year in review
Hypothesis: while it is usually impossible to pick a precise genesis of any cultural movement, for the purposes of this exercise, R.E.M.’s “Radio Free Europe” gave birth to “modern rock,” and Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” killed it. I slid in some obvious precursors to R.E.M. and covered the dénouement and fallout from OK Computer as well.
This one has been kicking around my head for a while, inspired by tapes teenage me made off of Philly’s own WDRE (RIP), late nights staying up for 120 Minutes (their 1993 year end best of episode was a foundational text), countless mixtapes, mix CDs and playlists made and received over the years, and Matthew Perpetua’s exhaustive work cataloging and curating the last 40+ years of music (here’s a thread of his playlists I referred to heavily while creating this playlist.)
Inspired by the announcement of REM’s “Up” reissue, I took a trip back to Fall ‘98, my first semester away at Penn State. Here’s the contemporaneous music that was spinning in my dorm room on the 4th floor of Beaver Hall.
Sunny Day Real Estate last night in Baltimore.
Still can’t believe how tight these guys sound and how well Jeremy’s voice holds up.
Pulling the thread that connects Sheryl Crow’s “Strong Enough” and boygenius’s “Not Strong Enough” in both directions.
A testament to the sheer power and grace of Janet Weiss. Featuring Sleater-Kinney and Quasi, along with her time in the Jicks and select guest appearances.
year in review
Lots of good stuff this year. Here’s a playlist:
My very favorites
Additionally, here are a few albums and singles I wanted to call special attention to. They’re presented alphabetically becasue I’ve choosen to ditch the “best of” framing I often go with; I’m not writing music criticism here, and I have no editor telling me what to do. I don’t even know how many things I called out, so this isn’t a top-ten list, either! It’s just What I Loved in 2023. Mostly captured for me, but if others get something out if it, all the better.
Album: Animal Collective: Time Skiffs ✅
Their best group of songs since MPP, for my money.
A rare double record that never overstays it’s welcome, but rather creates a world I want to live inside, not unlike the White Album or Wildflowers.
Album: Destroyer: Labyrinths ✅
After nearly two decades of dabbling, I have finally become fully Bejar-pilled.
Song: Gabriels: Remember Me
If you’re not moved when the full strings kick in at about 2:30, I don’t know what to tell you.
Song/Video: Ghost: Spillways
I have no commentary on this band or their schtick, but I do know a well-written sugary pop-metal jam when I hear it.
Song: Goose: Dripfield
The vapors of this song have seeped into my bones.
We all need a bit of classic Dischord sound in our lives, and this tune checks that box with authority.
Albums: King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard’s entire 2022 output, specifically Omnium Gatherum and Changes
I am intimidated by this band. They are very Extra in the best sense of the word.
Song: Steve Lacy: Bad Habit
R&B from another planet. I dig. A lot.
John Darnielle is a national treasure.
Album: Aofie O’Donovan: Age of Apathy ✅
I’ve really been enjoying Aofie’s work since I fell down a deep Live From Here well several years ago. She truly brings all of her unique talents as a songwriter, vocalist, arranger and guitarist together on this record. (Related: this Tiny Desk concert is delightful.)
Song: Angel Olsen: Go Home
Album: Beth Orton: Weather Alive
Haunting, but in a different way. So great to have new music from Beth Orton.
This record gave me a lot of reminders of my mom’s early-90s pop country radio phase. (I mean this as a compliment, obviously.)
Another single that grabbed me by the lapels and demanded my full attention from its first notes.
Album: Will Sheff: Nothing Special
I couldn’t describe this record better than Sheff himself did in this wonderful interview with Fluxblog’s Matthew Perpetua:
My experience of art is like the wind in the trees. You blink and you miss it. A little bit of it is like “Did you guys hear what I heard?” It’s a very quiet, subtle thing that gets under your skin.
Album: Sister Ray: Communion ✅
If I had to pick a “favorite” record of 2022, it would probably be this. Those that know me and my tastes will have no problem figuring out why.
Album: Soccer Mommy: Sometimes Forever ✅
A nearly perfect distillation of my late-90s record collection. I mean this as a high, high compliment. Truly another one of my absolute faves on the year.
Album: Spoon: Lucifer On The Sofa
Their best since probably 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. All killer, no filler.
Song: SRSQ: Winter, Slowly
The first time I heard that little whammy-bar vocal effect on the chorus (starts around 0:50), something in my brain slipped loose and my thoughts still aren’t thinking right.
Album: Bartees Strange: Farm to Table ✅
This is truly an Important Record, a call-to-arms, a statement of purpose.
Song: Tenci: Two Cups
Tenci came onto my radar after seeing them open for Hop Along in 2021, and I’m really glad they did.
Much like the Destroyer record, this was the one that converted me from “hey, SVE is pretty cool” to a full-fledged fan.
Album: Immanuel Wilkins: The 7th Hand ✅
A gifted arranger who can still layer sheets of sound with the best of them.
(✅ indicates that I’ve purchased the album on vinyl, for accountability’s sake. Support the musicians you love, folks!)
year in review
Once again, I pushed myself to listen to lots of new music this year. A full six of my top ten records were by artists who are either new or new to me… seven if you count Aeon Station, who are technically a “new” band. That’s pretty good, I think!
I had foolishly dismissed The Wonder Years as kiddie emo that Wasn’t For Me (I was wrong!) until I read this piece on Campbell’s reasons for writing and releasing this record. Campbell has that rare gift for making the extremely specific feel universal.
I always have and probably will always have a soft spot for Ani DiFranco, and this record’s “Ani as funk bandleader” vibes really agree with me.
She still manages to bring the same level of emotional devastation, even with full band arrangements on many tracks and a more produced sound.
Right in my sweet spot: vaguely shoegazy indie with female lead vocals. (See also: Snarls from last year’s list.)
An absolute ripper of a rock-and-roll record from my favorite Wilmington, DE-based power trio, and a huge leap forward from their last record.
There’s no way a bunch of teenagers made this record, right? Either way, Geese have spent a bunch of time with their dad’s Talking Heads records and their older sister’s Strokes records and turned out this impossibly tight, ambitious and mature record.
I could write a book about this record, which I’ve been waiting for, in a roundabout way, for about 15 years. I hate that it came out under these circumstances but I’m glad this record is finally available to the public, because it is a triumph. (I am still very eager to hear the Charles Bissell portion of what was to be the follow-up to The Meadowlands, of course.)
An incredible Scottish swamp-blues record that sounds like a lot of things I love but also not quite like anything I’ve ever heard before.
Hard to overstate how much this record came out of nowhere and smacked me right between the eyes. It has an emotional resonance for me unlike any record since maybe Bark Your Head Off, Dog.
Reading Crying in H Mart this summer was… a lot, but it helped me understand this record for the celebratory masterpiece it truly is. If joy truly is an act of resistance, this record is as punk as it gets.
- Floatie: Voyage Out
- Flock of Dimes: Head of Roses
- Hiss Golden Messenger: Quietly Blowing It
- Olivia Kaplan: Tonight Turns to Nothing
- Arlo Parks: Collapsed in Sunbeams
- Anna Fox Rochinski: Cherry
- Rosali: No Medium
- Snail Mail: Valentine
- Adia Victoria: A Southern Gothic
- Ryley Walker: Course In Fable
- The War On Drugs: I Don’t Live Here Anymore
- Yasmin Williams: Urban Driftwood
I’ve been listening to to The Jordan Lake Sessions, Volumes 3 & 4 by The Mountain Goats a lot lately. These sets were recorded live in August of 2020, before the third wave of Covid-19 ravaged the United States, and are fabulous (as are Volumes 1 & 2, of course.)
On my last listen, I was struck by this reflection from John Darnielle after “Against Polution:”
There’s this thing, when you play a song and if it really goes someplace really cool during this horrifying pandemic, you go, “Man, what a pity it is that we can’t play that in a room full of people who are excited to be there and everybody feels safe and all that stuff!” I’ve been working a riff like this for half my life, but… Basic things life safety, when you’re young, when you’re seventeen, and you hear somebody talking about safety, you go “Oh my god, you ancient person, you five thousand year old man, talking to me about safety. What do I care?” and then in a time like this you think, “You know what is awesome? You know what is truly spectacular? Like, really worth dwelling on? Safety.”
articlesWednesday September 22, 2021
year in review
I’ve done some sort of year end, “best of” list as long as I can remember. This probably hasn’t been the “best” year of music over that span, but it certainly has been the most important, to me. We’ve all had a trying year, to put it mildly. These are the albums that helped get me through it.
A delightfully tight, punk-adjacent indie rock record. Would have fit perfectly on Kill Rock Stars' mid-90s roster.
It takes a lot of work to make something so meticulously crafted sound so loose and “messy.”
A near-perfect singer/songwriter record.
As I noted on Twitter, this record stopped me in my tracks and lit my hair on fire.
The cover of “Weird Fishes” is perfect, and somehow better than the original, but this record deserves way more than to be remembered as “the one with Weird Fishes on it.”
This seems like it was grown in a lab specifically to check my boxes: dreamy, almost-shoegazy mid-90s indie vibes with wonderful female lead vocals.
This was a slow burn for me, but really worth the time… just a perfect record for Saturday afternoon, Sunday morning, or almost any other time.
Was never a huge Cymbals Eat Guitars fan, but this gem from former CEG frontman Joseph D’Agostino’s new project is a pastoral masterpiece. It’s made waiting for that new Wrens record a liiiiiitle bit easier.
The Fleetwood Mac comparisons work for me, not not necessarily because of the sound (although there are plenty of late-70s Laurel Canyon vibes here); it’s more the sheer relentlessness of the quality of the hooks in every. single. song.
1. Hum: Inlet
Dropped out of nowhere in the middle of summer and swallowed me whole. I can’t do justice to describe this perfect soundscape of a record, but Sebastian Sterling can.
- The Beths: Jump Rope Gazers
- Phoebe Bridgers: Punisher
- Dogleg: Melee
- Fleet Foxes: Shore
- Frances Quinlan: Likewise
- Run The Jewels: RTJ4
- Soccer Mommy: color theory
- Spanish Love Songs: Brave Faces Everyone
- Taylor Swift: folklore
- Touché Amoré: Lament
Shouts to The National for the 3-color print job on the insert for “Sleep Well Beast.”
Bought myself a belated Christmas gift: the 3LP reissue of Wolf Parade’s “Apologies to the Queen Mary.” Sub Pop knocked it out of the park on this package: the remastered album on 2 LPs, a third that collects the EPs that led up to the record’s release, plus a heartfelt essay from Sean Michaels (of Said The Gramophone fame).
At a time when every new indie band either seemed to be from Canada or have “Wolf” in their name, these guys stood out and created a record that aged better than any of the other Blog Rock records of the early 2000s (yes, that includes “Funeral”). Simultaneously urgent and timeless, it’s a minor classic.
This new Sturgill Simpson record is the sound of an artist just straight-up Going For It on every single song. It has no chill whatsoever, and I mean that in the best possible way. I think I love it.
Y’know how the YouTube algorithm is an awful garbage fire but sometimes it serves you a gem that feels like a piece of yourself in a time capsule? That’s what this video is for me.
Sunny Day Real Estate may have spent a combined $27 on their wardrobe for their big MTV debut. This isn’t even an early-90s post-grunge thrift store vibe; this is TJ Maxx proto-normcore and it speaks to me.
Nate Mendel looks like he put down his bass after filming this and hopped in the minivan to pick up the kids from soccer practice.
My wrists hurt from watching William Goldsmith pound those drums so expertly.
And the interplay between Dan Hoerner and Jeremey Enigk’s guitars and voice is often too much to bear for me.
I worshiped this band. I loved them so much. So, so much.
year in review,
My 2018 in music can be best summed up in five words: “Bark Your Head Off, Dog.”
Hop Along’s third album took a moment to get lodged in my brain, but once it did, it was a force of nature. I can’t recall the last time a new record took over my life like this, standing up to repeated plays for hours, weeks, months on end, refusing to wear out its welcome. Every spin revealed a new favorite song, a nuance somehow unnoticed in the hundreds of previous plays.
I’d be quite surprised if this record doesn’t end up occupying a place of pride in my Favorite Records of the Decade list.
(Playlist also available on Apple Music.)
How my listening habits changed in 2018
Two new developments changed the way I listen to music in 2018:
In March, I ditched Apple Music (which I had subscribed to from day one) and signed up for Spotify.
Why? For years, I had believed that Apple Music’s integration into the OS was worth putting up with its decidedly less polished UX and lack of any meaningful social of curation features. I had also dabbled with Spotify before and remembered not loving it.
But with the gentle encouragement of Merlin Mann, I took another look at Spotify and was hooked. The curated playlists are wonderful and meet a lot of my “I’m not exactly sure what to listen to” use cases. The Amazon Echo integration rules, and has allowed me to create an ersatz Sonos multi-room speaker setup.
The only drawback to Spotify is the nascent state of their Apple Watch app. Specifically, it’s really just a controller, and does not allow you to download music to listen to without your phone. But minus this one feature, Spotify wins for me in every conceivable way.
I know, I know. I’m That Guy. I am every stereotypical middle-aged dad. I am an extra from High Fidelity. I know. It’s fine.
I got a record player last year and have spent much of 2018 filling out my record collection. I won’t bore you too much with how It’s Different and There’s Just Something Warmer About Vinyl, but it’s all true. It also scratches my long-ignored collector itch; the buzz I got when I found original pressings of both Chronic Town and Hatful of Hollow in my local record store’s bins was indescribable.
I know. I’m sorry.
Most year-end reviews tend to focus on things that are were newly released in that year, but I’d like to note a few old wells I fell down this year.
All Hail West Texas
I stumbled across the wonderful I Only Listen To The Mountain Goats podcast sometime early this year. I had been familiar with “All Hail West Texas” prior to this podcast, but the cover versions (and John’s thoughtful commentary on the genesis and meaning of the songs) led me back to the original artifact.
I’ve dabbled before, but I hate, hate, hate that it took Scott Hutchinson’s tragic death for me to finally get all the way into Frightened Rabbit.
Joni Mitchell is arguably the coolest person to ever be born on this planet and this is the Most Joni Mitchell record in her expansive catalog. While plumbing the depths of this record, I found a bunch of early- to mid-80s performances of this material and they somehow made me love it even more.
The Last Waltz
Speaking of Hejira-era Joni Mitchell, I watched The Last Waltz for the first time this yea, thanks to urgings by the Celebration Rock podcast and Hanif Abdurraqib. Putting aside whatever contention may exist around the making of the film itself, the performances strike the perfect balance between ragged looseness and turn-on-a-dime tightness that The Band were know for their entire career.
It’s been a while since a song grabbed me out of nowhere and refused to let go. But that happened last week, about 15 feet from my desk at Arcweb, no less.
REC Philly turned my office into a concert space, and brought the incredible Max Swan to perform as part of their inaugural Tech Tour event. (Earlier in the day, I was part of a panel discussing Big Data.)
Max’s whole set, clocking in just under an hour, was something to behold. But it was the closer, “Steady,” that made me drop what I was doing and pay attention.
I saved his most recent album, The Fisherman to my phone to listen to on the drive home. While the live version of “Steady” is propulsive, the recorded version is much more patient, leading with a very “Songs In The Key Of Life”-era Stevie Wonder vibe.
Either way, I’m honored to have shared a “stage” with Max and his band, and can’t wait to hear what they do next.
Please join me on the new Mastodon instance I just spun up,
hejira.is, a place for like-minded individuals to beatifically discuss their appreciation of Joni Mitchell’s 1976 masterpiece.
Ben Gibbard’s been doing the rounds to promote Death Cab for Cutie’s quite good new record, Thank You For Today.
Gibbard was asked to force-rank all eight Death Cab albums, and his answers were somewhat controversial (The Photo Album is way too low for my liking). However, it’s this interview with Entertainment Weekly that stuck with me.
EW asks Gibbard about the 15-year anniversaries of both Transatlanticism and Give Up. His answer is very illuminating, and incredibly self-aware:
When I look back at 2003, it was the best year I’ve ever had creatively: having Transatlanctism and Give Up come out in the course of six months. I’ll never have another year like that.
I can’t imagine how difficult it is to admit that your best creative work occurred fifteen years ago as a working recording artist, promoting a new release with major label backing.
Soundgarden was never my “favorite band.”
I was always a Pearl Jam guy, at least in high school. Others were Nirvana People, or Nine Inch Nails People. But Soundgarden was always a band that was just there. Always on the periphery, always high quality, but never The Band That Could Be Your Life.
I never stood in line for Soundgarden tickets. I never went to a midnight sale for a new Soundgarden CD release. I never bought a magazine just for the Chris Cornell interview like I did for Eddie Vedder, Billy Corgan, or Thom Yorke. There was no obvious outward showing of love, or fandom.
Which makes my reaction to the news of Chris Cornell’s passing feel… not quite fake, but perhaps not earned? Inauthentic? I’ll probably cry when Vedder dies. I’ll take a week off work when the first member of R.E.M. goes. But Cornell? I’ve been trying not to dive too deep into my feelings about it, to be honest, because I’m not quite sure what I’ll find.
And yet… I still remember the take-my-breath-away feeling of hearing “Hunger Strike” for the first time. It’s still just as arresting to this day. Cornell and Vedder sound like they’d been bandmates for a decade or more… yet they’d only met for the first time during the Temple of The Dog sessions.
I still remember the countless hours spent alone in my room, playing “Seasons” on repeat, trying to figure out what the hell open tuning it was written in, never mind how to play it. (I learned today that it’s
FFCCcc, because of course it is.)
And it’s impossible not to think of the Summer of 1994 without thinking of “Black Hole Sun” and it’s subversively trippy video.
“Black Hole Sun” is by no means a great Soundgarden song. It’s not even the best song on Side A of the Superunknown tape. But that shit was ubiquitous, friends. You couldn’t turn on MTV without seeing that creepy, melty-face girl grinning sadistically at you. It was everywhere, always, woven into the fabric of that time.
And maybe that’s what’s so jarring about the fact that he’s gone. Cornell’s music was an institution, one I thought we could count on for another few solid decades of reunions with Soundgarden, occasional solo records and sporadic other projects. But nothing lasts forever, and the seasons roll on by.