Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Rockin' My Turntable in 2018.

Photo by Travis Wiens
No, that headline is not a typo. I am aware that even though I have long been a proponent of holding yearly "best of" lists until after the year is over, waiting 12 months to do one is pretty ridiculous. It's no secret 2018 was a difficult year for me, and a side effect of that was a change in my relationship to music. I've touched on why that was before, but suffice to say I can admit 2018 wasn't a year of broad discovery for me. Instead I often retreated to the familiar, meaning old favorites were in high rotation while new releases only nudged in here and there, relative to my previous music consumption habits. It's not like I didn't listen to a lot of new albums in 2018; I just had a difficult time evaluating them in the manner I did before.

That has changed in 2019—as many issues have been resolved, my ability to emotionally connect in the way I find necessary for my own critical writing has returned—but it still left a gap in how to handle 2018. In the end I returned to the same criteria I've always used and chose the albums I liked the best, while also understanding that my list may not be as varied or as deep as previous years.

I'm not going to make some grand statement about the state of music in 2018 since I still think we're in a transitional period as the entire landscape grapples with how people discover and consume music, and the effect that has on bands as creators. But I will always believe that people will like what they like, and this is what I liked in 2018. In some ways these were the bands I needed most during that time period, so let's see where I landed.

As always, these are not in any particular order. I still just can't get behind the notion of ranking favorites. That feels more like an exercise for writers still stuck on some notion of artistic hierarchies.

Superchunk - What A Time To Be Alive

I'm lucky that my generation has had a number of our "classic" bands prove they can still crank out music as good or better than their "iconic" periods of work. In other words, a bunch of the indie rock bands I loved growing up are somehow managing to not only remain relevant, but they're kicking out stuff just as crackling as they did in their heyday. Superchunk is near the front of that resurgence and What A Time To Be Alive is both one of their angriest and life-affirming works to date. I listened to this a lot last year.

Sloan - 12

Sloan remains near the top of my list of favorite bands of all time, and like Sperchunk they are managing to release amazing work decades into their career. However Sloan is one of the very few bands who can retain the twin distinctions of never having released a "weak" album while steadily releasing new music and never "breaking up" or "going on hiatus." O.K., they almost broke up, but that didn't last long enough to actually slow down their release schedule. This was another that  racked up hundreds of spins over the last year.

Unlikely Friends - Crooked Numbers

I'm just gonna snag what I wrote about this album for The Reader early in 2018: Crooked Numbers takes midwestern power-pop and laces it with northwestern slacker sensibilities. The result is a collection of songs that feels immediately familiar—your dorm-room record player would explode with nostalgia if you threw this vinyl on top of it. Pull on your Sub Pop "Loser" T-shirt and then drop this album into the mix.

Extra Arms - Headacher

My history with Extra Arms runs way back to when bandleader Ryan Allen was in another one of my favorite bands, Friendly Foes. On Headacher he continued to write speed raw kin' power pop anthems at a blistering pace. Unbeknownst to me at the time, he was also going through a divorce, cataloged on his band's latest release, so we probably could've had a lot more to talk about when I ran into him touring this record than we realized.

Franz Ferdinand - Always Ascending

I feel like Franz Ferdinand has never really gone away, but for some reason Always Ascending felt like a return to form to me. It also boasts such a solid collection of tunes that are equally at home in the car or on the dancefloor (or, in my case, on the train or my old back porch) that demand constant play.

Sonny Falls - Some Kind Of Spectre

Sonny falls recently broke up and  their bandleader is continuing on under the Old Joy moniker, so Some Kind Of Spectre will end up serving as the band's noisy, glorious swan song.

Gorillaz - The Now Now

I loved Humans, but I was super happy to hear Gorillaz get closer to the dancefloor again with The Now Now. But c'mon, if you know me, you know I'm a sucker for anything Damon Albarn does.
Also, seeing this tour with my friend Adam was a blast.

Telethon - Modern Abrasive

Telethon are "punk rock" but never seemed all that "angry" to me, but I assume they would find my use of "quotation" marks to be slightly silly as I attempt to describe them. Just listen and you'll discover how insanely "catchy" this band can be.

Ruler - Winning Star Champion

Ruler is Matt Batey and I know that when I wanted to see them play in Chicago they had to cancel so I have no idea if he pulls any of this off live, but the album is pure sugar laced with acid. And catchy as fuck.

Peter Bjorn and John - Darker Days

I don't have much to say about this one because in retrospect anything I do utter would probably be too personal. Too bad you didn't get me writing this last year, eh?

Janelle Monáe - Dirty Computer

One of my favorite concert moments of 2018 was seeing Janelle with my friend Jill, Jill convincing me to trade our seats with some folks who wanted to sit with their friends, discovering these folks were friends (family?) with Janelle, leading us to meet Janelle after the show. Also, the album is magnificent and finally delivers on everything that makes Monáe a genius, all at the same time. She's come a long way since I first saw her play tiny Schubas...

The Dirty Nil - Master Volume

The Dirty Nil is a band you have to see live. Their records are big dumb smart raw all the way, and their stage show reinforces the joy that goes into crafting stuff like that.

Direct Hit! - Crown Of Nothing

They've been together over a decade, and live just across the border from me in Milwaukee, but I never heard of Direct Hit! until 2016's Wasted Mind—an album that blew the flesh off my bones. Crown Of Nothing continues you somehow graft inchoate rage at one second with a party-til-you-die chorus that shouldn't work by any stretch of the imagination, but totally does.

Jeff Whalen - 10 More Rock Super Hits

Jeff Whalen was the singer for Tsar, and I wrote about him here, so go read that. But holy shit, this is the real deal when it comes to power-pop and glam, or as Whalen calls it, bubbleglam.

Snail Mail - Lush

The spirit of Matador Records 1994 is alive and well and living in an enormously talented 20-year-old. Wait, what did I just type math-wise?!

Con Brio - Explorer

We saw Con Brio at Lollapalooza a few years ago, primarily because my companion at the time either read or wrote something about the band ahead of the show. I was less enthused since they were billed as a funk band, and in a festival setting that usually  means jam band over actual funk. Not in Con Brio's case! High octane tunes, horns, dancing, and a singer who could do multiple backflips ended up being an unexpected highlight of my fest-going that year. Explorer is a little more mature in it's speed and volume, but the energy is still there, and powered up my summer of '18. Oddly "Too Lit 2 Quit" is one of the album's weaker tunes, but the only upbeat number I could find with a video, since the newer stuff ain't on Bandcamp.

Danny Goffey - Schtick

Danny Goffey was (well, I guess now "is" again?) the drummer for Supergrass, but he's also a fucking great songwriter all on his own. Unsurprisingly, his solo stuff sounds an awful lot like Supergrass. The world needs more of that.

Hockey Dad - Blend Inn

I wrote about Hockey Dad when this album came out, and my opinion hasn't changed. Well, it changed a little. I like the album even more now than I did then.

Little Junior - Hi

I wrote about these cats a few times, most recently here. Again, this album has only grown better in my estimation.

Andrew WK - You're Not Alone

Wherein Andrew continues to party as if his life depends upon it. And it does. I know mine did.

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