Monday, December 17, 2018

These Are A Few of My Favorite Things: The Best of 2018

How can anyone be expected to listen to all the new music released in 2018 when there is so much amazing old music yet to be heard? A quick perusal of my notes dating back to January of this year, found me immersed in the following:

YouTubed dozens and dozens of live covers by The Flat Five. Talk about a rabbit hole.

Tropicalia binge. Two records in particular have become favorites--Antonio Carlos & Jocafi "Mudei De Ideia" and Secos & Molhados from 1971. Check'em out!

The deluxe box of the first Roxy Music record, with some truly exceptional bonus material.

The official release of The Who Live At The Fillmore.  33 minutes of "My Generation!"

New Orleans music binge, trying to keep Jazz Fest alive in Queens, NYC

Scores of unreleased demos and outtakes by The Posies

The Buffalo Springfield: What's That Sound?
Yes -Steven Wilson Remixes
(Some of the best sounding releases I have ever heard.)

Bruce- Live At Wembley, 1981. (Springsteen, not McGill.)

The John Sally Ride demos and backing tracks.

Trojan Ska and Reggae binge-- Willie Lindo- Far & Distant could be my favorite discovery of the year. Not a Trojan release, but absolutely stunning, nonetheless.
The David Bowie/Mario McNulty remix of "Never Let Me Down."

The Hollies Live At The BBC
The Kinks Village Green Box
The Mott The Hoople Box
Dylan: More Blood, More Tracks
The Beatles White Album Remix

Wings-Wild Life and Red Rose Speedway Deluxe Editions
The Beach Boys-1968 Sessions
The Mavericks, Rodney Crowell, JD McPherson- Christmas Records!

I'm surprised by how much I enjoyed this year and also surprised by how much I've yet to listen to. At press time, I've yet to hear the new ones from Paul Weller, John Prine, John Hiatt, Amanda Shires, The Jayhawks, not to mention many of your faves suggested in the comments. Another surprise is how much I enjoyed this run of Van Morrison records. What's good across the first three is stellar, and what isn't, is a lot better than your usual bad Van. I look forward to spinning the newest, "The Prophet Speaks" this weekend. Matthew Sweet's Record Store Day release, "Wicked System Of Things" also took me by surprise. I haven't really liked anything of his since "Blue Sky On Mars" and this one feels like that one. And speaking of blue things, I was also surprised by how much I liked Paul Simon's reworking of old material on "In A Blue Light." Nothing life changing, but I dug it. I liked "Bird Streets" a lot, too. And Robbie Fulks and Linda Gail Lewis.

But now...

...The List.

To those of you who will be courteous enough to actually read what I write and not just scroll quickly to see my choices, I thank you.

The following records have all received the heaviest rotation in my house, something that doesn't happen as often as it used to these days. Heavy Rotation--a lost practice. We've been down this road before. Are we streaming, shuffling, iPodding, YouTubing, driving, working out, surfing or cherry picking? I say "YES" to all. The opportunity to have just about everything at your fingertips is a wonderful thing. But, the following list represents good old-fashioned listening. Records, pulled carefully out of sleeves, placed on a turntable and paid attention to, over and over, album cover and even better, lyrics and liner notes, when available, in hand. I know my favorite songs by title, not just "Track 3 and Track 5." This is my preferred way of listening and the following records are those that I went back to repeatedly, from side to side. These are the records that gave me the most pleasure, four of which actually appeared on Uncut's Top 75 of 2018. That's three more than usual. Go, me!

My Baker's Dozen Best of '18!

Trying to bottle up a New Orleans evening of music is a pointless task. I've tried to take it home with me and share it with others, and it just doesn't work. It mostly annoys people. But this live set from the patriarch of the Marsalis Family comes damn close to bringing New Orleans back with you. It helps to have three of the Crescent City's finest as your backing band. With Jason Stewart on bass, Derek Douget on sax and the one and only Herlin Riley on drums, Ellis Marsalis brings us a world class setlist, with the soul of New Orleans at its heart. Though this was recorded at Dizzy's in NYC, the recording captures the room so well, it actually sounds and feels like Snug Harbor where Marsalis has his weekly residency on Frenchmen Street. There are Monk and Ellington standards, as well as two from New Orleans legend, drummer and composer James Black, among others. This is as close as you'll get to hearing the great Ellis Marsalis live in his hometown of New Orleans, without the air fare.

"Willie's bazillionth record will be all Frank Sinatra covers." If you told me Willie Nelson's bazillionth record was going to be all Black Sabbath covers, I'd be more interested. But you know what? "My Way" is not only good, it's great! Willie is Willie for a reason, and this isn't just a collection of songs tossed together to fulfill a contract. Well, it might be, but it sure doesn't play that way. Some of these arrangements are absolutely stunning, especially "Summer Wind." I'll admit being as surprised as you might be that this record made my final cut, but "My Way" is something else. Just give it one spin. Do it for Willie.

I have never loved the Talking Heads the way others love the Talking Heads. But I have always loved "Remain In Light." Maybe my love for that record has something to do with my love for Brian Eno and Adrian Belew. No matter, Angelique Kidjo's vision here is brilliant. It's as if this Heads classic was written specifically for her. What a ride! I couldn't imagine a better re-imagining.

I know, I know, but not all of my favorites this year were cover albums. Credit must go to producer Steve Jordan, who thankfully did not turn Miss Lavette's record into a showcase for his patented, trash bin drum sound. (I love Jordan's playing, just not the sound of his drums.) Instead, this is a soulful collection with brilliant arrangements of a few obvious selections and some, not so obvious selections. And of course, there is Bettye Lavette, who sings the bejeebus out of all of it, but never overdoes it. And neither does the crack band behind the voice. It's all so well-executed, giving space to both singer and songs. I thought I'd never want to hear another "It Ain't Me Babe" ever again. But this arrangement might just be my favorite. Same goes for the arrangement of "Political World," with a genius key change, that for my money, makes the whole song. The "Inner City Blues" meets Isaac Hayes take on "What Was It You Wanted" is another gem. This is a winner from head to tail.

Jeffrey Gaines' 1992 debut was a favorite of mine. It's almost unfathomable that it is over 25 years old. Isn't Jeffrey Gaines this brilliant new singer/songwriter?  I blame myself for losing track. I was in the throes of my new record shop when Gaines released his follow-up, and for most of the 90's and early 2000's, the quality of my listening was at an all time low. Too many CDs, too much of the time. I simply lost track. Now it's 2018 and Chris Price, the man behind Emitt Rhodes' excellent return to recording, and the man who released his own brilliant record, "Stop Talking," one of my very favorites of 2017, has come through again by producing Jeffrey Gaines' return to recording after an almost 15 year lay off.  Gaines sounds better than ever on this set of tunes, that at times feels as if it might have been the perfect follow-up to his debut.  Both "Bjorn Toulouse" and "Thick And Thin" are perfect pop tunes that would have been all over MTV when it mattered. "Children's Games" is, in a word, gorgeous. And both "Promise Of Passion" and "Seems To Me" are songs Elvis Costello would have been proud to have written in his prime. A real gem.

I spent a few weeks away from "Egypt Station." It had been on repeat and I was starting to find things that didn't quite work as well the first few times around. It was a good idea to take a break, because on first return listen, I was in love with this record all over again. It's not without its flaws, but even Paul's most beloved solo records have their share of Pauly missteps. So I take those with a grain of salt and simply savor the gems, and there are plenty to be had on "Egypt Station." A really fine release from a pretty famous pop star closer to 80 years old than 70.

I know, I know, but not all of my favorites have "Egypt" in the title. "The American Egypt" is one of the most raw and intense collections of songs I have heard since Lennon's "Plastic Ono Band." By no means a conventional power pop record, the sounds, melodies and particularly the words, play out almost like a stream of consciousness confessional. I sat frozen, as each story unfolded in ways most pop music would not dare to unfold. This is not to say Mike Viola's ability to write a hook and a melody takes a back seat. Not at all. As a matter of fact, it is the combination of unique structure, brilliant arranging and his patented pop sensibility that makes "The American Egypt" so special. This is a demanding but absolutely rewarding listen.

Death, taxes and a new Richard Thompson album. I can do without the first two, but I am always grateful for a new RT LP and it seems like there is one every year. There are no forays into big band or bossa nova. No duets or experimental hip hop collaborations. Just more new songs from a great songwriter and arguably the greatest living guitar player on this planet. This time though, it's a bit more personal. "13 Rivers" comes in the wake of a bad break up and that type of inspiration is hard to compete with. Richard Thompson runs with it, and after 50 years of recording, this just might be Richard Thompson's finest hour. Amazing, but true.

More times than not, I have heard Elvis Costello fans referring to "Painted From Memory" as the last good music made by Elvis Costello. I don't agree with that sentiment at all. Since 1998, the year of that Costello/Bacharach collaboration, Elvis has released "When I Was Cruel," a terrific combination of rock and roll and trip-hop, "The River In Reverse," a wonderful and inspired tribute to New Orleans with Allen Toussaint, "The Delivery Man," a collection of alt-country tunes and R&B-inspired songs, with help from Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams, that works 75% of the time, the criminally ignored, barely released "Momofuku," which found Elvis & friends, touching on all genres, including some balls out rock and roll and Beatle-esque pop that works 75% of the time, and an interesting collaboration with The Roots, "Wise Up Ghost," that admittedly isn't for everyone, but hardly a toss-off, with inspired mash-ups and experiments. Both T-Bone Burnett records, "Secret, Profane..." and National Ransom" had their moments, though I despise T-Bone as a producer and really think those records suffer from bad sound. That is a whole lotta music to dismiss, and many Costello fans did just that.

In a conversation last week regarding XTC's earlier work versus their later work, one friend offered this, "Artists grow and sometimes it is difficult for fans to grow with them." Maybe that is the case with fans of Elvis Costello who simply lost interest when Elvis found new avenues to explore.
I have never given up on Elvis Costello and what is found on his new release, really and truly, isn't much different than what can be found on the aforementioned records.

Songs like the opener "Under Lime" or "I Let The Sun Go Down," could have easily fit right before or after "American Gangster Time" or "No Hiding Place" on "Momofuku," and as a few critics and Elvis himself has said, maybe even his masterpiece, "Imperial Bedroom," which was indeed, much different than all his records up to that point in 1982. As a matter of fact, "Look Now" feels like a "greatest vibe" collection, hitting on all the old Costello haunts, most obviously on the Burt Bacharach co-writes, but throughout. Costello himself refers to the new album as "This Year's Model 2," more having to do with where he is now, as opposed to the music found on the 1978 release.

A good number of the tunes found here have been around a while. I have live versions of both "Suspect My Tears" and the Carole King co-write, "Burnt Sugar is So Bitter," one of the only weak tracks here, dating as far back as 1999. "Unwanted Number" was written for the 1996 film, "Grace of My Heart" finally gets the studio treatment for one of the best tracks here. But, "Look Now" does not sound like a Frankenstein monster. Even the deluxe edition tracks, which are a few years old at this point, do not sound like they belong somewhere else. "Look Now" might very well be the best record Elvis Costello has released since "Painted From Memory," but that's a lot different than saying it's the only good thing he's released since "Painted From Memory." In many ways, "Look Now" feels like Paul McCartney's "Chaos & Creation In The Backyard," both being mature records by brilliant artists who are bold enough to move forward, but smart enough not to abandon the music and fans that got them where are they are in the first place.

It's been said, if you're not into heavy metal anymore, you never really were in the first place.

There was a time, a long, long time ago, when you would hear a Little Feat tune followed by a Judas Priest tune followed by a Beatles tune on FM radio. Ah yes, I remember it well. It happened one night on WNEW-FM. It was a song called "Beyond The Realms Of Death" from an album called "Stained Class" that started my love affair with Judas Priest and for a few years, they were in constant rotation. The trio of records Judas Priest released between 1978-1980 were as important to me as The Beatles, David Bowie, Bob Dylan and Todd Rundgren were, and their 1980 release, "British Steel" is without question, my choice for not only the greatest heavy metal record of all time, but one of the greatest of any genre. But I'll be the first to admit, I hadn't been listening to much of their output in the last 30 years and this is why "Firepower" hit me like a ton of bricks! This record picks up where "British Steel" left off. This is heavy metal at its finest, performed by legends of the genre. And while I don't think it will make any new fans of the band, old fans should dive right into this unbelievably perfect return to form. One of my Top Three of 2018.

I have lamented for years about my issues with songwriting. I am not a songwriter, and if you are, you might think, "What the hell does a bonehead drummer know?" Well, I am not a film maker either, but I can tell you without hesitation that "The Sting" is a masterpiece and "The Sting II" is not. That said, Danny Wilkerson has done the nearly impossible these days. He has delivered not one, but ten amazing songs, each with its own personality, all overflowing with hooks and melodies. I can appreciate the singer-songwriter, with his introspective lyrics, an occasional message, and the beauty of understating it all. But as a lover of record making, "Wilkerson" impresses me more. It's all of the above, without forgetting to give the listener something to sing and dance to. This is more than power pop. It's all the great records you've wanted from your favorite pop artists--Cheap Trick, Macca, Queen, Nick Lowe, ELO--- in one fabulous original platter, with power pop mastermind Bleu running the ship. One of my Top Three of 2018.

This band annoys some of you, while some of you try but simply cannot connect. For me, this is what I want every record to be--a showcase for all that is great about music. I don't care if it takes time. Relationships need time to grow. You need time to understand each other, to learn about each other's past, and what each of you will need in the future. I am now, comfortably, in a relationship with The Lemon Twigs.

My introduction to The Lemon Twigs was late night television and I was quite frankly blown away. This, I am sure, is why their full length debut, "Do Hollywood" was a disappointment to me. The live performances, both on the tube and YouTube, were outstanding. These D'Addario kids had talent oozing out of their pores, they were confident and they served it up like musicians who had been doing it their whole lives, and yet their average age is 20. "Do Hollywood," on the other hand, came off as too many ideas with little focus and weak production.

Since then, the hype has been non-stop, with relentless comparisons to all my musical heroes, from Todd Rundgren and David Bowie to Nilsson, Cheap Trick, Big Star and back again. And now, a concept album about a couple who cannot have children, so they adopt a chimpanzee named Shane, who goes to school, gets bullied, commits arson and kills 100 people in a fire. As Mojo magazine pointed out, at least it makes more sense than "Tommy."

The Lemon Twigs Go To School is triumphant!

The story/book does not matter. Forget about the chimp. Okay! Forget about the chimp!

If I told you I discovered an unreleased Big Star tune and played you "Queen Of My School," you'd be gobsmacked. If I told you that Todd Rundgren hasn't sounded more Rundgren-y since "Something/Anything?" than he does on "Never Know," you'd agree. Even the ballad, "Lonely" would have fit perfectly on "A Wizard/A True Star." The closer, "If You Give Enough" is an absolute stunner, certainly an unexpected beauty from someone as young as Michael D'Addario. "Go To School" is ambitious, maybe to a fault. I am all for 38 minute records over 60 minute records. But even without trimming the fat, "The Lemon Twigs Go To School" is a remarkable piece of work.

I stayed with this record because I believed in it, and then after seeing it performed live in Asbury Park last month, there was no turning back. Michael and Brian D'Addario have the potential to do amazing things musically, but if "The Lemon Twigs Go To School" was the last music recorded, it will have been enough.  This is a record that keeps on giving if you let it. I beg you. Let it. My favorite record of 2018.


You might think this is a shameless plug for my new record. But if you have learned anything at all about me from ten years of Burning Wood, it's that I don't say shit just to say shit. If I had a problem with this music, or any music I have been part of in my life, I would not foist it upon the world. That said, I love this record. I love John Dunbar's songwriting. I love Sal Maida's bass playing. I love singing harmony. I love the rhythm section. I love the hooks. I love the melodies. I love the production. I love Len Monachello's sound and vision. I love how we've inspired each other to create an even better record than our debut. I don't expect all of you to love "Nothing Doing" the way I love "Nothing Doing." But I do hope some of you at least give it a chance. I think you will really dig it. I am proud of this album and the work of The John Sally Ride and that is the last I will say about it.

Thank you.
Happy Holidays.




Oh Man ... I have work to do!

A tonne of good music this year.

Thanks Sal.

Robertc16 said...

Enjoyed the article very much Sal. A world of music I still need to open my ears to. Completely agree with you on the Elvis Costello and Paul Mccartney releases. They still have it. And very much enjoying the new John Sally Ride. Well done to you and the guys. Happy Holidays to you and your family.

neal t said...

I too utubed a bunch of Flat Five covers and converted for iTunes, 55 tracks in one afternoon!

Shriner said...

Nice list. I have nothing to add except I saw this show last night in a dive in Hamtramck MI in front of maybe 30-40 people

Nick Piunti
Chris Richards and the Subtractions
Bird Streets


Bird Streets was awesome live. I have no qualms having that album on my top albums list especially seeing how they could bring it live as well.

Ken D said...

Thanks for putting in the time on this. Knowing you only a little, I expect you take great care with your choices and your explanations. Can't argue with you as I have heard exactly one of your picks (the Costello).
I'm especially curious now about the Richard Thompson record. When it came out, I thought to myself that it will likely be great but on a limited budget do I need an eighth or ninth Thompson solo record? But if you say this might be his best ever that's truly high praise.

Hey-its Mike said...

I have a lot of listening to do, based on this list. The Costello Album is the only item on it that I've really immersed myself in so far, and I agree that its components aren't too far removed from what's found on his other post-"Painted From Memory" albums--each of which I'm glad I've explored as they came out. If the digital reams of "Elvis is Back!" reviews for this album help get it into the ears of a wider audience, that would be nice, even though he never left.

RE "To those of you who will be courteous enough to actually read what I write and not just scroll quickly to see my choices, I thank you." I assume most of us come here to read what you write. Perusing the list without doing so would make no sense to me. But then, I get a long lunch break.


cmealha said...

I think this is the most overlap we've had in our lists. Make sense since a lot of it you turned me on to initially like Mike Viola (by way of the Candy Butchers) and The Lemon Twigs. Thanks for making me go back to the Viola album, by the way, it turned out to be my favorite album of the year.
What I love about your blog is all the new music I'm exposed to that I would otherwise miss. While I was reading your reviews, I was listening to snippets of the mentioned songs. Let's just say I have a lot of listening to do. Willie Nelson sings Sinatra? Who'd a thought.
The post itself was excellent with thoughtful and enlightening descriptions of each album and why they meant so much to you.
Have a wonderful Christmas and keep the music coming. We need it.

Michael Giltz said...

Thanks for a great year in music review -- I especially enjoyed your description of all the music obsessions from the past you dove into. For me, the big blast from the past was the Bobbie Gentry boxed set: I am still wowed by three to four of her eight albums and Gentry's crazy career in general. Great music and a great story.

Always great to get your comments on the albums you enjoyed the most in 2018. I'll be trying to do the same in a few weeks before the Grammys (my personal deadline for Best of the Year lists in music) and I'll be cribbing from your picks, as always.

To begin at the end, I am really enjoying your new John Sally Ride album and if you know me, I'd rather lose our friendship than put an album on my best of the year list I didn't believe it. It will be on mine.

I look forward to checking out the albums on your list I haven't heard yet and re-listening to the ones I have sampled but not embraced as fully as you. But to happily second some of your picks:

ANGELIQUE KIDJO -- I'm not a fanatic on Talking Heads but I surely do love them and boy is this cover of their entire Remain In Light album fantastic.

PAUL MCCARTNEY -- His new album is another strong entry in the Paul McCartney catalog, no surprise since he has a new very strong album every five years or so at the most.

RICHARD THOMPSON -- My initial reaction remains, even though it sounds like a punchline: the guitar playing on this album is fantastic! I know. Duh. Of course it's fantastic. But it really seems like he had something to prove guitar-wise to me, as if some kid challenged him and he slapped the boy down musically speaking.

ELVIS COSTELL0 -- This is indeed his best album since the Burt Bacharach collaboration.

And WTF? I wish the new Danny Wilkerson and Van Morrison were on Spotify.

Now let me get back to LISTENING to some great music.

Thanks, Sal.


Anonymous said...

Thanks to your list I've ordered Angelique Kidjo and Mike Viola and will soon do the same with R. Thompson.

Thanks and Merry Christmas to me!


A guy called Tak said...

This year 2018, fifty years since 1968 when rock music was fully matured - we have seen many 'anniversary' box sets. Dylan, The Beatles etc. etc....
I would like to add The Band's 'Music From Big Pink' - I bought the album immediately after I saw an ad on Billboard magazine back in Japan where I grew up in teenage years.
It was a good year. My sister bought White album of course (red wax).
And, yes I enjoyed Flat Five and Costello's new album. I can't believe it's been 20 years since 'Painted From Memories'!
I will check The Lemon Twiggs and R. Thompson. Thanks Sal. (as usual)

Anonymous said...

I listened to Firepower this morning. Its old school approach reminds of Voivod's The Wake which also came out this year. You might like it, also.

Mr. Baez said...

Again, thanks for your great list of 2018 music. You're so right on about trying to stay on top of new music with all of the great re-releases of beloved old material. I'm really curious to hear the Ellis Marsalis and Judas Priest albums. Have a great 2019 Sal, and I'm looking forward to another year of your master class in music appreciation.