2018: Favorite Tunes of the Year, So Far

All the cool kids and music blogs are doing it, so I might as well do the same!  Here’s some of my favorite tunes for the first half of 2018.  It’s been an interesting year for releases… lots of new names mixing in with the current ones, as well as a few classic bands making a welcome return after a long hiatus.

The Neighbhourhood, “Dust”. First popped up on their To Imagine EP and then as a bonus track on the deluxe version of their self-titled album. This is not the pop of “Sweater Weather” but the weird synthpop of 1981. I love the direction this band went in. I especially like the way they ended this track.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, “Little Thing Gone Wild”. Wrong Creatures is a fantastic record from start to finish, probably my favorite of theirs at the moment. I love the groovy unhinged blues of this particular track.

tUnE-yArDs, “Heart Attack”. Such emotion and power behind this track! I love cracking this one up whenever it comes on. It’s in my top 5 right now.

GoGo Penguin, “Raven”. I’m usually never this excited about a jazz band, but these guys blow me away every time I listen to them. They blend trio jazz and drum-and-bass beats so amazingly well on this track that by the time it’s over I wish it was still going.

Lucius, “Woman”. An absolutely gorgeous vocal duet. I love where the melody and the lyrics go with this one. It kind of reminds me of how the Indigo Girls’ vocals often play off each other, with a bit of Lennon-McCartney thrown in.

The Decemberists, “Severed”. The band goes in an unexpectedly weird and creepy direction — Colin Meloy states that it was a deliberate move to sound like their early influences like the Cure — and they pull it off well.

The Damned, “Standing On the Edge of Tomorrow”. I love how they’ve decided to revisit their early 80s sound here — this would fit quite nicely on Phantasmagoria or even The Black Album — and gave it a modern twist.

Snow Patrol, “Life on Earth”. This one tops my list so far, for many reasons. It feels like a song that’s needed right about now, as well.

I should probably post my favorite albums so far as well…maybe I’ll do that on Thursday! 🙂

A few favorite moments…

A little while back, Pitchfork posted an article in which some of their staffers list their favorite moments in certain songs.  This of course got me thinking of some of my own favorite moments…  I’m sure I could come up with a huge list, but off the top of my head, these are the ones that I come back to the most.

The Beatles, “A Day in the Life” at 2:45 — the transition between Paul’s “woke up/fell out of bed” sequence and the last verse by John, when John’s ‘ah-ah-ah’ vocals crossfade with the brass section. It’s a brilliant bit of mixing there.

Failure, “Daylight”, at 2:11 — The last verse of this doom-laden mindtrip goes from swirly dreamlike dystopia to face-punching guitar and drum crunch. Keep going and you get a hell of a great soaring guitar solo as well. This song is meant to be listed to as loud as you can get it.

Failure, “The Nurse Who Loved Me”, the last minute and a half. There’s something mathematically perfect about this ending that I love, where every beat is where it’s supposed to be…. and then drops out at the last few seconds for the last line.

The La’s, “Looking Glass”… at 5:00 — the point just after one of the final rounds of the chorus where the song breaks down, a calm moment in the music where Lee Mavers sings a plaintive ‘la-la-la’, just before the final extended instrumental round finishes off the piece. This moment inspired the “Listening” live scene near the end of Meet the Lidwells.

Lush, “Nothing Natural”… at 3:44 when the song stops cold and changes direction, the guitars leading the way, and at 5:00 when the bass drops out for another soaring moment.

Depeche Mode, “Stripped (Highland Mix)”… another soaring moment, this time at 3:53 when most of the instrumentation drops out, leaving only the various sequencer licks playing, until moments later when the drums slam the song back down to earth.

Love and Rockets, “Sweet Lover Hangover”… the band breakdown and David J’s bass bringing them back up to speed.

*

No fear, dear readers…it’s been a long weekend full of a lot of events, so hopefully I’ll be back up to speed with more exciting posts on Thursday!

Science Fiction in Music

This coming weekend at BayCon I’ll be moderating a panel called ‘The Next Generations of Science Fiction and Fantasy in Music’. I thought it was high time to talk a little bit about how SF/F has influenced music over the last couple of decades, not just aurally but visually. I’ve been talking with my co-panelists the last few days on this and I’m sure we’ll have quite a bit to talk about!

You can check out more about the con at my other blog, especially this post right here.

Meanwhile, here’s a few examples of bands, songs, albums, and styles we’ll be talking about.

 

Twenty Years On: January 1998 in Review

My recent ongoing blog series Thirty Years On, focusing on classic albums and singles that were released thirty years ago in 1988, has inspired me to do a sequel as well, Twenty Years On.  [I could say I have this fascination with music in years ending in 8; I’m even fascinated by the music history of 1968.  Still, I’m yet to take a good critical look at 1978 and 2008.  Maybe in the future…?]   This will be just like 30YO, in that it won’t be strictly scheduled, but will at least be consistent.

SO!  What happened in 1998, anyway?  Personally: entering year 2 of working at HMV, finally getting myself out of debt, and writing like a fiend.  But you already know all that. Musically, it was a critical year for many bands, because it was when the Big Six distributors (Universal, EMD, BMG, Sony, PolyGram, and Warners) shrank down to the Big Five (Universal and Polygram would merge and become UMG)…and a hell of a lot of good bands with potential being unceremoniously dropped like yesterday’s fashion.  Despite that, however, there were still a hell of a lot of great records released.

So without further ado…

Bowling for Soup, Rock On Honorable Ones!!, released January. BfS’ second studio album slipped under the radar for a hell of a lot of people, and they wouldn’t get much notice until a few years later. Irreverent, goofy, nerdy, and always fun. (This particular song is featured on at least three different albums of theirs, to my knowledge.)

Pearl Jam, “Given to Fly” single, released 6 January. The lead single from their upcoming album Yield, this felt like a much stronger and more cohesive band than their previous album, 1996’s abrasive No Code. Still no video from the band (yet), but this track was an excellent start in the right direction.

Great Expectations soundtrack, released 6 January. A hip and updated version of the Dickens novel as done by 90s pretty things Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow, the movie itself had average success and was quickly forgotten, but the soundtrack features some excellent tracks by Mono, Chris Cornell, The Verve Pipe, Pulp, Duncan Sheik, Poe, and Tori Amos.  Well worth checking out.

Radiohead, “No Surprises” single, released 12 January. Third and last single from their stunning 1997 classic OK Computer, this was a curious selection for a single, and yet seemed to fit the entire theme of that record: discomfort and irritation beyond our control.

Air, Moon Safari, released 16 January. Every now and again, an album will come out that’s so unique, so different from everything else out there, that it’ll blow the minds of all the critics, and most likely yourself. The French duo’s debut is one such album, a magical downtempo record that sounds equally futuristic and retro at the same time. Highly recommended.

Propellerheads, Decksandrumsandrockandroll, released 26 January. This duo only released one album and a few singles and EPs, but it’s a hell of a great electronica album that’s worth checking out. They deftly mix jazz, hip-hop, techno and more into an album that’s perfect for both listening and grooving.  You may also remember their track “Spybreak!” from the ridiculously over-the-top (yet so awesome) shootout scene from The Matrix.

Catatonia, “Mulder and Scully” single, released 31 January. This quirky Welsh band hit it big on both sides of the Atlantic with this fun track about a relationship so strange it calls for The X-Files duo. It would be the second single from their upcoming second album, International Velvet.

Coming up soon: February 1998!

Thirty Years On: February 1988

Welcome to another edition of TYO, with another batch of albums and singles released sometime in February of 1988 (as far as I can tell).  After the quiet calm that usually starts Q1, we’ll start hearing more classic tracks and albums, many of which still get played to this day.

Peter Murphy, “All Night Long” single. A teaser for his upcoming second album, Love Hysteria, this one definitely set the tone for Murphy’s new sound. Where his debut record (1986’s Should the World Fail to Fall Apart) was strange, angular and reminiscent of his last few years with Bauhaus, the new album was more mature, layered, and warmer in tone. This first single hit college radio and 120 Minutes and became a mainstay for months.

Jerry Harrison, Casual Gods. The Talking Heads drummer’s second solo album was a favorite on AOR stations and featured session greats such as Robbie McIntosh and Bernie Worrell.

Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians, Globe of Frogs. While Robyn had always maintained a strong following since his Soft Boys days, this particular album seemed to be the turning point, in part thanks to his signing to a major label, A&M. “Balloon Man” would get heavy play on AOR and college stations, and still gets played on alternative stations now and again.

Wire, “Kidney Bingos” single. Another teaser single, this time for Wire’s second comeback album A Bell Is a Cup Until It Is Struck. Many fans who’d missed out on Wire’s original late 70s post-punk run (like myself) jumped on the bandwagon with their 1987 comeback The Ideal Copy and this album, which the band themselves called their ‘beat combo’ era. Their songs are much more melodic and straightforward this time out, but they’ve retained their inherent arty weirdness with fascinating soundscapes and off-kilter lyrics.

The Wedding Present, “Nobody’s Twisting Your Arm” single. Released as a stand-alone single after their George Best album from 1987, this track is indicative of the Weddoe’s classic jangly pop-punk sound that gathered a small but loyal following.

Abecedarians, Resin. A southern California band with a unique sound that was equal parts goth, spaghetti western, and post-punk. Not too many had ever heard of this band, but those who did swore by them religiously. Highly recommended if you search long enough for their small but excellent discography.

Various Artists, Salvation! soundtrack. A fascinating soundtrack to a rather bizarre cult movie about a skeezy televangelist that features multiple tracks from New Order, including the above. [Note: the ‘movie’ scenes in that video have nothing to do with Salvation!; in fact, the video director made the entire plot up just for the song.]

Various Artists, Sgt Pepper Knew My Father. British music mag NME created this interesting if sometimes questionable recreation of the classic Beatles album as done by numerous mostly-UK bands of the day, as a charity album for their runaway hotline Childline. For every fantastic cover (such as the above, The Wedding Present’s “Getting Better” and Billy Bragg’s “She’s Leaving Home”) there are a few stinkers in there (a half-assed rap take on the title song by The Three Wize Men and a weak “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” by The Christians). And then there’s the outright weird Frank Sidebottom doing “Mr Kite”. Still, it’s a curiosity worth checking out just to get a feel of what UK pop sounded like in the late 80s.

The Woodentops, Wooden Foot Cops On the Highway. A band that could conceivably be compared to Belle & Sebastian nowadays, this band played a mix of quirky folk and rock that began with the quiet but stellar Giant in 1986 and morphed into a more boisterous sound a few years later. This album sank without trace soon after, but the band has made a comeback with an excellent cd collection of their 80s output (2013’s Before During After) plus an album of new songs a year later (2014’s Granular Tales).

*

More soon, including THAT PARTICULAR SONG. You know which one I’m talking about…!

Thirty Years On: January 1988

Hello and welcome to another edition of Thirty Years On, in which we take a look at that year I have an unhealthy obsession with.  Heh.  This episode features the few albums I have solid release dates for!  Hope you enjoy!

The Godfathers, Birth, School, Work, Death, released 11 January. Much-needed Brit-punk in a season of American hardcore, these guys channeled the Clash and mixed it up with a bit of garage punk psychedelia, creating a fantastic blend of kick-ass rock and a solid album from start to finish. Highly recommended for your collection.

The Fall, “Victoria” single, released 11 January. The Fall’s mid-80s output was surprisingly upbeat and melodic, even despite singer Mark E Smith’s eternal crankiness. A wonderful cover of the classic by the Kinks, and a song that still pops into my head at the mention of that queen or the underground line.

The Pogues, If I Should Fall from Grace with God, released 18 January. The album that also features that perennial Christmas classic, The Pogues’ third album was a huge favorite for the AOR stations in New England. I believe I owned this as a dub from my British exchange student friend for a time before I finally owned it on digital many years later.

Recoil, Hydrology, released 25 January. Essentially a solo experimental project by Depeche Mode’s Alan Wilder, it’s an interesting album worth listening to, especially if you’re a big DM fan. Take all the cold industrial-synth sounds from that band’s mid-to-late 80s albums, take away Martin Gore’s lyrics, and this is what you’re left with.

George Harrison, “When We Was Fab” single, released 25 January. Okay, it’s not college rock, but it was an ex-Beatle! The second single from 1987’s comeback album Cloud Nine, this one’s an obvious and loving nod to his past.  I used to listen to this single repeatedly when it came out.

David Lee Roth, Skyscraper, released 26 January. DLR’s second post-Van Halen album was a surprisingly mature and experimental affair, focusing more on the rock and less on the flash. I particularly loved this wonderful ballad featuring some fantastic guitar work from Steve Vai.

*

Next Up: February 1988!

Thirty Years On: Random January 1988

One problem with going into a chronological overview like this is that sometimes it’s hard to pin down a release date. Quite often, before the Tuesday release date plan started up around 1988-89, labels would drop an album with minimal fanfare and a ‘soft release’…basically putting it out there whenever it just happened to be ready to go.  I’m sure someone at the label office has the date on record somewhere, but they’ve never made it known.

The downside to this is that sometimes one can only guess when it dropped. Sometimes the band will have a rough date (though that’s a big if — most bands will have little to no idea), but more often it relies on someone’s memories. I’ve managed to narrow down some dates due to my memories of listening to them during a specific timeframe, or that it was on the charts at a particular time, or that one of their songs appeared on a mixtape I’d made on a certain date.

That said…here’s a few releases that, to the best of my knowledge, came out in January of 1988.

Hugo Largo, Drum. Predating the quiet minimalism of early Belle & Sebastian and the off-kilter melodies of later Bjork, Hugo Largo’s strange alt-folk was embraced fully by the college crowds. Some of it might seem a bit too twee or precious now, but it’s still a fascinating listen. They were championed by Michael Stipe, who definitely helped them gain a following. Also: check out a fantastic cover of the Kinks’ “Fancy” from the same album.

Two Men, a Drum Machine and a Trumpet, “I’m Tired of Getting Pushed Around”. A band with a longer name than their discography — this one single. Essentially Andy Cox and David Steele (formerly of The Beat, and at the time part of Fine Young Cannibals), they dropped this one house track that found its way through dance clubs and even a music bed for Entertainment Tonight segments. It’s a silly throwaway track, but it’s a classic one.

The Other Ones, Learning to Walk. You may remember this band from their late-1986 self-titled album and the minor radio favorites “We Are What We Are” and “Holiday”…or not. They were a bit of an obscure pop favorite on the US shores, and alas, this second album was never released here. I only recently found it online, and I’m kind of surprised at how good it actually is. It’s definitely of its time, but it holds up quite nicely to the first album.

Lowlife, Swirl, It Swings EP. If that bass sounds familiar, it’s because it’s Will Heggie, the original bassist for Cocteau Twins. They’re kind of similar to The Comsat Angels or Joy Division.

Moev,Yeah Whatever. One of those bands on the Nettwerk label I always had a hard time locating back in the day, they were sort of an EBM-goth hybrid that reminded me of a less aggro Front 242.  They’d get a lot of college radio airplay thanks to “Yeah Whatever” and “Crucify Me”. Definitely an album to have in your collection.

Next Up: More January releases, this time with actual release dates!