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.

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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.

 

Thirty Years On: March 1988 Part 1

March 1988!  I always think of March as being one of the longest months of the year back when I was in school, because that was the only month that didn’t have a holiday or a break.  It was when our teachers would assign the term paper or the class project that we’d have to finish around spring break in April.  On the plus side, it was also the time the weather started clearing up a bit.  A few lingering snowfalls, but it would eventually start getting warmer, and the roads would finally start to clear.

Here’s a handful of albums that arrived sometime in March.

Stump, A Fierce Pancake. I was drawn to this Irish band simply for its utter daftness; lyrics filled with puns and odd references, strange samples, guitar riffs deliberately played to sound off-key (see “Buffalo”, which showed up on the US version of this album), and a look that made you think they weren’t the actual band, but the guys at the bar coming to heckle them.

Big Pig, Bonk. An Australian collective with heavy percussion, they had a minor hit in the US with “Breakaway” (which would get a second life in 1989 as the opening credits song for Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure), they had a much bigger following back home and in the UK, thanks to their unique sound that mixed drums, blues and funk.

The Mission UK, Children. Wayne Hussey and Craig Adams had parted ways with their previous band (The Sisters of Mercy) and created their style by fusing goth and spaghetti western (similar to other bands of the time like Fields of the Nephilim), and they finally hit their stride with their second album. “Tower of Strength” remains a fan favorite.

REM, “Finest Worksong” single. The last of three singles from their stellar Document album from 1987 and its opening track, it was a rare single of theirs that would get a remix, complete with a horn section. It would also be their next-to-last release on IRS Records, moving to Warner Bros later that year and onto much larger success.

Shriekback, Go Bang!. The alt-funksters who had quite the cult following in the UK had been pressured by their label to come up with a hit, and provided a much dancier, more commercial sound with this album. It’s not their strongest, but it’s definitely catchy.  [Check out Wayne Casey, he of KC and the Sunshine Band, checking out the crowd in the above video!]

Peter Murphy, Love Hysteria. Murphy’s second solo album is a gorgeous classic with lush, complex compositions that would become his stock in trade for future releases. It’s an album for listening and paying attention to, especially with headphones. Highly suggested to add to your collection.

The Jesus & Mary Chain, “Sidewalking” single. A new track to supplement their upcoming b-sides and rarities album Barbed Wire Kisses, this hinted at a much tighter band, turning down the reverb and the feedback creating a heavier, groovier sound that would bring them an even wider audience.

Felt, The Pictorial Jackson Review. A band that defined quiet jangle-pop in the 80s, their eighth album was an interesting mix of styles, with the first side of the album featuring singer Lawrence’s signature meandering sound, and the flip side featuring an amazing jazz piano journey played by keyboardist Martin Duffy (who would go on to join Primal Scream the next year).

Coming soon:  More March 1988!

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: More February 1988

In this episode of Thirty Years On

She’s Having a Baby soundtrack, released 2 February. John Hughes once again shines with a brilliant mix for his movie about growing up and realizing you need to be an adult, even and especially when you don’t want to be one. Side one features the men (Dave Wakeling, XTC, Love and Rockets), and Side two features the women (Kate Bush, Kirsty MacColl, Everything But the Girl). It’s a solid mix and still one of my favorite soundtracks of his.

The Cure, “Hot Hot Hot!!!” single, released 9 February. The last single from 1987’s sugary, upbeat Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me album, it features the lighter, sillier side of the Cure… and Robert Smith with short hair! They’d do a complete one-eighty a little over a year later with the dark and amazing Disintegration.

The Church, Starfish, released 16 February. You knew this would come eventually, right? Heh. Still, I’ll admit THIS SONG didn’t completely resonate with me right away. It was lovely and reminiscent of their reverb-drenched jangle of previous albums, and it only grew on me a month or so later when I’d hear it constantly on 120 Minutes and occasionally when MTV played it during the day. Anyway…this is their strongest and most commercially accessible album, but this was also their make-or-break album and was quite a laborious and tense recording project. On the plus side it would give them a template for their next few albums into the mid-90s, providing much airplay and sales for them, until they retreated back to their semi-psychedelic indie roots. This remains one of their best albums, highly suggested.

Morrissey, “Suedehead” single, released 27 February. Moz finally appears from the ashes of the Smiths after their acrimonious breakup months previous, with a lovely single from his forthcoming solo debut. It feels like the breeziness of the Smiths, as he’s working with their producer here (Stephen Street) and would continue to do so until the early 90s.

The Sisters of Mercy, “Dominion” single, released 29 February. The second single from the classic 1987 album Floodland (one of my favorite albums of that year), this continues his work with the always epic Jim Steinman; somehow he manages to create an intense and driven song using just three chords!

Robert Plant, Now and Zen, released 29 February. After a handful of great but meandering solo albums, Plant nails it here with a solid record full of wonderful, catchy tracks. I’ll even forgive him for that painful last line in the chorus of “Heaven Knows”…

The Fall, The Frenz Experiment, released 29 February. RIP Mark E Smith, who recently passed away at 60. This was one of their sort-of-breakthrough albums of the late 80s, which saw them finally catch on with a lot of US fans via college radio and 120 Minutes. Still confrontational, still abrasive, but always a fun listen.

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Coming up soon: Various March 1988 releases!

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).

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