It’s time we turn this list around. Instead of tracking the favorite new releases of 2018, I’ll start with my favorite catalog discoveries. The vast majority of my listening these days is old music that’s new to me, so let’s pretend no longer I have a read on anything current.
Patti Smith, Horses: PJ Harvey sure owes a lot to Patti Smith. The first time I played Horses, there were moments I thought I was listening to Polly Jean. This album confounded me, thus forcing me to play it multiple times, each time engaging me more than the last. Smith has been described as the godmother of punk, and I half expected a proto-Sleater-Kinney. Nah, man. That’s not it at all.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced?: Maybe it’s because of Emmylou Harris and Kronos Quartet that made this album feel instantly familiar, or maybe its influence extends as far as the arm of Sauron.
Roxy Music, Avalon: Smooth
Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska: This shit is dark.
Joni Mitchell, Court and Spark: Without some schooling in Charles Mingus and John Coltrane, I wouldn’t have understood how ground-breaking this album is. Otherwise, the cheap imitations it spawned would have been my only reference.
Fugazi, The Argument: I didn’t think anything could top 13 Songs or Repeater, but this album comes damn close.
Dwight Yoakam, Guitars Cadillacs Etc. Etc.: Honky-tonk AF
Benjamin Gibbard / Andrew Kenny, Home, Vol. 5: Even after 15 years, this split EP holds together well.
Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer: This is the album I wished The ArchAndroid was. I still think she hasn’t yet recorded her Shousou Strip.
Laurie Anderson and Kronos Quartet, Landfall: I found myself engaged in this album more than I expected.
Various Artists, Adam to Eve no Ringo: Shiina Ringo is one of the best songwriters, because the strength of her writing cuts through even the most ordinary interpretation of her songs.
Thomas Bartlett and Nico Muhly, Peter Pears: Balinese Ceremonial Music: It’s an improbable concept album based on transcriptions of Balinese gamelan music by English composer Colin McPhee. In execution, it’s a stronger concept than the Planetarium album Muhly did with Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner and James McAlister.
Steve Grand, not the end of me: Grand has gone through some serious shit since his debut album, and this sprawling sophomore effort lays it all out.
Utada Hikaru, Hatsukoi: Check out the rhythmic modulation on “Chikai”. She does some amazing obfuscation with the downbeat.
Igor Stravinsky, Chant Funèbre / La Sacre Du Printemps: It seems Funeral Song didn’t really answer the question of how Stravinsky bridged his Scriabin-influenced early work with the Firebird and all that came after.
Tracey Thorn, Record: Tracey Thorn returns to the dancefloor, thank deities.
I’ve read about her in numerous rock magazines during high school, and on more than a few occasions, Blue would be played on the in-store system at Waterloo Records during a shift. Máire Brennan of Clannad introduced me to “Big Yellow Taxi”, which Janet Jackson would sample to great effect.
But it wasn’t until I picked up Court and Spark at the Friends of the Seattle Library Book Sale that I made the connection with “Help Me”. I didn’t realize Joni Mitchell had recorded that song.
Even now, “Help Me” is indelibly tied in my head with one particular radio station in Honolulu — KSSK, or K-59. In the ’70s, KSSK (590 AM) was the top-rated station in Honolulu with a playlist that featured all the big hits of the day.
In the ’80s, car stereos improved, and FM stations gained popularity. KQMQ (93.1 FM) captured mindshare among young people, but my mom stubbornly refused to let us listen to it. She preferred the traffic and news reports KSSK provided, and since she was behind the wheel, that information would be important for drive time.
But oh my GOD, KSSK didn’t update their playlist as the decade switched over from the 70s to the 80s. They were still playing music that was considered absolutely square by my siblings and me. Duran Duran, Madonna and Huey Lewis were doing wonderful things with synthesizers. Why did we have to be subjected to this easy listening junk from Carole King, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell??
“Help Me” stood for everything that was wrong with KSSK’s playlist. It was that jazzy, inoffensive, reliably adult kind of music that was automatically branded “boring” by anyone under 20.
Maybe the station might play a Sheena Easton single or some pre-Thriller Michael Jackson, but Prince was verboten. And good luck catching any Eurythmics. Otherwise, it was the Eagles, baby.
I haven’t listened to radio since the ’80s, but I assume if I were to tune into KSSK right now, the playlist would still be stuck in the ’70s, and “Help Me” would be right there.
Of course, now I listen to “Help Me” with terrific fondness, and 30 years of music education has given me a far deeper appreciation of Court and Spark. When I didn’t have John Coltrane and Charles Mingus as a point of reference, the album would have remained square to me. Instead, I understand why Court and Spark is a big deal. Mitchell retains her folk sound, but she makes it swing.
At some point, I’ll revisit Blue, but right now, Court and Spark is my go-to Joni Mitchell album.
As the late 90s pop boom that brought forth ‘Nsync and Britney Spears crested, an enterprising A&R person in England thought a band with the same kind of pop appeal who could play their own instruments might turn a quick buck or two.
BBMak fit that bill, and as snobish as I was about the bubblegum pop ilk, I was willing to give them a shake. My review of the band’s first album, Sooner or Later, dripped with damning praise, but I did go as far as compare them to Duran Duran. The second album, Into Your Head, didn’t fare as well.
Back then, I still wanted my rock music to be dark and evil, or at least melancholy. A number of tracks on Sooner or Later fulfilled the latter requirement, but Into Your Head was a different beast altogether.
After 16 years, enough time has passed to evaluate Into Your Head on its own terms, and honestly, it’s quite refreshing. Maybe I’m just more mellow in my dotage, but the sunniness of the album is more of an asset than an annoyance.
The band lays pretty heavy on the guitars, probably acknowledging that Linkin Park was becoming a thing. At the same time, they double down on the smooth harmonies and earnest lyrics.
My original reaction was to call it “generic”. I question that assessment now, or rather, I don’t remember the context which made me arrive at that conclusion. BBMak’s contemporaries were so forgettable, it’s tough to draw a meaningful comparison.
Listening to both albums after nearly 20 years, BBMak flexed more muscle on Into Your Head by going for a bigger, anthemic sound, and it works.
But the target market was moving on. The teens who buoyed the pop groups were starting college, and file sharing had decimated the mass market. In 2002, labels didn’t have the marketing leverage to bring BBMak to ‘Nsync levels. Heck, ‘Nsync itself had all but broken up by 2005.
BBMak announced it reunited in 2018, and I learned about it, oddly enough, from a retweet by Duran Duran’s official Twitter account. I must admit I’m looking forward to what the band produces next.
So many gay male artists are releasing new music this summer, it makes me wonder why they all didn’t put everything out in June. But muses can’t be rushed. Nor marketing plans.
Steve Grand, Not the End of Me, July 6
I listen to a lot of really serious music. I need Steve Grand to stop me from being too melancholy.
Luciano Berio, Sinfonia (Roomful of Teeth, Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot), July 20
I went to the Saturday performance of this piece on the recommendation of my music theory professor.
Jake Shears, Jake Shears, Aug. 10
I’ve never really cottoned to Scissor Sisters, even though they seem to be in my wheelhouse.
Death Cab for Cutie, Thank You for Today, Aug. 17
The first two albums of Death Cab’s major label of phase made me wonder if they would follow R.E.M.’s downward creative trajectory in a similar fashion, but Codes and Keys and Kintsugi actually stemmed that tide. I’m not encouraged by the band’s comparison of this new album to Narrow Stairs, however.
Julee Cruise, Three Demos, Aug. 17
I loved Floating Into the Night, so I’m curious to hear these early drafts. A reissue of The Voice of Love also arrives the same day.
Troye Sivan, Bloom, Aug. 31
I was nowhere near the target market for Blue Neighborhood, but I liked it anyway.
Craig Armstrong, Sun on You, Sept. 7
Craig Armstrong is known more for his film scores, mostly because few of his studio albums get US releases. Here’s hoping a streaming release makes up for that drought.
Renée Fleming, Broadway, Sept. 7
A Broadway album? With Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Tell Me on a Sunday”? And a song from Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music that isn’t “Send in the Clowns”? OK, Renée Fleming, I’ll bite.
Prince, Piano and a Microphone 1983, Sept. 14
Sure, I’m curious enough to check out this set of demos, but what I’d like to know is when the vinyl reissue campaign will get to the Love Symbol album.
U2, Achtung Baby, July 27
U2, Zooropa, July 27
Zooropa is an odd album in the U2 canon, recorded in a spontaneous rush with experiments that work (“Numb”) and some that fail (“Lemon”). Despite a lavish repackaging, Achtung Baby had not yet been reissued in stand-alone black vinyl.