Revisited

1979 Revisited

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 … 

Albums

  1. Rust Never Sleeps – Neil Young & Crazy Horse
  2. The Pretenders – The Pretenders
  3. Into the Music – Van Morrison
  4. Off the Wall – Michael Jackson
  5. Squeezing Out Sparks – Graham Parker & the Rumor
  6. Risque – Chic
  7. Singles Going Steady – Buzzcocks
  8. Lubbock (On Everything) – Terry Allen
  9. Forces of Victory – Linton Kwesi Johnson
  10. Fear of Music – Talking Heads
  11. Prince – Prince
  12. Live Rust – Neil Young & Crazy Horse: 
  13. Tom Verlaine – Tom Verlaine
  14. Armed Forces – Elvis Costello & the Attractions
  15. B-52s – The B-52s
  16. Damn the Torpedoes – Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
  17. Dub Housing – Pere Ubu
  18. The Roches – The Roches
  19. Eat to the Beat – Blondie
  20. Bad Girls – Donna Summer
  21. Labour of Lust – Nick Lowe
  22. Tusk – Fleetwood Mac
  23. Cut – Slits
  24. Truth n Time – Al Green
  25. In Style – David Johansen

Singles

  1. “Dreaming” – Blondie
  2. “Good Times” – Chic
  3. “Cruisin’” – Smokey Robinson
  4. “I Wanna Be Your Lover” – Prince
  5.  “We Are Family” – Sister Sledge
  6. “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” – Michael Jackson
  7. “Hey Hey My My”/“My My Hey Hey” – Neil Young
  8. “Heart of Glass” – Blondie
  9. “There But For the Grace of God Go I” – Machine
  10. “Rappin’ and Rocking the House” – The Funky 4 +1
  11. “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” – McFadden & Whitehead
  12. “Why Can’t I Touch It?” – Buzzcocks
  13. “Rock With You” – Michael Jackson
  14. “Bad Girls” – Donna Summer
  15. “Family Tradition” – Hank Williams Jr.
  16. “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays” – Buzzcocks
  17. “Rock Lobster” – B-52s
  18. “Stop Your Sobbing”/“The Wait” – The Pretenders
  19. “Bright Side of the Road” – Van Morrison
  20. “Oliver’s Army” – Elvis Costello
  21. “Mind Your Own Business” – Delta 5
  22. “Cruel to Be Kind” – Nick lowe
  23. “Life During Wartime” – Talking Heads
  24. “Reunited” – Peaches & Herb
  25. “Vicious Rap” – Tanya Winley
  26. “Kid”/“Tattooed Love Boys” – The Pretenders 
  27. “Money Changes Everything” – The Brains
  28. “One Way Or Another” – Blondie
  29. “At Home He’s a Tourist” – Gang of Four
  30. “Rapper’s Delight” – The Sugarhill Gang
  31. “Girls Talk” – Dave Edmunds
  32. “Tusk” – Fleetwood Mac
  33. “Someone is Looking for Someone Like You” – Gail Davies
  34. “1-2 Crush on You” – The Clash
  35. “Boogie Wonderland” – Earth, Wind and Fire
  36. “Hot Stuff” – Donna Summer
  37. “(Not Just) Knee Deep” – Funkadelic
  38. “Money” – The Flying Lizards
  39. “You/U” – Kleenex
  40. “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” – Ian Dury & the Blockheads

Movies

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. 

  1. Real Life (Albert Brooks)
  2. Richard Pryor — Live in Concert
  3. Breaking Away (Peter Yates)
  4. Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky)
  5. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola)
  6. The Brood (David Cronenberg)
  7. Alien (Ridley Scott)
  8. Mad Max (George Miller)

Revisited

1969 Revisited

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 …

Albums

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.  
  9. UnhalfbrickingFairport Convention
  10. Green River — Creedence Clearwater Revival
  11. 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.
  12. Dusty in Memphis – Dusty Springfield
  13. From Elvis in Memphis – Elvis Presley
  14. The Original Delaney & Bonnie — Delaney & Bonnie
  15. Stand! — Sly & the Family Stone
  16. The Gilded Palace of Sin – Flying Burrito Brothers
  17. Nashville Skyline – Bob Dylan
  18. Soul 69 – Aretha Franklin
  19. In a Silent Way – Miles Davis
  20. Hot Buttered Soul – Isaac Hayes
  21. Bayou Country — Creedence Clearwater Revival
  22. Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin
  23. The Rod Stewart Album – Rod Stewart
  24. Make a Joyful Noise – Mother Earth
  25. The Stooges – The Stooges

Singles

  1. “I Want You Back” – The Jackson Five
  2. “Fortunate Son” – Creedence Clearwater Revival
  3. “Making Love (At the Dark End of the Street)” – Clarence Carter
  4. “Life’s Little Ups and Downs” – Charlie Rich
  5. “Bad Moon Rising’ – Creedence Clearwater Revival
  6. “Suspicious Minds” – Elvis Presley
  7. “I Wanna Be Your Dog” — The Stooges
  8. “Up on Cripple Creek” — The Band
  9. “Green River’ – Creedence Clearwater Revival
  10. “Honky Tonk Woman” – The Rolling Stones
  11. “Proud Mary’ – Creedence Clearwater Revival
  12. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” – The Rolling Stones
  13. “Born on the Bayou” — Creedence Clearwater Revival
  14. “Only the Strong Survive” – Jerry Butler
  15. “Get Back” – The Beatles
  16. “Lodi” – Creedence Clearwater Revival
  17. “I Want to Take You Higher”  – Sly & the Family Stone
  18. “Hot Fun in the Summertime” – Sly & the Family Stone
  19. “Down on the Corner” — Creedence Clearwater Revival
  20. “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” – Neil Young
  21. “Hungry Eyes” – Merle Haggard
  22. “Love Man” – Otis Redding
  23. “Homecoming” – Tom T. Hall
  24. “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby” – Marvin Gaye
  25. “Whole Lotta Love” – Led Zeppelin
  26. “The Chokin’ Kind” – Joe Simon
  27. “Down By the River” – Neil Young
  28. “Soul Deep” – The Box Tops
  29. “War” – Edwin Starr
  30. “I Can’t Get Next to You” — The Temptations
  31. “A Week in a Country Jail” – – Tom T. Hall
  32. “It’s Your Thing” – The Isley Brothers
  33. “Okie from Muskogee” — Merle Haggard
  34. “Kick Out the Jams” – MC5
  35. “Polk Salad Annie” – Tony Joe White
  36. “Israelites” – Desmond Dekker
  37. “Oh What a Night’ – The Dells
  38. “I Forgot to Be Your Lover” – William Bell
  39. “Workin’ Man Blues” – Merle Haggard
  40. “Something in the Air” – Thunderclap Newman

Revisited

1998 Revisited

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.

Albums

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”)
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.  
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Hello Nasty – Beastie Boys: Gratefully back to where they once belonged.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.   
  12. 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.
  13. Steal This Album – The Coup: A hip-hop original, Boots Riley, takes a leap. There would be a couple more to come.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.”
  16. 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.
  17. 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).
  18. The Glass Intact – Sarge
  19. Middlescene — Amy Rigby
  20. Nature Film – Scrawl
  21. Moment of Truth – Gang Starr
  22. 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.
  23. Still Standing – Goodie Mob
  24. He Got Game – Public Enemy
  25. What is Not to Love – Imperial Teen

Singles

  1. “Rosa Parks” — Outkast
  2. “All the Kids Are Right” — Local H
  3. “Are You That Somebody?” — Aaliyah
  4. “Celebrity Skin” — Hole
  5. “The Rockafeller Skank” — Fatboy Slim
  6. “Too Close” — Next
  7. “Hard Knock Life” — Jay-Z
  8. “A Rose is Still a Rose” — Aretha Franklin
  9. “Doo Wop (That Thing)” — Lauryn Hill
  10. “Definition” — Black Star
  11. “Me and Jesus the Pimp in a 79 Granada Last Night’ — The Coup
  12. “Together Again” – Janet Jackson
  13. “I Will Buy You a New Life” — Everclear
  14. “Wide Open Spaces” – Dixie Chicks
  15. “Intergalactic” — Beastie Boys
  16. “He Got Game” — Public Enemy
  17. “Music Sounds Better With You” — Stardust
  18. “Body Movin” – Beastie Boys
  19. “Ha” — Juvenile
  20. “A Little Past Little Rock” — Lee Ann Womack
  21. “Buckaroo” — Lee Ann Womack
  22. “Waltz No. 2 (XO)” — Elliott Smith
  23. “Malibu” — Hole
  24. “Gangster Trippin’” – Fatboy Slim
  25. “Father of Mine” — Everclear
  26. “Stall”  — Sarge
  27. “Second Round KO” — Canibus
  28. “Ruff Ryders Anthem” — DMX
  29. “Closing Time” – Semisonic
  30. “The Boy is Mine” — Brandy and Monica

Movies

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.

  1. Rushmore (Wes Anderson)
  2. There’s Something About Mary (Farrelly Brothers)
  3. The Big Lebowski (Coen Brothers)
  4. Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh)
  5. Dr. Akagi (Shohei Imamura)
  6. Small Soldiers (Joe Dante)
  7. He Got Game (Spike Lee)
  8. The Newton Boys (Richard Linklater)
  9. Babe: Pig in the City (George Miller)
  10. Primary Colors (Mike Nichols)

Revisited

Best of 2018

Albums

This is, I think, the second year since 1998 that I haven’t had a ballot to fill out in the Village Voice’s once-annual Pazz and Jop national critics poll. The other year I missed was due to a work email change. That might have been a problem this year too, except that the Voice, and its venerable poll, went kaput around the same time I was changing venues.

This further diminishes whatever meager professional connection I still have to music criticism. I still voted in the Nashville Scene’s annual country music critics’ poll, but most of my writing is now on other subjects and my favorite piece of music writing I did in 2018 was the one non-listy thing I wrote on this site, strictly out of personal compulsion. It’s also the reason I’m not doing a singles list this year. 

I’m still adding the Pazz and Jop scoring (100 points for 10 albums, max of 30, minimum of 5) to the Top 10 of my Top 20 albums below, because it better conveys what was, for me, a year of five tightly bunched favorites followed by lots of other records I liked, but a little less.

And those five favorite albums happen to include a couple of twinned pairings.

Parquet Courts (New Yorkers with Texas roots) and No Age (a SoCal duo) each have catalogues now half-a-dozen albums deep without a single misstep, something I’m not sure any other ongoing indie bands can say, though No Age have stretched theirs over a little more than a decade while Parquet Courts’ headlong rush didn’t start until 2013. Both bands established new career peaks this year, I believe, on albums that come from the same corner of the culture but engage the broader world differently.

For Parquet Courts, that means aggressively, passionately. For No Age, that means hardly at all.

The former’s Wide Awaaaaake! 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, 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. Of every album listed below, it’s the one I’d be most reluctant to recommend to others. And yet it’s the 2018 album that was my most constant companion. My favorite driving album. My favorite writing album.

I don’t know if any 2018 albums expressed individual personalities as fully as Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy and Noname’s Room 25, two hip-hop thesis statements from two black women who see the world differently but with an equal fierceness and their own individual brands of smarts and good humor. One’s a pop blockbuster, the other a cult item. Cardi B is the more familiar figure, if still fresh, her striving taking a combative form. “Pussy’s so good I say my own name during sex,” she boasts. Quick-thinking, light-on-her-lips, but musically understated, Noname answers from the other end of hip-hop’s cultural spectrum : “My pussy teachin’ ninth-grade English/My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism.”

In hip-hop now, as in most of the rest of things, women are where it’s at. That’s one story of music in 2018. I’d add hip-hop-adjacent Janelle Monae, rounding out my Top 10 with what I think is her best album, the one where front-to-back musicality finally catches up her long-fetching concept. And while I admire 2018 newcomers Tierra Whack and Cupcakke, they’re topped by a couple of 2017’s I was late getting around to: Princess Nokia and Rapsody. (Years are, per usual, arbitrary cultural distinctions.) Pusha T, as always, raps his ass off, and the shortened form of Daytona only heightens the impact. Kendrick Lamar presided over a soundtrack that might have been even richer than its blockbuster host. But when it came to hip-hop in 2018, I mostly wanted to hear women. (Drake? As always, no thanks.)

In this regard, hip-hop caught up with country, which has been dominated by women for years now, at least artistically, if not on the charts or on the radio, and as much as I like Kacey Musgraves’ pop breakthrough (which is indeed her mostly fully realized album), that means my personal chart-topper-by-a-nose, the third and best album by three (Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, Angaleena Presley) of the half-a-dozen-or-so most important women in country. If Musgraves’s roots-pop-disco Golden Hour was a great country album for people who don’t much like country music, Pistol AnniesInterstate Gospel is a great country album for people who do. The Annies work their titular concept with a few high-concept songs that are high-end country craft, but this is an album about collective songwriting and collective singing that goes deeper than before, especially on Song of the Year candidates “The Best Years of My Life” and “Milkman.”

My real Song of the Year, though, might have come from another of those half-dozen-or-so country women, Lori McKenna’s “People Get Old,” even if the fine album it’s from, The Tree, couldn’t quite make the Top 20 cut. Ones who did: Roots-rockin’ Becky Warren, folkie Mary Gauthier, wild woman Linda Gail Lewis partnering with Robbie Fulks, and Bettye Lavette rewiring Bob Dylan, joined by a couple of national monuments (Willie Nelson, John Prine) whose easeful, good-humored takes on age and mortality in 2018 should be an example for all lucky enough to last so long. People get old, right. But some age like wine somehow.

With the 75-percent dude Superchunk cracking the Top 10, my indie-rock faves were pretty white guy this year, but they were followed by Courtney Barnett, a great artist who made a good album, and a coterie in the form of Lucy Dacus solo and with pals as Boygenius. (I’m assuming a double-review of Pistol Annies and Boygenius has been done.)

Incidentally, my other favorite song of 2018 from an album non-finisher: Wussy’s “Aliens in Our Midst,” a righteous cover of a regional punk obscurity unknown to me. The album list:

 

  1. Interstate Gospel — Pistol Annies (15)
  2. Snares Like a Haircut — No Age (13)
  3. Room 25 — Noname (13)
  4. Invasion of Privacy — Cardi B (13)
  5. Wide Awaaaaake! — Parquet Courts (13)
  6. Daytona — Pusha T (7)
  7. Golden Hour — Kacey Musgraves (7)
  8. What a Time to Be Alive – Superchunk (7)
  9. Rifles and Rosary Beads — Mary Gauthier (7)
  10. Dirty Computer — Janelle Monae (5)
  11. 1992 Deluxe — Princess Nokia (2017)
  12. Historian — Lucy Dacus/Boygenius EP — Boygenius
  13. Last Man Alive — Willie Nelson
  14. Things Have Changed — Bettye Lavette
  15. Black Panther — Kendrick Lamar/Various Artists
  16. The Tree of Forgiveness — John Prine
  17. Undesirable — Becky Warren
  18. Tell Me How You Really Feel — Courtney Barnett
  19. Wild! Wild! Wild! — Robbie Fulks and Linda Gail Lewis
  20. Laila’s Wisdom — Rapsody (2017)

Movies

It was a decent year for the union of art and commerce as blockbusters Black Panther, Mission Impossible: Fallout, A Star is Born, and blockbuster-to-be Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse were also really good movies. I enjoyed and admired all four.

Roma was the most impressive 2018 movie I saw, and for a second time on the big screen over the holidays (thanks Twin Cities). It’s far from a bloodless technical feat, but it didn’t quite grip my heart as much as the other four movies it joins in my Top 5. Roma seemed like one of those big international cinema masterpieces of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, like some midpoint between Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Fellini’s Amarcord. Not every “masterpiece” is a masterpiece, but I’d say Roma is closer than most. I still think Y Tu Mama, Tambien and Children of Men are Cuaron’s best films. 

Roma didn’t slay me like Shoplifters, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s portrait of a makeshift family — a bunch of small fish swimming together —  on Tokyo’s economic margins. I also saw it for a second time on the big screen thanks to a Minneapolis trip and its tumbling third-act revelations, close-up testimonials, and final triptych of small moments accrued power on repeat viewing. Its visual artistry is far more subtle than Roma, but that too became more apparent on repeat viewing, especially its birdseye view of its six subjects gazing up at the sound of fireworks.

Support the Girls, Andrew Bujalski’s day-in-the-life workplace comedy set at and around a suburban Houston Hooters knockoff, works as well at any size, but requires an attentive eye and especially ear. Modest on the surface, its every visual and aural cranny is packed with sharp but good-humored social observation. No 2018 film that I saw has as much to say about American life circa right now. Maybe Minding the Gap, a years-spanning documentary about three Rockford, Illinois skater buddies navigating adulthood, comes close. These two small films both debuted in Memphis at the Indie Memphis Film Festival and are further united by defiant, righteous endings.

My biggest filmgoing regret of 2018 was not seeing Leave No Trace, director Debra Granik’s follow-up to Winter’s Bone, about an Iraq War vet and his 13-year-old daughter as they try to live undetected in the Oregon woods, on the big screen when I had the chance. The movies list:

  1. Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-eda)
  2. Support the Girls (Andrew Bujalski)
  3. Leave No Trace (Debra Granik)
  4. Roma (Alfonso Cuaron)
  5. Minding the Gap (Bing Liu)
  6. If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins)
  7. First Reformed (Paul Schrader)
  8. The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos)
  9. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller)
  10. Let the Sunshine In (Claire Denis)
  11. Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley)
  12. Paddington 2 (Paul King)
  13. BlacKKKlansman (Spike Lee)
  14. Eighth Grade (Bo Burnham)
  15. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rotham)
  16. Wildlife (Paul Dano)
  17. Black Panther (Ryan Coogler)
  18. A Star is Born (Bradley Cooper)
  19. Mission Impossible: Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie)
  20. Game Night (John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein)

TELEVISION

Per usual, this isn’t a list of favorites but a list of everything from 2018 I ended up watching in full. Only the first two are things I would tout without reservation. (I liked season one of Atlanta a little more, but the show remains wondrous.) I have no idea why I actually watched all of Westworld. I won’t make that mistake again.

  1. Atlanta
  2. The Americans
  3. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
  4. Better Call Saul
  5. The Deuce
  6. Ugly Delicious
  7. Sharp Objects
  8. Westworld
Revisited

1977 Revisited

The Ramones’ debut album and the Sex Pistols’ debut single both poked through in 1976, but 1977 is the real year when punk broke, with the Clash and Sex Pistols in the Top 5 of both my albums and singles lists, the Ramones doubling up in both Top 10s, Poly Styrene making sure “lit’ul gurls” are heard, and Television, Talking Heads, and Richard Hell arting up the New York scene.

Oddly, the top two 1977 singles for me were both first recorded in 1972, but became singles in 1977. There are (at least) three versions of “Roadrunner” and I love them all, but “Twice,” the B side of the 1977 single, is the best, I think. It’s the 1972 Modern Lovers version, the one that leads off their eponymous album. (“Once” is a 1975 version re-recorded by Jonathan Richman with a different backing band. “Thrice” is a live version.)

“Love and Happiness” was on Al Green’s 1972 album I’m Still in Love With You but not released as a single at the time. It appeared in 1977 because Green’s then-contemporary music was (deemed) less commercial.

They are both Statement of Principles records. If we ever decided to come up with a new national anthem, I would make a case for either of them.

I didn’t do a movies list for 1977. My viewing is too spotty or too distant to feel like it was worth it.

1977 grid 2

ALBUMS

  1. The Clash – The Clash: The 1979 American version, which switches out a few lesser cuts for a few mammoth singles, is better song for song but packs less gestalt, is less of a fierce moment in time. This version is as urgent and of the moment an album as there is, and hasn’t lost any of its power.  Best 1977 lyric of 2018: “And if I close my eyes/They will not go away/You have to deal with it/It is the currency.”
  2. Marquee Moon – Television: Dual guitar jams as pure poetry.  
  3. Rumours – Fleetwood Mac: Commercial juggernaut remains knotty pop masterpiece.
  4. Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols – Sex Pistols: It feels weird to even place this on a list — one spot lower than Rumours! — since it feels apart from the rest even as it was the record that defined the year. It doesn’t cohere front-to-back the way The Clash, its obvious companion piece, does, but I find that it retains its disquieting power. It was a different time, a different place, but its sense of utter revulsion feels pretty right now.  
  5. Rocket to Russia – The Ramones: All of the first four albums in three years are of a piece, but this third one pokes its head up a little higher. Opens on an impossible double high with “Cretin Hop” and “Rockaway Beach” and then settles in without settling down. Still to come: Their best single (“Sheena is a Punk Rocker”) and best cover (“Surfin’ Bird”). New York circa ’77 bona fides: Both self-penned singles mention disco.
  6. The Belle Album – Al Green: His self-produced first album without Willie Mitchell is an anomaly in Green’s catalog, with his own acoustic guitar prominent in the mix, lending it a pastoral feel unique in his work. On the blessed, brilliantly layered title track he personifies the secular muse as he pushes her away.
  7. Two Sevens Clash – Culture: Apocalyptic Rastafarian gospel. The best non-Marley/non-Toots studio reggae album? Just the best studio reggae album?
  8. My Aim is True – Elvis Costello: His debut was his best batch of songs, to be followed right after by his best record.
  9. Dancer with Bruised Knees – Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Not folk … parlor music, and sometimes too close to musical theater for me, even if it’s the kind of impromptu thing you’d (ok, not me) work up after Thanksgiving dinner with and for the family. And then sometimes it strikes as just deeply charming. Always charming: “Walking Song.” Always inspirational, from “Hommage A Grungie”: “I want to get a little drunk/Fatten up my head/Find a good book/And take that book to bed.”
  10. Leave Home — The Ramones: Second verse, (mostly) same as the first.
  11. Hard Again – Muddy Waters: Not quite the last great blues album, but maybe both the first and last great studio blues album by a pre-rock blues great.
  12. Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome – Parliament
  13. Street Survivors – Lynyrd Skynyrd
  14. Dancing in Your Head – Ornette Coleman
  15. Rough Mix – Pete Townshend & Ronnie Lane
  16. Talking Heads 77 – Talking Heads
  17. Wanna Meet the Scruffs? – The Scruffs
  18. Joe Ely – Joe Ely
  19. Exodus – Bob Marley & the Wailers
  20. To Lefty from Willie – Willie Nelson
  21. The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl — The Beatles
  22. Blank Generation – Richard Hell & the Voidoids
  23. Sweet Forgiveness – Bonnie Raitt
  24. American Stars n Bars – Neil Young
  25. Lust for Life – Iggy Pop

Singles

  1. “Roadrunner (Twice)” – The Modern Lovers
  2. “Love and Happiness” – Al Green
  3. “Complete Control” – The Clash
  4. “God Save the Queen’ – The Sex Pistols
  5. “Belle” — Al Green
  6. “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” – The Ramones
  7. “Rockaway Beach” – The Ramones
  8. “Go Your Own Way” — Fleetwood Mac
  9. “Oh Bondage Up Yours/I Am a Cliche” – X-Ray Spex
  10. “Heroes” – David Bowie
  11. “Alison” — Elvis Costello
  12. “Holidays in the Sun” — The Sex Pistols
  13. “Police and Thieves” – Junior Murvin
  14. “Best of My Love” – The Emotions
  15. “White Riot” – The Clash
  16. “Love → Building on Fire” — Talking Heads
  17. “Sir Duke” – Stevie Wonder
  18. “Marquee Moon” – Television
  19. “If You’re Not Back in Love By Monday” — Millie Jackson
  20. “Uptown Top Ranking” – Althea and Donna
  21. “Stayin’ Alive” — The Bee Gees
  22. “You Make Loving Fun” — Fleetwood Mac
  23. “Psycho Killer” – Talking Heads
  24. “Disco Inferno” — The Trammps
  25. “Lust for Life” – Iggy Pop
  26. “Waiting in Vain” — Bob Marley & the Wailers
  27. “Blank Generation” – Richard Hell & the Voidoids
  28. “Don’t Stop” — Fleetwood Mac
  29. “The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes” – Elvis Costello
  30. “Whispering/Cherchez La Femme” – Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band
  31. “What’s Your Name” – Lynyrd Skynyrd
  32. “Less Than Zero” — Elvis Costello
  33. “Way Down” — Elvis Presley
  34. “Got to Give It Up” — Marvin Gaye
  35. “Rip Her to Shreds” — Blondie
  36. “I Feel Love” – Donna Summer
  37. “Peg” — Steely Dan
  38. “Margaritaville” — Jimmy Buffett
  39. “Take This Job and Shove It” – Johnny Paycheck
  40. “Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll” – Ian Dury & the Blockheads
Revisited

1986 Revisited

1986 was a year when most of the best alt/indie bands of the era were before (Sonic Youth), after (Husker Du) or in-between (R.E.M) career peaks, or just taking the year off (Replacements, Talking Heads). Springsteen and Prince were coming down from commercial blockbusters and gearing up for less-heralded artistic triumphs just around the corner, and both were so massive they found their way high onto this list anyway. Hip-hop was just emerging as an album form, with a couple of seminal LPs but not much else. This opens the door for some sui generis contenders, including the greatest single-record, multi-artist compilation in the history of recorded sound and the Last Great Blues Album.

The singles list here is probably one of the weirder ones I’ll have on any of these lists, and I love it. Prince and Cameo’s all-time R&B jams are as indestructible as the album chart-topper. But Junkyard Band? Ciccone Youth? Alex Chilton ranting about his sex life? Gwen Guthrie sort of doing the same? A Brit folkie evoking Holland-Dozier-Holland hits? 1986 more than carries its weight in the effort to keep the Eighties weird. The lists … 

1986 grid

ALBUMS

  1. The Indestructible Beat of Soweto – Various Artists: The album that opened the floodgates for South African pop in the U.S. and quite possibly the finest one-disc music-scene overview ever compiled. A snapshot of mbaqanga from 1981 to 1984, the record is heavy on the sources of the “indestructible beat” –Mahlathini, the Mahotella Queens, and the Makgona Tsohle Band. On the opening track, Udokotela Shange Namajaha’s “Awungilobolele,” a clashing string intro materializes into a circular trance, greeted by groaning male lead vocals, then female backup (moaning “OHH! OHH!” repeatedly). As the groove winds tighter and tighter, the sounds of roosters and chickens issue a wake-up call. From that point on, the avalanche of nimble, pastoral guitar figures, sixth-sense call-and-response vocals, soaring, obsessive fiddles, (seemingly) spontaneous vocal interjections, and body-rattling rhythms coheres into a sound joyous and intense.
  2. Licensed to Ill – Beastie Boys: The rap-rock production still sounds as novel and fun as it did on first contact, despite giving rise to some truly dire inheritors. The line-trading vocal interplay that was already verging on old-school now sounds like an art lost with them. They are very smart about how very dumb they are. Village Voice headline from the time: “Three Jerks Make a Masterpiece.” Rick Rubin made four, but otherwise … yep.
  3. Graceland – Paul Simon: Graceland’s cross-cultural strategy was controversial then and I imagine would be no less so in these woke-r times, but one of the reasons it’s one of the prettiest records of any era is that it doesn’t just draw from South African pop; it essentially is South African pop, Ray Phiri’s guitar, Baghiti Kumalo’s bass, and Isaac Mtshali’s drums driving rhythm tracks recorded before Simon appended lyrics. Graceland‘s global — deceptively, almost uncomfortably “universal” — sweep is part musical, the union of American and African opening up at the end to include simpatico accordion-driven sounds both zydeco (“That Was Your Mother”) and Latin (the Los Lobos-driven “All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints”), but it’s also conceptual, which is why this particular music-first-template so enlivens maybe the sharpest group of lyrics in a mostly words-first career. The opening “The Boy in the Bubble” is a bundle of globe-trotting, visionary imagery that hasn’t aged much in the three-decades-plus since its initial release: terrorist attacks, turnaround jump shots, medical advances, “staccato signals of constant information/a loose affiliation of millionaires/and billionaires.” Also, right, the title track is one of the loveliest of Memphis songs.
  4. Strong Persuader – Robert Cray: The last commercially and critically triumphant true blues album doesn’t sound much like what most people think of when they think about blues, lacking Chicago bar-band stomp or hill-country drone or any kind of particular rural and/or Southern feel. Instead, it’s rooted in a distinctly middle-class sophistication. The superb songwriting is marked by authorial distance, untrustworthy narrators, and unintentional revelation. Cray’s nimble guitar work is locked into the songcraft rather than leaping out from it. B.B. King and Randy Newman had a baby and they named it Strong Persuader. Every time I pull it out — more than a decade ago for this appreciation or on a road trip this summer — I’m struck by how distinctly and warmly I remember every song and by how fresh it still sounds.
  5. Candy Apple Grey – Husker Du: With the following finale, Warehouse: Songs and Stories, sounding comparatively dutiful, I consider this to be the band’s spiritual farewell, and a fitting one: A depressive opus that becomes an up through sheer commitment and care.
  6. Parade – Prince: Despite the Beatles influence and soundtrack trappings, his most musically mature album to date. A partial artistic breakthrough that proved a warm-up for the fully realized masterpiece that would come next.
  7. The Queen is Dead – The Smiths: Kitsch classic.
  8. Raising Hell – Run-DMC: A good record of great importance, but a little more singles-and-filler than I’d remembered. Still think their debut was their best.
  9. London 0, Hull 4 — Housemartins: The peppiest imaginable soundtrack to Marxist revolution.
  10. Edge of the World – Mekons
  11. Live/1975-1985 — Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
  12. Blood and Chocolate – Elvis Costello & the Attractions
  13. Camper Van Beethoven – Camper Van Beethoven
  14. The 12” Collection — The Gap Band
  15. Dirty Work – The Rolling Stones
  16. Life’s Rich Pageant – R.E.M.
  17. Guitar Town – Steve Earle
  18. Storms of Life – Randy Travis
  19. The Good Earth – The Feelies
  20. Brotherhood – New Order
  21. Greatest Hits — Z.Z. Hill
  22. King of America – The Costello Show
  23. Control – Janet Jackson
  24. Psychocandy — The Jesus and Mary Chain
  25. Compilation – The Clean

SINGLES

  1. “Kiss” – Prince
  2. “Word Up” – Cameo
  3. “Hold it Now, Hit It” — Beastie Boys
  4. “Ain’t Nothin’ Goin On But the Rent” – Gwen Guthrie
  5. “Walk This Way” – Run-DMC
  6. “No Sex” – Alex Chilton
  7. “Eric B is President/My Melody” – Eric B & Rakim
  8. “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” – Billy Bragg
  9. “Into the Groovey” – Ciccone Youth
  10. “The Word” – Junkyard Band
  11. “Girls & Boys” – Prince
  12. “Nasty” – Janet Jackson
  13. “6 in the Mornin’” – Ice T
  14. “Fall on Me” — R.E.M.
  15. “Fight for Your Right (To Party)” – Beastie Boys
  16. “The Bridge” – MC Shan
  17. “Wild Wild Life”- Talking Heads
  18. “West End Girls” — Pet Shop Boys
  19. “Shake You Down” – Gregory Abbott
  20. “Bizarre Love Triangle” – New Order
  21. “Guitar Town” — Steve Earle
  22. “Open Your Heart” — Madonna
  23. “The Boy in the Bubble” — Paul Simon
  24. “Ask” — The Smiths
  25. “Diggin’ Up Bones” — Randy Travis
  26. “The New Style” – Beastie Boys
  27. “Go Stetsa 1” — Stetsasonic
  28. “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” — John Mellencamp
  29. “War” — Bruce Springsteen
  30. “The Manipulator” – Mixmaster Gee and the Turntable Orchestra
  31. “Walk Like an Egyptian” – The Bangles
  32. “When I Think of You” – Janet Jackson
  33. “Rise” – Public Image Ltd.
  34. “The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades” – Timbuk 3
  35. “Sledgehammer” – Peter Gabriel
  36. “Rumors” – Timex Social Club
  37. “Opportunities” – Pet Shop Boys
  38. “My Adidas” — Run-D.M.C.
  39. “Ego Trippin’” — Ultramagnetic MCs
  40. “South Bronx” – Boogie Down Productions

MOVIES

The movies caveat for every year of this project: I’ve re-listened to every song and every album on these lists. The movie lists are from memory and contain elements of personal guesswork as a result. Do She’s Gotta Have It and Down By Law hold up enough for these placements? Should they be higher? As an ahead-of-the-curve Woody Allen hater, am I right that Hannah and Her Sisters was his last major film before his work began to curdle in accordance with his grotesque private life (with the following Husbands & Wives working because that curdling was its very subject), or would I downgrade it on reappraisal? The top four are the top four because I’m pretty certain they hold up.

  1. Something Wild (Jonathan Demme)
  2. Blue Velvet (David Lynch)
  3. Manhunter (Michael Mann)
  4. Aliens (James Cameron)
  5. Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen)
  6. She’s Gotta Have It (Spike Lee)
  7. Ruthless People (Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker)
  8. Down By Law (Jim Jarmusch)
  9. Sid and Nancy (Alex Cox)
  10. The Color of Money (Martin Scorsese)
Uncategorized

Grizzlies Free Agency Wrap-Up: Kyle Anderson, Omri Casspi signings

Note: This will probably be the next-to-last Grizzlies post on this personal blog that was never intended for that purpose. My official writing home will be announced soon, with a launch before Grizzlies training camp opens for next season. I’ll return here for some Summer League notes at the conclusion of play in Vegas, then this space can return to music/film lists and republished old stuff for which it was meant.

Grizzlies free agency came to a presumed and somewhat surprising end last night when the San Antonio Spurs declined to match the Grizzlies’ four-year, $37 million offer to restricted free agent forward Kyle Anderson. Anderson joins earlier one-year veteran’s minimum signing Omri Casspi as the Grizzlies add a couple of 6’9” small forwards for next season. Some thoughts:

What This the Plan All Along?: It might have been. The Grizzlies were mostly quiet on the first day of free agency, finally entering the fray with a ripple rather than a splash in the form of the Casspi signing. My understanding at the time of the Casspi signing was that the Grizzlies free agency Plan A was still in place despite all of the signings of the day. Given the team’s read of the market (Will Barton was the first name off the board, and for far more than the Grizzlies could offer), I think Anderson was likely their top realistic target from the beginning.  

Doubling Down on Long-Term, on Defense, on Hoops IQ: Setting aside the specifics of Anderson’s game and contract for a brief moment, I’m a fan of what the signing represents. One of my biggest concerns about this off-season was that the team’s public talk of playoff contention would force them into instant-impact actions to try to back it up. That was not the case in the draft, where the Grizzlies took the youngest but (in their mind, and mine) most talented prospect on the board rather than trading down for more established immediate help. And in free agency, the Grizzlies put an emphasis on adding another young piece on a long-term deal, locking up a 24-year-old at a position of scarcity rather than signing a more veteran player to a shorter deal.

Jackson and Anderson can hopefully both help the Grizzlies this season, but more than that these acquisitions were about building a new core for the next iteration of the franchise.

Similarly, the Anderson signing (and to a lesser degree, the Casspi one) builds on the draft by suggesting a renewed organizational commitment to defense and basketball IQ. In recent years, draft/free agency decisions that have tapped “tools” over craft/feel — Wade Baldwin, Ben McLemore, Deyonta Davis so far — have not worked out. They went the other way with Dillon Brooks, to great reward so far, and seem to have taken a lesson from that. 

Introducing Slo-Mo: Anderson comes to Memphis pre-equipped with a nickname, and one of  the league’s best: Slo-Mo.

Anderson is an eye of the beholder player. On the floor, he’s a lumberer, but a long one (6’9”, 7’3” wingspan), with good vision and sure hands. On the stat sheet, the box score line looks meager (8 points, 5 boards, 3 assists per game last year, all career highs) but the advanced metrics pop.

Anderson isn’t much of a scorer and maybe even less of a shooter (career 34 percent from three on fewer than one attempt per game). He’s a crafty finisher at the rim when he can get there and plays within his considerable limits, so he’s efficient with the shots he does take.

But if Anderson isn’t much of a scorer, he’s pretty good at just about everything else. He’s a good ball-handler and passer who can play as kind of a point-forward. He’s an above-average rebounder at his position and likely to be the best perimeter rebounder on the Grizzlies roster next season.

Defensively, Anderson uses his length and smarts to mitigate his lack of foot speed, and the results in San Antonio have been excellent. ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus stat rated Anderson as the second-best defensive small forward in the NBA last season, behind Philadelphia’s Robert Covington and ahead of Golden State’s Andre Iguodala. By that measure, he was the second-best defender on the league’s fourth-best defensive team. Anderson also had one of the highest steal rates in the NBA among players who got significant time.

That was all in San Antonio, a team that won 47 games last year despite only getting 9 from its best player. We all saw how the Grizzlies fell apart after only getting 12 games from Mike Conley.

Can Anderson’s peculiar stuff translate into a different team context? The Grizzlies are betting not only that it can, but that he can improve. That his ability to impact winning in a variety of subtle ways is more profound than his lack of scoring or athletic pop. We can revisit those prospects more fully in the fall.

Was it Worth It?: My quick take on Anderson in my free agency preview was that as a restricted free agent I doubted he’d be worth a contract big enough for the Spurs not to match. That would be my fear for the Grizzlies here, that Anderson struggles more outside of the Spurs environment and that the team that knows him best is correct in their cost/benefit calculation.

That said, Anderson started 67 games for a 47-win Spurs team last season. If he’s a starter — or even a meaningful sixth or seventh man — for the Grizzlies over the length of the contract, it’ll be fine. The 5 percent increases in Anderson’s deal are likely to be equaled or bested by increases in the league’s salary cap, so he’ll remain a mid-level salary on the books and one that will cover the age 25-28 seasons of a player who brings varied skills to an increasingly premium NBA position.

Grizzlies executive John Hollinger noted before free agency began that beyond skill set or position, what the Grizzlies most needed to get out of free agency were good contracts, i.e. good values. Did they do that? The wishy-washy answer is maybe. Anderson’s range of outcomes relative to his contract is probably fairly narrow, with this deal unlikely to look like either a bargain or a bust.

Opportunity Costs: One surprise of the Anderson signing was that the Grizzlies deployed all of their non-taxpayer mid-level exception, leaving no free-agent exception money left to offer second-round pick Jevon Carter the kind of deal given to Dillon Brooks, Ivan Rabb, and Deyonta Davis: More than the minimum, with a third year team option. Instead, Carter is almost certain to get only a two-year deal at the minimum salary, a surprise for the second pick of the second round and one that would leave the Grizzlies vulnerable if Carter becomes a significant contributor in short order.

Presumably the Grizzlies thought they needed the full MLE to ward off San Antonio (probably right) and are probably making the calculation that Carter’s ceiling is limited enough to be worth forgoing the extra year. I think this is probably correct too, which is why Carter would not have been my pick at #32.

What could the Grizzlies have done if they hadn’t signed Anderson? In retrospect, they weren’t going to get any of the shinier unrestricted free agent wings on the market, whether they were interested in them or (in the case of Tyreke Evans) not. Marcus Smart would never have signed an offer sheet at the mid-level. Perhaps Rodney Hood would be the next name on the restricted list, but I suspect the Grizzlies aren’t as high on him as many fans. (Hood is a near opposite of Anderson). More likely, the Grizzlies could have offered a shorter-term deal to a remaining veteran (Wayne Ellington) or a less lucrative long-term deal to another young wing (David Nwaba? Treveon Graham?).  

Casspi, Briefly Considered: I first saw Omri Casspi at the Nike Hoop Summit in Memphis, where he was my favorite player on the floor. I’ve suggested him as a potential Grizzly on and off over the years. This is probably a few years late, but for the veteran’s minimum, I think it’s a good signing. If healthy — and he wasn’t late last spring in Golden State, which cost him his roster spot in the playoffs — Casspi is a good guy to have on the end of your bench. He can play two positions (three and four), can play off the ball effectively as both a shooter and cutter, and isn’t a sieve defensively. He won’t be in the rotation every night, but adds insurance and a needed veteran presence. It’s fine.

How the Pieces Fit: This is for J.B. Bickerstaff to figure out, but given the extent of the commitment and make-up of the roster, Anderson is probably the favorite to start at small forward. I think the Grizzlies have considered Dillon Brooks’ ultimate position to be more at scoring guard than small forward, and adding Anderson and Casspi probably shifts him there. He’s likely the favorite to start there. Which leaves a prospective depth chart of:

  • Point guard: Mike Coney-Andrew Harrison-Jevon Carter
  • Scoring guard: Dillon Brooks-MarShon Brooks-Wayne Selden-Ben McLemore-Kobi Simmons (two-way)
  • Small forward: Kyle Anderson-Chandler Parsons-Omri Casspi-Myke Henry (two-way for now)
  • Power forward: JaMychal Green-Jaren Jackson Jr.-Jarell Martin
  • Center: Marc Gasol-Deyonta Davis-Ivan Rabb

At every spot, 1-4, there are players who can easily shift up positionally, with Anderson, Parsons, and Casspi all well-suited to playing the four in smaller lineups. If Brooks starts are two, the competition for playing time between MarShon Brooks and Selden looms as an interesting camp story.

At 16 full roster players when you can only carry 15 into the season, something has to give. By my count, the Grizzlies are less than $2 million from the tax line. Wayne Selden and Andrew Harrison have non-guaranteed contracts and could be cut with some cap savings, but that’s not going to happen. Instead, there are three players on thin ice: Ben McLemore, Jarell Martin, and Deyonta Davis. The latter has had a bad Summer League so far, but I think the Grizzlies are going to be reluctant to cut bait this early, especially since they’d prefer to ease Jaren Jackson into center minutes. Davis could be off the team or could be in the opening night rotation. I don’t see much of a path to meaningful playing time for McLemore.

It’s still possible the Grizzlies find a way to sort things out on the trade market, but they’d be better off cutting a McLemore or Martin than sending additional assets to get a team to take them.