If the music of 1980 had a theme, perhaps it was the expansion of punk as the decade turned.
The Talking Heads looked beyond CBGB, incorporating Afropop influences on Remain in Light (No. 4 album). Gang of Four’s Entertainment! (No. 3 album) weaved Sex Pistols energy into jagged Marxist funk. The (English) Beat’s I Just Can’t Stop It (No. 13 album) was as good as British ska got. And on London Calling (No. 1 album, natch) the Clash invoked Elvis Presley on the cover and laid claim to everything in earshot in the grooves.
In the U.S., the Manhattan-centric punk scene began giving way to a post-punk/indie scene blooming throughout the country, whether across the state lines to Jersey (The Feelies’ No. 7 Crazy Rhythms) or to the opposite coast (X’s No. 16 Los Angeles), both hints at the eruption of more localized indie scenes on the immediate horizon.
In the U.K., a similar broadening was happening in the form of the Raincoats (No. 22 album), Slits (No. 7 single), LiLiPUT (No. 10 single), Psychedelic Furs (No. 23 album), the extant Elvis Costello (No. 25 album), and Joy Division (No. 23 single), three of whom appear on the classic scene compilation Wanna Buy a Bridge? (No. 5 album).
It was also the year that the greatest R&B artist of the 1970s, Stevie Wonder, made arguably his last major album, Hotter Than July (No. 17), and the greatest R&B (for starters) artist of the 1980s, Prince, made his first major album (and third overall), Dirty Mind (No. 2). The latter showed more than a little punk/post-punk influence, showing that these exchanges could work both ways.
It was a year when two giants of blues-based music, pre-recording Memphis/Chicago blues singer Alberta Hunter (No. 15) and New Orleans piano master Professor Longhair (No. 6) made their greatest studio-album testaments, the former made well into her 80s, the latter months before his death.
In was a year that saw one rock institution of the Seventies (Bruce Springsteen, No. 10 album) transitioning his sound into what would be an (at least) equally great decade, and a couple of others (No. 20 Neil Young, No. 24 Rolling Stones), holding on, for a moment, with merely good albums. And it was when another, John Lennon, left us for good but with a wise, warming, unintended final testament (No. 8 album).
The lists …
London Calling – The Clash
Dirty Mind – Prince
Entertainment! – Gang of Four
Remain in Light – Talking Heads
Wanna Buy a Bridge? — Various Artists
Crawfish Fiesta – Professor Longhair
Crazy Rhythms – The Feelies
Double Fantasy – John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Storm Windows – John Prine
The River – Bruce Springsteen
Snockgrass – Michael Hurley
Happy Woman Blues – Lucinda Williams
I Just Can’t Stop It — The English Beat
Real People – Chic
Amtrak Blues – Alberta Hunter
Los Angeles – X
Hotter Than July – Stevie Wonder
Black Market Clash — The Clash
Seconds of Pleasure – Rockpile
Hawks and Doves – Neil Young
Doc at the Radar Station – Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band
The Raincoats — The Raincoats
Psychedelic Furs – Psychedelic Furs
Emotional Rescue – Rolling Stones
Get Happy!! – Elvis Costello & the Attractions
“You Shook Me All Night Long” – AC/DC
“Zulu Nation Throwdown” – Afrika Bambaataa/Zulu Nation/Cosmic Force
“London Calling” — The Clash
“Upside Down” – Diana Ross
“The Breaks” – Kurtis Blow
“Master Blaster (Jammin’)” — Stevie Wonder
“I Heard it Through the Grapevine” — The Slits
“He Stopped Loving Her Today” – George Jones
“Precious” — The Pretenders
“Die Matrosen”/“Split” – LiLiPUT
“Refugee” — Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
“Call Me” — Blondie
“Brass in Pocket” — The Pretenders
“9 to 5” – Dolly Parton
“She Just Started Liking Cheatin’ Songs” – John Anderson
“Train in Vain” – The Clash
“(Just Like) Starting Over” – John Lennon & Yoko Ono
“He’s So Shy” — The Pointer Sisters
“People Who Died” – Jim Carroll Band
“I’m Coming Out” – Dianna Ross
“Hungry Heart” – Bruce Springsteen
“Celebration” – Kool & the Gang
“Love Will Tear Us Apart” – Joy Division
“Freedom” – Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five
“The Tide is High” – Blondie
“Mirror in the Bathroom” – The English Beat
“Going Underground” — The Jam
“Shining Star” – The Manhattans
“Twist and Crawl” – The English Beat
“Hey Nineteen” – Steely Dan
“She’s So Cold” — The Rolling Stone
“Private Idaho” — The B-52s
“Whip It” – Devo
“Bankrobber” – The Clash
“Take Your Time” – SOS Band
“Vicious Rap” – Tanya Winley
“Too Many Creeps” – Bush Tetras
“It’s Obvious” — Au Pairs
“Love Sensation” – Loletta Holloway
“Love Stinks” — The J. Geils Band
Per usual, these movie lists are more of a guess because I don’t have time to rewatch, an attempt to filter older memories through a current sensibility. I do think that Raging Bull and The Shining are “classic” films that are probably each a little overrated relative to their respective directors’ other best work. I remember being smitten by Sayle’s low-budget college-radicals-reunite film as a teenager, but I haven’t seen it since. (It’s pretty hard to come by.)
This film list is a little different from the Top 10 of my Southeastern Film Critics Association ballot I published about a month ago. That’s partly the result of this list being one of pure favorites, where my SEFCA ballot allows for some strategic voting toward the end of the Top 10. It’s partly the result of having seen a couple of contenders for a second time since then. And it’s partly because any list of favorites is likely to change a little each time you consider it.
In both cases, my four-film top tier remains the same, with only the order changed a little. I love these four films and don’t have particularly strong feelings about order. Greta Gerwig’s Little Women jumps from No. 4 to No. 1 here after a second viewing and first in a theater, during which it knocked me flat. Maybe there’s a little recency bias at play. But I think it’s a genius work of adaptation that arrives as an instant family-film classic.
Like Little Women, Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a thrilling feminist period piece, searing where Little Women is warm. These films don’t so much inject a modern sensibility into their respective 18th- and 19th-century settings as make their stories feel very much present-tense.
I think Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino’s best movie in nearly 25 years. In an expansive, charmed middle sequence that intertwines a day in the life of each of his three protagonists – Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate kicking up her bare feet to watch herself on the big screen, Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth reminiscing on the roof and taking a drive, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton getting himself together for the best acting young co-star Trudi’s ever seen in her life – it’s also the best filmmaking of this year or Tarantino’s career.
Parasite is as brilliant and urgent as advertised. It could have easily been my No. 1, and if I’d had time to give it a second viewing, it may well have been.
The Irishman moved into my Top 5 on a second viewing. I feel like it not only earns its run-time, but ultimately needs it. The awkwardness of the film’s de-aging technology – these old actors move like old men even when meant to be younger – lends a poignancy that may or may not be intentional. But the film is framed as a recollection of an old man; you feel the present fragility even in memories of relative youth.
My No. 6 (The Farewell) and No. 8 (American Factory) would make a good double-feature on the complicated relationship between the U.S. and China. The former is deceptively light, but that lightness is a reason I’ve recommended it to so many people of differing tastes.
I didn’t do a music list this year. My listening was too scattered and unsatisfied. Perhaps I’ll “revisit” 2019 somewhere down the line. I do have some brief notes about my year in TV and books at the end.
Little Women (Greta Gerwig)
Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)
Parasite (Bong Joon-Ho)
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Celine Sciamma)
The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)
The Farewell (Lulu Wong)
Diane (Kent Jones)
American Factory (Steven Bognar, Julia Reichart)
Ford v. Ferrari (James Mangold)
The Nightingale (Jennifer Kent)
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (Martin Scorsese)
Amazing Grace (Alan Elliott, Sydney Pollack)
Uncut Gems (Josh & Benny Safdie)
Peterloo (Mike Leigh)
Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)
Her Smell (Alex Ross-Perry)
The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)
Us (Jordan Peele)
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Marielle Heller)
Knives Out (Rian Johnson)
Better Than Expected (or Than You Heard): Long Shot, Peanut Butter Falcon, High Flying Bird, High Life, Last Black Man in San Francisco
Ambitious but Flawed (in descending order of success): Dolemite is My Name, Queen & Slim, 1917, Atlantics, John Wick: Chapter 3, Jojo Rabbit, Harriet
Performances Better Than Their Films: Charlize Theron (Bombshell), Florence Pugh (Midsommar), Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein (Booksmart), Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers), Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins (The Two Popes), Taylor Russell (Waves), Adam Driver (The Dead Don’t Die)
I’m So Bored With the MCU … But What Can I Do?: Avengers: Endgame, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Captain Marvel.
Duds I Didn’t Avoid: Joker,Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Judy
Ten I Haven’t Seen (Yet): Ad Astra, Apollo 11, Ash is Purest White, A Hidden Life, Dark Waters, Honeyland, The Lighthouse, Pain & Glory, Synonyms, Transit.
Best Old Movie Seen for the First Time This Year: The Big Sky (Howard Hawks, 1952)
Television I Loved Without Hesitation: Fleabag, Unbelievable, Mindhunter
Television I Watched With Appreciation:Watchmen, The Deuce, True Detective, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Killing Eve, Glow
Television I Watched Out of Perceived Obligation:Deadwood, El Camino, Game of Thrones, Bluff City Law
Best Novels I Read For the First Time This Year:Sula — Toni Morrison (1973) and The Dog of the South — Charles Portis (1979).
Best Non-Fiction I Read For the First Time This Year:The White Album — Joan Didion (1979) and Is It Still Good To Ya?: 50 Years of Music Criticism — Robert Christgau (2019)
After debating how many records to list and how much if any to write, I decided on a Top 40 — to mirror the yearly “revisited” lists I’ve been doing on this site too occasionally — and stream-of-consciousness notes rather than contained write-ups for each album — or no writing at all. If you only want to look at the list, you can scroll to the bottom of the post. (And it was so hard to find the time for these scribblings that the companion film list will probably just be a list.)
It was not my intent to have zero 2019 albums on a best of the decade list. Is it me or was it 2019? There are six records from 2018 here. That wasn’t so long ago. Maybe it’s not me?
I set only one ground rule for myself: No more than two albums per artist. In practice, this only impacted two names, my choices for the pop artists of the decade.
The first tops the list. Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city (No. 1)is a portrait of an artist as a young man, a Compton coming-of-age story packed with different characters, stories, and perspectives without being overpacked with guest stars. With only space for one more Lamar on the list, I went against what’s probably consensus in preferring the direct, masterful Damn. (No. 11) over the deep, difficult To Pimp a Butterfly.
My other artist-of-the-decade candidate didn’t place an album in my Top 10 and remains highly underrated despite her commercial success. Maybe if Miranda Lambert had a dick and some facial hair she’d get the kind of modern-outlaw respect the likes of Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson do, but as is, the Miranda Lambert Diaspora placed six albums on this list, and it would have been seven had I not decided that doubling up her girl-group Pistol Annies would mean tripling Lambert herself.
The Annies’ debut Hell on Heels is pretty perfect, but I think their third album, Interstate Gospel (No. 20), takes the collective songwriting/singing of the project into more profound places, especially on “The Best Years of My Life” and “Milkman.” Lambert’s own Platinum (No. 31) isn’t her best solo album — that would be the prior decade’s Crazy Ex-Girlfried — but it’s a commercial blockbuster whose stylistic and emotional range shows off. My favorite Annies-related album, though, is Angaleena Presley’s American Middle Class (No. 14), the decade’s orneriest and most perceptive look modern small-town life.
Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark co-wrote the Lambert hit “Mama’s Broken Heart” before breaking out as solo acts. Clark’s 12 Stories (No. 28)is a little bit Tom T. Hall and a little bit Rosanne Cash, a cycle of precise character sketches, many of which spin out of small moments in the lives of female protagonists. Musgraves’ Golden Hour (No. 17)is a roots-pop-disco tour de force that updates the countrypolitan ideal in a way that feels like self-discovery.
Lori McKenna has written songs with or for all three Pistol Annies (the third member is Ashley Monroe, whose solo “Two Weeks Late” is one of the best country songs of the decade), and just about everyone else in mainstream country music with any taste at all. Tim McGraw had a massive hit with McKenna’s “Humble & Kind.” But when McGraw sings it, he sounds like what he is: A pro gifted a great song. When McKenna sings it — on her own career-best album The Bird & the Rifle (No. 24)— she sounds like what she is: A mother singing her own words to her own children. It might not even be the album’s best song. That might be “Halfway Home.”
Two other great 2010s albums from female country singers that exist fully outside the Lambert/Annies sphere of influence: Was veteran Lee Ann Womack’s career-best The Lonely, the Lonesome and the Gone (No. 18) modern country or (so-called) Americana? Answer: Lee Ann Womack is a grown-ass woman and is above your petty genre distinctions and squabbles, which are irrelevant. Here she pulls a bunch of Nashville pros off the assembly line and off to her own personal promised land. They respond like it’s 1968 at American Studios and Chips Moman is behind the board.
Another: Margo Price’s Memphis-recorded All American Made (No. 30). On this even-better follow-up to Price’s breakthrough Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, I first worried political songs with titles such as “Pay Gap” and “American Made” would be too on the nose. Instead, they aim lower: A knife to the gut. The former renders its title phrase a deeper metaphor en route to a bilious, plainspoken climax. But the latter is a Song of the Decade candidate, both specific in its laments and mystical in a way (“I’m dreaming of that highway that stretches out of sight”).
There was one dude in the country/roots vein who made my list, and he made it twice. There are debut albums and there are rebirth albums. Jason Isbell’s Southeastern(No. 4) is the latter, and while he got more directly political later, this intensely personal album is tethered to a wider awareness that deepens its personal gratitude. Seeing Isbell touring behind it, in the South, felt very much like seeing Lucinda Williams touring behind Car Wheels on a Gravel Road in the late 1990s. It felt like a whole people coming together to say: We choose you. You can’t really follow up a record like that, but Isbell did it pretty well and then even better with The Nashville Sound (No. 22), which peaks very high on the hushed “If We Were Vampires” and the defiant “Hope the High Road.”
Isbell was the solo singer/songwriter/guitarist of the decade, but didn’t quite release my favorite album in that vein. That would be Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (No. 3). The one bit of pure fiction (“Elevator Operator”) opens the album and is perfection. The rest is a more diaristic collection of often visionary songs about everyday stuff: Mulling pesticides in her vegetables and the nickel-and-dimed-to-death of her latte habit. Going for a swim at a public pool and reluctantly bungalow shopping in the burbs. She’s a material girl. This is a material world. Statement of principles: “Give me all your money and I’ll make some origami, honey.” Introvert’s anthem: “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party.” Favorite song of the decade, maybe: “Depreston.”
Barnett’s sister in alt-rock of the everyday: Elizabeth Morris. On Allo Darlin (No. 38), her band’s eponymous debut, Morris’ recipe for modest good living includes making chili with her sweetie, swimming on vacation, arguing about movies and listening to Johnny Cash and the Chiffons. Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose: “Though I’ve got no money to burn/I’m gonna burn what I’ve got/And though this band is awful/I like them an awful lot.”
Barnett’s an Aussie and Morris is a Brit, but nine different actual American rock bands (they still exist!) made my list, two of them twice. No band since Steely Dan is as much smarter than their critics as Vampire Weekend, but the latter is so much more open-hearted. They’re above it all, and if Contra (No. 15) is a cryptic, lovelorn travelogue that took them off campus and out into the world, Modern Vampires of the City (No. 2) marshalls their immense melodic and expressive gifts for a transition-to-adulthood album that’s broader and deeper but no less knottily personal.
Vampire Weekend are sorta stars. Chances are if you aren’t a rock critic or a Rust Belt barfly, you have no idea who or what Wussy is. Chuck Cleaver writes wry, self-deprecating songs and puts them across in a distinctive Appalachian Neil Young whine. Bandmate Lisa Walker writes bemused but hopeful songs and puts them across with a yearning yelp that hits me harder than any voice in music this century. Attica! (No. 6) is their most ambitious album and also their best. Unless Funeral Dress II (No. 12) is. An obscurity even in the context of an obscure band, it’s a limited release (in physical form) acoustic re-recording of their previous-decade debut that strips away the bar-band blast to push these two voices and their ineffable songs to the fore.
On Out in the Storm (No. 7), Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield says everything she needs to say about a relationship in her rearview mirror in 10 songs and not much more than half an hour. Pop music’s greatest thrill might be hearing someone say the exact right thing in the exact right way, hearing someone born in the moment. I’ve listened to this album since its 2017 release perhaps more than any other, and Crutchfield still sounds born anew each time.
Southern California’s No Age and Texas-via-NYC’s Parquet Courts both could have made multiple appearances on this list, but I’m sticking with respective career peaks that came in the same year. Parquet Courts’ Wide Awaaaaake! (No. 35) is a kind of embattled post-punk manifesto, drawing from arty forbears such as Gang of Four and the Minutemen, but deeply in its own political moment. Sample lyric: “Collectivism and autonomy are not mutually exclusive/Those who find discomfort in your goals of liberation will be issued no apology/And fuck Tom Brady.” Also: “Get love where you find it/It’s the only fist we have to fight with.”
No Age’s Snares Like a Haircut (No. 19), named for an instrumental track that delivers exactly what the title says, is a more insular, more formal album. Drummer-singer Dean Spunt bashes out tunes with his hands, vocal chords, and heart, and guitarist Randy Randall turns them all into a kind of one-man guitar-skronk symphony. More than any album on this list, I don’t assume anyone reading this will like it. I love it.
Patrick Stickles and his crew of unruly punk-Springsteen Jerseyites Titus Andronicus mix up their mythologies on The Monitor (No. 25), named after the Union Navy ironclad and launched with a pre-presidential quotation from Abraham Lincoln. For Stickles, the recurrent Civil War imagery ties into his own personal advance into and retreat from Southern territory, but he gets off on the era’s intersection of elegant language and righteous anger, and the band evokes the enormity of that historical moment as something of a rebuke to their own generational torpor. Like abolitionist hero William Lloyd Garrison, also quoted, they do not wish to think, speak, or write with moderation. And they will be heard. Loudly.
Consider The Monitor a companion piece of sorts to Southern rock lifers the Drive-By Truckers’ most political record (so far), American Band (No. 26), whose greatest song is a deeply loving, deeply conflicted, fully lucid consideration of home: “Ever South.”
The dream of the Nineties was alive in the 2010s with a roaring comeback — Sleater-Kinney’s No Cities to Love (No. 32) — and a charmingly navel-gazing never-left — Yo La Tengo’s Stuff Like That There (No. 21) — from two of that decade’s greatest bands.
I guess I probably can’t wait much longer without admitting Beyonce is not on this list. To me, Lemonade works best as soundtrack to a brilliant long-form music video from a major cultural force. But as a self-contained listening unit — what this is a list of — I find that it’s a (great) singles-and-filler record that drags a little. I prefer the earlier, eponymous Beyonce, and it’s only missing here because 40 records is a short list. But the wilder, freer vocal monument of Rihanna’s Anti (No. 8) is the R&B album of the decade for me.
Runners-up: I thought Frank Ocean’s alienated R&B hit hardest the first time out, on the homemade Nostalgia, Ultra (No. 30). Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer (No. 36) is where her musicality finally catches up with her persona for a full album that’s worthy of its Prince comparisons. And where Beyonce and Rihanna can come across as forbidding goddesses, Elle Varner is more around-the-way girl. Her wildly underrated Perfectly Imperfect (No. 27) is funny, sexy, smart, grounded, conversational and, finally, righteous. Varner’s daydream of domesticity makes reasonable demands: A fridge full of food, “someone to forgive me when I’m so wrong,” “brown-eyed babies and all.”
As a fan of the lucid — “voice, verbiage and beats,” as critic Robert Christgau described it in a Danny Brown review this month — a lot of recent hip-hop has trended in a direction (mumbly and/or druggy) that’s mostly not for me. But the genre still takes nearly a quarter of the list. After Kendrick, my favorite hip-hop album of the decade is The Roots’ How I Got Over (No. 5). If Kanye West’s previous-decade Late Registration was hip-hop’s Songs in the Key of Life, this is hip-hop’s Curtis Mayfield opus. Speaking of Kanye, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (No. 9) is a masterpiece of sorts, a relentlessly self-focused, black-comic and belligerent opus that earns every adjective in its cumbersome title. Its world-view makes me miss “the old Kanye,” but as a piece of music it never quits.
A Tribe Called Quest’s unlikely comeback/Phife Dawg farewell We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service (No. 23) is fierce and beautiful in confronting an uncertain future. I gather Chance the Rapper is now passe? Whatever. All of his records were contenders here, but the blessed blend of hip-hop, soul and gospel of Coloring Book (No. 16) captures his affability and generosity of spirit best. Honorable Mention: Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment’s Surf, aka Chance the Rapper’s Block Party. Related entry: Room 25 (No. 33) by light-on-her-lips Chance cohort Noname, which just edges unintentional 2018 companion piece Invasion of Privacy by Cardi B. I like all three Run the Jewels records, but R.A.P. Music (No. 40), Killer Mike solo, edges them all.
Is Hamilton: Original Broadway Cast Recording (No. 10) hip-hop? More hip-hop adjacent, but it works better as recorded pop music than any show music I’ve ever heard. It’s also a truly momentous piece of popular art. On the stage, yes, but if you can fully absorb it, also just in audio form.
I slipped my two favorite Memphis records of the decade on the list: Julien Baker’s Sprained Ankle (No. 34) and Mark Edgar Stuart’s Blues for Lou (No. 39). Both are personal singer-songwriter albums, but are also marked by true craft. Baker writes with the precision of a good page poet and her voice can break your heart, because it sounds like she’s breaking her own anew on every song. A bass player by trade, Stuart’s Americana moves and he writes about big stuff (and little stuff too) with humor and wisdom. (Memphis honorable mentions: Harlan T. Bobo’s Sucker, Cities Aviv’s Digital Lows and Amy LaVere, both solo and alongside John Paul Keith and Will Sexton.)
Finally a couple strays: Paul Simon’s So Beautiful or So What?(No. 37) isn’t his final album but will likely be his last testament, evoking previous career peaks (1972’s Paul Simon, 1986’s Graceland) while looking toward the eternal. And Tune-Yards’whokill (No. 13), the second album from Merrill Garbus and her merry band of studio helpers, evokes such left-field sound savants as Captain Beefheart and Tom Zé while being more accessible than either.
Top 40 Albums of the 2010s
good kid, m A.A.d city – Kendrick Lamar (2012)
Modern Vampires of the City – Vampire Weekend (2013)
Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit – Courtney Barnett (2015)
Southeastern – Jason Isbell (2013)
How I Got Over — The Roots (2010)
Attica! – Wussy (2014)
Out in the Storm – Waxahatchee (2017)
Anti – Rihanna (2016)
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – Kanye West (2010)
Hamilton: Original Broadway Cast Recording (2015)
Damn. – Kendrick Lamar (2017)
Funeral Dress II – Wussy (2011)
Whokill – Tune-yards (2011)
American Middle Class– Angaleena Presley (2014)
Contra – Vampire Weekend (2010)
Coloring Book — Chance the Rapper (2016)
Golden Hour – Kacey Musgraves (2018)
The Lonely, the Lonesome and the Gone – Lee Ann Womack (2017)
Snares Like a Haircut — No Age (2018)
Interstate Gospel – Pistol Annies (2018)
Stuff Like That There — Yo La Tengo (2015)
The Nashville Sound – Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit (2017)
We Got it From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service – A Tribe Called Quest (2016)
Two of my top three albums of 1979 come from white male classic rockers hitting peak form a little bit later than might have been expected at the time.
Into the Music isn’t as singular as 1968’s Astral Weeks or as perfect as 1970’s Moondance, but arrived as Van Morrison’s third best album and arguably his last great one.
Rust Never Sleeps probably wasn’t Neil Young’s last great album, but is his greatest, so says me and plenty of others.
Half acoustic, half electric, it’s all the best of the Seventies’ greatest rock artist in one place, lifted up by visionary songs about punk rock, Southern fatalism, technology, and Pocahontas. Young & Crazy Horse were so peak of powers in ’79 that a live reprise nearly makes my Top 10.
Live albums are rarely the best way to engage a recording artist, and Live Rust is certainly no exception. But it serves as a nice career overview to this point. And Side 4 is the shit.
Additionally, two of my top five albums of 1979 — The Pretenders and Squeezing Out Sparks — are trad-rock hookfests informed and elevated by the urgency of punk. (You could also put Rust Never Sleeps in this category.)
And yet if 1979 has a story, traditional rock informed by punk comes in second. Rather, I’d point to a few other related entries: Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall (#4 album), “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” (#6 single), and “Rock With You” (#13 single), Chic’s Risque (#6 album) and “Good Times” (#2 single), Prince’s Prince (No. 11 album) and “I Wanna Be Your Lover” (#4 single), Donna Summer’s Bad Girls (#20 album, #13 single) and Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” (#5 single).
Hip-hop was just then bubbling up from block parties and clubs (Funky 4+1, Tanya Winley and Sugarhill Gang singles), but those artists collectively were concocting a kind of tough, modern black pop drawing from soul, rock, funk and disco. A few years later, Prince and Michael Jackson would make it the biggest music in the world.
Right, the Michael Jackson is a little “problematic” now. This is not the space for an endless essay on the complicated relationship between art and artist. I’ll only say that I would no longer play Jackson were I DJing or programming on the radio or in any public spaces. He should be someone people choose to listen to, not someone you encounter without intention.
But I’m not playing any music here, only noting the best albums and singles of 1979 and Off the Wall and its big singles are most certainly among them.
(One note: The original 1977 version of The Clash was my #1 album of that year. The U.S. version came out in 1979 and is pretty different. If I had included it here, it would have probably been #2. I decided not to double up on different versions of the same album.)
Without further commentary, the lists …
Rust Never Sleeps – Neil Young& Crazy Horse
The Pretenders – The Pretenders
Into the Music – Van Morrison
Off the Wall – Michael Jackson
Squeezing Out Sparks – Graham Parker & the Rumor
Risque – Chic
Singles Going Steady – Buzzcocks
Lubbock (On Everything) – Terry Allen
Forces of Victory – Linton Kwesi Johnson
Fear of Music – Talking Heads
Prince – Prince
Live Rust – Neil Young & Crazy Horse:
Tom Verlaine – Tom Verlaine
Armed Forces – Elvis Costello & the Attractions
B-52s – The B-52s
Damn the Torpedoes – Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
Dub Housing – Pere Ubu
The Roches – The Roches
Eat to the Beat – Blondie
Bad Girls – Donna Summer
Labour of Lust – Nick Lowe
Tusk – Fleetwood Mac
Cut – Slits
Truth n Time – Al Green
In Style – David Johansen
“Dreaming” – Blondie
“Good Times” – Chic
“Cruisin’” – Smokey Robinson
“I Wanna Be Your Lover” – Prince
“We Are Family” – Sister Sledge
“Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” – Michael Jackson
“Hey Hey My My”/“My My Hey Hey” – Neil Young
“Heart of Glass” – Blondie
“There But For the Grace of God Go I” – Machine
“Rappin’ and Rocking the House” – The Funky 4 +1
“Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” – McFadden & Whitehead
“Why Can’t I Touch It?” – Buzzcocks
“Rock With You” – Michael Jackson
“Bad Girls” – Donna Summer
“Family Tradition” – Hank Williams Jr.
“Everybody’s Happy Nowadays” – Buzzcocks
“Rock Lobster” – B-52s
“Stop Your Sobbing”/“The Wait” – The Pretenders
“Bright Side of the Road” – Van Morrison
“Oliver’s Army” – Elvis Costello
“Mind Your Own Business” – Delta 5
“Cruel to Be Kind” – Nick lowe
“Life During Wartime” – Talking Heads
“Reunited” – Peaches & Herb
“Vicious Rap” – Tanya Winley
“Kid”/“Tattooed Love Boys” – The Pretenders
“Money Changes Everything” – The Brains
“One Way Or Another” – Blondie
“At Home He’s a Tourist” – Gang of Four
“Rapper’s Delight” – The Sugarhill Gang
“Girls Talk” – Dave Edmunds
“Tusk” – Fleetwood Mac
“Someone is Looking for Someone Like You” – Gail Davies
“1-2 Crush on You” – The Clash
“Boogie Wonderland” – Earth, Wind and Fire
“Hot Stuff” – Donna Summer
“(Not Just) Knee Deep” – Funkadelic
“Money” – The Flying Lizards
“You/U” – Kleenex
“Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” – Ian Dury & the Blockheads
Per usual, I don’t have time (or the inclination with the time I have) to rewatch movies for listmaking purposes. So the movie lists are really more of a hunch about what I would think now based on my memory of when I did see them.
Dylan, Beatles and the Stones, though none quite at their best. Three CCR studio albums, which I think is a record on the lists so far. The best single-disc, single-artist collection in pop history … coming in at #2. That’s all the preamble I can muster this time around. To the lists …
The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground: If the second side matched the first, it would be my favorite album ever. As it is, the second side opens with maybe my favorite Velvets song (“Beginning to See the Light”) and ends with maybe their best album-closer (Moe Tucker on “Afterhours”), so it’s pretty close anyway. “I met myself in a dream, and I just want to tell you everything was alright.”
Aretha’s Gold – Aretha Franklin:Single-artist compilations are a judgement call on these lists. I tend to avoid them — and never a boxed set — unless it collects music mostly experienced as singles and from a narrow and relatively contemporaneous period, and if it feels like it functions as a de facto “album.” Aretha recorded for nearly 60 years and navigated the evolution of black pop over those decades better than a lot of casual listeners probably know. The 14 songs on Aretha’s Gold were all released as singles between February, 1967 and July, 1968, a small moment in the context of her career and an enormous one in the history of recorded music. Most of it was cut in New York and Aretha grew up mostly in Detroit, but these are the peaks of her “Southern soul” period. It doesn’t have quite the comp-as-album rep as The Immaculate Collection or Singles Going Steady or Sly & the Family Stone’s Greatest Hits, and you can find all the same songs collected in other configurations, but I don’t know if there’s a better single album collection of music anywhere. Docked a notch — but only one — for being a comp.
The Band – The Band: The closer you get to most of the lyrics, the less they mean, though without quite the gravity or mystery of Music From Big Pink. This follow-up is lighter on the surface and the surfaces are plenty deep. It’s about that union of voices, a deep shared musicality, and interest in tradition that’s never stodgy.
Let it Bleed — The Rolling Stones: Their most mammoth opener (“Gimme Shelter”) and closer (“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”) bracket a seven-song transitional hodge-podge (some Brian Jones, who died while it was being made, some Mick Taylor) that leans into country and blues. But that’s a hodge-podge from the world’s best rock and roll band at peak of powers.
Willy & the Poor Boys – Creedence Clearwater Revival: This great CCR singles-and-filler album of 1969 gets the edge over the other great CCR singles-and-filler album of 1969 (and a pretty big advantage over the merely really good CCR singles-and-filler album of 1969) because I like the filler a little better, especially “Don’t Look Now,” which expands the class-consciousness of the preceding “Fortunate Son,” and their version of “Cotton Fields,” which is probably my favorite CCR album track.
Everybody Knows This is Nowhere – Neil Young with Crazy Horse: Young is atop the short list of people I want to hear epic guitar jams from, and that side of him starts here with “Down By the River.” I don’t know that they got any better. But the best guitar sound here is on the comparatively quick title cut, also one of my favorite Young songs.
II – Led Zeppelin: I’ve gone back and forth with Zeppelin over the years and this re-listen put me firmly in the “back” category. A key was no longer paying any attention to lyrics or attempts at meaning. Play loud.
Trout Mask Replica – Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band: I listened to this so much in high school, and I think I can credit it with opening up my ears. Relistening start to back (though in segments) for the first time in a long time, I was surprised at how well and warmly I remembered every single song or fragment. If I put all the albums I like on a continuum from “most likely to be agreeable to the most listeners” to “most likely to be actively hated by the most listeners,” this might be at the farthest end.
Unhalfbricking – Fairport Convention
Green River — Creedence Clearwater Revival
Abbey Road — The Beatles: Most will probably think this is way too low but I wonder if it’s still too high. (Would I really rather listen to Abbey Road than From Dusty in Memphis?) It’s an album I greatly admire but every time I revisit it I confirm all over again how much I just don’t care about it. The less perfect Sgt. Pepper’s and White Album feel (alternately) more alive in the culture and more alive to itself.
Dusty in Memphis – Dusty Springfield
From Elvis in Memphis – Elvis Presley
The Original Delaney & Bonnie — Delaney & Bonnie
Stand! — Sly & the Family Stone
The Gilded Palace of Sin– Flying Burrito Brothers
Nashville Skyline – Bob Dylan
Soul 69 – Aretha Franklin
In a Silent Way – Miles Davis
Hot Buttered Soul – Isaac Hayes
Bayou Country — Creedence Clearwater Revival
Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin
The Rod Stewart Album – Rod Stewart
Make a Joyful Noise – Mother Earth
The Stooges – The Stooges
“I Want You Back” – The Jackson Five
“Fortunate Son” – Creedence Clearwater Revival
“Making Love (At the Dark End of the Street)” – Clarence Carter
“Life’s Little Ups and Downs” – Charlie Rich
“Bad Moon Rising’ – Creedence Clearwater Revival
“Suspicious Minds” – Elvis Presley
“I Wanna Be Your Dog” — The Stooges
“Up on Cripple Creek” — The Band
“Green River’ – Creedence Clearwater Revival
“Honky Tonk Woman” – The Rolling Stones
“Proud Mary’ – Creedence Clearwater Revival
“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” – The Rolling Stones
“Born on the Bayou” — Creedence Clearwater Revival
“Only the Strong Survive” – Jerry Butler
“Get Back” – The Beatles
“Lodi” – Creedence Clearwater Revival
“I Want to Take You Higher” – Sly & the Family Stone
“Hot Fun in the Summertime” – Sly & the Family Stone
“Down on the Corner” — Creedence Clearwater Revival
It’s been a bit, but my little re-listening project returns. I was done with 1998 a while ago and am currently working my way through both 1969 and 1979. All of the years done so far are now compiled to the right.
The goal was, and is, 1965-2014, 50 years beginning with the dawn of the modern album era. Lately, though, I’ve yearned to listen to older stuff and spent a couple hours recently reading about while listening to Louis Armstrong and zipping through some Roy Acuff (alphabetical linkage not accidental). At some point during this project, I might start peppering in some singles lists from pre-1965, going back as far as recorded pop music takes us.
Since I ended up with plenty of album-specific notes, I’ll limit the preamble. I did cut the singles list down from the usual Top 40 because I really struggled to get to 40 singles (not album cuts technically released as singles) I actually cared about. 1998: Not the greatest year for pop music.
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road — Lucinda Williams: It leads with its two best songs-as-songs, both concrete yet still mysterious depictions of the mundane. The first is about masturbation (listen closely), the second about divorce (ditto), both, right, about longing. From there she dedicates her poet’s eye and marble-mouthed drawl to a celebration of her home region, the one that you see and the one you imagine, which are sometimes one and the same. Inspirations include Birney Imes photographs, Robert Johnson legends. Howlin’ Wolf records, the pleasures of singing “Opelousas,” “Pontchartrain,” and “Nacogdoches,” and the novel idea of finding one’s joy in West Memphis. The one with her name as a title, from a decade prior, still has my heart, but this is her masterpiece.
Aquemini — Outkast: In retrospect, the most culturally momentous album of the year and not quite the best by my count only because it’s overstuffed in the manner too-common to CD-era rap albums, where Car Wheels is pretty much perfect. (I wonder how frequently people make it through the closing 15 minutes of “Liberation” and “Chonkyfire.”)
Mermaid Avenue — Billy Bragg and Wilco: Jeff Tweedy has fronted two (mostly) good and (increasingly) popular bands over a nearly 30 year career, and this one-off (that became a two-off) assignment to bring some unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics to life is the best record he’ll ever be a part of. That’s no shame really. Ostensible frontman Bragg has nearly a decade on Tweedy and it’s true of him too. If we’re being honest, it might be true of Guthrie.
Whitechocolatespaceegg — Liz Phair: Five years can be a long time when it takes you from your mid-twenties to your early thirties, and so she goes from an epic/classic that really digs into a specific post-collegiate life/scene to an epic/closer-to-classic-than-the-world’s-allowed that takes in marriage and parenthood and marriage after parenthood and plenty of fictional or fictionalized scenarios (at least a couple with male narrators) on which her cool detachment is virtue.
Life Won’t Wait – Rancid: Mohawked Clash fanatics exceed artistic expectations just in time for it to not really matter much commercially. A kind of alternate version of the rock-and-roll story, one where punk and reggae/ska replace country and blues, one that’s urban and international rather than rural and Southern, one where class politics are spelled out rather than implied, one where the Clash is Elvis and Buju Banton is Muddy Waters (though this is where the chronology gets muddled). Right, it’s not London Calling. It’s not that smart or that fierce. But as a Cali-centric but globe-trotting simulacrum, it gets damn close to that touchstone’s expansive musicality and look-what-we’re-doing-we’re-really-pulling-this-off self-delight.
A Thousand Leaves — Sonic Youth: Maybe it’s a product of my own advancing age, but I’ve increasingly found the urban-pastoral/domestic portion of the Sonic Youth continuum (Skronky Middle Age?) more compelling than their culturally assaultive sonic youths. At its best (“Sunday,” “Wildflower Soul,” “Hits of Sunshine”), A Thousand Leaves is the summation/pinnacle of that part of the story, perhaps as much as Daydream Nation is a summation/pinnacle of those first chapters.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill — Lauryn Hill: Hill wasn’t a great singer by the exalted standards of R&B, but she tops good albums, then and now, from Aretha and Mary J. via her fluid shifts from rapping to singing and back again, great background vocal arrangements, beautifully organic production, and a sense of purpose that could come on a little strong (maybe her baby boy wasn’t the messiah) but still deepens the already plenty deep musicality.
Hello Nasty – Beastie Boys: Gratefully back to where they once belonged.
Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star – Black Star: Two great MCs with great chemistry at peak of powers. Still stirring but on reacquaintance a little less so than I’d remembered.
A Rose is Still a Rose– Aretha Franklin: A voice for all ages settles into a new one with ease. Her first major album in more than a decade and maybe her last.
The Music in My Head– Various Artists: This (mostly) West African comp spans more than three decades and draws from at least four countries (primarily Senegal, but with Mali, Gambia, and the Congo represented). The handpicked listening companion to an eponymous novel I’ve never read, it’s essentially a not-quite-mass-released mixtape. Not in my personal top tier of Afropop collections, but probably in the next tier down.
Some Things I Know – Lee Ann Womack: The Dixie Chicks’ debut (or, I guess, reboot) was the most momentous straight-country record of the year, but Womack’s less crossed-over sophomore album holds up better.
Steal This Album – The Coup: A hip-hop original, Boots Riley, takes a leap. There would be a couple more to come.
On the Floor at the Boutique – Fatboy Slim: Spinning the hits in his head, juicing the volume and speed. My favorite artifact of the late 1990s sue-me-I-still-call-it-techno boom.
Pack Up the Cats – Local H: Sounds like Nirvana, Everyman version. Includes the best song ever written about being a rock musician (see singles list below). Said single doesn’t even include this matter-of-fact album-track quotable: “I’m in love with rock and roll, but that will change eventually.”
The Tour – Mary J Blige: Ok, so it’s not exactly Bill Withers’ Live at Carnegie Hall or James Brown’s Live at the Apollo, but it is a rare case (like Withers, not quite Brown) of an R&B singles artist’s most satisfying album being a live one.
Introducing Cadallaca – Cadallaca: Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker going soft, with a organist/singer partner (Sarah Dougher) rather than a guitarist/singer partner (Carrie Brownstein).
The Glass Intact – Sarge
Middlescene — Amy Rigby
Nature Film – Scrawl
Moment of Truth – Gang Starr
The Singles – Bikini Kill: Three songs from 1993 as exciting as any rock and roll from any time or anywhere. Six more from 1995 that are mostly pretty hot too. Run-time: 18 minutes.
Still Standing – Goodie Mob
He Got Game – Public Enemy
What is Not to Love – Imperial Teen
“Rosa Parks” — Outkast
“All the Kids Are Right” — Local H
“Are You That Somebody?” — Aaliyah
“Celebrity Skin” — Hole
“The Rockafeller Skank” — Fatboy Slim
“Too Close” — Next
“Hard Knock Life” — Jay-Z
“A Rose is Still a Rose” — Aretha Franklin
“Doo Wop (That Thing)” — Lauryn Hill
“Definition” — Black Star
“Me and Jesus the Pimp in a 79 Granada Last Night’ — The Coup
“Together Again” – Janet Jackson
“I Will Buy You a New Life” — Everclear
“Wide Open Spaces” – Dixie Chicks
“Intergalactic” — Beastie Boys
“He Got Game” — Public Enemy
“Music Sounds Better With You” — Stardust
“Body Movin” – Beastie Boys
“Ha” — Juvenile
“A Little Past Little Rock” — Lee Ann Womack
“Buckaroo” — Lee Ann Womack
“Waltz No. 2 (XO)” — Elliott Smith
“Malibu” — Hole
“Gangster Trippin’” – Fatboy Slim
“Father of Mine” — Everclear
“Stall” — Sarge
“Second Round KO” — Canibus
“Ruff Ryders Anthem” — DMX
“Closing Time” – Semisonic
“The Boy is Mine” — Brandy and Monica
Usual caveats apply. I’ve relistended to every piece on music on both album and singles lists. I haven’t rewatched any movies. This isn’t my Top 10 as it would have been in 1998, but rather my Top 10 as I guess it would be today. Chances are, rewatching would actually yield a slightly different result.