Friday, July 5, 2019

McQ's Best Of 1998 Vol 1 - Best Of The Best

I've never been more checked out on a music year when it first occurred than I was in 1998 (buying a first home, having a first child, and finishing a masters degree in a single year will do that to a person), so it was with great enthusiasm that I set out twenty-years later to rediscover the music of the year of my son's birth.

And 1998 did not disappoint.

Though I wouldn't consider 1998 an elite music year, it had a ton to offer, and it was so distinctly itself.

There are few music years I can think of where such a large percentage of that year's signature works feel like they could only have emerged from that exact moment in time.

On the producer-driven side, much of hip-hop and electronic music had merged into the trip-hop and big beat movements. movements that would only last for a brief moment before disappearing almost completely, while pure hip hop itself, in the aftermath of the Tupac/Notorious B.I.G. killings, was in the middle of one of its grittiest, most minimalistic periods (with one significant exception: a pair of Atlantans who brought an expansive musicality the genre had rarely witnessed up to that point).

On the rock side, it was a moment of huge transition, with the decade's hard-edged, still innovative, desconstructionist alt-and-industrial rock sensibilities mellowing and experiencing their final waning moments before the far more backward-looking, re-combinatory sensibilities of the stoner-rock and indie-rock movements would pushed them aside.

Truth be told, by 1998, rock's forty-year run as as an ever-evolving genre was nearing its end. Within just another five years, most rock bands would no longer be referenced by the era from which they came, but by the past era they most evoked.

In the soul world, Lauryn Hill released a nuclear bomb of a hit album that reshaped the R&B landscape for the next twenty years, while on the singer-songwriter/country side of the spectrum, Lucinda Williams released one of the decade's signature albums.

And through it all, endearing throwaway pop-rock and disco singles and fascinating experimental post-rock excursions were everywhere to be found.

So let's not waste any more time. Let's start listening. Here's 1998's best of the best!!!

About The Albums/Songs/Artists Represented On This Mix:

1. King Of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1 - Neutral Milk Hotel: We open this year's retrospective collection with my two favorite songs of 1998.  First up, the magical, hypnotic opener to Neutral Milk Hotel's magical, hypnotic Diary Of Anne Frank-inspired indie-cult classic In An Aeroplane Over The Sea, my choice (at this moment in time at least) for the best album of 1998.

2. Praise You - Fatboy Slim: Most of former Housemartin-turned-big-beat DJ Norman Cook's sophomore effort as Fatboy Slim You've Come A Long Way, Baby anchored around his take on the wildly creative hip-hop/electronica/classic rock/soul fusions that were also powering the trip-hop movement of the moment, but it was this light, warm turn to twee-pop towards the record's end that cemented You've Come A Long Way, Baby's status as one of the definitive works in the big beat genre.

3. Space Lord - Monster Magnet: By 1997, Dave Wyndorf was spent.  Despite amassing nearly a decade of critical acclaim as the leader and principal songwriter of one of the definitive bands of the stoner rock genre, neither the band or the genre (with it's trippy, jammy blend of late 60s/early 70s hard rock, biker rock, and psychedelic tropes), could break free either commercially or of the "old-fashioned" label hurled at them from the dominant alt-rockers of the era. About ready to throw in the towel, Wyndorf instead decided to give the band one more shot, and exiled himself to Las Vegas with the mandate to write at least one song a day or call it quits. But rather than that goal proving self-defeating, Wyndorf soon found himself inspired by Sin City's over-the-top decadence, recast that Vegas vibe into campy, so raunchy tall tales of intergalactic drug-fueled hedonism, and the songs just poured out. Simultaneously streamlining the band's previously long-winded, spacey approach to a terse, razor sharp attack, the resulting album Powertrip, released just as the alt-rock movement was finally losing steam, was not only the band's commercial breakthrough, but one of the best hard rock albums of the decade overall. And the epic Space Lord, included here, would become the biggest single of the band's still active career.

4. Ray Of Light - Madonna: A bit of a career resuscitation after a four year hiatus, Madonna's return to the studio fully embraced the trip-hop and electronic trends of the moment, and the end result, while not the best album of her career, and far from the most iconic, is almost indisputably her coolest. And while the stellar production and killer beats provided by her A-List collaborators are actually the biggest stars of Ray Of Light, that should in no way diminish Madonna's skill in successfully overseeing this stylistic shift, especially when one considers how badly U2 fell flat on their face with their fans attempting the exact same move with Pop the year before. As for the title track included here, imho, it's her best song ever.

5. La femme d'argent - Air: With their 1998 full-length debut Moon Safari, the electronic/ambient pop duo of Versailles natives Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel announced themselves as so much more than just another electronic chill-out act (though if I'm being honest, album opener la femme d'argent included here, with its super slinky bass groove, is as good an instrumental chill-out track as I have heard).  An unquestioned classic, Moon Safari was bursting with innovative ideas, many anchored more in old-time pop traditions and natural instrumentation than the production trends of the moment, and the album was as warm and inviting and stylistically broad-minded as anything the genre delivered in the late 90s. To this day, it is still justifiably considered one of the ten greatest electronic albums of all time.

6. Summerholidays Vs. Punkroutine - Refused: Initially perceived as a flat-out game changer in the punk arena, my personal opinion on Swedish hardcore punker's Refused 1998 breakout The Shape Of Punk To Come has dipped slightly over the years, as I don't think the album has been nearly as influential or significant in the years since its release as it presumed to be. But I still love it nonetheless, and there is no denying the band's force or their unwavering commitment to their anarchist philosophies, best personified in Summerholidays Vs. Punkroutine here, which draws the line on the tradeoff between maintaining one's artistic integrity and embracing commercialism as clearly as any song I know.

7. Doo Wop (That Thing) - Ms. Lauryn Hill: Presently the critical consensus  top album of 1998 by a wafer thin margin over Air's Moon Safari and then a slightly larger margin over the next three runners-up (Neutral Milk Hotel's In An Aeroplane Over The Sea, Lucinda Williams Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, and Mercury Revs' Deserter's Songs), The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill is quite possibly the most influential Alt-R&B release of the last twentyyears, almost singlehandedly establishing the template for every artist that's trafficked in the intersection of hip hop and R&B ever since (just take a back-to-back listen to this album and Solange's celebrated A Seat A The Table a few years back and marvel at the similarities).  So many great songs to choose from this album, but in the end,  I played it safe and went the record's most popular song.

8. The Boy With The Arab Strap - Belle & Sebastian: The third full-length from twee's all-time greatest band, The Boy With The Arab Strap wasn't quite the masterpiece that preceded it (that being the band's definitive statement If You're Feeling Sinister), but stands as one of BAS's most beloved records and one the better indie-pop albums of the era. Buoyed by breezy, lilting numbers like It Could Have Been A Brilliant Career, Ease Your Feet Into The Sea, Dirty Dream #2 and the magnificent title track included here, it's an essential record for any fan.

9. Can't Let Go - Lucinda Williams: My personal #2 album of 1998, Lucinda William's Car Wheels On A Gravel Road may be best known today as one of the most obsessively worked-over albums of all time.  It took Williams almost three years of ceaseless studio revisions and ruined relationships with multiple producers (one, Steve Earle, who recalls the experience as "the least amount of fun I've had working on a record.") before she finally got the album to a point, where (pun intended) she was able to let go. But from today's vantage point, that hardship all seems to have been worth it.  Loaded with one knock-out track after another, Car Wheels is one of the greatest alt-country/adult contemporary albums ever recorded, and stands right with Aeroplane Over The Sea for me as the best 1998 had to offer. We'll hear many more tracks from this album when we get to the 1998 edition of Nancy's Favorites.

10. She Belongs To Me - Bob Dylan: Let's be perfectly honest here, Dylan lovers. As great and legendary as the man is as a songwriter and on record, he's never been on the elite tier as a live performer. Yes, he can be fantastic on stage from time to time (something I've experience in person), but on a bad day, especially those days when he decides not to enunciate (a couple of which I've also unfortunately experienced in person) there isn't a worse live performer on the planet. So imagine my surprise when I heard Legendary's 1998 release The Bootleg Series Vol 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966 - The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert.  A repackaging of bootleg recordings from of the UK leg of Dylan's 1966 European tour with the Hawks (soon to be known as The Band), most of the excitement for this album revolves around its infamous back half, when Dylan and the Hawks break out his electric material for an indignant, vocal crowd of acoustic folk purists during a set at Manchester's Free Trade Hall, with one fan even famously shouting out "Judas" followed by Dylan calling the fan a liar and instructing The Hawks to "play it loud" just before they dive into Like A Rolling Stone. It's as good a representation of live Dylan at his best as you will find on record, and an amazing document of an artist sticking to his creative guns and preserving against heated opposition in the heat of the moment, but I have to admit that I like the acoustic front half of the album even better. The acoustic performances are just spellbinding, and so I have chosen this wonderful version of She Belongs To Me as a stand in for the album here.

11. You Can't Quit Me Baby - Queens Of The Stone Age: If these Best Of The Best mixes were exclusively focused on profiling my favorite albums of the year and not also singles Queens Of The Stone Age's self-titled debut wouldn't be represented here.  It's a solid album in its own right, but not on the level of the other albums represented here, and is really most notable, Pablo Honey-like, for the inspired excellence it suggests is about to come in later QOTSA releases than for the songs it itself contains. But that said, I've never been able to shake You Can't Quit Me Baby, which delivers one of the nastiest opening bass riffs of the 90s.

12. Sick Of Goodbyes - Sparklehorse: One of the more unique indie-albums of the late 90s, Sparklehorse's Good Morning Spider exists in a constant, effortlessly executed state of half-wakefulness, its songs fading and surging in a near perfect simulation of our headspace in those morning moments just after the alarm has popped but before we've fully come to consciousness.  Further adding to the album's appeal, it's one of those magical "small-song" records, winning us over Rubber Soul-like with a number of unforced but highly distinct small tracks rather than aiming for epic lyrical or musical statements. I considered at least a half dozen songs to represent the album here (Painbirds, Happy Man, Cruel Sun, Maria's Little Elbows, Ghost Of His Smile, Pigs), but ultimately settled on Sick Of Goodbyes purely because it worked best with the other songs on this mix.

13. Tear Drop - Massive Attack: Perturbed by all the adulation being showered upon other, mostly lesser, trip hop acts that had sprung up in their wake, Massive Attack returned with a vengeance in 1998 with their bleak, spellbinding, noirish Mezzanineto this date one of the most evocatively produced electronic albums of all time. As dark and menacing as the stag beetle that adorns the album's cover, there was a fragile beauty to much of Mezzanine as well, best exemplified by the Elizabeth Fraser-led Tear Drop included here.

14. Goddess On A Hiway - Mercury Rev: A radical departure from their far noisier and angular early efforts, Mercury Rev's Deserter's Songs replaced the aggression that marked much of the band's prior material for twee psychedelia and symphonic grandeur, and the result was a landmark album in late 90s indie - a pitch perfect, one-of-a-kind, orchestral-rock oddity that neither the band or anyone else (other than possibly the Flaming Lips to a degree on The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots) - has proven able to replicate the essence of ever since.

15. Return Of The "G" - Outkast: Though follow-up release Stankonia would eventually be hailed by most as the Atlanta rap duo's magnum opus, and earlier releases Southernplayalisticadillacmusik and ATLiens were excellent records in their own right, 1998's Aquemini was Outkast's first stone-cold classic, the album where they embraced the chilled-out funk hinted at by ATLiens completely and defined the sound of hip hop's "dirty south." As weird and richly musical as anything the genre had experienced up to 1998, I opted for Return Of The "G" as Aquemini's representative track here as much for its shorter run time as opposed to any qualitative differences between it and other, longer favorites like Spottieottiedopalicious, Da Art Of Storytellin' Pts 1& 2, and Chonkyfire.

16. All The Kids Are Right - Local H: With every note rooted half-way between the quiet-loud grunge dynamics of Nirvana's Nevermind and the quirky power-pop of Cheap Trick (which should come as no surprise given Local H hailed from Rockford, Illinois), Pack Up The Cats was one of the funniest hard rock albums of the 90s, an at times laugh-out-loud, semi-autobiographical tale of a small-time, dopey midwestern band's rapid rise and fall from grace. This track, just a classic slice of rock n' roll, is Local H's most popular song, and highlights the brutal fan fallout from their, um,  "fictional" band's worst performance ever.

17. Glory Days - Pulp: Often cited as the album "that killed Britpop," This Is Hardcore, Pulp's arty, depressing follow-up to their massive 1995 hit album Different Class, flipped the tables on Class's presentation of youthful blue-collar resilience by envisioning those same archetypal blue-collar types 5-10 years later in their lives when all pretense of pride and self-worth has been beaten out of them and the coping mechanisms they used to blow off steam in their twenties - the sex, the booze, the drugs, the mindless television, porn - have all turned into empty, joyless addictions. It's a dark, dark affair, but one that seems to tilt towards an edge of hopefulness at its end with the wistful remembrances of Sylvia and the rousing Glory Days, until one realizes the enlightened, contented "glory days" Jarvis Cocker is singing about here aren't arrived at through ambition or accomplishment, but rather the freeing, clear-eyed rejection of all pointless, hopeful thinking.

18. P.S. You Rock My World - Eels: On to another artist who also views life as a tough, at times wretched slog, but arrives at an entirely different conclusion about its worth. Between the release of Eel's debut album Beautiful Freak in 1996 and 1998, the band's guiding force Mark Everett lost his sister to suicide and his mother to lung cancer, leaving him the only surviving member of his family. To deal with the many losses, he poured all his grief and the stark reality of his sister's and mother's anguished final days into the band's second effort Electro-Shock Blues. It's as honest and plain-spoken an album as one will encounter about mortality, and yet, given Everett's unwavering stoicism and the alternating playfulness and soothing sensitivity of the music, also emerges as maybe the most life-affirming record on the subject of death ever committed to vinyl. The album's life-affirming nature is never clearer than on its soft but powerful closer P.S. You Rock My World, where Everett finally emerges from the these horrible experiences ready to return to the world at large, shrug off the small stuff, and embrace life once again, both the good and bad, in all its pain and glory. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

McQ's Best Of 2018 Vol. 1 - Best Of The Best

Okay, here we go once again, with the opening salvo in Nancy and I's annual celebration of all that was great in the music year just passed.

As always, we begin with this year's edition of Best Of The Best, which highlights my personal choices for the very top singles and albums of that year regardless of genre, though there's a few notable exclusions this time

Neither Janelle Monae's Dirty Computer or Kacey Musgraves' Golden Hour, surefire top ten albums of 2018, are represented here as Nancy profiles them in her upcoming Favorites mix.

Rival Consoles Persona, my favorite pure electronic album of 2018,  is also absent just because it's material felt better suited for a later electronic music only mix.

And aside from Kali Uchis's Isolation, none of 2018's top contemporary pop or hip hop top efforts made the cut, not because there weren't several worthy titles (especially, to my ears, Noname's Room 25, Pusha T's Daytona, Serpentwithfeet's Soil, and the Kid Cudi/Kanye West collaboration Kids See Ghosts), but because both of my children asked to contribute a mix to this year's collection and gravitate towards those two genres almost exclusively.

Luckily, though, these exclusions allowed me to double-down on tracks from my two favorite records of the year (Parquet Court's Wide Awaaaaake! and Confidence Man's Confident Music For Confident People) and dig deeper into the three genres that, at least to my aging sensibilities, stood out most - punk, electro-pop funk, and female driven indie. The end result is one of the most energetic and groove-oriented Best Of The Bests I've offered up in several years.

I hope you enjoy!

On The Songs/Albums/Artists Represented On This Mix:

1. Negative Space - Hookworms: My favorite psychedelic pop song of the year from my favorite psychedelic album of 2018, Hookworm's third and final full-length release Microsoft. With its epic, weird opening three-and-a-half-minute anthemic build - similar in design to Tame Impala's Be Above It but about five times more propulsive - Negative Space was the only 2018 song I seriously considered to kick this whole thing off!

2. Wide Awake - Parquet Courts: From 2018's best psychedelic album to my choice for 2018's best album period.  Parquet Court's Wide Awaaaake! captured the turbulent, divisive, helter-skelter feel of America's present day Twitter-fueled Trump-era and the seething anger behind the Millennial/Boomer divide better than any album I've heard to date, and somehow - thanks in large part to Danger Mouse's fantastic, palette-broadening production - manages to be an absolute blast of a listen in the process. We'll hear at least a half-dozen songs from this brilliant record, by far the best and smartest lyrical effort of the year, over the course of these mixes, but start first with the band's playful, super-funky, maybe-mocking-maybe-not paean to millennial hyper-wokeness here.

3. Boyfriend - Confidence Man: Bands don't come campier than Confidence Man. By design, they sing of nothing of importance. Every note they play, whether borrowed from the likes of Primal Scream, LCD Soundsystem, The Ting Tings, Moon Unit Zappa, The Scissor Sisters, Right Said Fred, Junior Senior, The Talking Heads or who knows God else, is derivative as all hell. And half the deadpan jokes this collective of former Aussie psych-rockers turned bubblegum electro-poppers try to land (and they try a lot) fall flat as a pancake. And yet, despite all this, there was no more entertaining or funky or better front-to-back listen released in 2018 than the band's full-length debut Confident Music For Confident People. My second favorite album of the year, anchored around the dueling performance personas of a dumb-as-a-brick rock star and a Regina George-styled teen-bitch-goddess, the band's stated mission of making it feel safe - in this poptimist era of unattainable Beyonce/Gaga/Grande/Timberlake dance skill perfection - for the dorks and nerds and rhythmically challenged of the world to return to the dance floor is accomplished to the fullest. If you can embrace the over-the-top silliness, you won't find a more infectious listen from 2018.

4. Pain Killer - Iceage: I'm an absolute sucker for songs of a well-defined genre that introduce a untraditional arrangement and then pull it off completely. This searing track from Copenhagen punk act Iceage's fourth, best, and widest-ranging full length Beyondless is such a song - augmenting the band's gnarly, mumbly, lo-fi attack with an overpowering marching band horn line and marvelously seedy, drawling supporting vocals from Sky Ferreira to glorious effect. And what an awesome chorus lyric for a song about a toxic relationship neither party has the desire to leave - "I rue the day, you became my pain killer!"

5. Me And My Husband - Mitski: While Janelle Monae's perfect-for-the-cultural-moment Dirty Computer topped the aggregate polls in 2018, it was actually New York singer-songwriter Mitski's third studio release Be The Cowboy that was named best album on the greatest number of individual lists, and it only takes a few listens to understand why. Though adorned with some unusual (goofy) indie production touches, at its core Be The Cowboy offers up such a rich collection of sharply constructed confessional songs that it legitimately flirts with becoming the latest era-defining female singer-songwriter album in the proud lineage of Joni Mitchell's Blue, Carole King's Tapestry, Liz Phair's Exile In Guyville, PJ Harvey's best works, and Courtney Barnett's Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit. My choice to represent the album here, Me And My Husband, is not album's most celebrated song, but something about its staccato piano rhythms and brass support and hopeful yet grounded take on a young marriage just worked for me.

6. Talking Straight - Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever: In a very lean year for jangle pop, Melbourne, Australia's Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever's full-length debut Hope Downs was really the only go-to choice.  Crafted with a clear Go Betweens sensibility, this understated charmer will appeal to just about anyone who likes their guitars numerous, gentle, dexterously interwoven, and chiming.

7. Does Your Dreams - Fucked Up: Another punk number that comes at the genre from an entirely unexpected direction, the title track to Fucked Up's wildly ambitious sequel to their 2011 concept album David Comes To Life finds the Canadian band perfectly counter balancing lead singer Damian "Pink Eyes" Abraham's hardcore vocals with one of the coolest disco grooves since The Stones' Miss You.

8. Miami - Kali Uchis: My favorite cut from Columbian-American Kali Uchis's full-length debut Isolation, which gets my vote for the best contemporary pop album of 2018. It's a record that somehow manages to be both clearly of its era and full-on retro at the same time, loaded with latin flourishes and contemporary production touches, but also repeatedly resurrecting the confessional R&B sensibilities of Amy Winehouse's Back To Black and the cheeky pop of Lily Allen's Alright, Still .

9. Fly - Low: It almost never works likes this! Bands just don't drop one of their best and most daring albums twenty-five years and twelve records into their career. But that, with their 2018 release Double Negative, is exactly what Minnesota indie/slowcore legend Low has done. Taking their traditionally slow, mesmerizing, folksy sound and jamming it into an electronic blender, the band has stumbled upon something utterly unique - a Aphex Twin-inspired cacophony of glitches and violent volume manipulations that nonetheless still draws the band's amazing vocals into sharp relief. The undisputed art-rock champion of 2018, Double Negative is a challenging record that demands many listens before its logic settles in, but it's an absolute must for any fan of the band, the aforementioned Aphex Twin, or Kid A-era Radiohead.  Oh, and Fly here, the album's most accessible track, is my choice for the best song of 2018. I think it's musical perfection.

10. This Old House Is All I Have - Against All Logic: Staying in the electronic wheelhouse, probably the best combination of funk and electronic music in 2018, outside of Confidence Man's bubblegum shenanigans, was found on Against All Logic's 2012-2017.  The act, another recording pseudonym for ultra-prolific Chilean DJ Nicolas Jaar, is probably my second favorite album in his entire multi-side-project spanning discography after his 2013 release with DARKSIDE Psychic.

11. Rage Of Plastics - U.S. Girls: 2018 was another great year for female artists, and no exclusively female-fronted effort last year won me over more than Chicago-born/Toronto-based indie-veteran Meghan Remy's commercial breakthrough as U.S. Girls, In A Poem Unlimited. One of the strongest front-to-back listens of the year, In A Poem Unlimited presents a wide array of styles ranging from Bowie-esque Thin White Duke funk (Rage of Plastics here and Velvet 4 Sale), ultra-smooth contemporary electro-pop (Rosebud), freakout jams (Time), Stevie Nicks-ish west coast soft rock (Pearly Gates), and Blondie-inspired new wave (M.A.H.).

12. Almost Had To Start A Fight/In And Out Of Patience &
13. Freebird II - Parquet Courts: A tandem of tracks from Wide Awaaaaake! that demand to be heard together. The first number is the album's strongest representation of the frayed-nerve psyche of our divided nation today, where an ugly political argument with who knows who lurks around every corner. But the followup track, the perfectly titled Freebird II, takes a surprising turn to the deeply personal, especially for an album otherwise locked in on large-scale systemic and geo-political concerns. Lead singer Andrew Savage's recollection of he and bandmate brother Max's childhood growing up with their drug-addicted mother, it's a song of personal emancipation, but one that comes at a dark, dark cost. To save himself, Savage must jettison any emotional concern he still has for his unchangeable, troubled mother's welfare. It's only later in the album, on the patience pleading Death Will Bring Change, that Freebird II's broader thematic relevance and the logic behind co-opting the Lynyrd Skynyrd title becomes clear. Savage isn't just singing about turning his back on his own mother, he's calling upon his fellow millennials to reject the entirety of the boomer generation (or at least boomer politics, methods and beliefs, both right and left) in exactly the same way.

14. Heatwave - Snail Mail: From generational division to timeless romantic angst, one of 2018's more compelling indie breakout stars was Maryland guitar prodigy Lindsay Jordan, who began performing and self-releasing material as Snail Mail early in her high school days, and finally released her proper full-length debut Lush last year at the ripe old age of nineteen. Though a student of Helium/Wild Flag lead guitarist Mary Timony, it's actually as an intuitive rhythm guitarist that Jordan shines best, but I did pick her most lead-driven track Heatwave for this mix here. Her critically adored 2018 hit Pristine will make an appearance on a later mix.

15. Concrete - Shame: They may lack the lyrical and thematic sophistication of Parquet Courts, the visceral force of IDLES, or the outside-the-box daring of Iceage and Fucked Up, but UK newcomers Shame may have the best core sound of 2018's impressive gaggle of punks.  With every note rooted in pre-Eno U2, The Jesus and Mary Chain, or most frequently, Johnny Rotten's PIL, fans of first wave punk and post-punk will find much to like on the band's debut Songs Of Praise, starting with my favorite track from the album Concrete here.

16. Vi Lua Vi Sol - Kamasi Washington: It says a lot about how great your first two releases were when your latest effort feels like a significant drop in quality and still manages to be one of the best twenty albums of its year, and that's exactly what LA saxaphonist Kamasi Washington's latest two-and-a-half hour jazz opus Heaven and Earth is - a let down coming on the heels of 2015's era-defining The Epic and 2017 EP Harmony of Difference, and still a record stuffed with memorable moments.  Aside from awesome disc one closer One Of One, which falls right in line with what was heard on The Epic, most of Heaven And Earth's best tracks are its most daring stylistic departures - the stirring rework of Bruce Lee's Fists Of Fury theme song, the John Williams-esque The Space Travel's Lullaby, and the divisive track Vi Lua Vi Sol here, which brackets the album's best extended solo with unusual but stirring vocoder-filtered vocal passages. The song definitely has its jazz purist detractors, but I admired it for best capturing the essence of The Epic while simultaneously sounding the most radically different from it.

17. Great - IDLES: Here's the difference between this exciting new generation of punks and those that came before. The sound and fury may feel the same, but this generation doesn't want to stick it to the man, they want to stand up and be the mensch, genuinely committed to community building as opposed to nihilistically tearing things down. And on their fantastic, anti-Brexit, jet roar of a sophomore LP Joy As An Act Of Resistance, IDLES announced themselves as the most important British act of the moment. Though far from the most lyrically sophisticated act ("Islam didn't kill your hamster"), IDLES' treatises on celebrating and accepting diversity, taming toxic masculinity, self-acceptance no matter one's flaws, and replacing time spent on social media with actual human interaction hit with a force, conviction and directness that is impossible to deny. I went with the song that best represented the album's celebratory premise here rather than its standout track (that being the immigration-championing Danny Nedelko), but the bottomline is for fans of punk, the album as a whole is an absolute must.

18. Fascination - Confidence Man: One more from party album of the year Confident Music For Confident People to wrap things up on an upbeat notethis time the record's ecstatic Screamdelica-inspired closer.

Monday, February 11, 2019

McQ's Favorite Albums Of 2018

Okay, getting started with filling out our personal year-end rankings for 2018, another interesting year, but one completely lacking in elite albums.  First year in a long while where there wasn't at least one title that felt worthy of a highest recommend, but that is definitely the case for 2018. 

That said, a number of excellent strong recommends and very high end solids, so still an entertaining and music year overall.

We'll be adding 2-5 titles every couple of weeks to these ranking for the first half of 2019 until the summer release of of our best of 2018 mix collection, but as of now, here's where things stand.

Highest Recommends

1a. Wide Awake - Parquet Courts:

What It Is: If one includes their 2017 collaboration with Daniele Luppi Milano, then Wide Awake is the prolific New York-by-way-of-Texas-based Americana punk outfit's sixth proper release since their brilliant 2013 debut Light Up Gold. A whip-smart album that tackles pretty much all of America's contemporary political issues with tons of humor from a wise beyond-their-years, big picture geopolitical and multi-generational perspective, there has never been an album that presents the Baby-Boomer / Millennial schism as starkly and defiantly as this (its bleak central thesis - the world's major problems are almost entirely the boomer's fault, but nothing is going to get straightened out until their politically overwhelming numbers start dying off, and that can't happen soon enough).  Danger Mouse handles production duties for the first time for the band on this latest Rough Trade release which clocks in at 38:37.

What I Like Best: Where to start? In a soft year for exceptional albums, Parquet Courts' Wide Awake is one of 2018's clear standouts, and while it may not be as persuasively forceful a punk mantra as Idles' Joy As An Act Of Resistance, it is to my ears the smartest album of the year. It is also, with its vibrant mix of Minutemen, Beastie Boys, Franz Ferdinand, Pavement, and Black Keys influences, more fun than any 2018 album other than Confident Music For Confident People listed just below.  Danger Mouse continues his scorching-hot production streak of the last few years, opening up and expanding the Court's sound like never before, resulting in, if not their best album (my vote still goes to Light Up, Gold), their funkiest and without question their most sonically and stylistically adventurous.  Buoyed by fantastic rapid-fire lyricism, a marvelous, Paul's Boutique-styled lack of predictability, and some of the best shout-along rock choruses since Car Seat Headrest's Teens Of Denial, this album should appeal to just about any fan of humor-laden art-rock / cowboy-punk, and captures the helter-skelter psychological chaos of the Trump Era better than any album I've heard to date. 
Intangibles: High
Cherry Picker's Best BetsTotal FootballViolenceBefore The Water Gets Too HighAlmost Had To Start A Fight/In And Out Of PatienceFreebird IINormalizationWide AwakeTenderness.

1b. Confident Music For Confident People - Confidence Man: Ridiculous, beyond campy, stuffed with jokes that fall flat as often as they land, and as musically derivative as albums come, with every note anchored in some obvious past accomplishment of LCD Soundsystem, The Talking Heads, The Ting Tings, Right Said Fred, Todd Terje, Scissor Sisters, Junior Senior, or most prominently, Screamadelica-era Primal Scream, Confident Music For Confident People is nonetheless one of 2018's two best albums and the unquestioned party album of the year. An unrelentingly funky, bubble-gummish good time that just builds and builds and builds in momentum until the final ecstatic notes of closing track Fascination, the album's mission is clear; make it safe, in this poptimist era of unattainable diva dance perfection, for the rhythmically-challenged dorks of the world to return to the dance floor. And on that count, this album succeeds brilliantly. A better time on record did not exist in 2018.
Intangibles: Very High
Cherry Picker's Best Bets: There's not a miss on this album, but if I had to choose - Boyfriend (Repeat), C.O.O.L Party, Out The Window, Bubblegum, Better Sit Down Boy.

3. Double Negative - Low: Hands down the year's best art-rock effort, Low's Double Negative warps the band's traditionally gorgeous vocal harmonies with all manner of glitchy electronic and volume control effects. But rather than destroying the appeal of those harmonies, the jarring arrangement approach here shows just how enduring they are. A career high point from the Minnesota act that's been at for over two decades now, an album that while undeniably challenging at first, reveals itself overtime to bit unlike anything that's come before.
Intangibles: High.
Cherry Picker's Best Bets: Dancing And Blood, Fly, Always Up, Always Trying To Work It Out, Dancing And Fire.

4. Joy As An Act Of Resistance - IDLES: England's most popular and critically hailed album of 2018 is in-your-face, old-fashioned punk of the highest order, and while the album may be a challenge for those who prefer their punk with a more melodic bent and a smidgen of instrumental variation,  there is simply no denying the forcefulness and impact of this album's aggressive, cathartic streamlined roar or the brilliance of its urgent, cutting lyrics. The specter of Brexit and micro-targeted  marketing hovers over the whole proceeding like an invading force that must be resisted, and resist, time and again, IDLES does. From punishing opener Colossus to the toxic masculinity bashing Samaritans to the diversity embracing Danny Nedelko to the fear of change trashing GreatJoy As An Act Of Resistance is a call to arms for anyone that refuses to let fear, prejudice, and bitterness be the ruling emotions of their life. The monochromatic tunelessness of the album's approach is the only factor preventing me from giving this album a highest recommend. Fantastic stuff and what will probably be viewed decades from now as the most important release of 2018.
Intangibles: High
Cherry Picker's Best Bets: ColossusDanny NedelkoSamaritansTelevisionGreat.

Strong Recommends

5. In A Poem Unlimited - U. S. Girls: My personal favorite from another 10s' year that's offered up a bumper crop of fantastic female rock and singer-songwriter efforts, In A Poem Unlimited is among the most varied and rocking of the bunch. A second decade breakthrough for Chicago-raised, Toronto-based indie-artist Meghan Remy, the album shifts effortlessly between hip, Bowie-esque glam, Stevie Nick's-inspired west coast rock, Blondie-ish new wave,  and breathless electro pop in equal measure, and still somehow manages to hit a few other styles in between. Loose and live in feel, with a pointed sense of humor, it's a winner front to back. 
Intangibles: Above Average to High.
Cherry Picker's Best Bets: Velvet For Sale, Rage Of Plastics, Rosebud, L-Over, Time.

6. Persona - Rival Consoles: My favorite electronic release of 2018, Rival Consoles' Persona, inspired by the Igmar Bergman film of the same name, picks a fittingly icy palette located somewhere on the stylistic spectrum between Caribou's Swim and chill wave darling Memory Tapes' Seek Magic, and then works that chosen palette through 12 remarkably consistent, moving, and memorably melodic variations.
Intangibles: Above Average
Cherry Picker's Best Bets: Persona, Sun's Abandon, Dreamer's Wake, Hidden.

7. Dirty Computer - Janelle Monae: Though the #1 album of 2018 in most aggregate polls, Dirty Computer is not Monae's best work.  That honor still belongs to 2010's much more varied and higher peaked The Archandroid. What Dirty Computer is is a very effective shift away from the persona/science fictional story telling that has dominated Monae's work up to this point and into the world of personal confession and a Prince-scaled level of sexual frankness. In truth, from the similarity between the albums' titles, the black-and-white diamond lattice pattern that adorns both album covers, and the energy and vibe of the music itself, Prince's Dirty Mind informs and influences everything on Dirty Computer, and Dirty Computer is all the better for it. The album's first half is pretty much dynamite, the second half falls of so precipitously after Make Me Feel until closer Americans that it almost drives the album down into Solid Recommend territory. But in the end, the quality of its opening half, especially the gorgeous Brian Wilson-aided title track, the lively Zoe Kravitz-assisted Screwed, and the Prince-resurrecting Make Me Feel, is enough to earn the album a worthy strong recommend. More puritanical listeners may be put off by some of the album's sexual explicitness (though it's rarely as coarse you're run of the mill hip-hop album), but as a statement to freeing oneself through an honest acceptance of everything that makes one who they are (as opposed to just those aspects of our personalities we want the public to see), the album is fairly exceptional, and feels like the perfect cultural fit for these #metoo-dominated.
Intangibles: Above Average
Cherry Picker's Best Bets: Dirty Computer, Screwed, Pynk, Make Me Feel.

Solid Recommends

8. Golden Hour - Kacey Musgraves: The year's biggest cross-over country effort and Grammy winner for album of the year is as much contemporary pop as it is country,  and it isn't as loaded with elite-level songwriting efforts as the ubiquitous gushing reviews would have one believe, but a couple of off-the-charts-great songs, starting with Slow Burn (possibly the best mellow song of the 2018 in any genre), clarity of tone, and an amazingly glossy, gorgeous production sheen help elevate the album throughout to make it one of 2018's most consistently beautiful listens.
Intangibles: High (for the phenomenal production work)
Cherry Picker's Best Bets: Slow Burn, Oh What A World, High Horse, Space Cowboy, Lonely Weekend.

9. Isolation - Kali Uchis: Even though I consider Isolation one of the year's best contemporary pop albums and it's got much of the same production gloss sheen that hallmarks other recent poptimist standouts like Lorde's Melodrama, SZA's CTRL, and Kacey Musgraves Golden Hour,  there is no question that the primary touchstones for most of Isolation's music goes a decade back to the excellent mid-aughts work of naught British retro-crooners like Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse. I found the whole breezy affair highly enjoyable, though I will say the standout tracks listened in the Cherry Picker's Best Bets are significantly stronger than most of the other material on the album.
Intangibles: Above Average
Cherry Picker's Best Bets: Body Language, Miami, Dead To Me, Feel Like A Fool.

10. Be The Cowboy - Mitski: Though the more broadly popular Dirty Computer took the overall aggregate title in 2018, no album in 2018 landed more first place rankings in individual publication lists than this one.  And on one level, it's easy to see why! While very much rooted in the indie and contemporary pop sounds of its moment, on another level, Be The Cowboy feels like a genuine attempt to join the ranks of era-defining female Singer-Songwriter efforts like Tapestry, Blue, Court & Spark, To Bring You My Love, Exile In Guyville, and Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit.  It's not quite as good as any of those albums, but the fact that it's fully worthy of being mentioned in the same conversation as those albums is testament enough to just how high quality much of Be The Cowboy's material is. A much weaker final third and the few goofy, misguided arrangement choices that diminish a couple of otherwise strong songs are all the prevents me from moving this album into Strong Recommend territory
Intangibles: Above Average
Cherry Picker's Best Bets: Geyser, Lonesome Love, Me And My Husband, Nobody, Two Slow Dancers.

11. Chris - Christine & The Queens:

12. Songs Of Praise - Shame:

13. Bark Your Head Off, Dog! - Hop Along:

14. Lush - Snail Mail:

15. Kids See Ghosts - s/t:

16. Honey - Robyn:

17. Microshift - Hookworms: For its opening ten minutes, Leeds-based Hookworms' fourth release Microshift, which finds the hazy, organ-drenched psych rockers incorporating more pop and electronic elements this time out, plays like a best album of 2018 contender.  Opener Negative Space is probably the best psych-rock track of the year, even despite some plagiaristic design similarities to Tame Impala's Be Above It, and second track Static Resistance almost matches the opener in quality. Two more fine tracks Ullswater and the atmospheric The Soft Season follow that killer 1-2 punch, and then things then start going south quickly and keep descending until closer Shortcomings, which salvages the back half of the record a bit. Still, the first half of this album is so strong and so damn propulsive that that alone is enough to lift Microshift into the upper tier of our 2018 solid recommends. It's an album that could have been the band's commerical breakthrough, but very troubling midyear #metoo allegations against the band's lead singer led to the band's demise this year and torpedoed any chance of year end recognition
Intangibles: Average
Cherry Picker's Best Bets: Negative Space, Static Resistance, Ullswater, The Soft Season.

18. 7 - Beach House:

19. Heaven And Earth - Kamasi Washington:

20. Room 25 - Noname:

21. Twin Fantasy - Car Seat Headrest:

22. Hope Downs - Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever:

23. Cocoa Sugar - Young Fathers:

24. Daytona - Pusha T:

25. Ruins - First Aid Kit:

26. Safe In The Hands Of Love - Yves Tumor:

27. Beyondless - Iceage:

28. Ordinary Corrupt Human Love - Deafheaven:

29. Tell Me How You Really Feel - Courtney Barnett:

30. Reidi - Black Foxxes:

31. Transangelic Exodus - Ezra Furman:

32. The Sciences - Sleep:

Mild Recommends

33. Marble Skies - Django Django: Though everything about London art-rockers Django Django has always felt borrowed, their blend of new wave, Dick Dale surf rock, 60s garage-rock harmonies  (really great garage rock harmonies btw), and contemporary electronic dance influences has always merged into a sound uniquely and unquestionably their own.  And at times, when they nail it, their music is fantastic, but to date, they've always struck me as more of a singles act than album artists, delivering two or three standout tracks on records otherwise filled with so-so material. Latest release Marble Skies reverses this trend, upping that average quality quotient quite a bit while hitting a slightly more electronic overall feel, but as much as I appreciate the greater consistency, those awesome peaks are sorely missed, leading to what is overall a decent, likable front-to-back listen, but little more.  There are few minor standouts for sure worth hearing, especially the title track, Tic Tac Toe, and In The Beat, but nothing remotely in the ballpark of say the amazing Devo-ish Default from their self-titled debut. So a solid addition to their discography for fans, but for newcomers, check out the top rated songs from the earlier albums first. That's where gold really lies.
Intangibles: Average to Slightly Low
Cherry Picker's Best Bets: Marble Skies, Tic Tac Toe, In Your Beat, Real Gone.

34. Clean - Soccer Mommy:

35. Sparkle Hard - Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks:

36. American Utopia - David Byrne: Feeling in many ways like a lesser but far more positive spin on the musical ideas explored in the Talking Head's final album Blind, American Utopia offers up enough buoyant musical moments and classic David Byrne quirks to make the album well worth checking out if you're a fan, but some very clunky lyrics and the lack of any genuinely exceptional material marks the album as a warm but relatively minor work in Byrne discography overall. That said, I do like its closing two tracks (the joyous Everybody's Coming To My House and the contemplative stroll through the regions of the brain Here) quite a bit, and both were fantastic when I saw Byrne perform them live.
Intangibles: Average
Cherry Picker's Best Bets: Gasoline And Dirty Sheets, It's Not Dark Up Here, Everybody's Coming To My House, Here.

37. Oil Of Every Pearl's Un-Insides - Sophie:



Last Updated 01/12/2019