2018: Favorite Albums of the Year, So Far

As promised, here are some of my favorite albums of the year up to June.  Whether or not my 2-8 Theory of Great Music Years* is coming to fruition is still up to question, but I will say that quite a few releases this year are resonating positively with me in some way, more so than some previous years. I find myself actively putting many of these albums on extended heavy rotation, which doesn’t always happen.

Of course, the best releases are still to come — past experience has proven that the releases from August to November are usually the best of the year. A quick peek at those releases tells me this may be true again this year. Something to look forward to!

* – My 2-8 Theory of Great Music Years is pretty simple: that years ending in 2 and 8 tend to provide us with a bumper crop of stellar, well-crafted albums. That’s not to say that they’ll stick in the minds of everyone, mind you…this is more about my personal tastes and probably has something to do with my state of mind as well. Still, this theory has yet to steer me wrong!

So, on with the show!

BØRNS, Blue Madonna, released 12 January. Quirky, fun synthpop with just that little bit of soul thrown in there to make it funky. Great album for kicking back and relaxing or having fun.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Wrong Creatures, released 12 January. My sister likes cranking these guys up, and I can’t blame her. This is a great album to listen to at top volume, whether it’s their slow dirges like “Haunt” or the raucous “Little Thing Gone Wild”.

GoGo Penguin, A Humdrum Star, released 9 February. As I’ve mentioned previously, I don’t often get this excited about a jazz album. I’ve always loved this kind of trio setup, and this band gives the genre a modern, maybe a post-modern, spin to it. Still bummed that I won’t be able to see them at Outside Lands this year, as we’ll be elsewhere!

Lucy Dacus, Historian, released 2 March. She reminds me of those 90s musicians I liked so much like Jen Trynin and Jonatha Brooke, taking alternative rock in interesting directions while still keeping it laid back. “Addictions” is indeed an addicting song.

The Naked and Famous, A Still Heart, released 9 March. I’d been a passing fan of TNaF, but this album of semi-acoustic covers of their older songs (and a lovely cover of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop”) made me revisit their previous albums to hear the originals. It’s an amazing record and one I’ve been returning to during my writing sessions lately.

The Neighbourhood, The Neighbourhood, released 9 March. I didn’t expect to like this album as much as I do, but I keep coming back to it. It’s weird and dark and experimental but it’s also consistently catchy and groovy. I really like the direction this band has taken.

Wye Oak, The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs, released 6 April. There are just some albums where certain melodies imprint on your brain and this is one of them. I get the title song stuck in my head all the time, as well as my favorite track from it, “Symmetry”.

The Damned, Evil Spirits, released 13 April. This is one hell of a fine album and possibly one of their best in a long time. While previous albums revisited their early punkish roots, this one revisits their early to mid-80s post-punk sound, which I always felt was their strongest and best. And Dave Vanian’s voice is still amazing after forty-plus years.

Snow Patrol, Wildness, released 25 May. A welcome return for Gary Lightbody and Co, and it’s a great record that seems tighter and more cohesive than previous records. I can definitely hear a few ‘big singles’ tracks, which they were known for in the last decade, but there’s not a bad track on here at all.

Dave Matthews Band, Come Tomorrow, released 8 June. This record reminds me of their less jamming and more single-oriented 90s albums like Crash, and that’s just fine. There’s a certain positive vibe to this particular record that makes it a lot of fun to listen to.

Johnny Marr, Call the Comet, released 15 June. Johnny’s recent solo albums have all been super catchy and fun. This particular record on the other hand feels like he’s decided to return to his 80s roots, because this album really does sound like The Smiths circa 1986-87, when he wrote some of his finest guitar work. It’s his signature sound, and it sounds absolutely lovely.

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The first half of 2018 was full of great tunes…I’m definitely looking forward to the second half.

Twenty Years On: July 1998

July 1998:  Stupidly hot and humid in central Massachusetts, and thankfully the back room at HMV is nice and cool.  I’ve been put in charge of ordering imports for the store, which is a dangerous thing indeed.  Also, I’m coming extremely close to finishing The Phoenix Effect, and at this point my nightly transcription/revision sessions are all caught up to the point that I’ll eventually finish it on the PC instead of longhand.  I spend my nights down in the Belfry listening to tunes and writing, or going out to see movies at the theater that they’d finally built in the rear of the mall I worked at.  Wednesday drives after work out to the Pioneer Valley for my comic book run.  Occasional Saturday drives into Boston to visit the comic book and used record stores.

Barenaked Ladies, Stunt, released 7 July. BNL’s jump into major stardom in the US actually started a few years earlier with 1996’s live Rock Spectacle (they’d been a cult favorite for years before), but this one broke them open wide with the hilarious pattering of the ubiquitous single “One Week”. The entire album is amazing, with some of their best songwriting to date.

The Hope Blister, …smile’s ok, released 14 July. One of Ivo Watts-Russell’s last projects before leaving his 4AD label in 1999, he revisits the ambient sounds of his This Mortal Coil project but with a fixed line up. A short but lovely album.

Beastie Boys, Hello Nasty, released 14 July. The Beasties continue their unique style of hip-hop that’s equal parts intelligent and ridiculous. “Intergalactic” got heavy airplay pretty much everywhere, from the pop stations to the alternative rock stations to MTV.  Years later a minor character in one of the new Star Wars films is named after it.

12 Rounds, My Big Hero, released 14 July. This one was more of a personal favorite of mine, and got a lot of play down in the Belfry during writing sessions. They’re kind of hard to pin down as their sound alternates between Sneaker Pimps-style triphop to the porn of Lords of Acid to Marilyn Manson alt-metal and moody goth rock of VAST. It’s all over the place but it’s a fascinating listen. Music Trivia Time: This was Atticus Ross’ band before he started working with Trent Reznor!

The Tragically Hip, Phantom Power, released 14 July. I really enjoyed listening to this one down in the Belfry as well — there are a lot of lovely tracks on this one, with some of Gord Downie’s best lyrics.

Small Soldiers soundtrack, released 14 July. This was such an odd little summer film, but that’s typical coming from Joe Dante. All his films are quirky. I loved the soundtrack, though: classic rock songs remixed by electronic and hip-hop artists, including an amazing remix of Rush by DJ Z-Trip.

Black Box Recorder, England Made Me, released 20 July. I mentioned this band last week during my recent purchases post. They were like the anti-Belle & Sebastian, with lo-fi twee qualities and really dark lyrics. Yet somehow I found them fascinating and picked up all their albums over the course of their brief career.

Republica, Speed Ballads, released 30 July. Their second and last album popped up only as an import here in the states, which is a pity considering this one’s just as fantastic as their debut, if not more adventurous and experimental.

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Next Up: August 1998, in which we see four albums that become my favorites of the year and get a crapton of play in all of my writing nooks for years to come.

Thirty Years On: July 1988

July 1988: Halfway through the summer.  Working at the radio station on the weekends and (I think?) at the Victory supermarket on the weekdays.  Meeting up with Chris and Nathan for Flying Bohemians jams, and the occasional road trip to the Pioneer Valley.  Teaching myself how to play decent bass guitar by playing along with various songs and albums, and learning how to write my own songs.  Taking a break from writing the Infamous War Book sequel and focusing on a roman à clef instead that I’d been playing around with, along with the first dribbles of poetry.  Pretty much turning myself into an introvert at this point.

The Psychedelic Furs, “All That Money Wants” single, released ?? July. A teaser single for their new greatest hits album that would pop up in a month or so. 120 Minutes jumped on this one, and so did WMDK. I heard it quite a bit throughout the summer.  I was well aware of the band, but this was when I finally got around to picking their stuff up.

Beat Happening, Jamboree, re-released ?? July. I missed this one when it first came out mid-1987, but by 1988 when Rough Trade reissued it, it was a critic favorite in some weird so-bad-it’s-good sort of way. Not the best singers or musicians, they could certainly write one hell of a catchy tune.  WAMH was all over this album when they came back on the air in the autumn.  I’d like to think they’re to blame for the twee movement of the late 80s-early 90s.

Compilation, Lying On the Floor: The Singles, made ?? July. Chris catches the mixtape-making bug from me, and makes his first one that, in turn, changes the game for me. I note how his mix is essentially really cool songs he likes with a well-balanced flow. By the following month I’d take that into consideration and follow suit.  I certainly liked how he borrowed the Standing on a Beach theme for the title, this time borrowing from the Cure’s “Kyoto Song”.

Crowded House, Temple of Low Men, released ?? July. The second album by Neil Finn and Co. isn’t as big a seller and doesn’t have a stand-out single, but WMDK seemed to love it nonetheless. “Mansion in the Slums” was on their heavy rotation that summer.

Siouxsie & the Banshees, “Peek-a-Boo” single, released 11 July. I’d been a recent fan of theirs probably since 1986 when I heard “Cities in Dust” (and also their excellent 1987 cover of Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger”), but when I’d heard this one — as another useless promo single popping up at the radio station, I should add — it completely blew me away. I HAD to buy this album when it came out.

Joy Division, Substance, released 11 July. Definitely a game changer for me. Thanks to 1987’s New Order album of the same name, I was looking forward to seeing what the band was all about and why all the critics loved them. I instantly fell in love with “She’s Lost Control”, “Transmission” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” — three songs that deeply influenced my bass playing from then on — but it was the magical desperate beauty of “Atmosphere” that won me over. I couldn’t get enough of that song; it even influenced a scene in the story I was working on at the time. I spent many a summer evening playing bass to Side 2 of the tape (“She’s Lost Control” to “Love Will…”), and by the time I was back in high school, my chops had expanded considerably.

Geinoh Yamashirogumi, AKIRA soundtrack, released 16 July. I wouldn’t see this movie for another couple of years when I was in college, but I distinctly remember watching a Siskel & Ebert episode where they reviewed this movie. I remember it because that was when I first discovered that animation didn’t have to be Warner Bros cartoony or Filmation low-budget crappy. The clip they showed completely blew me away and set the course for my 90s anime obsessions.

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Next Up:  August 1988, in which my writing takes an interesting turn, I make one of my best early mixtapes, and a local band gets me (and a ton of others) excited!

 

Recent Purchases, June Edition

A surprisingly long list of releases this month!  I actually had to keep a few out this time!  A lot of these albums are very summer-friendly, which means I’ve been listening to them on repeat lately with the window open and a lovely Pacific breeze coming into Spare Oom’s window.   Some of my favorite albums of the year so far appear here.

Dave Matthews Band, Come Tomorrow, released 8 June. A welcome return after six years, and they sound confident and vibrant this time out. This one reminds me a lot of Crash; a lot of solid rock tunes going on.  I’m enjoying this one quite a bit.

The Get Up Kids, Kicker EP, released 8 June. Another great band returns from a long hiatus and provides us with a sharp and concise alternapunk EP. Well worth waiting for.

Black Box Recorder, Life Is Unfair, released 8 June. A nearly-complete discography box set from the moody trio of Luke Haines (The Auteurs), John Moore (The Jesus & Mary Chain) and Sarah Nixey. This was a band from my HMV years, and they even had a surprise hit with the above track in early 2000.

Matt Nathanson, Pyromattia EP, released 8 June. Matt covers six Def Leppard tracks in a semi-unplugged ballad format. This could have gone wrong so easily, but he not only pulls it off, he does so brilliantly. Even DL’s singer Joe Elliott contacted him to congratulate him on an excellent job.

Arthur Buck, Arthur Buck, released 15 June. Songwriter Joseph Arthur joins up with ex-REM guitarist Peter Buck on a fantastic record of slightly off-kilter yet catchy tunes. Their differing styles complement each other quite well on this one.

Johnny Marr, Call the Comet, released 15 June. The album might be about aliens coming to Earth to help us before we destroy ourselves, but Johnny knocked it out of the park with this one musically. His ‘guitarchestra’ style he’d mastered so well while in the Smiths makes a return here, and it sounds absolutely lovely. My favorite album of the month.

The English Beat, Here We Go Love, released 15 June. Dave Wakeling resurrects his old band name and puts out a great ska album just as brilliant as their 80s output. This one definitely surpassed my expectations.

Paul McCartney, “I Don’t Know”/”Come On to Me” single, released 20 June. Sir Paul surprises us with a new double A-side single teaser for a new album (Egypt Station) in September. Still going strong after all these years, and still writing lovely melodies.

The Cure, Mixed Up: Deluxe Edition, release 22 June. Robert Smith picks up where he left off years ago with his band’s remasters, this time with the 1990 remix album. This edition includes not just an additional disc of single remixes (including one of my favorites, the 12″ version of “Just One Kiss”!), but a third disc of new remixes spanning the band’s entire career, remixed by Smith himself. It’s a long listen, but it’s a fascinating one.

Dog Party, Hit & Run, released 29 June. One of my favorite local bands (they’re from Sacramento), these two sisters have been delivering kick-ass punk since they were in high school, and they’re still kicking ass today.

Florence * the Machine, High As Hope, released 29 June. Definitely a more personal and introspective album for the band, but just as stellar and amazing. All the critics are loving this one, and I am too.

Gorillaz, The Now Now, released 29 June. A surprise release from our animated heroes, this one is more of a return to their previous guest-free albums, and featuring catchier and more radio-friendly tunes. I’m still amused that the character taking place of the currently-in-prison Murdoc is none other than Ace from the Gangrene Gang from The PowerPuff Girls…!

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Next Up: July releases!

Thirty Years On: Additional 1988 Albums

In going through this project, I came upon a few extra albums where I’d assigned the wrong release date, or titles that I missed due to space.  Here’s a quick 1988-So-Far addendum of further releases that are well worth mentioning.

Leonard Cohen, I’m Your Man, released 2 February. My first experience with this man, interestingly enough, was a punch line from an episode of The Young Ones. Regardless, over the years I went out and bought some used copies of his albums and realized that he really was an amazing songwriter. This album does sound a bit dated, even for the time of its release, but it contains quite a few of his best known songs.

Butthole Surfers, Hairway to Steven, released 29 February. I’d been familiar with this band thanks to their classic “Sweat Loaf” (you know, the “Satan! Satan! Satan!” song). One of those bands that was just so weird and noisy that you either loved them or hated them. WAMH loved the hell out of this band.

The Mekons, So Good It Hurts, released ?? March. I’d hear “Ghosts of American Astronauts” on WMDK and WAMH quite often in the spring of 1988, and the Mekons were always considered one of those ‘must have in your collection’ bands. I finally added them decades later and now I understand why.

Monty Python, The Final Rip-Off, released 22 March. Given that MTV had brought the Pythons to their main programming a year or so previous (and that by 1988 it had become part of the late Sunday night line-up alongside The Young Ones/The Comic Strip and 120 Minutes), a quick and obvious cash-in album was needed. All your favorite silly sketches, all in one place!

The Primitives, Lovely, released 22 March. An absolute classic of a power-pop album and a massive favorite of fans and critics alike. I nearly wore out my copy of this album! “Crash” got heavy airplay on all the college stations, 120 Minutes, and still gets played on 80s stations to this day. Highly recommended.

Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, released 19 April. Rap didn’t get too much play on the stations I listened to at the time, but I was well aware of it, thanks to MTV and a few of my friends who got into it. PE and NWA were the two bands you followed if you wanted to go past the silly or party-oriented hip-hop and start checking out the more serious stuff. I was always impressed by PE’s sound production and how confrontational and intelligent their lryics were.

The Dead Milkmen, Beelzebubba, released ?? May. The 80s had a great wave of goofy and nerdy punk bands that wrote ridiculous yet catchy (and often quotable) tunes, and the Milkmen were probably the most successful at the time, thanks to “Punk Rock Girl” and “Bitchin’ Camaro”.

Ramones, Mania, release 31 May. Quite a few bands decided to release a greatest hits compilation in 1988, and this one’s perfect for your collection…it pretty much contains every hit and deep track you know (and some you don’t) up to that time, released as a double album.

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I’m sure I’ve still missed a few, but I think this fills in quite a few entries that I missed the first time around!

Twenty Years On: June 1998

Summer in New England can be annoying.  It’s not just hot, hovering up in the 80s and 90s (and occasionally higher), but it’s also humid and uncomfortable.  All you want to do is stay inside, especially if the place has AC, and kick around until it’s time to go back outside again.  And your car would be so stupidly hot and unbearable being out in the sun all day that you’d sit there for a good few minutes with all the windows open and the AC on full blast to cool it off.

Granted, in the summer of 1998, this was also the perfect time for me to head down to the basement at night after work for my writing sessions!  [This was well before random bear sightings in my parents’ neighborhood started happening, so I’d have the cellar door open wide until after dark to let the cool breeze in.  This, by the way, is why two bats were able to sneak their way in, thus blessing my writing nook with the name The Belfry thereafter.]

It seems that June 1998 was also a quiet one in terms of releases…a few big names here and there, but the best albums weren’t due for another couple of months.  This is quite normal for the release schedule — the kids are spending more on movies and other outside events rather than on music.  The really good stuff is still a few months away.

So!  Without further ado…

The Smashing Pumpkins, Adore, released 2 June. After two stellar early 90s records and a decent-but-bloated double album — not to mention the firing of their drummer soon after — it seemed this band was heading down a dark and not altogether positive road. This one’s a hard listen for various reasons, but it also contains quite a few fantastic tracks, so it evens out.

The X-Files OST, released 2 June. The cult favorite TV show released its first movie as summer fare. It holds up as a self-contained story, but it also inserts itself into the show’s obsessively detailed mythology as well. This is more of a ‘songs inspired by the movie’ album than a true soundtrack (considering the [movie name]: The Album title was in vogue around this time), but it’s an amazing collection of great tracks from Filter, X, Ween, Foo Fighters, The Cure, Noel Gallagher, and more. Well worth picking up.

The Jesus & Mary Chain, Munki, released 9 June. The noise-pop band releases what would end up being their last album until last year’s Damage & Joy. It’s a bit overlong with single filler, but it’s still a great album.

Komeda, What Makes It Go?, released 9 June. The quirky Swedish band’s second album was anchored by a ridiculously catchy single (see above) and though they only remained in cult status, they’d eventually provide an equally catchy track for the Powerpuff Girls cartoon a few years later.

The Egg, Travelator, released 15 June. Predating similar-sounding Hot Chip by just a few years, this semi-electronic band from the UK is one of those bands that never quite achieved huge success, but nonetheless have a strong and loyal following. Their work was mostly released as imports here in the US, but they’re definitely worth checking out.

The Brian Setzer Orchestra, The Dirty Boogie, released 23 June. The ex-Stray Cats frontman helped kickstart (or at least energize) the swing revival movement in the late 90s, and his album was also the biggest seller in that scene. I remember moving a hell of a lot of copies of this album during my HMV days!

Mansun, “Legacy” single, released 29 June. The teaser first single from their upcoming Six album, this well-loved Britpop band took their sound into curious and unexpected directions, even more so than before. Little did we fans know just how weird (but in a good way!) that album would end up being…

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Up Next: July 1998!

Thirty Years On: June 1988

June 1988:  Junior year is over and done, and after a week or so of relaxing and forgetting about all the frustration and whatnot of school, it’s into Summer Job territory.  I don’t exactly remember which job I had at the time (I’m thinking the supermarket job, if I’m not mistaken), but I know I still had the radio station position on the weekends, and I’d stick with that one at least until the end of senior year.  I’d meet up with Nate and Chris for an occasional Flying Bohemians session, and the various members of our circle of friends would sometimes go on roadtrips down to Amherst and Northampton.  I’d stay up late listening to music, reading, writing, and practicing my bass and guitar playing.  It was a summer of creativity, and one of keeping in touch with friends before they left in a few months.

There weren’t too many exciting releases for this month for my collection, so I ended up spending a lot of time listening to my own collection, or listening to WRSI or WMDK. I also focused a bit more on making more compilations, inspiring Chris to start making them as well.

Compilation: Cimmerian Music, created early June. The third of the three original new mixtapes, this one worked the best. Essentially a sixty-minute tape filled with quiet, moody college rock to be listened to at 1AM when everyone else has gone to bed, this one featured many bands you’d expect: The Cure, Felt, Love and Rockets, and the Sisters of Mercy. Added fun was Gary Wright’s “Dream Weaver”, an oldie but goodie from my childhood that I’d been using as a ‘theme song’ for a story I was writing at the time.

Compilation: Under the Ivy: Unavailable B-Sides, created early June. I started this one soon after the above mix as part of my next wave, and it was inspired by the cassette version of The Cure’s Standing on a Beach from 1986. It’s all single b-sides that were sitting around in my collection that I happened to enjoy, though the mix does get thin near the end. I would make a second version of this title twelve years later in the summer of 2000.

Compilation: Remix I, created early June. This one didn’t hold up well at all over the years (literally — I’d used a crappy low-budget blank tape for this one), and also suffers the same as the above, with too many questionable track choices. I think it was with this one that I realized that maybe trying to make a themed mixtape wasn’t working at all, and that a true mix with varied sounds and styles would work better. I’d return to that idea a few months later, with much better results.

Voice of the Beehive, Let It Bee, released ?? June. Poppy and quirky with just a hint of folk and country thrown in (they kind of reminded me of a lot of bands from the Athens GA scene, but with a flashier presence). This one’s great fun, with a lot of catchy riffs and sassy lyrics. I got to see them live later on in the year at UMass Amherst with a few friends!

Big Audio Dynamite, Tighten Up Vol 88, released ?? June. Mick Jones’ third outing with his post-Clash band was probably their most accessible and groove-oriented, and was a critical and fan favorite. 120 Minutes had “Just Play Music” on heavy rotation for pretty much the rest of the year!

Bongwater, Double Bummer, released 7 June. I wouldn’t hear this for another few months when WAMH came back on the air, but when it did, quite a few DJs loved it. Alternately weird, funny, psychedelic, and fantastic.  I still remember being surprised when I found out its lead singer, Ann Magnuson, was also a well-established Hollywood actress.

The Style Council, Confessions of a Pop Group, released 20 June. Paul Weller’s post-Jam band was one that you either loved or loathed, depending on how much of a rabid fan of The Jam that you were.  During this particular summer they released a moody jazz album that made quite a few fans scratch their heads, but in retrospect it’s actually quite a lovely record.

Information Society, Information Society, released 21 June. Nerdy synth-pop laden with Star Trek samples and incredibly catchy melodies. They’re primarily known for their debut single (above), but the entire album is excellent. [This was yet another ‘borrowed’ album from the radio station, though I believe Chris got his mitts on it before I could! I dubbed it from him over the summer but bought my own copy on cassette a few months later.]

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Next Up: July 1988!