My favorite songs of 2018

This list doesn’t feature songs released 2018. I’m a little slow. Some of these songs are from the 90s, and I’m just now catching up. Some of these songs were ever-present in my CD player in my young adulthood, and I’m re-discovering them.

(Yes, I made a Spotify playlist.)

Let’s hit it …

The Tragically Hip – Bobcaygeon 

Gord Downie was considered a national treasure in Canada, and the Hip’s farewell concert was a major television event.

When Downie passed away, a vigil was held in Bobcaygeon, a small town about 160 kilometers from Toronto. Downie had no particular tie to the town, choosing it for this song because it rhymed with “constellation,” but the band later performed there even though it’s not a big town that attracts a lot of touring bands as big as this one.

It’s a simple, beautiful song propelled by Downie’s wonderfully expressive voice.

Video

The Tragically Hip – Nautical Disaster

A sprightly little tune about survivors’ guilt. Must have been one hell of a nasty breakup to compare it to the sinking of a German ship in a World War II naval battle that few people survived.

As with Bobcaygeon, it’s a repetitive melody, but the rhythm is unpredictable, and Downie builds the drama with his authoritative delivery.

This is one of the songs they performed on Saturday Night Live when fellow Canadian Dan Aykroyd (neither the host nor a cast member but appearing in several sketches to prop up a disastrous season) pushed for them and did the intros.

Angela Perley and the Howlin’ Moons – Green Eyes

There are a few perks to being a fan of a relatively obscure band. I had interacted with Angela on social media a few times before I saw them, but I figured she couldn’t possibly remember every fan she meets online. Then I went to Hill Country BBQ, where I was the only person sitting on my half of the front row. (Attendance was rather spotty, mostly a few curiosity-seekers who wandered downstairs from the restaurant, but they didn’t seem to mind.) I looked up after they took the stage and saw her smiling and waving. I looked behind me, thinking she couldn’t possibly be waving to me. She was.

Afterwards, I chatted with her for a bit, posed for a selfie and got a big hug. I also talked with bass player Billy Zehnal, who has kids around my kids’ ages.

Her songs are often about young love. Dandelion Kisses, which they stretch out with an atmospheric intro in their live performances, is a bittersweet tune in which the protagonist knows the man she’s with is in love with someone else and will eventually win her over. (I often find myself yelling at no one in particular: “Angela, you deserve better than that!”) This one is a little less complicated.

Check out the solidly produced “Stereogram Session” or check out the fun live version.

Nicole Atkins – Listen Up

I’ve also interacted with Nicole a bit on social media, especially when she was hosting a show on SiriusXM. I’m not sure she knows who I am, but she high-fived me on the way out of her concert at The Barns. And this happened …

(I didn’t say that I was so startled that I let out an awkward “Hi!”)

For some reason, she just happened to start and finish in the right aisle where I was sitting, taking advantage of the acoustics to sing sans microphone. At the start of the show, she walked through — starting right next to me — singing the wistful Neptune City, which was recorded with a lush arrangement but sounded great with simple guitar chords. After her set, she once again headed into the aisle and sang an a cappella Over the Rainbow, then strode down the aisle to leave. I had my hand up to wave, and she high-fived me.

Yeah, I’m a 48-year-old fanboy. So sue me.

I wish she’d sung a couple of my old favorites — the foreboding Vultures (one of the songs I practice on drums) or the fun Girl You Look Amazing (which had a video that would’ve been a hit if MTV still played music) — but her new stuff is good as well. For this one, she did another entertaining video.

I’d say she should do comedy, but I wouldn’t want her to waste that gorgeous voice.

PJ Harvey – Man Size

Not sure why her breakthrough album Rid of Me popped back into my head after 20 years or so, but I’m glad it did. She skewers gender stereotypes throughout with raw guitar and some odd time signatures (11/4 here, which is a lot of fun to play on drums).

I think 50 Foot Queenie was the bigger hit, and I’m listening to that one, too. But I flipped a coin and chose this one.

Our Lady Peace – Starseed 

I associate this one with my drives back to Duke when I found too many excuses to go back and visit my friends. It’s back with me now because it’s a terrific drum part that I plan to pitch when School of Rock does its adult session. The drummer, Jeremy Taggart, was 18 years old when he recorded this — the Wikipedia entry for the album says recording was delayed for his high school graduation.

Video

Metric – Dressed to Suppress 

OK, THIS is a new one. I’d worried that Metric had fallen off a bit since their brilliant album Fantasies, but Art of Doubt is a powerful return to form. Emily Haines adds subtle inflections throughout that aren’t just for show — they highlight and illustrate the point.

Video

Belly – Mine

They’re back! And the new album matches up pretty favorably with the two they released in their 1990s heyday. WHFS would’ve loved this one.

Drummer Chris Gorman is also an artist, and he’s made intriguing videos for this one and Shiny One, in which Tanya Donelly sings about parenthood over a rumbling bass groove and soaring guitars. The Shiny One video seems to be paying tribute to their hit Feed the Tree, for which the video was set in a forest.

And check out the live version of Mine, which is more ragged here than when I saw them live, but it captures Tanya’s joy at being back on stage with her band as well as bassist (and cancer survivor — let’s keep Obamacare, OK?) Gail Greenwood’s propensity for cool rock-star poses.

Screaming Trees – Dying Days

Not sure I heard this one way back when it was released. I mostly knew Screaming Trees for Nearly Lost You, as I think most of us did, as well as All I Know. This one was a reflection on all the tragedies in the Seattle music community, but I actually find it uplifting somehow.

I’d recommend not watching the video for this, which is just contortions of a grotesque bit of album art, but put it on in the background and listen.

Or just listen to …

the full Spotify playlist! It also includes a few extras, such as …

Heart, Barracuda — Believe it or not, our local School of Rock has a girl who can sing this. That’s some serious talent.

The Mars Volta, Cotopaxi – Believe it or not, our local School of Rock has musicians who can work their way through the crazy time signatures here.

Rush, La Villa Strangiato – The School of Rock Rush show director has challenged the gang to play this one.

Chris Stapleton, Midnight Train to Memphis – I don’t listen to a lot of country, so I’m going to call this “roots rock” instead. Great voice, and I have fun playing this one with the snare drum tuned way down low.

The Stone Roses, Love Spreads – I will come up with a reasonable drum part for this. I will come up with a reasonable drum part for this. I will come up with …

Motley Crue, Dr. Feelgood – Another drum-workout track.

Rancid, Rejected – Believe it or not, School of Rock has a bass player who looks like a shy, studious girl who can play this part.

Throwing Muses, Sunray Venus – Tanya Donelly’s stepsister, Kristin Hersh, is still going strong, and she’s had the same trio now for a couple of decades.

The Cardigans, I Need Some Fine Wine And You, You Need To Be Nicer – A perennial. That’s my jam, period.

And I’ve included some comedy. Enjoy.

 

 

Picking top 15 albums isn’t easy

For a Facebook meme, I was asked to name the 15 albums that had the biggest impact on me, with no more than one from each artist. I somehow came up with 15, but the final cuts were painful.

It’s especially tough for someone like me who has both a pretentious streak and a pop streak. A couple of my choices are artistic landmarks that changed the direction of music. Some are artistic triumphs that didn’t break through into public consciousness. Some are just cult favorites or personal favorites.

Some “albums” are coherent works that share a lyrical or musical theme. Some are just the best 8-10 songs a band had at the time. In making such lists, I veer toward the coherent works, but that’s not always a fair representation of what has been in heaviest rotation in my CD players and iPods over the years.

When music critics make these lists, they’re trying to impress other music critics or perhaps trying to make a bunch of people listen to some offbeat personal favorite. I’m not trying to do that. I’m trying to answer the question of which albums had the most impact on me. If they affected rock music as a whole and I enjoy listening to them, then they’re good nominees. But I’m not going back to dig up something that may have influenced music if it only interests me as an historical artifact.

Besides, some of my favorite bands never attempted a grand statement on one particular album. They went through peaks that may spread over 2-3 albums. How do you pick just one?

Some of the problems are evident in my list of nominees, which I’ll give chronologically here so the innovative works stand out. But I didn’t whittle it down to the 15 I listed on Facebook. This is the full picture.

In chronological order, my nominees were:

1966: Revolver – Beatles. Perhaps Sgt. Pepper would be the more common choice, but the sonic innovations on this one paved the way for Sgt. Pepper and everything that followed. And the songs are better.

1971: Fragile – Yes. This band had two peaks, the first spanning three albums in the early 70s (this is the middle one), the second one with the early 80s revival of 90125. The gimmick on Fragile is that each member did a “solo” piece — two of them literally solo performances, two of them featuring a band member, one of them taking a complex Bill Bruford drum part and assigning guitar, bass and keyboards to duplicate various parts of the drum kit. But the solo efforts, particularly the Bruford piece, aren’t the highlights. The full-band songs are all strong, with three of them practically required on every Yes set list for the next 39 years.

1971: Who’s Next – The Who. The ultimate salvage job. Pete Townshend was working on a project called Lifehouse that just didn’t work. But several of the songs or musical ideas worked their way into a powerful collection of songs, four of which became classic rock radio staples. None of the tracks is filler — even John Entwistle’s novelty My Wife somehow fits.

1973: The Dark Side of the Moon – Pink Floyd. Moreso than Sgt. Pepper, this one is a must-have on any list of classic albums. Unlike Sgt. Pepper, Dark Side is indisputably the band’s best — Wish You Were Here, Animals, The Wall and A Momentary Lapse of Reason are very good but not quite the genre-changer that Dark Side proved to be. It stayed on Billboard’s Top 200 for a decade and a half for a reason. The concept of meditating on modern stresses could’ve been a train wreck, but the melodies and jazz touches are gorgeous, and synthesizers took another step forward.

1975: Blood on the Tracks – Bob Dylan. Like Dark Side, this Dylan work transports listeners to another aural landscape and state of mind. While Dark Side called on a large sonic palette, Blood on the Tracks is mostly acoustic guitar and Dylan’s voice, giving understated dignity to broken and confused relationships.

1980: Making Movies – Dire Straits. Brothers in Arms was the band’s international smash, and justifiably so, with a handful of smart pop songs and the breathtaking antiwar titletrack. But Making Movies stands up better over time, with Mark Knopfler’s guitar and guest Roy Bittan’s keyboards providing the backdrop for Knopfler’s lyrical sketches.

1981: Exit … Stage Left – Rush. This is cheating. Rush hit a peak from Hemispheres to Moving Pictures, and this was the live album following those three.

1983: Synchronicity – The Police. Despite the two songs with the “Synchronicity” title, this one is more of a collection of great songs than an album built around a particular theme. With Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland always determined to sabotage Sting’s grand designs, the Police never could’ve managed a full concept album, anyway. They’ll settle for four big hits and a handful of intriguing songs.

1983: The Crossing – Big Country. Yes, this album was more than just In A Big Country and Fields of Fire. It’s a full collection of thoughtful songs with that Scottish sound.

1984: Learning to Crawl – The Pretenders. Not a coherent album by any stretch of the imagination, with a couple of stray songs with fill-in musicians (including Tony Butler, who soon wound up in Big Country). And I never need to hear Thin Line Between Love and Hate again. The rest of this is sheer brilliance and resilience, with Chrissie Hynde and Martin Chambers picking up the pieces after the deaths of two bandmates and coming back stronger.

1985: Fables of the Reconstruction – R.E.M. Surely my most controversial pick. When R.E.M. set about recording its third full album, the guys hit a massive identity crisis. They packed up for London, unsure about how and whether to be the big-time band the critics thought they could be. What resulted was a quirky mix of tunes that captured the myth and mystery of the South. I could’ve picked several R.E.M. albums, of course, but this one is the most interesting of an excellent catalog.

1986: Skylarking – XTC. Best known for Dear God, a track that almost didn’t make the cut, the cranky English band churned out a charming collection of post-Beatles whimsy.

1987: Warehouse: Songs and Stories – Husker Du. So prolific during their brief time together, the Minnesota trio simply had to finish up with a double album that rarely lagged.

1987: … Nothing Like the Sun – Sting. After exploring jazz-rock in Dream of the Blue Turtles, Sting kept a bit of that influence but also branched out into other realms with a diverse album that included everything from a tribute to an eccentric friend (Englishman in New York) to the definitive lament on violence (Fragile).

1987: Diesel and Dust – Midnight Oil. The Aussies entered their golden period with songs inspired by a trip around their country and their work with Aborigines.

1990: Time’s Up – Living Colour: Could just as easily go with Vivid, but I like the experiments here and the majestic self-assurance closer This Is the Life.

1991: The Reality of My Surroundings – Fishbone. Robert Christgau calls himself the dean of American rock critics. He declares that this inspired romp and rant through urban America is not worth comment. We can therefore declare that Christgau is no more the dean of anything than I am the dean of Norwegian ice fishing.

1991: The Real Ramona – Throwing Muses. Might not compete with others on this list for artistic depth, at least not to someone like me who can’t decipher Kristin Hersh’s lyrics, but you won’t find a collection of better hooks.

1991: Achtung Baby – U2. Perhaps a tough choice over The Joshua Tree, but I thought the introspection after years of musical activism was a nice change of pace that few bands could pull off so convincingly.

1992: Little Earthquakes – Tori Amos. Tori has come up with many intriguing songs since her debut, but she may never again come up with such a strong set of tunes ranging from the playful to the shocking, with a few moments of beauty throughout. (Just as pro wrestler Mick Foley.)

1992: Erotica – The Darling Buds. Like The Real Ramona, this is just a solid collection of guitar-pop-rock hooks. Perhaps it wouldn’t stand out so much if anyone knew how to write a bloody guitar hook these days.

1993: Siamese Dream – Smashing Pumpkins. The previous Pumpkins effort was Gish, which was brilliant in its own right. Siamese Dream explored much of the same territory but did it a little bit better. The album has no unifying theme or sound, but it all fits together as one intense Dream. Billy Corgan was a master of dynamics, taking listeners into a quiet trance that would lead to a loud, violent release. After one last thrash, the Pumpkins follow up with two sweeter, softer songs to end everything on a more peaceful note. When classical music fans speak of the possibilities of a symphony, this is what they’re talking about. Pity no classical composers ever did quite as well. And it’s a pity that Corgan meandered through his subsequent career.

1993: Star – Belly. Tanya Donelly left Throwing Muses and emerged with a creepy collection of songs with lyrics and guitar riffs that were equally haunting.

1995: Cockamamie – Jennifer Trynin. This one might just be a personal preference, but almost every song pops into my head at some point in a given month or two. That’s an accomplishment.

1999: Lost and Gone Forever – Guster. When they expanded to a full drum kit and more complex arrangements, they recorded some fantastic songs. But this is still their most consistent album, and it’s a neat capsule of their original sound.

2003: The Complex – Blue Man Group. With 60-minute CDs replacing 40-minute albums, bands took more of a scattershot approach to recording. Albums were more likely to feature half-baked experiments that might have been B-side curiosities or offbeat compilation fodder in the previous era. And when downloading came into vogue, the “album” started to die. The Complex is different because it’s more than an “album.” It’s the soundtrack to a live show that makes a grand artistic statement on isolation and the power of music to help people overcome it. Some of the songs don’t make sense out of context, and perhaps this is the first case of a DVD being a better “album” than the CD itself. But the songs are strong enough to merit repeated listening, and if you’ve seen the show, you’ll “get” the whole thing.

2008: Narrow Stairs – Death Cab for Cutie. Yes, I’ve raised a few complaints about this one in the past. But I was nit-picking. The album has four outstanding songs and three very good ones.

Unfortunately, DCFC might be the only band that can come up with a reason for me to revise and update this list.