance. Scoping out the Instagram Stories of one of my favorite contemporary rock producers, Tucker Martine, I noticed him talking up the greatness of Oumou Sangare’s album Mogoya. Sangare, I discovered, is a Grammy Award-winning Malian Wassoulou musician, and after seeing Martine’s rec, I clicked over to iTunes to sample a few of her songs. I immediately got hooked on her sound and downloaded the whole album. (This all took maybe 10 minutes.) Bonus points here, of course, for drum work from the legendary Tony Allen. It’s like Questlove reverently enthuses in the Finding Fela documentary: “Tony Allen had, just, the discipline of a Navy Seal.”

“October in New York”–Steve Perry
After spending such a large portion of my 20s obsessed with all things indie rock, chasing the obscure and the abrasive, leaning into music that I likely would have been otherwise horrified by just to find a kernel of something unique or interesting that my ear could latch onto, it was a relief to allow myself in my 30s to be re-enchanted by the obvious goodness of music that was just obviously good. I’m sure a large part of this also had to do with the fact that I was simultaneously re-engaging with the part of myself that was a performer, getting back into a mindframe of analyzing what makes for a genuinely appealing front man/front woman. And just realizing, holy shit, yes, people respond to good singers because they are good singers, nothing too mysterious about it. And one of the prime examples was Steve Perry.

Perry and Journey were in the ether during my childhood in the ’80s, of course, thanks to their near-constant stream of ubiquitous radio hits, but I hadn’t ever thought much about him one way or another until Brian gave me a burned CD full of their music. As soon as I heard some of those songs with my newly reopened, genuinely curious ears, it didn’t take me long to realize that he’s one of the best singers of our time.

So much of it is the joy. You listen to Steve Perry in the very early ’80s just CRANKING and you’re hearing the sound of someone realizing, “holy shit, listen to what I can do,” like those scenes in a superhero movie when the protagonist is first exploring the full extent of their superpowers, just hotdogging for the sake of how fucking good it feels. I used to describe the effect of a really good singer on me by musing, “imagine just being able to open your mouth and have THAT SOUND come out of it.” And the endlessly charming thing about Perry is that you can kind of tell he was thinking that exact same thing ABOUT HIMSELF, in a totally non-egotistical way. Unlike, say, the pained seriousness of Thom Yorke or even the sense of duty that always seems part of Bjork’s imperative to sing, here was a guy that you could tell just LOVED music and in some ways couldn’t believe that he was blessed with the instrument that allowed him access to its most vaunted chambers.

And then, of course, he disappeared. He’d left the band nearly at the height of its success, and “Don’t Stop Believin’” had its weird late-period semi-ironic resurgence, and Perry was like some kind of stadium-rock JD Salinger, alive but elusive.

Unbeknownst to the public, he was also experiencing a short, tragic romance with a woman who died not long after they met. She was apparently the person who told him, not long before she knew she would pass, that he should get back out and start singing professionally again, and this relationship haunts his latest solo album Traces.

For obvious reasons, I am acutely sensitive to male grief, and this song especially is so exquisitely mournful, it’s almost painful to listen to it, knowing the backstory and context. (And it’s not even an official album cut! It’s a fucking BONUS TRACK from the edition exclusively sold at Target, for fuck’s sake!) I titled this year’s entire mix after a simple, heartbreaking lyric from this song. “I sing for you, dear” is more than a promise made to his beloved that he would rejoin the current of his mainstream career; it also hits me as the private use of a public talent. The idea that STEVE PERRY, with all of his joy and the cumulative weight of his life as a singer, is singing directly to one person, exclusively, the rest of the world be damned, is almost too beautiful for my heart to handle. What a gift.

“Movin’ On”–Paul Weller
I would be remiss if I did not immediately mention that Brian and I respect and admire Paul Weller’s musicianship so much that the only way we can deal with it is to turn him into a constant punchline, to make fun of him mercilessly. Specifically his haircut. That haircut! Jesus Christ. What kind of silky over-dyed aging rock star Afghan hound cosplay is that? Why does he just persist with it? Why hasn’t anyone ever convinced him to clean it up into something a bit more dignified and respectable?

All of which is our way of expressing, in the secret dialect that all couples develop in their little society of two, that we think about Paul Weller a lot. He’s a bedrock benchmark for consistent, unpretentious musical excellence for us. It all began before we’d even started dating, when we were first just playing music together and Brian pressed a copy of the solo Weller album As Is Now into my hands. It was my first official introduction to Weller’s music, and it made my brain melt, made me wonder how I’d never managed to listen to him before. (Especially given that his earlier band The Style Council had featured Tracey Thorn, one of my all-time forever faves, on vocals on their song “The Paris Match.”) The video for his tune “Blink and You’ll Miss It” is one of those things that’s just constantly rattling around in the back of my imagination, a three-minute masterclass of lightly held skill comfortable in its own soulful fluidity without backing off too far into the complacence of self-satisfaction.

Which is certainly not meant to sound like I love everything he does. He’s as capable of missteps as the next late-middle-aged English rocker. It’s hard to maintain consistent quality given how relatively prolific he is. All that punchy blue-eyed-soul-infused Britrock can get a bit samey after a while, no matter how well done it is. Which made his 2018 solo album True Meanings such a glorious surprise.

Orchestral without going the full Nick Drake, delicate and reflective without getting soppy or somehow removed from the essence of his own sensibility, it’s a beautifully emotive late-night kind of album that plays through a variety of modes and styles while maintaining a core emotional frequency of pensive consideration. “Movin’ On” comes late in the track listing and jumps out of the line-up thanks to the cumulative effect of everything that led up to it. In a recent interview in Mojo magazine, he talks about how he feels like he finally, truly learned how to sing on this album. What a statement! Although I would vehemently disagree with that, I get what he means. You can hear that he’s found a way to take that signature Angry Young Man muscularity in his voice and use it to inform a sort of wizened Divine Masculine truth-telling.

“The Ultracheese”–Arctic Monkeys
I kind of loved putting this Arctic Monkeys track on right after the Weller, because it exemplifies that great Bill Murray quote:

Well, it’s like if someone plays an instrument, say, a guitar. A young player can play it, and if he wants to play a high note, or a fast rhythm, it has a certain [makes twangy noise] desperate quality to it. But when you get a really sophisticated player playing those notes, he can play those same notes in a tempo where there’s space in between. You can see that there’s actually a process where his interior state is so quick, that he can find time other people can’t find. A young player can go [makes clumsy blip sounds], whereas a real player can go [makes smooth blip sounds]. You can notice the difference, and it’s like with that fast pace of Wes’s movies. If you’re real quiet, your whole body will be quiet, and there’ll be echo, and resonance. It’s like your head, or your chest, is a guitar box.

Alex Turner is one of my favorite singers, full stop, but I am also curious to hear what he’s gonna eventually sound like when he learns to relax into the simple beauty of his instrument a little more.

In the meantime, though, I’m happy to listen to him as he indulges in silly jokes and oversinging in the guise of taking on a character within the narrative of the song. The 2001: A Space Odyssey-inspired conceit of this album couldn’t be more uninteresting to me (despite my great love for the film), but I appreciate that he’s swinging for the fences. Sure, even with the occasionally clever lyrics (I’m putting “What a death I died writing that song / Start to finish, with you looking on / It stays between us, Steinway, and his sons / ‘Cause it’s the ultracheese” on my personal shortlist of the best of the year), most of the album is also dull and lacking in melody, but that only makes “The Ultracheese” stand out all the more. He really gets to cranking, vocally, here in a way that he doesn’t quite do on the whole rest of the album, which also seems to bring out the best in the rest of the band to boot. The instrumentation is truly just as witty as the storytelling.

“Count It Up”–Field Music
Field Music is one of those bands that I’ve loved for probably about ten years now (since Tones of Town came out in 2007), yet I don’t know anyone else who’s ever heard of them, much less would call themselves a fan (outside a few remaining music bloggers, I guess). This is less a humblebrag about my obscure taste than it is genuine curiosity about how they’ve continued to survive as a band and release new music so frequently. I just put them on my 2016 mix with “The Noisy Days Are Over,” and yet here they are again already. Like any other relatively prolific act, I don’t love everything they put out, of course. But they get enough right, often enough, that I’m happy to keep coming back to them, especially when they come up with bangers like this. A banger about privilege that never explicitly uses the word! I never realized how ready I was for smart, danceable political music that gently but deliberately confronts whiteness from within. (Which is to say, FUCK YOU, IDLES, YOU’RE SOOOO BORING.)

“Julus”–Shye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood, and the Rajasthan Express
I feel strongly that Paul Thomas Anderson only really came into his own as an artist with There Will Be Blood, a stance I know is heretical to those who remain devoted to Boogie Nights, a film that I admire for its youthful, um, vigor and technical virtuosity but which has always otherwise left me cold. But after Blood, and especially The Master, I’ve become fanatical about seeing everything he does, on the big screen if at all possible. I’d missed the Music Box’s occasional screenings of his music documentary Junun previously for one reason or another, so I knew I finally needed to make a point to see it this summer when I had the chance.

It was showing the week of the Fourth of July, a time of year I’ve always loved for its hedonic indulgence. I’ve emphatically never associated the holiday with patriotism in the slightest, but instead always loved how sweaty and sexy and recklessly irresponsible everything becomes, a time when my inner dirtbag is happiest to come out and play. The sunset that evening was a vivid candy colored pink, the air so perfectly soft and gorgeous that I took a long walk to the theater from the train, rather than transferring to a different line that would have dropped me off a bit closer. You might say I was primed for ecstatic liftoff before the lights in the theater even went down.

The documentary brilliantly starts in relative silence, panning the circle of musicians seated on the floor, as they wait for the signal that recording has commenced. “Julus” is the song they eventually explode into, and it functions less as a thrown gauntlet and more as a mission statement.

The film is one of the most accurate depictions I think I’ve ever seen of what it’s like to record an album. Most films, be they fictional or documentary, usually either make it look disproportionately glamorous or focus too much on interpersonal drama to the extent that it makes one wonder how any music ever gets made at all. But Junun beautifully balances the boredom of the process with its occasional moments of transcendence. The weird inside jokes, the hassles unique to the room you’re confined to, the sense that you’re simultaneously racing against the clock yet also somehow operating outside time—PTA nails it all without resorting to the tedium of cutting in talking-head interviews. (Meaning, this is basically what Bring On the Night could have been, had Michael Apted spared us the wanky ponderousness of Sting contemplating his own genius and just cut together all the rehearsal and performance footage.)

“Summertime Magic”–Childish Gambino
I’ve been known to refer to Donald Glover as the Actual Most Charming Man Alive. The Star Wars spinoff Solo in which he appears as young Lando is deeply forgettable for everything but his smoothness. I used to have a strange magical ability to get my favorite artists to collaborate with each other (like the time Ben Folds took Neil Hannon out on tour as his opening act and even covered the Divine Comedy’s “Songs of Love” on his 2003 EP Sunny 16), and my current not-so-secret desire is for Glover to appear on Carpool Karaoke with the OTHER most charming man alive, James Corden. Will the universe sort of fold back on itself with a contented sigh of delight? I can’t wait to find out.

“Marijuanaut’s Theme”–Sleep
How pure is this?!

I cannot even express to you how much the simple brilliance of this band delights me. They are so completely committed to the lunacy of their stoner-rock cosmology that it winds around from idiotic to brilliant almost, but not quite, all the way back around to idiotic again.

Late this summer, Brian and I had tickets to see My Bloody Valentine at the Riv in Chicago. We’d just flown home from L.A. early that very morning, yet we scraped ourselves together for the late-night show. Brian cut his teeth as a musician playing in shoegaze bands in college, and that sonic vocabulary will just always be part of the way that he plays. He’d never seen MBV back in the day, and their more recent reunion tours had eluded both of us for one reason or another, so we knew it was finally time to make it happen. And the show was . . . fine. The theater was packed full of fans ready to genuflect at Kevin Shield’s feet. Almost too ready, too worshipful. The light show projections on stage behind them were cool, and their amps were certainly cranked loud, but the general expectations in the air were just so high that there was no way that anything that happened on that stage was ever going to meet them. We were never going to wind up back in 1992, you know?

About a week later, we returned to the Riv to see Sleep, and it was everything I’d wanted the MBV show to be and more. Because whereas MBV will always be associated with a certain art-student thinkiness, Sleep is just balls-out DUMB and PROUD OF IT and therefore GENIUS. It’s like Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs says in Almost Famous: “Give me the Guess Who. Come on. They’ve got the courage to be drunken buffoons, which makes them poetic!” Brian and I tend to watch a lot of behind-the-scenes guitar gear videos online, and one of our all-time favorites is Sleep guitarist Matt Pike completely taking the piss out of the usual self-serious wankiness of the genre with his bro-magnon loutish good humor. I expend a lot of mental energy in my life trying to make sure I present myself as sufficiently cool and smart and put-together, so it’s just a joy to see someone not even attempting to project rock-star cool in the way we think of, I dunno, Mick Jagger in his prime, but instead presenting as a dodgy, D&D-playing stoner who legitimately is having too much fun being himself alive in the world to change anything about it for public approval. And unlike Wayne Coyne, who I would listen to give interviews all day long, even though I never, ever, ever want to listen to the Flaming Lips’ music ever again, Pike somehow finds a way to effectively translate his sensibility, in an endlessly appealing way, back into his music.

I’ve lamented for years that I would actually listen to way more metal if it weren’t for the unfortunate proliferation of Cookie Monster vocals within the genre, which I just find aesthetically offensive as both a listener and a singer myself. But the intelligibility of Sleep bassist Al Cisneros’s voice, in the small segments of sung vocals throughout, give the songs just enough variety for the ear to cling to while also setting into relief the extremely satisfying, hypnotic repetition of any given song’s core riffs. Plus, have I mentioned the genius of the Lord of the Rings-style adventure songs completely built around marijuana references, terminology, and puns? What’s not to love?!

“Scorpio Rising”–Soccer Mommy
Given the fact that Sophie Allison’s (official) debut album Clean basically sounds like late ’90s Elliott Smith crossed with early 2000s Death Cab for Cutie, I LOVE how much her band name Soccer Mommy seems calculated to annoy at best and alienate at worst the very kind of music bro who would otherwise probably be writing paeans about these songs. I also always hear a sonic reference to Ani DiFranco’s “Untouchable Face” in that wonderfully fat tremolo effect that comes in around 2:29, completing a weird sort of personal post-grunge indie rock holy trinity for me that I’m SO ready to hear revived more widely. For a long time, my standard joke was always that I thought I hated contemporary music when it turns out I just came of age in the mid ’90s and didn’t realize how bad most of the stuff on the radio actually was. But after a blip in the 2000s of avidly keeping up with new music, it turns out maybe stuff on the radio just always IS bad and I DO in fact hate most contemporary music? All of which is to say, I’m hungry for all the post-Arcade Fire dudes-in-suspenders acoustic white boy hoedown hollerin’ to definitively fall out of fashion, and if this specific sonic palette revived by smart young women armed with electric guitars and lacerating self-awareness floods in to supplant it, so much the better.

“Americans”–Janelle Monae
Dirty Computer is the first album of Janelle Monae’s that I’ve been a fan of 100%. I’ve long respected her as an artist and have been a fan of individual songs (“Tightrope” was on my Best of 2010 mix, after all) without ever feeling like I could really connect to her work. I’m sure a large part of that is just the fact of my whiteness; her art is not for me in many ways. But there was always this sense of distance in her previous output. It was smart and accomplished and dazzling but . . . cold? Cold is too harsh a word. It was impressive in the sense of needing to impress in order to distract us from something else that she didn’t want us to see. Now that she’s become more outspoken about her sexuality, and thus her politics, it seems like that may have indeed been the thing she was hesitant to share with her audience. Who can blame her really, but her new willingness to Go There seems to have yielded this powerhouse of an artistic statement. Dirty Computer is raucous and joyous and angry and indeed dirty so, so, so much fun, such a perfect album for this current moment.

And though there are a good handful of other songs from the album I could easily have isolated for inclusion on this year-end mix, there was never any way it wasn’t going to be “Americans,” a song that makes me cry literally every time I listen to it. To be frank, those tears actually have less to do with Monae’s musical performance, grand and showstopping though it may be, and more to do with the spoken word sample of the preacher in the song’s final minutes assuring us that “the devil is a liar,” that American will heal its sins of inequity before all is said and done. Is America itself the dirty computer of which she sings? Endlessly spitting out bad code stemming from bad programming at the front end? I have never been more ready for a tiny queer black lady to reboot the whole motherfucker.

“Smoke”–Tracey Thorn
Earlier this summer, blogger, podcaster, and author Gordon White ran an online course on Magical Geography for the “premium members” on the subscription model for his website Rune Soup. He grew up in Australia, lived in London for a chunk of his career, and is currently setting up a farm in Tasmania, so his perspective on what could broadly be called spirits of place is incredibly rich, nuanced, and dense. Firmly committed to both a re-enchanting of the Western materialist world and a reclamation of Animism as the best model for describing reality, he encourages rigorous “thinking with” rather than “thinking about” when it comes to approaching the non-human and more-than-human. There’s no way I can provide an adequate thumbnail here of his cogent, compassionate, and rigorous worldview beyond saying that his frightening intellect has influenced my own thinking on these subjects profoundly. But all of this eventually came to bear on the way I was hearing Tracey Thorn’s stunning new song “Smoke.”

It was already a stand-out track for me on her latest solo album Record, but listening to the way she connects her own personal past with London’s messy history and problematic future in the context of a more “haunted” sense of place was deeply moving to me. My own connection to London is practically non-existent by comparison, but a very real part of my heart will always long for it nonetheless. Yet hearing its shittiest aspects, its economic injustices and xenophobic tendencies, characterized with such care and concern doesn’t so much discourage me out of my romanticized view of the place as much as it reminds me that, of course, Tracey Thorn’s music has always connected me to my own home(s) more than anything else. Everything but the Girl’s Amplified Heart is the sound of dark, autumnal, suburban backroads of Northwest Indiana. Temperamental is the sound of cinderblock dorm rooms, clammy library carrels, and midnight milkshakes in Bloomington, Indiana. And now Record has come to define for me long rides on the green line and sweaty evenings at the gym in Chicago. How fitting that she’s helped me re-enchant my personal physical landscape through her searing honesty about her own.

“Duality”–Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band
I love Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band so much that I have been known to declare, variously, that they are the ONLY jazz band, that Brian Blade is the ONLY drummer. I saw them live for the first time back in 2013 and felt my heart healed in a heretical confirmation that dared not speak its name–that most jazz music is, in fact, not very good.

I kid! (But only barely.)

Yes, your favorite stuff from the 1920s through the 1960s is safe. It’s all good; don’t worry, I’m not coming for your Mingus. But contemporary jazz is very . . . skillful, and extremely boring for it.

Part of it really is just time. The Fellowship Band has been playing together for over 20 years now. Jazz combos that don’t know each other that intimately can have a real spaghetti-thrown-at-the-wall quality about them, not for lack of individual players’ talents. It’s quite simply very hard, in our hyper-adrenalized capitalistic way of life, for a collection of players to have enough time to relax into each other’s strengths, weaknesses, proclivities, and mannerisms in order to not only bring out the best in each other, musically, but to bring forth that nth thing, that thing that can only exist in the unity of that particular combination of human beings. It’s only natural, as an individual player, to want to leave everything on the floor, and thus overplay, if you’re not sure the other musicians are going to pick up your slack or if you’re not sure you’re ever going to have the chance to play together ever again. Which is why so many groups full of otherwise talented players can come off sounding so chaotic, so frenetic; everybody’s worried that maybe this is the last chance they’ll be able to afford the time and the money to be together in this particular configuration, so they’re throwing in All the Notes. With the promise of continuity, though, it becomes possible to leave ego behind, to dial it back a bit. If there’s another gig, another album, another song on the horizon, a player can rest assured that their time in the sun will come eventually, that they don’t need to showboat for fear of sounding timid or unskilled.

To be fair, the way that most contemporary jazz albums are recorded can also contribute negatively to the way they’re received. Stuff that probably sounds mind-blowing live can come off as mannered and dull on CD or MP3. Not even this track “Duality” is wholly immune–there’s a certain sparkle here that becomes especially apparent in the piano solo, a polite cocktail music clarity that inevitably reads as harmless or rote, no matter how great the playing may actually be.

But, for all that, let me assure you that this is BEYOND THE BEYOND. There is no group doing anything near this quality right now. Individual players, maybe, sure (come to Chicago and tell guitarist John Moulder or saxophonist John Wojciechowski that they’re not on this level and, well, you’d be flat-out wrong). But as a cohesive unit? They’re the only game in town.

The intelligence, the restraint, the variety, the internal conversation, the conviction, the wit. It’s almost impossible to quantify how vastly they’ve exceeded nearly every metric one might judge them on. Every time I see this band play live, I marvel at the internal architecture in the choice of band members. They’re covering every possible base with a minimum of effort, for maximum effect on your brain, heart, and ears. The dynamic is most obvious with the horn players–Melvin Butler on tenor is thoughtful, abstract, visionary. Myron Walden, on alto, is all heart, all feeling, all coming from his fourth chakra.

The Fellowship Band’s 2017 album Body and Shadow is only nine tracks long, and it’s unbelievably spare. Only three of the nine even break the four-minute mark, time-wise; the remaining six top out at three minutes and nine seconds. This is not the road map of an album that anyone would make early in a career! But, it’s exactly what gives the eight minute, twenty-one second run time of “Duality,” track seven at the heart of the album, its incredible, even shocking punch in context. It’s a remarkable song in and of itself, but after such a mellow, restrained, practically sun-dappled series of sonic vignettes, and it comes across like a mainline injection of Jazz with a capital J with in all of its ferocity, unpredictability, grandeur, and emotional intelligence.

Walden plays the sax solo here. When we saw the band live for the third time, in 2016, he actually made me cry with one note. I know now that it’s that F# he leans into in this very song, around 3:30. And that’s before he even gets into the meat of the improvised solo. I’ve gotten very bored in recent years with the old sax trick of overblowing to signal emotional intensity. It’s, like, the only thing that Donny McCaslin’s got going for him, god bless, and I just find it an incredibly cheap cheat that’s seemingly trying to make your ears go, “….maybe this is Coltrane???” in the most transparent way possible. So I’m deeply suspicious of any skronks and honks that aren’t genuinely earned, but hoooooly shit, Walden earns them all here. He’s truly one of the most emotionally powerful musicians I can think of, and I have a feeling I’m going to be returning to the nourishment of this solo for a long time to come.

“Made for Now”–Janet Jackson, feat. Daddy Yankee
This was super, super unfair of me, but after the first time I listened to “Made for Now” with headphones on, it made me immediately think, “wow, there’s, like, NOTHING, going on, production-wise, in Childish Gambino’s ‘Summertime Magic’ that can hold a candle to this.” “Summertime Magic” is obviously a great song! Enough so that I’ve enshrined it on this very year-end best-of mix! And just because it’s broadly poppy/dancey/groovy doesn’t mean it has to hew to any kind of specific audio template or reference points! My knee-jerk reaction was less a criticism of that song and more a way of confirming for my own ears just how superlative Janet has been, consistently, for the past 30 years.

I’d loved her 2015 solo album Unbreakable a lot, but somehow this one damn song did the most heavy lifting for me in terms of making me realize just how lucky we are, collectively, to be living through a time when she’s actively recording and releasing new music. Her songs hit the ear so smoothly that it’s easy to ignore how magnificently layered and constructed they are. “I think she may be the greatest recording artist of the last quarter century,” Brian said to me one night after we’d been on a deep dive into her back catalog. “Even greater than her brother.” I assented that there is an extremely good argument to be made for that case. (In case you were wondering, this is a perfect encapsulation of what conversations between a Sagittarius and an Aquarius sound like. Fiery enthusiasm met with distanced hesitation to confirm or deny anything.)

Beyond the sonic excellence here, too, though, is the not inconsiderable matter of how moving I find the lyric. While “made for now” can certainly function as a kind of seize-the-day encouragement to get out and have a good time, I can’t help but hear it more philosophically. In a time of such considerable political and social bullshittery, hearing an African American woman asserting that we’re MADE FOR NOW–not an idealized past, nor a distant, hypothetical future–is an incredibly profound reminder that the communities she’s speaking for and to are specifically capable of not just responding to the critical needs of this era but in dancing, celebrating, and thriving through it, too.