Queen Harvest’s Top Five (5) Albums of 2018

By January of 2018, I was burned out. I had spent each of the previous 52 weeks identifying, listening to, and evaluating a new album. Though I got a lot out of my 2017 music mission, I did not have the energy or interest to invest in a lot of new music. As a result, my 2018 listening list is meager. Even so, the magic of music is such that you fall in love with whatever you give your time to. I only invested in a few albums in 2018, but those albums provided me with hefty returns.

5. Sure Sure (Sure Sure, 2018)

Favorite Song: “Koreatown”

suresure

This eponymous debut album is like an ice cold Sprite: bright and airy, flavorful and poppy, and uncaffeinated. The back half of the album is not as strong as the first (with the exception of “Hands Up Head Down”), but when it’s good it’s good. Sure Sure uses their punchy, unique sound to create truly remarkable songs. Every time I hear “Friends” or “New Biome,” it feels like I’m hearing it for the first time.

4. Marry Me (St. Vincent, 2007)

Favorite Song: “Paris is Burning”

marryme

I listened to Marry Me as the methodical first step toward Getting Into St. Vincent. I’d never heard her music, but second-hand descriptions indicated that she and I would get along. Experience confirms my initial hypothesis.

Marry Me allows me to flex my superpower, which is the ability to point out when a song sounds like The Beatles; I detect a strong whiff of Revolver in “Now Now” and “Your Lips Are Red.” In an additional favorable comparison, the piano in “All My Stars Aligned” could be a B-side of Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane.” “Paris is Burning” is a semi-timeless anthem for a city with a tendency for revolution. The title track is a deliberate march toward an unhappy romance.

Reflecting on this album, I’m surprised to realize that the music stands out to me more than the lyrics. This is normal for many, but highly unusual for a lyric-hound like me. St. Vincent’s lyrics perfectly complement the music, and perhaps that is why the sound cuts through so clearly.

3. Worry. (Jeff Rosenstock, 2016)

Favorite Song: “Staring Out the Window At Your Old Apartment”

worry.

Worry. is terrible on paper. Rosenstock doesn’t have a great singing voice. The lyrics are often incomprehensible, and most of the time the songs aren’t even finished. In action, Worry. is wondrous. It is not a collection of singles, but a unified album. It is symphonic in the way songs flow one into the other, the energy rising and falling and crescendoing and collapsing, echos and reflections of words and messages reappearing throughout. Worry. is full of earworms that stick around for weeks–all the more dangerous because they are short and unable to be resolved.

2. The Immaculate Collection (Madonna, 1990)

Favorite Song: “Into the Groove”

immaculatecollection

Before 2018, I could list half a dozen Madonna singles, but I couldn’t sing you more than two. (“Holiday” is played in pop culture pretty regularly, and I knew “Lucky Star” from a scene in Snatch.) “Material Girl,” “Like a Virgin,” and “Papa Don’t Preach” were just titles to me. Now that I’ve listened to The Immaculate Collection roughly six hundred times, I have what may be a shocking, fresh perspective on Madonna. It is my personal opinion that she makes catchy, delightful, perfect pop songs. Hell, I’d consider her pop royalty. A duchess, perhaps? I may be inviting conflict by saying so, but I stand by it.

1. Invasion of Privacy (Cardi B, 2018)

Favorite Song: “Bickenhead”

invasionofprivacy

As so often precedes my forays into current music, I just wanted to understand what all the fuss was about. And once again, I was infected by the fuss. Cardi B’s take-no-prisoners, give-no-fucks attitude is empowering as hell, and came to me at the moment I needed to feel strong. She is everything I want in a songwriter–her lyrics are funny, playful, and nonstop. I can’t count how many times I’ve gone through this thought cycle: “I love this song! I should sing it at karaoke.” *actually listens to song* “Whoops! Can’t say that word, won’t say that word, that entire verse is off limits. Never mind.” (But I still haven’t ruled out karaoke for good.)

Honorable Mentions

I’ll Be Your Girl (The Decemberists, 2018) Certainly not the strongest Decemberists album, but it definitely grew on me. The band knows it–they didn’t even play the title track during their promotional tour. Superpower at it again: “Rusalka, Rusalka” opens similarly to The Smiths’ “Last Night I Dreamt that Somebody Loved Me.”

CLPPING (clipping., 2014) Daveed Diggs and company play with sound, words, rhythm, rhyme, meter, and anything else they can get their hands on. “Taking Off” is a mathematical masterpiece, and “Work Work” without fail makes me move.

Looking Toward the Future

Still somewhat reacting to 2017, I am not putting minimums on my music intake for 2019. One guiding principle that has naturally taken shape is this: I don’t have the energy to listen to men sing about women they don’t care about. I’ve heard enough of that point of view. Otherwise, I will take music as it finds me.

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2017: Third Quarter Note

I feel like several years have passed since the second quarter of 2017. For reference, in the last three months I have graduated with a master’s degree, left my job of over three years, and moved across the country to start my career in a new landscape and climate, where I know no one but my cat. The change of routine (when am I even supposed to listen to music?) and the change of focus (do I need a vermicultural habitat for my apartment?) have allowed me somewhat to neglect my album project.

Pre-life transition, I primarily listened to music (1) driving to and from work, and (2) working out at the gym. Post-life transition, I don’t drive to work and I don’t have a gym. It took a couple weeks, but I have discovered two rich mines of previously unavailable musical opportunity: (1) walking to and from work, and (2) during work. Music enhances these experiences, and the experiences make the music better.

As always, my impersonal rating system follows. The mid-level three-star rating has come to mean “I’d like to hear these songs mixed into a playlist, if not the whole album in sequence.”

★★★★★ I listen to it regularly.
★★★★☆ I will listen to it again.
★★★☆☆ I wouldn’t mind listening to it (in a mix).
★★☆☆☆ If it comes on I won’t turn it off.
★☆☆☆☆ I’m not interested in hearing it again.

Week Twenty-Seven

The_Knife_-_Deep_CutsThe Knife – Deep Cuts (2003) ★★★★★

I can hardly believe I’ve only known this album a few weeks. Every time I listen to Deep Cuts (which is often) I’m surprised by how many tracks knock my socks off. Whether in the car, at home, or working out, “Heartbeats” gives me no choice but to do body rolls for the duration. When I hear “Is It Medicine” and “Got 2 Let U,” I feel the full-body musical experience I imagine is sought when people go clubbing. I love this album so much.

Week Twenty-Eight

CureDisintegrationThe Cure – Disintegration (1989)
★★★☆☆

I don’t dislike anything about this album. Perhaps one must be in a certain mood or in a certain time of life for it to click, and I am not there. I can imagine other times when it would have hit me harder. As I am, I can see its appeal, but it doesn’t speak to my soul.

 Week Twenty-Nine

Sky_Blue_Sky_(Wilco)Wilco – Sky Blue Sky (2007)★★★★☆

Wilco is consistently brought up in The Next Bob Dylan conversation, and now I get it. The resemblance to Jack White’s music is particularly satisfying.

Week Thirty

SantogoldalbumSantogold – Santogold (1980)
★★★☆☆

From song to song, Santogold may sound like Gwen Stefani, MIA, or Sixpence None the Richer. All I can do is marvel at her talent.

Week Thirty-One

Sheperd's-dog (Iron & Wine)Iron & Wine – The Shepherd’s Dog (2007)★★★★★

The Shepherd’s Dog is addictive. I get sucked in to the hypnotic musical jangle and the continuous lyrical patter. For so many years I thought of Iron & Wine was some band ~other people~ listened to. My loss! I love this album.

Week Thirty-Two

Cate_Le_Bon_Mug_Museum_album_coverCate le Bon – Mug Museum (2013) ★★★☆☆

Mug Museum sounds like Tender Buttons with a healthy dash of Nico. Through repeated listens, the surface ‘60s airy sound gives way to a more complex collection of tunes.

 Week Thirty-Three

Pixies-DoolittleThe Pixies – Doolittle (1989)★★★★☆

The Pixies confound genre definition. They can scream like nu metal, play guitar like surf rock, and write lyrics like an indie band. Some of the songs on Doolittle sound like earlier versions of songs I already love from Bossanova. “Hey” and “La La Love You” are very special to me.

Week Thirty-Four

Fully_Completely (The Tragically Hip)The Tragically Hip – Fully Completely (1992)
★★★★☆

News of Gordon Downie’s illness brought a lot of attention to The Tragically Hip this year; I wasn’t previously aware of their importance in Canadian and musical culture.  I really enjoy Fully Completely’s irresistible, energetic rhythms and powerful lyrics. In a world of Canadian musicians accommodating the U.S. market, they also stand out as unapologetically Canadian. Even if I don’t get the references, it feels real and truthful.

Week Thirty-Five

Kesha_-_RainbowKesha – Rainbow (2017)★★★★★

None of us saw this coming. It took a couple of middle aged podcast men to convince me I should listen to a Kesha album, and I’m very glad they did. “Boogie Feet” and “Woman” are undeniable feel-good songs. There’s something about “Spaceship,” with its mesmeric melody and oddly hopeful lyrics, that takes my breath away every time.

 Week Thirty-Six

Dopamine (Borns)Børns – Dopamine (2015)
★★★☆☆

I was prejudiced against Dopamine prior to hearing it because I hate the album cover. Dopamine is generic, hear-it-in-any-commercial pop music. Even so, this album is full of bangers, and I admit I came to enjoy it quite a bit.

Week Thirty-Seven

Welcome Home ('Til Tuesday)’Til Tuesday – Welcome Home (1986) ★★★★☆

Aimee Mann’s music always strikes me as good driving music, particularly “David Denies,” which is on repeat in my head all the time.

 

 Week Thirty-Eight

Brick Body Kids Still Daydream (Open Mike Eagle)Open Mike Eagle – Brick Body Kids Still Daydream (2017)
★★★★☆

These songs sound like no others I’ve ever heard. Open Mike Eagle has a unique voice and style. Even when I don’t know what he means I can tell it’s meaningful.

 Week Thirty-Nine

PrintFlight of the Conchords – I Told You I Was Freaky (2009)★★★☆☆

This album has a lot of funny. I’ve loved “Carol Brown” for years; it is a perfect song.

Fourth Quarter Projections

Even though the third quarter did not hit the high heights of the second (see: Cher and the Great Comet), it did not drop to the valleys of the previous quarter, either. Overall I enjoyed more of the albums an average amount, which is all I can ask.

I am committed to finishing the year out strong. There are still many crowd-sourced recommendations I haven’t listened to, and I will try to attend to those before I close up shop.

2017: Second Quarter Note

Since my First Quarter Note I have diligently, doggedly, at times reluctantly, maintained a rigorous schedule of listening to a new album of music each week. There have been difficult dry spells when I felt burned out (See Weeks 17-19) and times of glorious abundance when I had the world on a string (See Week 22). This self-imposed pursuit of music has not had a 100% success rate, but my persistence continues to reward me with gems from time to time.

Again, my impersonal rating system:

★★★★★ I listen to it regularly.
★★★★☆ I will listen to it again.
★★★☆☆ I wouldn’t mind listening to it.
★★☆☆☆ If it comes on I won’t turn it off.
★☆☆☆☆ I’m not interested in hearing it again.

Week Fourteen

Purple RainPrince – Purple Rain (1984) ★★★★☆

Until his death, I was not aware that Prince was considered a serious musician. I only knew him as a punchline and a very strange recurring SNL character. Thankfully my misunderstanding has been corrected, and I can fully enjoy his smooth voice and banging tunes. The Purple Rain songs I know from the radio (“When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy”) are even better in context. “Take Me With You” and “Darling Nikki” are two other favorites.

 Week Fifteen

Fear is on our sideI Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness – Fear Is On Our Side (2006)
★☆☆☆☆

My memory of this album: first song sounds like the Pixies, and I don’t remember a single lyric or note after.

Week Sixteen

Thing_a_Week_TwoJonathan Coulton – Thing A Week Two (2005)★★★★★

Not since Hamilton have I heard an entire album of insatiable earworms. “Chiron Beta Prime” and “Re: Your Brains” are the sci-fi novelty songs I needed in my life. “Dance, Soterios Johnson, Dance” is an absurd delight. “Stroller Town,” “Curl,” and “Don’t Talk to Strangers” are brilliant ideas, executed perfectly. “Take Care of Me” is beautiful satire, and “So Far So Good” is just beautiful.

Bonus Tunes: Kendrick Lamar – DAMN. (2017)

DAMN. is incredible by every metric–the intricate lyrics, the powerful beats, the unity as a concept album, the depth of the concept.

Week Seventeen

Through_the_Looking_GlassSiouxsie and the Banshees – Through the Looking Glass (1980)
★★★☆☆

“This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” is a slamming opener, and I also enjoy “Little Johnny Jewel” and “Hall of Mirrors.” I would like to hear this album’s songs mixed into a playlist, but not necessarily as a front-to-back unit.

Week Eighteen

Led_Zeppelin_IVLed Zeppelin- Led Zeppelin IV (1971)★★☆☆☆

The softer, acoustic songs are lovely, and I learned to like “Stairway to Heaven.” This is the fourth Led Zeppelin album I have listened to (progressing chronologically through their catalog), and I have more or less resigned myself to the fact that their music is Boy Music. It is not meant for me, and it is ok if I don’t care for large portions of it.

Week Nineteen

BlacklistedNeko Case – Blacklisted (2002)
★★★☆☆

I wanted to be drawn in to Blacklisted, but that hasn’t happened. I will keep it in rotation; I think it needs more time to creep in.

Week Twenty

Power,Corruption&LiesNew Order – Power, Lies & Corruption (1983)★★★★☆

As a friend recently observed to me, New Order is “a rock band that makes dance music,” and I am grateful to finally have those words to describe them. I find long, instrumental songs rarely have lyrics worth sticking around for, but Power, Lies & Corruption has just the right mix.

 Week Twenty-One

Nancy_lee_album_coverNancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood – Nancy & Lee (1968)
★☆☆☆☆

Nancy & Lee…confuses me. I cannot tell if it is a joke. Hazelwood’s vocals on “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” are so poor, so painful, that I don’t know why else someone would choose to open an album with them. Even so, some of the songs are very enjoyable, particularly “Some Velvet Morning.”

Week Twenty-Two

Heart of StoneCher – Heart of Stone (1989)★★★★★

This may sound like an overstatement, but Heart of Stone is the greatest album of all time. “Just Like Jesse James” is a masterpiece of raw energy and lyrical wonder that could only become manifest through the power of our blessed goddess, Cher.

Bonus Tunes: Original Broadway Cast – Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 (2017)

This musical captures with remarkable effect the social interactions and subtle character portraits of great Russian novels. The music flows masterfully between grand orchestral style and modern electronica. The performance of each singer is striking and unique: Sonya’s dark, sweet voice; Anatole’s foppish, hair metal crooning; Natasha’s naivete cut with lines like a stake through the heart. “Dust and Ashes” is the “Memory” of the 21st century. I love this album.

Week Twenty-Three

Violent_FemmesViolent Femmes – Violent Femmes (1983)
★★★★☆

Even more stripped down Modern Lovers. I like it! Considering the fact that I thought “Blister In the Sun” came out in the early 1990s, I suspect this band influenced a lot of those grungy folks. (I’m receiving word that I’m the last person to realize this. Yup. Common knowledge. Got it. Over and out.)

 Week Twenty-Four

Waiting_on_a_SongDan Auerbach – Waiting on a Song (2017) ★★☆☆☆

Like a lot of recently released music, each track on Waiting on a Song sounds like a tribute to 1970s genre music. Some are especially catchy, like “Malibu Man” and “Cherrybomb,” while others are more clever, like the title track and “Stand by My Girl.”

Week Twenty-Five

Boys_and_Girls_in_America_coverThe Hold Steady – Boys and Girls in America (2006)
★☆☆☆☆

This album plays like a series of indie movies about bored white people doing drugs. Arena rock is not my scene.

Bonus Tunes: The Killers – “The Man” (2017)

Another new song heavily influenced by the ‘70s. I’m guessing this is somewhat satirical, but it’s a pretty hot jam. I look forward to the release of the album.

Week Twenty-Six

Aimee_Mann_-_WhateverAimee Mann – Whatever (1993)★★★★☆

At the intersection of Joni Mitchell and Liz Phair, Whatever balances beauty and skepticism using incredible songwriting. “Say Anything” and “I Should’ve Known” rock especially hard. I don’t know if another song like “Mr. Harris” exists.

Third Quarter Projections

I enter the second half of 2017 without expectation. There are many albums remaining on my to-listen list, both from external recommendations and personal choice. I have faith that the next 26 weeks will bring me the music I need to hear; I will keep my ear to the ground and my heart open.

2017: First Quarter Note

The first fourth of 2017 is mercifully behind us. Thanks to the recommendations of friends, strangers, and society-at-large, my weeks have been full of new music of all shapes and sizes. Every Sunday I choose an album to which I’ve never listened, and throughout the week I listen to it at least five times (to give it a fair shake). Here is how I’ve been struck by albums in 2017 so far.

N.B. My rating system is not based on objective quality, but on the likelihood of me ever choosing to listen to the album again. It’s personal to me, so don’t take it personal.

★★★★★ I love it, and it’s already a regular listen.
★★★★☆ I like it a lot and will definitely play it again.
★★★☆☆ I like it, but I may not listen to it often.
★★☆☆☆ If it comes on I won’t turn it off.
★☆☆☆☆ I’m not interested in hearing it again.

Week One

The Jam – In the City (1977)1 The_Jam_-_In_the_City
★★★☆☆

A punk band with interesting chord structures and actually meaningful lyrics, I started off the year hot and hopping with The Jam. Especial favorites are “Away from the Numbers” and “I Got By In Time.”

Bonus Tunes: Talking Heads – Little Creatures (1985)

I have listened to Little Creatures more than any other album all year. I can’t get over how much I like Talking Heads.

Week Two

2 Outkast-atliensOutKast – ATLiens (1996)
★★☆☆☆

For reasons I cannot quite identify, ATLiens had a depressive effect on me. Of the many clever rhymes, my favorite is from “Elevators:”
Yes, we done come a long way like them slim-ass cigarettes from Virginia
This ain’t gon’ stop, so we just gon’ continue

Bonus Tunes: Kanye West – “Monster” (2010)

I wanted to know what all the fuss was about w/r/t Nicki Minaj’s verse on this song. I understand now.

Week Three

Sleigh Bells – Treats (2010)3 Sleigh_Bells_-_Treats
★★★★★

This album is exactly why I started this project. I had never heard of Sleigh Bells, and if I had, I am sure I would have dismissed them as “not my kind of music.” Thanks to a friend’s recommendation, I get to enjoy this fresh, high energy, positive, killer album.

Week Four

4 Dead_Kennedys_-_Fresh_Fruit_for_Rotting_Vegetables_coverDead Kennedys – Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (1980)
★★★★★

Folks, this is what it’s all about. With relentless rock and righteous lyrics, Dead Kennedys condemn you, your mom, and your worst enemy. Everybody can go to hell equally. I’m in.

Bonus Tunes: Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3 (2016)

This album is the reason I signed up for Apple Music–I was tired of hearing about popular releases but not experiencing them. Now I know I love Run the Jewels.

Week Five

Emmylou Harris- Roses in the Snow (1980)5 Roses_in_the_Snow_(Emmylou_Harris_album_-_cover_art)
★★☆☆☆

The problem with covering “The Boxer” is it’s probably better than anything else on the album (see also: Mumford & Sons’ Babel bonus tracks). “Root Like a Rose” and “Miss the Mississippi and You” are very strong, and I always like a Wronged Woman tune. Crazy to think this album and Fresh Fruit were released in the same year.

Week Six

6 WallflowersBringingDowntheHorseThe Wallflowers – Bringing Down the Horse (1996)
★★☆☆☆

Like many albums of the 1990s, I am convinced I could make Bringing Down the Horse better by cutting three songs, and 30-90 seconds from most of those remaining. If anyone would like to pay me to do this, please contact my agent.

Bonus Tunes: Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels (2013)

There are a few verses on this album that make me bona fide bowled over. Specifically, Killer Mike’s Tyson lines in “Job Well Done” and his description of taking Molly in “No Come Down” are incredible.

Week Seven

Broadcast – Tender Buttons (2005)7 Tenderbuttons
★★★★☆

Another electronic rock album that I would have never chosen on my own. Tender Buttons crept under my skin and stayed there.

Week Eight

8 Cheap_Trick_One_on_OneCheap Trick – One on One (1984)
★☆☆☆☆

This is probably a very exciting album for 14 year old boys.

Bonus Tunes: The Kinks – The Kinks Are the Village Preservation Society (1968)

In a world of British bands pretending to be American, The Kinks proudly sing about the Village Green and the Sherlock Holmes English-Speaking Vernacular. “Picture Book” is a Grade-A fantastic song, and this album is a joy.

Week Nine

Television – Marquee Moon (1977)9 Marquee_moon_album_cover
★★★★★

I know I like a band/album when I enjoy the 10-minute song with a five-minute guitar solo. I can’t stop singing “Prove It” and “Torn Curtain” to myself.

Week Ten

10 The_Pirate's_GospelAlela Diane – The Pirate’s Gospel (2004)
★★☆☆☆

Nice songs, like a B-grade Rhiannon Giddens.

Bonus Tunes: Migos – “Bad and Boujee” (2016)

I wanted to know what all the fuss was about w/r/t every single person on earth talking about this song. I understand now.

Week Eleven

The Mountain Goats – Sunset Tree (2005)11 Themountaingoatsthesunsettreealbumcover
★★★★☆

This album continues to grow on me. I am strongly reminded of The Decemberists, with less death and more drugs.

Week Twelve

12 Licensed_to_illBeastie Boys – Licensed to Ill (1986)
★★★☆☆

This album goes down easy, like a meal of Budweiser and White Castle.

Bonus Tunes: Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2 (2014)

RTJ2 might include the most obscene song I’ve ever heard. Doesn’t stop this old prude from enjoying it! My personal RTJ ranking: 1, 3, 2. Can’t wait to see them this summer.

Week Thirteen

The Sundays – Reading, Writing & Arithmetic (1990)13 Sundays-readingwritingarithmetic
★★★★★

Sometimes I pick an album because I’ve been eyeing it for years; other albums I pick because I hear people on an old podcast raving about a band I’ve never heard of. The Sundays are very The Smiths-y, and I’m grateful I listened to that episode of Do You Need A Ride? I’m so excited to have this album, and The Sundays’ other albums, to listen to.

Second Quarter Projections

Kicking off Quarter Two with some long-overdue Prince. I have a lot of albums ready to go, but I’m still accepting recommendations. If you have a favorite album, an album you want everyone to hear, or just an album you think I would like, please send it along!

Queen Harvest’s Top Five (5) Albums of 2016

This year was not my most musically adventurous. I spent a lot of listening time on podcasts (SSDGM), lecture series (Russia, Ulysses, Ireland), and Hamilton (again), and made minimal efforts seek out new music. I have decided to take action against musical malaise next year. I will listen to a new album every week, at least four times to make sure they get a chance to sink in. I crowdsourced a long list of albums (some new, all new to me), and I am excited to get started. Until then, here are the albums that I enjoyed the most in 2016.

5. Rocket to Russia (Ramones, 1977)

Favorite Song: “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker”

ramones_-_rocket_to_russia_cover

Listening to Rocket to Russia, I can almost hear the crowded New York club, filled with rollicking girls and  rowdy boys. The songs are not meant to be played cleanly into a silent space (like my car), but played with living energy and breathing motion, directly into the bodies of the listener. Once I got over the impression that the album was made of two songs, each rewritten several times, I found joy in the simple lyrics and driving beats. The repetition and pace are hypnotic. On the downside: I can’t imagine why they included “Surfin’ Bird.” The Clash would never do that.

4. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (The Flaming Lips, 2002)

Favorite Song: “Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell”

theflaminglips-yoshimibattlesthepinkrobotsOne impression of Yoshimi: So this is what all those indie bands are trying to do.

Though I was initially wary of the musical interludes (I am a lyrics-first person), I soon found the melodies crawling under my skin, making themselves a backing track to my day. Once the lyrics broke through, they hit me squarely in the chakra. The Flaming Lips’ new age philosophy (which is really old age philosophy) in catchy rhythms with just a touch of science fiction makes for a fun and beautiful album that grows on me more with every listen.

3. Sail Away (Randy Newman, 1972)

Favorite Song: “Sail Away”

randy_newman-sail_away_album_cover

Any communication folks have had with me this year has probably included some version of me melting into “Randy Newman is a genius.” Randy Newman is so good at satire, you can love and know every word of his songs and not even know they have meaning beyond

their face value. The title track of Sail Away feels like freedom–sail away, cross the ocean, stop running, take care of your home–but it is a lie coaxing someone to surrender themselves into bondage. “Political Science” is one of the funniest songs I know. At the same time,

it simply relates a terrifying endpoint of American exceptionalism (they’re of no use to us, drop the big one). Newman is not a religious man, so you know his two songs on God, “He Gives Us All His Love” and “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind),” mean more than meets the eye. Then there is “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” which is just a jam.

Each Newman album has a handful of gutpunches. Standouts to me are “Jolly Coppers on Parade” and “Baltimore” on Little Criminals and “Rednecks” and “Kingfish” on Good Old Boys. I have not begun to crack the all nuts that are Randy Newman songs, but there is a whole barrel worth gnawing on. Because I don’t know if you realize this, but Randy Newman is a genius.

2. The Modern Lovers (The Modern Lovers, 1976)

Favorite Song: “I’m Straight”

the_modern_lovers_albumThis album is a gem. I am grateful for John Hodgman’s continual pushing of “Roadrunner” that finally brought The Modern Lovers to me. Jonathan Richman sounds like a self-aware teenager doing an impression of a regular horny teenager. “Pablo Picasso” is the comeback of a rejected adolescent bemoaning the injustices of life and love. “Government Center” is a ‘60s garage band playing a ‘50s dance number. Great music, great lyrics, great delivery. Richman loves the Old World but wants to live in the Modern World, and I want to live in the Modern World with him.

1. Blackstar (David Bowie, 2016)

Favorite Song: “Girl Loves Me”

I may not have listened to Blackstar much this year if David Bowie had not died; perhaps I would not feel the weight of its greatness under different circumstances. Nevertheless, Blackstar is inseparable from Bowie’s death–the themes of age, illness, legacy, and life are felt in every song. Bowie knew he was leaving and he gave us Blackstar as a parting gift. The man who once had Friday on his mind is now wondering “where the f*¢k did Monday go?”

blackstar_front_coverTechnically, Blackstar is not “my kind” of music. But there are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music. Whether it is folk, funk, metal, or jazz, David Bowie makes good music. Like a symphony the title track carries the listener from movement to movement, and somehow drops you off where you started with no memory of the return. “Sue (or In a Season of Crime)” is a slow ballad sung over a breakneck jazz beat in a triumph of musical engineering. “Lazarus,” “Dollar Days,” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away” are mesmerizing, haunting, heartfelt reflections in peak Bowie style.

There is an old monk in a Robertson Davies novel who laments that since Jesus died at 33 he did not have the opportunity to teach the monk how to be old. There is no end of music describing the pleasures and sorrows of youth, but many of us will grow old and all of us will die. In his final months Bowie turned his inner state into art, as he had so many times before, and we are all his beneficiaries.

Honorable Mentions

Little Creatures (Talking Heads, 1985)
The only reason Little Creatures didn’t crack my top five is because I only started listening to it in the last week of 2016. “Stay Up Late?” Are you kidding me with this? Of course.

Hamilton Mixtape (Various Artists, 2016)
I’m not as Hamilton-crazed as I once was, but the Mixtape mostly nailed it. Kelly Clarkson’s “It’s Quiet Uptown” is magnificent. The original tracks “Immigrants” and “Say Yes to This” have convinced me that I need to listen to more rap (please don’t laugh at me).

Elephant Power (MC Yogi, 2008)
I cannot stand Christian rock, but Hindu rap I am 100% in favor of (I asked you politely not to laugh).

Here’s to 2017!

May I have 52 entries on this list next year!

Bob Dylan Wrote a Protest Album for 2016

He just released it in 1964.bob_dylan_-_the_times_they_are_a-changin27

With its black-and-white cover, solo acoustic guitar, and old school folky title, The Times They Are A-Changin’ seems like an album stuck in the music and history of fifty years ago. Nevertheless, Dylan’s songs of anger and despair each point a finger at social, economic, and political issues that are front page news every day.

Partisan Legislative Gridlock

It is all the rage lately for legislators, jurists, and other elected officials to shut down women’s health centers, dismiss evidence of institutional racism, fight against transgender rights, while ensuring that every toddler is free to handle a gun. This album’s title song calls out these pernicious obstructors and all others who stand in the way of progress. Dylan entreats writers and parents to recognize the changes taking place in their world, and warns them that resistance may leave them on the wrong side of history. Particularly relevant is the verse speaking directly to the nation’s legislators:

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
The battle outside ragin’
Will soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.

Outsourcing

If you can name an earlier or more heart-wrenching song about the negative effects of outsourcing on the American worker than “North Country Blues,” I’d like to hear it.

They complained in the East, they are paying too high
They say that your ore ain’t worth digging.

It’s much cheaper down in the South American town,
Where the miners work almost for nothing.

American Exceptionalism

In the midst of our ongoing wars against Islamic terrorists, whose side God is on remains a major issue. Terrorists, including domestic “Christian” ones, pervert religious teachings into unrecognizable licenses to kill. Many people in our country see these conflicts as the modern Christian crusades. I’ll note this remarkable example of how God can be warped to fit anyone’s agenda.

“With God on Our Side” revisits the great wars of American history. Though each was fought against a different enemy with different motives, the common thread throughout was that God was certainly rooting for the winners. (U!S!A!) In fact, all it takes to get God on your side is to agree with us. Then you’re golden.

The Second World War
Came to an end.
We forgave the Germans,
And then we were friends.
Though they murdered six million,
In the ovens they fried,
The Germans now, too, have
God on their side

If God is always on the side of the victors, Dylan goes on to reason, did Judas Iscariot have God on his side? The question remains unanswered.

Black Lives Matter

Every week there seems to be at least one national story that ends in an acquittal or refusal to charge a (typically white) person of a crime against a person of color. This album’s poetic masterpiece, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” recounts the real story of a wealthy white man who killed a black woman and was sentenced to six months in prison. “Hattie Carroll” damns the institutional racism of a legal system that protects those with “high office connections” and calls a slap on the wrist due punishment.

In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel
To show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the level
And that the strings in the books ain’t pulled and persuaded
And that even the nobles get properly handled
Once that the cops have chased after and caught ’em
And that the ladder of law has no top and no bottom
Stared at the person who killed for no reason
Who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warnin’
And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished
And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance
William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence
Oh, but you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears
Bury the rag deep in your face
For now’s the time for your tears

White Supremacy

At the time of this writing, a billionaire has convinced a large number of non-billionaire white Americans to vote him into the highest office because he promises to protect them from people who are presumed criminals or terrorists by virtue of their skin color or religion, though he can’t tell anyone how. His plan to make sure that he continues to pay less in Federal taxes than his working class constituents is much more clear, but they don’t seem to worry too much about that.

A South politician preaches to the poor white man
“You got more than blacks, don’t complain
You’re better than them, you been born with white skin” they explain
And the Negro’s name
Is used it is plain
For the politician’s gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game.

“Only A Pawn In Their Game” begins with the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers and jumps into the societal and psychological forces that mobilize poor white men against people of color. This song is remarkable in tracking the ultimate cause of such crimes back to the source: powerful people who manipulate the masses into acting out of fear and hatred in order to preserve their own power. Before the Moral Majority made white supremacy a Christian ideal for many Americans, politicians could encourage white supremacy for white supremacy’s sake.

The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid
And the marshals and cops get the same
But the poor white man’s used in the hands of them all like a tool
He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
‘Bout the shape that he’s in
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game.

The criminal is not exonerated by these lyrics; he is reduced to the insignificant, unthinking body that was used for someone else’s benefit. Medgar Evers was buried “like a king,’ while the shooter’s epitaph outlines his legacy as “only a pawn in their game.”

Hope for the Future

Every movement needs to have something to look forward to. Where the title track is a warning for those who impede progress, “When the Ship Comes In” is a celebration for freedom fighters.

And the words that are used
For to get the ship confused
Will not be understood as they’re spoken
For the chains of the sea
Will have busted in the night
And be buried at the bottom of the ocean

A song will lift
As the mainsail shifts
And the boat drifts on to the shoreline
And the sun will respect
Every face on the deck
The hour that the ship comes in.

Murder and Suicide Within Families

“Family annihilator” is the term applied to persons who murder their entire family, and usually themselves, and it is the most common type of mass murder. Though “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” is one of the more dated-sounding songs on the album, murder-suicides might be the most universal subject Dylan tackles. Dylan attempts to put us in the room with a man who sees no other option, and masterfully reminds us that the end of Hollis Brown’s problems do nothing to stem the rushing tide of human despair.

There’s seven people dead on a South Dakota farm.
There’s seven people dead on a South Dakota farm.
Somewhere’s in the distance there’s seven new people born.

Bonus Issue: Gun Control

“Masters of War” from his earlier The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan refers to the politicians who send their nation’s citizens to fight and die, while they stay safely behind desks and masks. In our era, this song captures not only revulsion against foreign wars, but also an American Congress beholden to the NRA.

You fasten all the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you sit back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion
While the young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud
You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain’t worth the blood
That runs in your veins

I’ll Bid Farewell

Many of us grew up learning about the 1960s’ Civil Rights Movement as a historical event, like the French Revolution. Recent years have made it impossible to ignore that the struggles of minorities never ended, war is not over, and suffering of all kinds continues.

Dylan is able to walk the line between art and politics, when he chooses to do so, and create human stories with effects that the intervening 50+ years have not diminished. His ability and output are unique in this respect. Neil Young’s “Ohio,” referencing Nixon and Kent State student protests, is too specific to be much more than a cultural artifact. The more general “If I Had a Hammer” doesn’t really translate to the present day.Of course, tastes in music have changed such that The Times They Are A-Changin’ can’t truly represent our generation, and I’m not saying it does. Nevertheless, it contains all of the sentiments of 2016 protest: the outrage, the sense of injustice, and the need to speak out right now.

Thoughts on Another Side of Bob Dylan

The inside of Bob Dylan’s head is a wonderland to which we are granted fleeting glimpses. Listen to an album and witness a single thought rolling around in his mind and bounding outward in endless lyrical variations–now humorous, now grave, now personal, now universal.

From the outside looking in, Another Side of Bob Dylan finds the artist at a crossroads. His previous album, The Times They Are A-Changin’, was explicitly focused on social change and cemented his place in the public ear as the voice of protest. Never one to accept a label, Dylan’s other side refuses the mantle of protest singer. Throughout Another Side, Dylan’s relationship to “equality” is bounced out of his brain and into his lyrics in numerous forms.

Dylan reflects on his activism and youthful idealism in the sweeping masterpiece “My Back Pages,” and comes to the conclusion that maturity has cooled those particular fires. Speaking of himself in the past tense, he sings

“A self-ordained professor’s tongue, too serious to fool,Another Side of Bob Dylan
Spouted out that ‘liberty’ is just ‘equality’ in school.
‘Equality’–I spoke the word as if a wedding vow.
Ah, but I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.”

“Equality” was no longer the same sacred principle to Dylan. Going forward, he could not devote his life (till death do he part) to fighting for equality; he could not take himself and his actions so seriously.

That does not mean he did not care about his fellow man. On the contrary, his brotherly love expanded to “every hung-up person in the whole wide universe.” Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” ring for those who are not free in every context, in every sense. He sings for peaceful “warriors whose strength is not to fight” and for “the outcast, burning constantly at stake.” Dylan recognizes that it is the individual who suffers from within (are birds free from the chains of the skyways?). Prostitutes and prisoners, outlaws and artists–each is fighting for his or her freedom from their personal jail cells, and he “want[s] everybody to be free.” Dylan retreated from being the voice of the people to being a champion of the individual.

Focusing on a specific suffering individual, Dylan pleads “To Ramona”–a woman who cannot let go of her need to act for the cause, who is “torn between staying and returning back to the South.” Dylan tries to alleviate her distress and pass his wisdom on to her, singing,

“I’ve heard you say many times that you’re better than no one
And no one is better than you.
If you really believe that you know you have nothing to win
And nothing to lose.
By fixtures and forces and friends your sorrow does stem,
That hype you and type you, making you feel
That you gotta be just like them.”

The equality that tears at Ramona is the idea of being the same as someone else in both substance and value. Instead of a sacrifice of the self that results in spiritual growth and contentment, Dylan criticizes a self-sacrifice that amounts to self-negation, ending in loss. Dylan wants Ramona to value her individual self (as he has learned to do for himself) and become more than a faceless soldier in a battle for equality.

Dylan takes Ramona’s feelings of equality (i.e. worthlessness) very seriously. On the emotional flip-side, he lampoons the same notion in “I Shall Be Free No. 10.” Framing the concept in an absurd light by taking it to its conclusion, he sings,

“I’m just average, common too.
I’m just like him, the same as you.
I’m everybody’s brother and son.
I’m no different than anyone.
Ain’t no use talkin’ to me,
It’s just the same as talkin’ to you.”

This is egalitarianism in the extreme, ridiculing the misplaced notion of spiritual self-sacrifice that he condemns in “To Ramona.” Within two songs, we see Dylan combat this unsatisfactory equality with both satire and sincerity.

Dylan is certainly not one of Ramona’s friends who wants her “to be just like them.” In “All I Really Want to Do,” he lets us know, “I ain’t lookin’ for you to feel like me, see like me or be like me.” He does not want to be a part of a scene of assimilating true believers; he just wants to be friends with you. Another Side of Bob Dylan communicates that Dylan doesn’t want to fight anymore. He wants to live–with friends, gypsies, farmer’s daughters, and you.

But say, for instance, that you are looking for someone who’ll promise never to part? Someone who’ll close his eyes for you, and someone who’ll close his heart? Someone who will die for you and more? Dylan is not the one you want, babe. He will only let you down.