Sunday, December 23, 2018

Favorite music videos of 2018

This year I had to add a new category to my year-end music lists: music videos. 

Really I had to create the category so I could talk about Childish Gambino's "This is America," which really is not only the song of the year, but I dare say artistic statement of the year.

This conversation between Theresa Ruth Howard and Camille A. Brown on the Dance Magazine blog is really worth reading, especially in terms of seeing the dance as essential to the video, rather than as a distraction, as many critics did.

Since I'm at it, I also want to mention Janelle Monae's "Pynk." Largely because: vagina pants.

I mean, come on: those vagina pants are amazing! And bonus points for nuancing the crass pinkification of anyone with a vagina, by focusing on the vagina itself (and vulva, and tongues, and...well you get the picture) as Pynk. But also, Monae did make one of the albums of the year, and she is certainly someone working transdisciplinarily. A force to be reckoned with!

Favorite Songs of 2018

As you will know from past years' lists, my favorite songs each year are often dominated by covers. This year is no exception.

It almost seems wrong to choose just one song from Kamasi Washington, and from his EP The Choice, at that, not even from Heaven and Earth, the follow up to The Epic, that critics called "masterful." Coming in at one album shorter than 2015's The Epic (double, rather than triple), Heaven and Earth is still epic-like, and I just haven't been able to settle into it properly yet. The Choice, which came out a week after the double album, with its 5 songs, 2 of them stunning covers, is easier to get one's arms around. That doesn't mean it's not still ambitious, though. The gorgeous "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" comes in at almost 10 minutes, and the vocals don't even drift in until over 2 minutes in. Languorous and sprawling, vulnerable and insistent, the song feels like it's breathlessly tangled up in the bed sheets.

It's been hard for me to listen to Chris Cornell's voice since he took his own life in May 2017. I was truly devastated when he died. For almost 3 decades songs like "Outshined" and "Fell on Black Days" reflected my own dark feelings, let me immerse myself in them ("down on my knees," as it were), and yet offered me hope that I could and indeed would get back "up on my feet again." Even in songs that did not explicitly address these issues, his voice howled and  growled and soared and soothed like no other. He really could "reach down and pick the crowd up." That he ultimately could not do this for himself was really hard to accept. So I haven't yet done a deep dive into the Chris Cornell compilation, but his cover of Prince/Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U" has been a tender surprise, perhaps more so for its restraint. As he sings, he seems to once again be voicing my deepest feelings, only about his own absence from the world. "Like a bird without a song," indeed.

Tanya Tagaq is a Righteous Bad Ass whose voice has the power to rain down Retribution (incidentally one of my favorite albums of 2016). The vibrations of her growls, breaths, and wails carry both healing and destructive properties, and easily transmit everything from rage to orgiastic ecstasy. Above all, she cannot be ignored. She demands that we listen, see, feel, and ultimately act differently. In addition to her stunningly original music, her cover songs utterly transform The Pixies "Caribou" (on the 2014 album Animism) and Nirvana's "Rape Me" (on Retribution), which from her mouth become incantatory cries protesting the systematic oppression of Inuit culture and mourning violence against First Nations women. Her 2018 cover of Iron Maiden's metal epic about the genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, "Run to the Hills," with Fucked Up's Damian Abraham, brings an urgent immediacy to what she calls Maiden's "colonization saga." As her website ominously states: "Just don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s all in the past."

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Favorite albums of 2018

I have to admit that this was not a great year in music for me. For much of the year I didn't really connect to a lot of the new music coming out. Frankly I spent a lot of time this year listening to Prince, and then Aretha after she passed. I can't quite identify what it is in their music that was giving me something I needed that I wasn't getting from most new music this year. Nonetheless, I was able to cobble together a list of 11 albums that are still drawing me in as 2018 comes to a close.

An early standout of the year was Superchunk's What a Time to Be Alive. Last year I called Kevin Morby's "1234" an "ebullient downer;" those are appropriate words to describe Superchunk's solid-from-start-to-finish offering. Or maybe "celebratory truth-telling" would be more accurate, with lyrics like this chorus to the eponymous song:

To see the rot in no disguise
Oh what a time to be alive
The scum, the shame, the fucking lies
Oh what a time to be alive
Oh what a time to be alive

The album I'm most embarrassed to admit that I liked - and listened to quite a bit - came out around the same time: Andrew W.K.'s You're Not Alone. (I know, I can't believe I'm writing this, either!) Unabashedly positive, this album is like a cheesetastic anthemic self-help book-on-tape. I can attest that songs like "Music is Worth Living For" and "Keep on Going" are particularly uplifting after one has run 19 miles and doesn't feel like one more step is possible.  

The only other album that I listened to in the first 2/3 of the year that stayed with me is Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats' Tearing at the Seams. Here's another band I felt weird about liking - as if it was something I shouldn't like (too bar-band-y?), but finally admitted that I do. I may like their debut album even better, but there's something soothing about this album, too, even though many of the songs actually point to cracks and hidden trouble.

Things started to pick up with projects from long-time favorites Laura Marling and Anna Calvi towards the end of the summer. LUMP, Marling's electronic project with Mike Lindsay, feels like a natural extension of Marling's more folky, singer-songwriter work. On LUMP the quality and tone of the music underscores Marling's delicious voice, allowing the lyrics that alternately acknowledge tension and crisis and offer a balm to float and soothe. Anna Calvi, on the other hand, seems to have stepped into her personal, sexual, and above all vocal power in new ways. Hunter finds her in complete control of her voice; whereas in previous recordings she always seemed to take her voice to full extent of her range and stay there, in this album she seems to be modulating her power more, and yet is even more in control of her voice for it.

Prince and Aretha manifest together concretely in Prince's Piano and a Microphone, which among other things includes an exquisite and thoroughly original cover of "Mary Don't You Weep," which Aretha also famously recorded on her 1972 Amazing Grace. One of the things that struck me in all the eulogizing of Aretha was, as rock journalist Ann Powers describes it, how Aretha reminds us that the divine is intimate, and the intimate is spiritual, and that we are always here on earth when we encounter the divine. (Or as another print journalist put it, Aretha could take you from Saturday night to Sunday morning.) Of course Prince himself is the epitome of the sacred and profane in one body. And this album of him by himself at a piano, easily moving between acoustic versions his own songs and even an early cover of Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You," which received full treatment on the 2007 tribute album, is riveting listening. 

The year in music started picking up for me in the fall, with the release of albums by 3 previous favorites: Erika Wennerstrom of Heartless Bastards (runner up in 2012), My Brightest Diamond (2011), and Spiritualized (2012). Wennerstrom's new album - her solo debut - chronicles her own deep searching and transformation (as one review points out, it's a personal transformation not a musical one). My Brightest Diamond's 2018 offering finds her more electronically focused, but also more sharp and biting in her political critique (and also dancing quite a lot). Spiritualized latest is a gorgeous sonic journey; though Jason Pierce's topics are not novel, his composition and turn of phrase elevate the daily into the sublime.

The year in music was truly redeemed, however, with Julia Holter's Aviary and Esperanza Spalding's 12 Little Spells. In the past I'd been interested in Holter, but never quite connected with her work. Aviary, however, drew me in and immersed me in her vibrant and vibrating "chamber pop" worlds. (Jenn Pelly's review of Aviary on Pitchfork is a must read.) Meanwhile, Spalding's 12 Little Spells doesn't technically come out until March 2019, but Spalding released it track by track in October, and it's available for streaming on Spotify and other services. Each track, or "spell" was written for a particular part of the body. 

“12 Little Spells” — Thoracic Spine
“To Tide Us Over” — Mouth
“Til the Next Full” — Eyes
“Thang” — Hips
“Touch in Mine” — Fingers
“The Longing Deep Down” — Abdominal Portal
“You Have to Dance” — Feet
“Now Know” — Solar Portal
“All Limbs Are” — Arms
“Readying to Rise” — Legs
“Dancing the Animal” — Mind/Brain
“With Others” — Ears

Spalding writes of the inspiration for the album: "Can I harness these 12 little sensation-revelations into sounds, words, imagery, and performance that activates this healing, tingling effect in others?  I’m gonna go ahead and assume: yes…"

Holter and Spalding's albums are both transporting and transformative. There's so much to dig into, I'm sure I'll still be discovering new things in both of them for months to come.


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