I had to recant my stubborn snobbishness earlier this year, though, when Brian and I stumbled upon the video for their song “Sports” and realized that it’s amazing. The combination of the song and video were the key to me unlocking their appeal–I’m honestly not sure if I’d heard the song on its own if it would have had the same effect on me. But something about the deadpan stupidity of the whole package activated the deep, dark place in my heart where my affinity for general dirtbaggery lives. I remain unconvinced that there was a greater lyric written in the past year than “baseball / basketball / wiener dog / short shorts.” (I can’t even type it out without laughing. The unexpected turn at “wiener dog”! Brilliance.)
As we were listening to it the first few times, I said to Brian, “oh, so they’re doing a Stooges thing here, incorporating the saxophone into a punk rock sound?” We listened a few seconds more, and Brian countered, “or is it more an extension of Huey Lewis and the News?” Friends, there’s a reason I love this man so much. He’s 100% right.
3. bad guy—Billie Eilish (WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?)
I think I was dimly aware of Billie Eilish’s existence prior to this year; I think I’d mentally categorized her as being similar to Lorde and Grimes, these young women artists who are very successful and important to teenagers. But it was the Switched On Pop podcast that finally convinced me to pay attention to her on a deeper level, and I’m so glad I did. The first time I listened to When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go, after the first few tracks, I was convinced that she’s this generation’s dirtbag Norah Jones. By the time I’d finished listening to the whole album, I’d progressed to thinking she might in fact be more like this generation’s Brian Wilson. Folks, she’s the real deal. Her harmonies are impeccable; she’s funny and observant about people and social mores; her sonic sensibility is this incredible amalgam of jazz, trap beats, horror movie sound effects, and straight-up feel-good pop. I listened to When We All a lot this spring and summer, and whereas it does succumb to the modern marketing trick of putting the best track right at the top of the album, damn, what a track it is. I think it only spent a week at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart (not that it matters), but I love that something so genuinely weird found such an enormous audience. She deserves every bit of her success, and I’m super excited to hear what she does next.
4. Kill Switch—Ride (This Is Not a Safe Place)
For a long time, I only knew Ride because of their song “Vapour Trail,” and I only even knew “Vapour Trail” because The Divine Comedy covered it as a B side on one of their singles that I’d grabbed at HMV while I was studying in London the summer of 2000.
When the band reunited a few years ago, though, Brian educated me more on how important they were to the early ’90s shoegaze scene, and we were both thrilled that their reunion didn’t seem to be just a cash grab but that they were actually better and stronger musically than they were in their heyday. (We watched this live KEXP session a lot when it first came out.)
This year’s release This Is Not a Safe Place manages to sonically one-up their come-back album Weather Diaries in terms of sheer impact. Weather Diaries may be a more consistent album overall (I listened to that one a lot on our crazy bus tour of Europe in the summer of 2017), but This Is Not has more stand-out individual tracks, like this one. The lyrics are a little dopey but easy to ignore in the face of the in-your-face scuzzy guitar hooks and slamming drums. Younger kids who now fetishize the early ’90s shoegaze scene and mistakenly think it was all dream pop forget how loud and brutal so many of those bands really were/are. Here’s further proof. Catch Ride live if you can and prepare to have your face melted off.
5. Veka—Zola Jesus (Okovi)
Much like Billie Eilish, I’d been dimly aware of Zola Jesus for a little while, but it likewise took a podcast to get me to pay attention to her. In this case, it was her interview with Gordon White on Rune Soup. In the course of the conversation, she talks about how moving back to her family’s land in Wisconsin has awakened and encouraged her commitment to living into a specifically Animist worldview. (Be still my own native Midwestern heart.) And as Gordon described how her album Okovi had become a winter-time companion for the walks he would take around the landscape where he lives in Southern Tasmania, I knew she was someone I needed to start paying better, deeper attention to.
Brian and I had the great good fortune earlier this fall to see her perform live, solo, at a show sponsored by the Empty Bottle but held at the International Museum of Surgical Science. She was on the bill after a punishingly loud noise band, which somehow made her completely acoustic approach even scarier. It was something half-way between performance art and shamanic ritual. She sang in a combination of English and Russian, alternating between quiet near-mumblings and full-throated screams, at several points climbing down off the stage to walk through the crowd banging a medium-sized frame drum. It was all incredibly intense, especially staged as it was in this creepy old mansion filled with antique medical devices that were in most cases virtually indistinguishable from torture devices.
She’d recently been in a confrontation on Twitter with the singer Grimes, arguing about the importance of live, in-person musical events as being so necessary for community building in our era of intense alienation and despair, as opposed to consuming music solely through streaming services. I could tell that this issue was still weighing heavily on her, that she was fashioning this performance as something of a lived response and elaboration, actively channeling spiritual, archetypal wisdom, Cassandra-style, warning us to be human with each other before it’s too late. This, I’m sure, was the real surgery in this space, this shock to our hearts, this excavation of our collective reluctance to allow music to be more than mere entertainment, to be true medicine.
You’ll hear here on “Veka” a bit of the spookiness she excels at, between the backwards-sounding beats and blips, her hushed Russian utterances and resonant operatic howls.
6. My Little Treasures–Richard Hawley (Further)
No matter how you’re listening to the rest of this mix–Bluetooth’d to your car stereo or on the computer in the background while you putter around in the kitchen–I would strongly encourage you to pull out a pair of headphones for at least this song. I speak from experience–the first time I heard “My Little Treasures” was on YouTube, through the tinny speakers of an iPad. “That’s a nice one,” I thought, then basically forgot all about it. But when I finally downloaded the whole album and gave it my attention with headphones, I couldn’t BELIEVE how great it sounded. Getting the maximum aural impact of the luscious string arrangement makes all the difference, trust me.
I didn’t get into Hawley’s music until a few years ago and was surprised that I somehow hadn’t heard him previously, given how much his croony baritone vocals and soaring orchestral arrangements, on Cole’s Corner and Truelove’s Gutter especially, match right up with my love for artists like Scott Walker and The Divine Comedy. Though he’d taken a bit of a detour back into rocked-out guitar and psychedelia with Standing at the Sky’s Edge and Hollow Meadows, I was super happy that he found a way to combine his primary approaches more holistically on this year’s album Further.
7. Philip and Steve’s Furniture Removal Company–The Divine Comedy (Office Politics)
What an incredibly rare feat Neil Hannon has pulled off here–crafting a joke song that isn’t just a one-note, one-time-listen punchline.
Office Politics feels like one of his best Divine Comedy albums in a long time, mostly thanks to the fact that it’s, not coincidentally, more sonically adventurous than anything he’s done in ages. Though he still succumbs on songs like “Norman and Norma” to the toothlessly light crooner pop that became something of his default mode in his post-Regeneration years, he’s also allowed himself to access a new-feeling vitality in songs like “Infernal Machines” and “The Synthesiser Service Centre Super Summer Sale” and the spoken-word, Radiohead-aping “Psychological Evaluation” (which nevertheless also manage to hearken all the way back to what he was doing with “Europop” on Liberation).
In “Philip and Steve’s” I also hear echoes of Fin de Siecle, most obviously in the spoken word section in the middle and the big bombastic choral finish. And, fair play to him for not just attempting to emulate Reich and Glass’s signature styles but for succeeding without embarrassing himself. In fact, that’s the whole reason why this song works as well as it does–it goes beyond the initial jokey conceit and commits to the premise so thoroughly, by slyly foregrounding Hannon’s quite serious musical chops, that it transcends the joke to become a truly fun yet still truly funny piece of music to listen to. (“Strangely familiar but never quite the same again” gets me every time.)
8. Ride Around–Matt Ox (OX)
Back in early February, I stumbled upon this long, fascinating GQ article about so-called Soundcloud rap. I’ve always really liked the idea of knowing about/listening to music that’s not created “for” me, so it fell handily into that category, for sure. But as Brian and I get older, and his students get correspondingly younger, we often genuinely wonder how “the kids” find out about non-mainstream music and subcultures these days. Of course reading articles in GQ is not at all how it happens for them, and I’m sure there are even more niche interests out there that I will never (and should never) know about. But I do take a certain amount of comfort in knowing that, despite the ways that the world is currently engineered to shove brand loyalty down people’s throats from the time they’re very tiny children, there are still ways for information to travel underground, person to person. This idea of Soundcloud rap feels very much in that vein.
Brian and I spent most of one evening after dinner listening to clips of the artists mentioned in this article, but when we hit the section discussing Matt Ox, we particularly lost our minds. Not with derision, but genuine wonder and glee that this little gremlin kid is out there making music and thriving. “It’s…beyond language!” Brian shook his head with amazement after we listened to “Ride Around” several times, rewinding the couplet “I got so much green, feel like it grow from trees / I had pepperoni, had to get the cheese” over and over. I would invite you to listen to this extremely short track in that spirit–to find joy in a thing that may not necessarily be “for” you, on its own terms.
9. Le Responsable–The King Khan Experience (Turkey Ride)
One of my favorite memories of my extreme concert-going years of my 20s was seeing King Khan and his band play at the Pitchfork Music Festival in 2008. I wrote at the time:
The barn-burning stage show he cobbled together here was the spirit and genius of pure rock and roll stupidity….This kind of throwbacky, 1950s comic book version of rock and roll seems ripe for reviving on a larger scale. I mean, by the second song, he already had us picking trash up off the ground and flinging it all over the place. There’s just nobody out there right now capitalizing on the essentially dirty, juvenile underpinnings of rock music like that. What’s more, the audience totally knew how to handle it and took it in the spirit of joy and celebration, like throwing confetti. I was laughing so hard and loving it so much.
I really feel like putting all that into words at the time helped me truly recognize the dirtbag part of my heart.
Though he tours through Chicago fairly regularly, I’ve never been able to catch him live again since then, and perhaps it’s just as well. I keep up with his new releases as I remember to, and this year’s odd-and-sods collection Turkey Ride is just as dumb (high praise) as you would expect it to be. The heavily American-accented French here really puts this one over the top for me.
10. 8 AM–The Marcus King Band (Carolina Confessions)
For years now, Brian and I have been trying to convince people that the electric guitar solo hasn’t died–it just moved to Nashville and took up residence in country music. You may not hear big, rippin’ Jimmy Page or even Slash-style guitar heroics in much mainstream or indie rock these days, but that doesn’t mean no one’s doing it. Just listen to what “Cousin” Kenny Vaughan is doing on some of Marty Stuart’s more rockin’ recordings, or hell, pretty much anything Keith Urban puts out.
So, we always keep an eye on what’s coming out of that loosely defined scene and got really obsessed a few years ago with the production work Dave Cobb has been doing, especially with Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson. (For my money, Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music is one of the best albums of the decade, full stop.)
So when we read in a guitar-magazine profile of Marcus King that he’d enlisted Cobb to produce his latest album Carolina Confessions, we knew we needed to check it out. It veers more toward jammy blues-rock in the vein of the current iteration of the Tedeschi Trucks Band but with a real soulful sensibility. Although I was initially bowled over by the horn outro on the album’s “Goodbye Carolina,” I ultimately couldn’t resist this song, specifically for its opening lyric: “I hope they play me / on the radio every hour / don’t need money, don’t need power / just like to know that you hearin’ me.”
11. MILES–Jamila Woods (LEGACY! LEGACY!)
Whereas Chance may be the artist that everyone associates with Chicago these days, the ambassador that can bridge conversation whoever you end up talking to anywhere around the country, Jamila Woods is the artist who makes me proud to live here. Brian and I were early adopters of her album Heavn back when it was first available via Soundcloud. I listened to that one a lot in 2016, and though I of course trust her ability to evolve as an artist, I was afraid that I couldn’t possibly love her next release as much. Of course, I needn’t have worried.
LEGACY! LEGACY! is a celebration of visionary artists of color, each track identified by a single all-caps name: BETTY, ZORA, GIOVANNI, SONIA, FRIDA, EARTHA, MILES, MUDDY, BASQUIAT, SUN RA, OCTAVIA, BALDWIN. It’s an album of such incredible deep feeling. Notably, it never ever stoops to gimmickry, winking, or empty gestures. She resists easy name-dropping or style-emultation as she pays tribute; she instead digests, refashions, and moves forward these creators’ formal and ideological essences via her own lyrical and intellectual dexterity. It is such a luxurious listening experience–sonically, emotionally, conceptually–that builds in intensity, almost imperceptibly, from the first track to the last.
But once she hits her stride mid-album with the one-two punch of “MILES” into “MUDDY,” that’s where I think this collection of songs really takes off. It feels somehow significant that this is also where she incorporates a controlled masculine fury into her reflections. (Catch Saba’s incendiary verse on “BASQUIAT” one track later for an extension of this.) It was almost impossible for me to pick a single song from this album to include here, but I ultimately decided on “MILES.” I think I was most bowled over by her artistic restraint in not producing/arranging the track to sound like some sort of Kind of Blue knock-off (like some cheesy white bro probably would have if given the chance), while still completely embodying Davis’s revolutionary, almost otherworldly cool.
12. Empty Handed–Robben Ford (Purple House)
I have such an affinity for artists who are only considered singers secondarily. I find that musicians who are celebrated for playing something else tend to, naturally, put most of their intention and effort into that one thing, which often then frees up their energy around their singing voice in a really delightful way. I’ve always loved the tracks where Dizzy Gillespie sings, and the same goes for Jimi Hendrix too. Guitarist Robben Ford is turning out to be another in that pantheon for me.
Brian got us tickets to see Ford at the Old Town School of Folk Music back on August 23. Going in without any knowledge at all of his background and body of work, I was a little afraid that it was just going to be a boring, tan-pants, man-cave, blues-rock kind of night. But luckily it was in an entirely different category than all that. Yes, he’s virtuosic and can come across as one of those guitar hero kind of guys (thanks in no small part to the makeup of his fan base), but he’s actually way better than that. He’s really smart, really subtle, and really good.
Purple House is a killer album, front to back, no wasted tracks, just incredibly easy to listen to and enjoy like a sunny summer day. “Empty Handed,” the third track on the album, really stands out, though, in being the only ballad and in feeling like it’s coming from somewhere deeper. Not necessarily more wild or more primal, just…deeper, like the cool, cavernous embrace of an underground cave system, echoing with pure heart.
13. Jerome–Lizzo (Cuz I Love You)
I’ve been obsessed for years with the way that Tracey Thorn, in her book on the art and craft of singing, Naked at the Albert Hall, describes Bjork’s voice:
“In contrast to many classical singers who strive only to use the most beautiful part of the voice, the ‘filet,’ Bjork was prepared to use ‘the whole animal.'”
As a huge fan of both Thorn and Bjork, I love what that observation says about their respective skill and appeal. It’s not so much their unsullied instruments that I respond to as a listener, it’s the way you can hear (metaphorically) their hearts as well as often (literally) their bodies (when it comes to gasps, sharp intakes of breath, on-the-verge-of-tears vocal wobbles, mouth noises, etc).
I get much the same vibe these days from Lizzo. The giggles, the gasps, and sotto voce spoken asides here aren’t so much raw and vulnerable, though, as they are a playfully in-your-face acknowledgment that she’s a whole artist–the power and pleasures of her performance as a musician are inextricably tied to her embodiment as a black woman. You can’t try to parcel out, selectively, that you like “just” her voice or “just” her flute playing or “just” her fashion sense–you are required to take her as a whole person, gloriously, messily, in aggregate.
14. Hard to Be Alone–Tal Wilkenfeld (Love Remains)
Several years ago now, Brian and I played a local show where we met and performed with a bunch of younger, frighteningly talented musicians. One of them, a gorgeous young man with a soaring tenor, has made his name around town in the years since as a crooner of country ballads, a sort of queer-masc Patsy Cline. However, I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of getting him in front of a slammin’ rock band. Brian and I were still playing in Pet Theories in those days, and I wanted desperately to bring him into a rehearsal and see if we could back him up covering something like one of the louder tracks from Jeff Buckley’s Grace. It could have been epic, but unfortunately never came to fruition.
I had the exact same thought when I heard Tal’s Love Remains album–but about myself. LOL. To be honest, I struggled so much in my time playing in rock bands. I never really felt like I could own my space as a lead vocalist. Which seemed so illogical even inside my own brain. I mean, after years of wanting to be in a proper rock band, once I finally was, I found myself shrinking back from the mic, unsure of myself, unsure of my voice, unsure of my musical contributions. Although I’ve been continuing to make a quieter, more intimate kind of music steadily in the years since, and though I don’t exactly have any desire to go back to playing late-Tuesday-night sparsely attended club gigs anymore, there is still the part of me that hears Tal howling up from the bottom of her guts throughout “Hard to Be Alone” and wishes that I had one last shot at that kind of totally rocked-out glory.
15. We Are the People–Iggy Pop (Free)
When Brian and I first started dating, I quickly realized that all the aspirational things that “cool” people liked, that I was trying very hard to like as well, were absolutely meaningless to him. Which spun me around! I’d spent years attempting to cultivate the right kind of taste that I (shamefully) thought would make people like me more, would make people think I was in the know, yet here suddenly was this person who not only didn’t care about any of that middle-brow stuff but was actively more interested in the trashy parts of what had informed my imagination and memories, as well as the arty, theoretical stuff that had influenced me deeply in my college years. He explained it by way of his car stereo settings: “I like all highs and lows, no midrange.”
As we built out this aesthetic world view together, Iggy became one of the standard-bearers of this sensibility, conceptually and intellectually. Iggy’s obviously known for being this shirtless maniac singing about drugs and sex over the most rudimentary chord changes and abrasive guitars and drums. But when you look only slightly deeper, you can see how truly genius he is. “The Robert Frost of Detroit,” Brian once called him. It takes a lot of smarts to be that dumb.
When we saw him play at the Chicago Theatre on his Post Pop Depression tour in April of 2016, I was struck by the poignancy of the fact that, as so many of us were still collectively mourning David Bowie the musician and celebrity, Iggy was mourning David Bowie, his friend. So it wasn’t a wild leap for me when I first heard his new album Free to hear it as his response to Blackstar. These are both albums about facing down mortality with a jazz-influenced sonic palette. Blackstar of course has that inimitable David Bowie intellectual elegance, while Free likewise extends Iggy’s life-long project of bridging low to high under the guise of a kind of deceptively plainspoken simplicity.
Iggy’s albums are always complete albums in the sense that they have a little bit of everything, which includes “bad,” skippable songs–“Chocolate Drops” on Post Pop Depression and “Dirty Sanchez” on Free. It takes such courage to write a “bad” song and to not just discard it as a failed attempt to write “through” it in order to find a “good”/better one, but to recognize that it’s actually necessary to the total effect of your work. Life is light and dark and shades of grey, and so too is art–but it’s not just “good” songs about light and dark topics, it’s “bad” songs too.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Free, though, is the way it reels you in at the beginning and then drops the floor out from under you. The beginning of the album is stacked with these jazzy, hummable, subtle songs, so many of which I hear as almost direct correlations to several tracks on Blackstar–Iggy trades Donny McCaslin’s sax in favor of Leron Thomas’s solo trumpet, but maintains something of Mark Guiliana’s skittering drums on songs like “Sonali.” But the real knock-out part of the album, for me, is the final three spoken word segments. This is where it truly matches the death-bed intensity of Blackstar with meditations on politics (as here on “We Are the People”), literature (holy shit, his read on “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”), and the mysteries of the soul (“The Dawn”).
(I recall Brian Eno’s story about the fact that he and Bowie always used to sign e-mails to each other with different absurd names, which culminated in Bowie signing his last-ever message to him as “Dawn.” I certainly have to wonder if Iggy is obliquely referencing that on Free in that he sequenced his final track on the album with “The Dawn.”)
The lyrics to “We Are the People” were originally written by Lou Reed (!!!), and they offer just devastating social commentary. As Iggy interprets this poem, the gravely gravity of his speaking voice is urgent without being scoldy, mournful without being maudlin. The sense of responsibility he takes on for Americans who are both lost and abandoned is, to me, nothing short of a divine masculine grace, capable of meeting horrors and sorrows without flinching or excusing or blaming. It’s the place where high and low eventually circle around on themselves, clearing a path for the healing of totality, acceptance, and true wisdom.
16. Snow Is Falling in Manhattan–Purple Mountains (Purple Mountains)
I’m not sure that I actually have much more to say about Dave Berman that I didn’t already say in my zine The Last Band of My Youth. I guess I was never as much a fan of Berman and Silver Jews as I enjoyed being part of his fanbase, if that makes sense. So it’s hard for me to even think about making some sort of grand statement about what his loss means culturally or to the scene he came out of.
As I mentioned in my Last Band essay, I hadn’t actually gotten around to listening to his Purple Mountains album by the time I heard he’d died. But I went ahead and downloaded it the day after we got home from Dublin, on August 9. It’s not an easy album to listen to, nor one I imagine I’ll revisit with any frequency. It’s much easier to listen to super-dark “haha, I wish I were dead” songs when the artist singing them hasn’t actually died by suicide. Which is why “Snow Is Falling in Manhattan” stands out so starkly on this album, its precious, sparkling beauty and tenderness something I feel I certainly will return to.
The scene that he paints in the first two and a half verses would be remarkable enough on its own, as he gently renders the quiet peace that descends on even major cities during and immediately after a big snowstorm. The lyrics are so delicate and sweet: from the rhythmic bustle of “salts the stoop and scoops the cat in” to the wide-eyed vulnerability and wonder of “so much joy in merely looking.” And of course there’s the pointed reference to his Judaism with “on the Sabbath, as it happens.” But for me, it’s when he goes meta halfway through the third verse that the song goes from merely remarkable to something approaching transcendent:
Songs build little rooms in time
And housed within the song’s design
Is the ghost the host has left behind
To greet and sweep the guest inside
Stoke the fire and sing his lines
If all he’d done was simply acknowledge himself as the writer here, I already would have loved that self-reflective turn. But that he actively invites us, as listeners, as community, as friends, into the scene, into the song with him really takes my breath away. It’s infinitely touching not only as a gesture of love to his audience and friends, but to me it also feels like an allusion to the tradition of pouring a fifth cup of wine for Elijah at the Passover Seder and opening the door to welcome his spirit into the home.
He concludes the song
Snow is falling in Manhattan
Inside I’ve got a fire crackling
And on the couch, beneath an afghan
You’re the old friend I just took in
But even beyond the generosity of his opening the door to us, putting us on the couch with a warm afghan in front of a roaring fire, I hope most deeply that somewhere in his heart, at some point before he died, he remembered to include himself in that invitation to partake of a moment of safety and comfort and love as well.