Jan. 11th, 2019

defrog: (Default)
Well, sure you do.

I’ll open with the fact that I changed the criteria this year in that I’m no longer limiting myself to music I bought, mainly because my music budget has been slashed considerably to the point that it’s hard enough to put together a Top 10, and there’s almost always going to be more albums I want to buy than I can actually afford. So now I’m including albums that I have streamed online, either via Spotify or NPR First Listen and whatnot.

That expands the field considerably, although not this year, since I only decided to implement this policy a month ago. But this year’s field is certainly bigger than the last couple of years.

As for that field, as usual it seems most of the best albums, as usual, came from the old pros instead of new artists. Even more telling, perhaps, is that it seems 2018 was the year for cover projects, whether paying tribute to a particular artist or covering a classic album. And there’s nothing wrong with that – you don't always have to write your own material, and as long as you bring something new to the table – or can at least demonstrate why the song is worth covering – it’s all good.

Is that a major indication of the state of music in 2018? Probably not. As Tom Waits once said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “No one ever says we have enough songs. There’s always room for one more song.”

That said, overall I felt 2018 wasn’t really a knockout year for music. I like everything in this Top 10, but only a couple really made a big impression on me. This was also a year where albums from several artists I really like (Janelle Monae, Neko Case, The Breeders) didn’t really connect with me, whether because they were underwhelming or overhyped – which is of course my problem, not theirs.

So here’s what impressed me the most this year.

TOP 10 DEF LPs OF 2018

10. Angélique Kidjo, Remain In Light (Kravenworks)
In which Kidjo covers an entire Talking Heads album. It works – which is perhaps unsurprising, given how the original was influenced by Afrobeat rhythms. For the most part, Kidjo takes that element and puts it at the forefront. It’s interesting too that she seems to have opted for the Stop Making Sense versions of these songs, tempo-wise. David Byrne reportedly loves it.

9. Ry Cooder The Prodigal Son (Perro Verde/Fantasy)
This has been billed by some music journalists as Ry Cooder’s gospel album, though that’s overselling it. While there’s some gospel covers here, Cooder (who openly admits to being non-religious) is more interested in gospel as an American roots music style – which makes a kind of sense as gospel is probably the only form of American folk music he hasn't done yet. Like with most Cooder albums, the vocals don’t always do the material justice, but musically it’s beautiful, fun and rowdy as required.

8. Hedgehog, Sound Of Life Towards … (Tai He)
Hedgehog are a band from Beijing who specialize in indie rock, albeit the kind of indie rock where they play around with different templates rather than stick to one formula – a little Pixies here, a little Nirvana there, a little Blonde Redhead thataway, etc – although none of those comparisons really tell you what they sound like. In any case, this is (I believe) their tenth album, and it’s a pretty solid set of songs with some pretty nifty arrangements.

7. Mighty Jabronis, Mighty Jabronis (Bandcamp)
The Mighty Jabronis are the latest music project featuring Cat Taylor, who fronted Nashville hardcore legends Rednecks In Pain and later Fun Girls From Mt Pilot. Their main gimmick is to combine punk rock and pro wrestling (and Cat has actually done both), so all their songs are wrestling-themed, as are their cover songs (to include a parody of a Loverboy hit). It may be a gimmick, but it’s a good one and it’s catchy fun. You don’t have to be a fan of wrestling to like this, but it will help you get a lot of the in-jokes.

6. Kim Wilde, Here Come The Aliens (Wildeflower/Edel)
Yes, THAT Kim Wilde (a.k.a. “Kids In America”). She’s still around, and has been recording more or less steadily since her 80s heyday, apart from one ten-year break.. I was a fan of her first four albums released in the early 80s, and this – her 14th album and her first in five years – sounds like she and brother Ricky haven’t changed their production standards (or keyboards) one jot since then, except the guitars are louder to the point that at times it sounds like the 80s-era Billy Idol comeback album we didn’t ask for. The few ballads are too generic for me, but overall I have to say I liked this more than I expected I would. If you like 80s pop ladled with Eurocheese and not taken too seriously, this is actually a lot of fun.

5. Cambodian Space Project, Spaced Out In Wonderland (ABC)
Cambodian Space Project is a Cambodian 60s psychedelic pop tribute band from Cambodia who do a mix of covers and originals. Sadly this may be their final album, as their lead singer, Channthy, was killed in a traffic accident in March last year. I think this is their best album to date, mainly on the strength of their selection of Western classics to which they apply their Cambodian pop-rock sound (like “Paint It Black”, “Proud Mary” (the Ike and Tina version) and “Summer Wine”). The original songs are a mixed bag – some work great, some don’t – but the album is worth the price of admission for their cover of Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger”.

4. Jean Grae and Quelle Chris, Everything's Fine (Mello Music Group)
I’m not familiar with Quelle Chris, but I’ve been a fan of Jean Grae from back in the late 90s when she was rapping under the name What What. This is their first full-length collaboration, a concept album about the state of the nation and how all of us – but racial minorities in particular – often say “everything’s fine”, even if we’re on the edge of losing it, because it's what we’re expected to say, whether it’s about our personal lives or the society around us. It’s musically inventive and packs a bigger punch than any so called gangsta rap.

3. Kristin Hersh, Possible Dust Clouds (Fire Records)
This is Hersh’s 11th solo album, and if you’ve ever heard her previous albums, this doesn’t vary too far from her usual songwriting template – in fact, the biggest deviation is the heavy, distorted production and what sounds like greater use of effects pedals, which gives it a more layered sound, though not to the point of being overproduced. What’s really striking is the occasionally ambitious songwriting structures and the fact that Hersh can take the same three or four basic sets of chord changes and somehow still make them sound fresh.

2. Laurie Anderson and Kronos Quartet, Landfall (Nonesuch)
This is music from their multimedia show about Anderson’s experiences when Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, so in a sense this is an incomplete experience – but the music holds its own, though it’s when Anderson recites her spoken-word bits that it really comes to life. But the music speaks for itself to the point that the song title is often all you really need to create your own visuals in your head.

1. Juliana Hatfield, Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John (American Laundromat)
Just like it says. Hatfield does mostly the hits and a few album tracks, and while most critics have complained that she didn't do enough to take ownership of these songs or mess around with them enough – which is technically true – I thought she struck almost the right balance between tribute and doing her own version. Admittedly there’s a couple of songs where I found myself wishing she’d done just a little bit more with it. That said, her voice is perfectly suited for ONJ’s songs, and she sounds like she really had a blast recording these – and her enthusiasm is contagious, because I’ve really enjoyed listening to it. Your own opinion will likely depend on how much you like ONJ and to what extent you expect cover versions to reinvent the original song.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

David Byrne, American Utopia (Todomundo/Nonesuch)
This is Byrne’s seventh solo album, and it’s part of larger multimedia project called Reasons To Be Cheerful, Byrne’s attempt to find optimism in the current grim reality, even if that means pointing out that dogs, chickens and bullets are lucky that they don’t have to worry about sociopolitical problems. Of course, there’s nothing here to beat his Talking Heads material, but taken on its own terms, it’s his best solo effort in awhile.

The Damned, Evil Spirits (Spinefarm/Universal)
The Damned return after a ten-year break with their 11th LP, with more or less the same line-up they've had since 2001’s Grave Disorder (including original members Dave Vanian and Captain Sensible), except that Paul Gray is back on bass. Musically it’s sort of a return to form, with producer Tony Visconti catching them somewhere between Machine Gun Etiquette and Phantasmagoria music-wise, although the horn section may be a bit much. Like all latter-day Damned albums, it pales in comparison to their classics, but there’s a lot to like here – Vanian sounds as good as ever, and a fair number of songs here show they still have a sharp eye for social observation.

Gwenno, Le Kov (Heavenly)
This is Gwenno Saunders’ second solo album after leaving the Pipettes, and where the previous one was a sci-fi concept album sung in Welsh, the main theme here is that all the songs are sung in Cornish as a protest against the British government’s proposal to cut funding for teaching and supporting the Cornish language. In any case, it’s more ethereal retro-psychedelic pop, and I like it.

Nona Hendryx & Gary Lucas, The World Of Captain Beefheart (Knitting Factory Records)
12 Beefheart classics served up by Gary Lucas (the last guitarist to serve with Beefheart) and Nona Hendryx filling in on vocals – which sounds weird on paper but it really works. If nothing else it provides a new perspective on Beefheart’s music (the song selection covers a pretty wide range) and shows that even his weirder songs were more mainstream than they sounded at the time.

Thought Gang, Thought Gang (Sacred Bones)
This is the legendary jazz/spoken-word side-project of David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti, created somewhere between the second season of Twin Peaks and the prequel film Fire Walk With Me, in which Badalamenti and his jazz musicians would improv music to go with whatever weird scenario Lynch would pitch at them. A couple of tracks surfaced on the Fire Walk With Me soundtrack, but the whole album (recorded in the 1990s) was only just released late last year. It sounds more or less the way you’d expect – Lynch fans may dig it, but beyond that, it’s hard to say.

Tony Joe White, Bad Mouthin' (Yep Roc)
This is the final album from Tony Joe White, who passed on shortly after its release. It’s a good note to go out on. Here, White performs the first two songs he ever wrote (before his breakthrough hit “Polk Salad Annie”), but the real attraction here is the covers – mainly classic blues songs, but also “Heartbreak Hotel”, which White transforms into a dark blues lament.

BEST PROTEST ALBUM

Marc Ribot, Songs of Resistance 1942-2018 (Noise Inc/Anti-)
It seems there were quite a few protest albums or songs released this year for some mysterious and inexplicable reason. This was the most interesting of the bunch for me. As the title suggests, it’s a collection of protest songs – a mix of originals and classic songs from World War II anti-Fascist Italian partisans, the US civil rights movement and Mexican protest ballads – inspired not just by the 2016 election and the subsequent return of neo-Nazis, but the rise of authoritarian regimes around the world. Ribot’s eclectic musical style can make for some uneasy listening at times, and I think the older songs work better in the sense that they’re more timeless (as opposed to the new songs that point fingers and name names, which is fair, but I don’t see myself listening to many of these five years from now). But it’s a great idea, and it helps that Ribot roped in some great guest vocalists – Steve Earle, Meshell Ndegeocello, Justin Vivian Bond, Fay Victor, Sam Amidon, and Ohene Cornelius. Oh, and Tom Waits, whose rendition of “Bella Ciao” is worth the price of admission alone.

THE ALBUM THAT MAY STILL GROW ON ME

Metric, Art of Doubt (BMG)
For me, Metric is one of those bands that put out one great album (Fantasies) and – at least for me – have not yet managed to clear that bar again. On first pass, their latest seemed to be trying a little too hard to come up with anthemic air-punchers, but with each new listen, some songs are starting to grab my attention, especially the title track. I didn’t get a copy until around November, and sometimes it takes a while for an album to win me over – that may well be the case here.

BEST ALBUM BY A BAND I HAPPEN TO BE IN

Banäna Deäthmüffins, Kawaii Five-0 (Terribly Frog Records)

Yes, it’s a shameless plug. But why not? Yr all lucky I didn't put it in my Top 10.

BEST COMPILATION

Various Artists, Make Mine Mondo! (Ace)
This collects novelty songs, garage rock, rockabilly and 60s pop psychedelica from Doré Records, a small LA label run by Lew Bedell, a former stand-up comic who welcomed just about any oddball who showed up with a master tape looking for a record deal (which included Kim Fowley, Mike Curb and Shel Talmy, among others). Bobby Troup is probably the most recognizable name here, but the whole comp is a lot of fun – not just for the Doctor Demento fodder (The Zanies’ “The Mad Scientist” and “The Blob”, The Altecs’ “Gorilla Hunt”, Johnny O’s “Meet The Bongo Man”) but also bands like The Wrench, Chuck Miles and The Styles, Spencer’s Van Dykes, and Basil and the Baroques, among others.

Tomorrow: the films!

Mondo bizarro,

This is dF

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