music

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.

The band 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.

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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.

The Shortlist:

How my listening habits changed in 2018

Two new developments changed the way I listen to music in 2018:

Spotify

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.

Vinyl

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.

2018 diversions

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.

Frightened Rabbit

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.

Hejira

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.

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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 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.

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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.

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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.

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