Counting down our faves from a weird, wild year
There’s been a Longreads feature going around over the holidays called “Where Have All The Music Magazines Gone?,” in which writer Aaron Gilbreath celebrates a truncated history of music journalism (said in the article to have begun in the 1960s though it more accurately dates back to the 19th century) by rattling off a bunch of sorely missed publications to tug at our heartstrings before essentially declaring all hope is lost for the purity of the format.
What’s even more perturbing is, despite the infinite and earthbound wisdom of Big Takeover publisher Jack Rabid, this piece is peppered with the same talking points about how the Internet altered the status quo of music consumption and people aren’t listening to music the way they used to and blah blah blah. It’s all the same stuff we heard over and over again ad nauseam. These people talk as though those of us over 40 don’t even exist, let alone continue to read magazines and buy music the way people have been buying music for over 100 years.
And that right there is what makes me so grateful that the publishers at Sea of Reeds Media bestowed upon me the responsibility of captaining the Rock and Roll Globe. This was an opportunity to prove the pundits wrong. People do still want to buy magazines and collect albums in a tangible format that, yes, also includes CDs, which is very much NOT dead yet.
You know what else isn’t dead? Us. The folks over 40 whom the so-called experts have essentially classified as obsolete mules, to quote Matt and Jeff Hardy. We’re still here, people! En masse, as well. It’s something a lot of modern music publications don’t quite seem to comprehend while they are desperately looking to curry favor with the youth market. Yes, the kids are online, but so are their parents and grandparents—sometimes even moreso, quite honestly, when you consider how many of us work in front of computers for a living. Yet the tastemakers simply overlook our demographic. Even Rolling Stone, who built the strength of their financial nut on the backs of Baby Boomers, treat older folks like an afterthought.
But that’s where we come in. We are a music publication run by people over 40 to be enjoyed by people over 40. When asked what kind of establishment I’m running here, I like to tell them that we are a readable version of Trax from Pretty In Pink or High Fidelity’s Championship Vinyl. Or better yet, that record shop in the mall where Damone was scalping tickets in Fast Times At Ridgemont High or the Record World my uncle managed at the Mid-Island Plaza in Hicksville. I wanted to make this space a place where you can hang out for a few minutes in your day, where you can read about Frank Sinatra one day, Black Flag the next and The 1975 the day after that.
The Rock and Roll Globe is a publication fueled not on algorithms but genuine rhythms. We don’t care how old you are, how young you are, how “on brand” you are. If you share a similar depth of appreciation for music unencumbered by silly hooks like “poptimism” and whatever the cool catchphrase is going into 2019, this is your place.However, in that aforementioned article, Gilbreath does offer one kernel of promise amidst the overall pessimism draping his text:
“When writers focus on musicians or their lives as listeners, they focus on the people who make or consume music, on the music’s historical context, its time and place, rather than on dissecting the music itself. That brings the abstract out of the abstract. By transporting characters and scenes in a concrete recognizable world, music stories draw readers into a narrative that appeals to a broader audience, one capable of reaching beyond the small cadre of hardcore music fans who speak jargon. Then we can think of music stories as another form of compelling entertainment — not necessarily music journalism, but good storytelling.”
This is our aim at the RNRG, and like the man whose excellent 30th LP is perched atop our very first Top 20 Albums of the Year list below, our aim is true.
Many thanks to those who are reading us and adding our URL into their daily online traffic routine. We very much look forward to bringing you more of what we do in the New Year. The Rock and Roll Globe is just starting to warm up.
20. Father John Misty God’s Favorite Customer (Sub Pop)
Since manifesting into the good Father in 2012, former Fleet Foxes drummer Josh Tillman has been bringing back the kind of majesty to pop music that’s only previously existed in the catalogs of the solo Beatles, Harry Nilsson and Todd Rundgren. And with the world still buzzing from 2017’s Pure Comedy, FJM ups the ante of his art with God’s Favorite Customer, an album that answers the question of how a John Lennon/George Harrison studio LP could have sounded like had they gotten together in between All Things Must Pass and Imagine. Pure Comedy? No, pure genius. – Ron Hart
19. Neil Young Songs for Judy (Reprise)
In November 1976, following his infamous departure from the Stills-Young Band tour, Neil Young and the recently reunited Crazy Horse band took to the road on a tour that featured Young performing intimate acoustic solo sets, at his very best as he told stories and interrupts songs with monologues, following by electrified, high-energy performances with Crazy Horse. 42 years later, he curated some of the most beloved and talked-about tracks from this brief moment in time in music’s golden era for their first official release, Songs for Judy. Named after Judy Garland — with whom Neil had an encounter at a previous show, as he enthusiastically relayed after pausing a performance in Atlanta, GA— Songs for Judy includes fan favorites such as “Heart of Gold” and “After the Gold Rush,” as well as deeper cuts, such as “Give Me Strength,” a heartbreak tune almost entirely abandoned after the tour, a driving cover of Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr. Soul,” and “Human Highway,” a song from an abandoned Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young record. Most importantly, it shows Neil in his element: a world-weary performer with a streak of scrappiness and performance-ready guile, a deep-thinker with an offbeat sense of humor, a wandering loner with a propensity for getting higher than the moon and the stars he sings about in “Give Me Strength.” Songs for Judy offers little in the way of unheard tracks; in fact, a more-than-casual Neil Young listener will most likely recognize and sing along with almost every song included. However, what it does offer is a glimpse at Neil Young, fresh off of a tour that he hated, reunited with his band, and in his element. It’s a winding, nostalgic record, the kind you would listen to late at night in the 70s, when you’re young, the world is big, and these songs are brand new. But for his modern-day fans, there’s something fantastic about the world he describes on Songs for Judy: the untouched wilderness, the rolling hills and hushed forests, the intimacy of a show that starts late and doesn’t end until early the next morning, the quiet companionship of a man whose lyrics and melodies have transcended generations, fads, and whatever plastic-coated, mass-produced era we’re living in now. It’s a reminder that sometimes the best lyrics — many of which Neil Young penned— can be even better when performed a few yards in front of you, with only an acoustic guitar or a banjo to accompany them…or, at the very least, on a live recording that almost captures the feel of late fall, 1976, on tape.
18. Cat Power, Wanderer (Domino)
Cat Power’s Wanderer echoes with a sonic spaciousness that evokes the loneliness, the quiet, the tumultuousness, and the strength of self that comes from all forms of wandering. Cat Power’s spare and roomy arrangements allow her always stunning vocals to carry us along a musical stream that sometimes undulates and sometimes rages. Lana Del Ray joins Marshall on “Woman,” a spiraling acclamation of identity; the vocals circle higher and higher, weaving under and around the instruments, closing with jubilant and triumphant affirmation. The title track bookends the album with somber and haunting orchestration; there’s a tiredness and resignation to the minor chord ruminations, but Marshall delivers a quiet strength in her vocals. The quiet beauty of Wanderer casts a spell, working its way under our skin and into our souls. – Henry Carrigan
17. Willie Nelson Last Man Standing (Legacy Recordings)
Willie’s always been insanely prolific, to a fault, even, sort of the outlaw country Robert Pollard, if you will. But he releases records at such a dizzying pace that it’s easier to fall behind on his catalog than it is to catch up. So don’t feel bad if you didn’t pick up on the fact that Last Man Standing, one of two albums he released in 2018, is one of his strongest in years. Released to coincide with his 85th birthday, and arriving in the wake of compadre Merle Haggard’s death, it’s full of wry meditations on mortality, among other things. And there’s nary a more concise commentary on the topic than “I don’t want to be the last man standing/Wait a minute maybe I do.” – Jim Allen
16. Paul McCartney Egypt Station (MPL/Capitol)
Paul McCartney may never equal the heights of his benchmark efforts — Sgt Pepper, Abbey Road, Band on the Run, a succession of standards like “Let It Be,” “Hey Jude” and “Yesterday,” among his many musical milestones. It often appears that Macca remains undaunted, and if much of his solo career has paled in the shadow of the Beatles, it may be because he’s content to while away his time recording wistful ditties that are rarely of a consequential nature. While Egypt Station doesn’t necessarily change that impression, it does offer some of the more engaging entries of his recent catalog, which, in itself, provides reason to rejoice. His most consistently pleasing album since Flowers in the Dirt, it follows a loose concept — a train journey that begins and ends with the sounds of a railway station — and offers a trio of tunes, “I Don’t Know,” “Come On To Me” and “Happy With You,” that provide promise and a truly impressive intro. McCartney’s voice is in fine form, the imaginative arrangements are first rate, and given the poignant reflection evident in the aforementioned “Happy With You” as well as “Confidante” and “Who Cares,” Egypt Station also provides a rare personal perspective as well. -Lee Zimmerman
15. Marianne Faithful — Negative Capability (BMG)
Negative Capability finds Marianne Faithful facing the singular prospect that everyone encounters eventually, that is, the arrival of the twilight of one’s years and an unwelcome opportunity for reflection and remorse. Faithful in particular has ample reason for both. Living alone in Paris, many of her friends now departed, this once not-so-innocent waif deals honestly and sadly with a life that’s now permeated by increasing shadows and gathering clouds. Indeed, the album is an unflinching portrait of a person whose desires and desperation have now become one. “In My Own Particular Way” finds her desperate to find a lover. “No Moon in Paris” defines the sobering circumstances that have been borne from darkness and despair. “Born To Live” finds her facing the reality that end of life is as inevitable as the trajectory that led to it. Ed Harcourt, Warren Ellis and Nick Cave — hardly a jolly bunch themselves — help Faithful navigate these somber sentiments and craft a morose masterpiece. Indeed, Negative Capability could easily be considered one of the most honest, albeit painful series of confessional tomes ever offered in aural form — all haunting, harrowing and affecting in every way imaginable. – Lee Zimmerman
14. Sleep – The Sciences (Third Man)
It was a long time coming – slowly, sluggishly, like a snail crawling across the sidewalk towards the grass. Nearly a decade after its reformation, doom titans Sleep released The Sciences, its hotly anticipated comeback album. Given the usual tempo at which the San Jose trio’s chosen genre moves, it seems only appropriate that it took so long. Besides, after vacating the scene following the ultimate doom statement – the 75-minute, single track, weed-ensorceled opus Dopesmoker – it was a wise move. Guitarist Matt Pike (whose other band High On Fire also released an exceptionally strong slab of crunch this year), bassist/vocalist Al Cisneros and drummer Jason Roeder (replacing original skinsdude Chris Hakius) took their time with album number four, distilling the ever-more-diverse doom milieu down to its essence: riff after riff after blurry-eyed riff. “Marijuanaut’s Theme” and “Giza Butler” pay the appropriate inspirational tributes – pot and Sabbath, respectively – but the sensually satisfying density of the band’s melodic churn is Sleep’s own. Thousands of bands try to evoke the sound of a sleepy Brontosaurus leisurely striding the landscape; few nail it as tightly to the wall as Sleep does on The Sciences. – Michael Toland
13. The 1975 A Brief Inquiry Into Modern Relationships (Dirty Hit/Interscope)
One thing that I’ve always loved about The 1975 is their incredible ability to give absolutely zero time to anyone who has anything to say about their music; they’re going to do exactly what they want to do, whether it makes sense to the execs, the critics, the charts, or their fans. That was the case with 2013’s The 1975 (following the release of a series of eclectic EPs through their own record label), 2016’s I Like It When You Sleep For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It, and that’s most certainly the case with A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships. They are not a rock band, so stop calling them one. Exactly what they are, however, is hard to pin down. A Brief Inquiry explores the sounds of 80s pop, loaded with synth, touches of R&B, and the occasional piano- or acoustic-led song, where lead singer Matty Healy’s impassioned vocals carry the track. But The 1975 remain steadfastly rooted in their sound, dialing in on what made them The 1975 in the first place: the acerbic, irreverently self-aware lyrics (“And what would you say to your younger self? / Growing a beard’s quite hard and whiskey never starts to taste nice / And you’ll make a lot of money and it’s funny / ‘Cause you’ll move somewhere sunny and get addicted to drugs / And spend obscene amounts on fucking seeds and beans online,” ““I moved on her like a bitch” / Excited to be indicted / Unrequited house with seven pools / “Thank you, Kanye, very cool” / The war has been incited and guess what? / You’re all invited and you’re famous / Modernity has failed us.”) and the kind of reckless carelessness usually attributed to their rock ’n roll counterparts contrasting viciously with a deep need to understand and be understood. The result? The most The 1975-sounding record they’ve made yet. – Luci Turner
12. Jonathan Wilson Rare Birds (Bella Union)
On his third album, Wilson took more chances musically, lyrically and production-wise. What hasn’t changed is his wide-eyed sincerity and optimism. Some parts of the hippie ideal were worth preserving, after all, especially if the music sounds this incredible. “There’s a cherry on top tonight, for guys who look like Jesus tonight,” in sang in Sunset Boulevard, further cementing his status as a nascent rock god. -Jeremy Shatan
11. Sons of Kemet – Your Queen is a Reptile (Impulse!)
British saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings is one of many young musicians threatening to rewrite the circuitry of jazz. So far he’s come closest with the roiling, almost defiantly unbluesy horns ‘n’ percussion quartet Sons of Kemet. Your Queen is a Reptile, the group’s third LP, pulls in elements from free jazz, postbop, Afrobeat, reggae, funk and even marching band music, sounding like all and none of them at once. The revolving cast of drummers keep the rhythms constantly percolating for Hutchings’ liquid riffs and often astonishing soloing to flow over, while tubist/secret weapon Theon Cross ties it all together. The skill and passion driving the music is only half the story, though. As an unfortunate reminder that racism isn’t confined behind American borders, the title of Your Queen is a Reptile upbraids colonialist British royalty, while its tracks celebrate the queens from Hutchings’ African and Barbadian background. Harriet Tubman, Angela Davis and Nanny of the Maroons all get nods, while the Sons lead off the record with a tribute to Ada Eastman, Hutchings’ own great grandmother. Guest toasters illuminate some of the concepts, but ultimately it’s the band’s own will to communicate that reminds us that nobility comes in all colors. – Michael Toland
10. Wreckless Eric: Construction Time & Demolition (Southern Domestic)
Much has changed since Eric Goulden’s first hit as Wreckless Eric, “Whole Wide World,” hit the airwaves in 1977—and yet Goulden seems to be in good spirits on his latest record Construction Time & Demolition. Since the album’s release in April, Goulden has referred to it as a pop record, describing in the liner notes how he used an electric piano rather than a guitar while writing the songs near his home in Catskill, N.Y. The 11 tracks that resulted from his efforts are a natural progression from Goulden’s early work with Stiff Records, his new wave and punk roots peeking through on album opener “Gateway to Europe” and carrying him into the reflective “40 Years” and the social commentary in “Unnatural Act.” Clever and critical, Goulden’s lyrics show that there’s frustration beneath his good humor, but he remains undeterred to speak his mind and curious to continue constructing new methods of music making, despite the demolition he sees in other areas of daily life. For the rock diehards who may hesitate over Goulden’s self-described pop slant: don’t spend too much time worrying. Once the album starts playing, it’s the same Wreckless Eric singing into the studio microphones—he’s just grown a little older and wiser. -Meghan Roos
9. Anderson .Paak — Oxnard (Aftermath)
As we wind down a year that will go down in history as one of division, anger and pain, Anderson .Paak emerged with Oxnard, a provocative but joyful offering that further confirmed his reputation as a dynamic artist, thoughtful lyricist, and creative powerhouse. His debut release on Dr. Dre’s label, Aftermath, Oxnard is a swirling, funky cocktail of California hip-hop, heavy beats, and a blend of .Paak’s skillful rapping and smooth, soulful crooning and a host of guests, including Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar. Witty, relatable, and clear-eyed, the Los Angeles singer, rapper, producer, and drummer set the stage for his success on Dr. Dre’s comeback album, Compton, alongside Kendrick Lamar and Eminem. Rich and heavy, Oxnard is a lushly proceeded offering that finds .Paak building on the foundation his earlier successes, resulting in a project that blends the slick melodies of old-school R&B with the grit of 90s hip-hop. The third in a loosely connected beach albums trilogy — preceded by 2014’s Venice and 2016’s Malibu — Oxnard’s is a taste of psychedelia with a thoroughly hands-on sensibility. “I’ve been swimming through the process / And you can’t see me, I’m the Loch Ness / You could proceed, but with caution / Give the proceeds to my god-kids / Old dirt on my conscience,” he sings in “Who R U?,” the fourth track, before going on to reveal his childhood dream of working with Dr. Dre. Slick and driving, .Paak manages to tackle police violence and systematic racism only a few lines later. It’s the amalgamation of a man with his eyes wide open, living the life he imagined as a child. -Luci Turner
8. Kamasi Washington, Heaven and Earth (Young Turks)
Tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington carries us into the murkiness of daily life and lifts us to glorious heights on Heaven and Earth. The sixteen-song collection is divided evenly into a two-disc set. The eight songs on Earth—including Washington’s arrangements of “Fists of Fury,” the theme from Bruce Lee’s movie, and Freddie Hubbard’s “Hubtones”—meander, rise, and fall, exploring the expansiveness that lies within the quotidian. One of the final songs on that set, “Testify,” does just that, as the vocalists declare that the raggedness of the world must be overcome, by whatever means necessary. Heaven opens with “The Space Travelers Lullaby,” a whispering tune that spirals higher and higher, building into an affirmation of the way we can come to rest in the arms of the cosmos. The final songs on Heaven—“The Psalmnist,” “Show Us the Way,” “Will You Sing”—embrace the power of music to transcend the worlds in which we find ourselves. Washington’s embrace of tradition and his innovation to move beyond it illustrate the powerful ways that music can carry us far beyond ourselves and our worlds and to return to them with new message for ourselves and others. – Henry Carrigan
7. Lando Chill Black Ego (Mello Music Group)
A quick chat with Mr. Chill…
What inspired the direction of this record and it’s title?
What inspired it was the battle between ego and perception of self as a black man in America. I could go truly macro cliche with it and say “my life” but I’ve already gone down that road; plus a critique and reverence of blackness as a spectrum of cultural experiences & characteristics is miles more interesting and needed. We have an intense dichotomy of self hate & self love I don’t think we’ve tried to remedy after the assassinations of various black leaders & the collapse of public bold declarations of self reverence like the “black is beautiful” movement from the 60’s. I’d say the record is a journey through the black experience, hindered not by what blackness should or should not be, but what it can, will, and has always been; beyond the perception of self and sphere of influence that is intermingled with misconceptions of black masculinity, sexuality, & brutality.
Black Ego has the feel of an MC album. Was that a conscious thing for you heading into the studio for this one?
Haha it would be accurate to say that I wanted people to recognize the level of artistry Lasso and I possess. Most definitely I went out of my way to prove some folks wrong. It’s only when you push the boundaries of what they think you can do that the respect starts to turn listeners into real fans.
When I was in my mid-20s, it was the whole Soundbombing/Lyricists Lounge Era here in NY and I was in the thick of it. So much great talent from those days in the mid to late 90s and some of your approaches on Black Ego remind me of that period. This us really long division for asking you if that period inspired you here and is it more influential among new young MCs than we are led to believe? Do Company Flow, Shabaam Sahdeeq, Cage, Aesop Rock, the Juggaknots, etc. still matter in modern hip-hop?
Regardless of what new young MC’s think, hip-hop artists that came before to pave the way and create the framework for us to be accepted and successful; an art form born from black and brown ingenuity seen as legitimate with inspiration and participation lent from all cultures and creed; still matter greatly in modern hip hop. Do we as the “young hip hop community” cherish as we should? Pay homage and learn the history? That can be debated about; but I’d lean toward nahhhh. Still that doesn’t mean we can’t change. I’m more of a early 2000’s guy i ain’t gonna lie to ya.
I’m really digging the sonic growth as well on Black Ego, and would love to know who informs the guitar playing and work on the keys?
Lasso is the the mastermind behind everything on the album; from the keys to the drums, to the guitar. The man is a musical god.
“Koolaide” is such an amazing song; how did that collaboration with Psychic Twin come about? What do you dig most about Psychic Twin that could help put them on to a new listener?
That really stemmed from Lasso’s working relationship with Psychic Twin; and with him reaching out and everyone being on board, it was a marriage made in music heaven. What I dig most… I’d say the ability to build walls of emotion and melody in such a beautiful way, would just pull any new listener in to their embrace.
What do you believe is Lando Calressian’s most redeeming trait and what was it about the name Lando that inspired you to use it?
Representation. Of course he was a cool cat; double agent with a good heart and all, but my adoration of Billy Dee was his existence as a black man in a science fiction moving picture. Lando is pretty damn close to Lance in a way, so I thought why not.
As a dad, your album For Mark, Your Son is an eye-opening listen, a beautiful work through and through. I’d love to hear if you heard from fans who lost a parent at such a young age about how the album helped them. Carlos Santana once said what you guys all do is healing music and I’d love to know if you’ve heard of the holistic aspects of your music on your fanbase?
I have; many a time, & in every instance it hits a different note of sadness. Sadness and understanding. Losing a loved one; someone like a parent, is like losing the most important puzzle piece to a work of art you know now will never be the same. All the while as we try to finish this mural with shit that doesn’t fit, we reminisce on what could have been, until one day we finally understand that an unfinished piece is just as beautiful. Some folks find solace in that search.
Whats next for 2019?
Leveling up. A ton of new music. & a bunch of traveling.
6. John Prine The Tree of Forgiveness (Oh Boy Records)
Over a career that now spans five decades and better than 20 albums, three-time Grammy Award® winner John Prine couldn’t be blamed if he chose to rest on his laurels. Instead, the 71-year-old singer/songwriter delivered one of the best albums of his career in 2018 with The Tree of Forgiveness. For Prine’s first collection of new songs since 2005’s Fair & Square, the Americana legend enlisted the help of some of Nashville’s most talented musicians as well as acolytes like Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell, and Amanda Shires. With Tree of Forgiveness, Prine has created a dazzling collection of tall tales, slice-of-life story-songs, and emotional paeans that feature his gravelly, laid-back vocals, gentle guitar strum, and casual wordplay whose simplicity, at times, belies its intellectual deftness. Pulling from his familiar musical toolbox of folk, rock, country, and blues music, Prine co-wrote much of The Tree of Forgiveness with underrated songwriters like Nashville’s Pat McLaughlin, Memphis music legend Keith Sykes, and Music City immigrant Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, but it’s with his own introspective, image-laden, and often-rambling songs that he makes the most impact. It’s fitting that Prine would receive his first nomination to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on the heels of Tree, but I suspect that Mr. Prine would feel more at home sitting on his front porch with guitar, surrounded by friends, and making music as heartfelt as what you’ll find on The Tree of Forgiveness. – Rev. Keith A. Gordon
5. Kacey Musgraves Golden Hour (RCA Nashville)
Kacey Musgraves made a name for herself with her 2013 debut, Same Trailer, Different Park. Full of sharp, witty lyricism imparting wisdom with a twist of humor (“Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy”) and the kind of social commentary rarely found on a modern country record, Kacey was destined to be more than a one-hit wonder, which she’s proven time and time again. It’s made no more apparent, however, than on her 2018, Grammy-nominated release, Golden Hour. This is Kacey at her core: the contrasting elements of introspection and boldness, the fangs in the delivery, and her empowered views on social constructs, misogyny, and love in the modern age. The psychedelic sonic landscape of the record is varied, featuring acoustic guitar and banjo on a track before taking a deep dive into a disco beat or Motown groove. Far from a Frankensteined mishmash, Golden Hour feels like an easy conversation with a close friend, thanks to Kacey and her clear-eyed delivery. “Space Cowboy” seems to be the critic’s choice, but “Slow Burn,” the lead track, takes first place at Rock and Roll Globe. It’s an introspective opener, setting the tone for a record that was never meant to be listened to casually. “Old soul, waiting my turn / I know a few things, but I still got a lot to learn / So I’m alright with a slow burn.” – Luci Turner
4. Richard Thompson — 13 Rivers (New West)
13 Rivers may be Richard Thompson’s heaviest and most harrowing effort to date, an album that appears to document dissolution on the domestic front, along with a series of decidedly disturbing reflections on his present mindset. One particular lyric sums up his somber sentiments in particular. “I am longing for a storm to blow through town, blow these sad old buildings down,” he moans on the melancholic “The Storm Won’t Come,” offering more than a hint of dire despair. While the tender ballad “My Rock, My Rope” initially seems to temper those tempestuous tones, the verse suggests the anguish has taken a firm hold: “In my pain/In my darkness/Is my comfort/And hope/In my loss/In my sorrow/Is my rock/Is my rope.” Ultimately then, 13 Rivers is revealing in a decidedly intimate way, and even if Thompson claims to be hiding behind the characters in his songs, one can still conclude he’s reached a moment of reckoning, one that he’s eager for his listeners to share. Like other great artists — Picasso, Lennon, Cohen, among them — Thompson mines brilliance from what can only be termed the depths of despair. – Lee Zimmerman
3. Mac Miller Swimming (Warner Bros.)
Mac Miller’s posthumously Grammy-nominated record, Swimming, finds the rapper exploring heartbreak, loneliness, and regret in the wake of a breakup with muse and collaborator Ariana Grande. Pitchfork put it best when they said, “He’s gone from “you and me against the world” to just “me against the world,” and as much as he tries to convince himself that’s almost as good on his warm but wounded fifth album, Swimming, he knows it’s not.” He doesn’t go into details; instead, he winds his struggle through thirteen tracks, letting listeners fill in the gaps as he struggles to keep his head above water rather than trying to cover it with grandiose self-confidence. “I know I probably need to do better / Fuck whoever / Keep my shit together / You never told me being rich was so lonely / Nobody know me / Hard to complain from the five-star hotel,” he muses on “Smaller Worlds.” There are moments where he seems to lift, if only briefly and half-heartedly, as the record alternates between something close to despair and an inkling of a feeling that things might get better: “Yeah, used to wanna be a superhero / Fly around with a cape catching bad guys / Now my head underwater but I ain’t in the shower and I ain’t getting baptized / … But I never run out of jet fuel.” Whether they ever did remains unanswered, as fans struggle to recover from Miller’s untimely death. Between the quiet acceptance of this track and his performance of it on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts, “2009” wraps up the struggle of Swimming as Mac revisits the year before his breakout release, K.I.D.S. “Yeah, they ask me what I’m smilin’ for / Well, because I’ve ever been this high before / It’s like I never felt alive before / Mhmm, I’d rather have me peace of mind than war / See me and you, we ain’t that different / I struck the fuck out and then I came back swinging.” -Luci Turner
2. Neneh Cherry Broken Politics (Smalltown Supersound)
Those who called Neneh Cherry’s fifth solo album her most subdued yet must not have been listening to the lyrics. Resting on the melancholy clouds of Four Tet’s pristine electronic washes are words as pointedly timely and unapologetically unsettling as anything that Cherry has written in her sprawling m, 36-year career. Consider Lead single “Shot Gun Shack”, a best poem that grooves under Cherry’s intimate, chanteuse-styled jazz vocals. The vibe is subdued, but the sentiment is not: “Pick up a gun, you know you gonna use it/Know that gun, it’s gonna get loaded/Say my name before you pull it/
Too late, you know, just took that bullet.” Elsewhere on tracks like personal affirmation “Synchronized Devotion” and “Kong”, Cherry’s stream of consciousness blossoms to create an interplay between chaos and balance that sounds thematically resonant and artfully realized.
“Is it fallen leaves/The bird shit on my sleeve?/With no luck at all/There’ll be no luck for me” she croons in the opener, telegraphing her belief on the power of personal perspective to change the state of things that connects all of “Broken Politics.” By laying her heady words on a bed of mellow , high-vibe electronics, Cherry has quietly released one of the year’s strongest albums, a collection that makes the listener comfortable before urging them question their own agency in this world. – Justin D. Joffe
1. Elvis Costello and the Imposters Look Now (Concord)
“I know I’ll sound almost entirely fancifully, but this is This Year’s Model 2,” Elvis Costello tells music journalist Jeff Slate of Look Now in an October 2018 feature for The Daily Beast, the same piece where the singer threatens to punch the next person who says he was struggling with cancer. “Literally, this is the second edition of This Year’s Model. But this is This Year’s Model 2, because it also is a model for how to write songs, how to record, and how I feel about things at this point in my life. It isn’t supposed to be competing for your attention. It’s what it is. And if that isn’t what people want, what can I do about it?” He’s right, you know. Indeed, in the 40 years that have passed since the release of his first proper LP with The Attractions turned the punk world on its ear, the man born Declan MacManus remains as mercurial at 64 as he was at 24. And while calling Look Now his absolute best album of this century as Carl Wilson did in Slate is a great disservice to such Costello classics as When I Was Cruel and National Ransom, it definitely is the best LP Elvis has released with The Imposters. Often compared to Imperial Bedroom and Painted From Memory because of the presence of Burt Bacharach on four of the album’s 12 songs, Look Now–to me–also smacks of the R&B overtures that made 1981’s Trust an EC fan favorite as well. And when you add in the tang of an archived Carole King co-write in “Burnt Sugar Tastes So Bitter,” along with a bonus EP that includes a tune sung in French, this is the sound of rock and roll’s angriest young man manifesting into its most elegant elder statesman with the same level of electricity.