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.
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 Annies’ Interstate 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:
Interstate Gospel — Pistol Annies (15)
Snares Like a Haircut — No Age (13)
Room 25 — Noname (13)
Invasion of Privacy — Cardi B (13)
Wide Awaaaaake! — Parquet Courts (13)
Daytona — Pusha T (7)
Golden Hour — Kacey Musgraves (7)
What a Time to Be Alive – Superchunk (7)
Rifles and Rosary Beads — Mary Gauthier (7)
Dirty Computer — Janelle Monae (5)
1992 Deluxe — Princess Nokia (2017)
Historian — Lucy Dacus/Boygenius EP — Boygenius
Last Man Alive — Willie Nelson
Things Have Changed — Bettye Lavette
Black Panther — Kendrick Lamar/Various Artists
The Tree of Forgiveness — John Prine
Undesirable — Becky Warren
Tell Me How You Really Feel — Courtney Barnett
Wild! Wild! Wild! — Robbie Fulks and Linda Gail Lewis
Laila’s Wisdom — Rapsody (2017)
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:
Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-eda)
Support the Girls (Andrew Bujalski)
Leave No Trace (Debra Granik)
Roma (Alfonso Cuaron)
Minding the Gap (Bing Liu)
If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins)
First Reformed (Paul Schrader)
The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos)
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller)
Let the Sunshine In (Claire Denis)
Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley)
Paddington 2 (Paul King)
BlacKKKlansman (Spike Lee)
Eighth Grade (Bo Burnham)
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rotham)
Game Night (John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein)
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.
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.
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.”
Marquee Moon – Television: Dual guitar jams as pure poetry.
Rumours – Fleetwood Mac: Commercial juggernaut remains knotty pop masterpiece.
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.
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.
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.
Two Sevens Clash – Culture: Apocalyptic Rastafarian gospel. The best non-Marley/non-Toots studio reggae album? Just the best studio reggae album?
My Aim is True – Elvis Costello: His debut was his best batch of songs, to be followed right after by his best record.
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.”
Leave Home — The Ramones: Second verse, (mostly) same as the first.
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.
Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome – Parliament
Street Survivors – Lynyrd Skynyrd
Dancing in Your Head – Ornette Coleman
Rough Mix – Pete Townshend & Ronnie Lane
Talking Heads 77 – Talking Heads
Wanna Meet the Scruffs? – The Scruffs
Joe Ely – Joe Ely
Exodus – Bob Marley & the Wailers
To Lefty from Willie – Willie Nelson
The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl — The Beatles
Blank Generation – Richard Hell & the Voidoids
Sweet Forgiveness – Bonnie Raitt
American Stars n Bars – Neil Young
Lust for Life – Iggy Pop
“Roadrunner (Twice)” – The Modern Lovers
“Love and Happiness” – Al Green
“Complete Control” – The Clash
“God Save the Queen’ – The Sex Pistols
“Belle” — Al Green
“Sheena is a Punk Rocker” – The Ramones
“Rockaway Beach” – The Ramones
“Go Your Own Way” — Fleetwood Mac
“Oh Bondage Up Yours/I Am a Cliche” – X-Ray Spex
“Heroes” – David Bowie
“Alison” — Elvis Costello
“Holidays in the Sun” — The Sex Pistols
“Police and Thieves” – Junior Murvin
“Best of My Love” – The Emotions
“White Riot” – The Clash
“Love → Building on Fire” — Talking Heads
“Sir Duke” – Stevie Wonder
“Marquee Moon” – Television
“If You’re Not Back in Love By Monday” — Millie Jackson
“Uptown Top Ranking” – Althea and Donna
“Stayin’ Alive” — The Bee Gees
“You Make Loving Fun” — Fleetwood Mac
“Psycho Killer” – Talking Heads
“Disco Inferno” — The Trammps
“Lust for Life” – Iggy Pop
“Waiting in Vain” — Bob Marley & the Wailers
“Blank Generation” – Richard Hell & the Voidoids
“Don’t Stop” — Fleetwood Mac
“The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes” – Elvis Costello
“Whispering/Cherchez La Femme” – Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band
“What’s Your Name” – Lynyrd Skynyrd
“Less Than Zero” — Elvis Costello
“Way Down” — Elvis Presley
“Got to Give It Up” — Marvin Gaye
“Rip Her to Shreds” — Blondie
“I Feel Love” – Donna Summer
“Peg” — Steely Dan
“Margaritaville” — Jimmy Buffett
“Take This Job and Shove It” – Johnny Paycheck
“Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll” – Ian Dury & the Blockheads
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 …
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Queen is Dead – The Smiths: Kitsch classic.
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.
London 0, Hull 4 — Housemartins: The peppiest imaginable soundtrack to Marxist revolution.
Edge of the World – Mekons
Live/1975-1985 — Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
Blood and Chocolate – Elvis Costello & the Attractions
Camper Van Beethoven – Camper Van Beethoven
The 12” Collection — The Gap Band
Dirty Work – The Rolling Stones
Life’s Rich Pageant – R.E.M.
Guitar Town – Steve Earle
Storms of Life – Randy Travis
The Good Earth – The Feelies
Brotherhood – New Order
Greatest Hits — Z.Z. Hill
King of America – The Costello Show
Control – Janet Jackson
Psychocandy — The Jesus and Mary Chain
Compilation – The Clean
“Kiss” – Prince
“Word Up” – Cameo
“Hold it Now, Hit It” — Beastie Boys
“Ain’t Nothin’ Goin On But the Rent” – Gwen Guthrie
“Walk This Way” – Run-DMC
“No Sex” – Alex Chilton
“Eric B is President/My Melody” – Eric B & Rakim
“Levi Stubbs’ Tears” – Billy Bragg
“Into the Groovey” – Ciccone Youth
“The Word” – Junkyard Band
“Girls & Boys” – Prince
“Nasty” – Janet Jackson
“6 in the Mornin’” – Ice T
“Fall on Me” — R.E.M.
“Fight for Your Right (To Party)” – Beastie Boys
“The Bridge” – MC Shan
“Wild Wild Life”- Talking Heads
“West End Girls” — Pet Shop Boys
“Shake You Down” – Gregory Abbott
“Bizarre Love Triangle” – New Order
“Guitar Town” — Steve Earle
“Open Your Heart” — Madonna
“The Boy in the Bubble” — Paul Simon
“Ask” — The Smiths
“Diggin’ Up Bones” — Randy Travis
“The New Style” – Beastie Boys
“Go Stetsa 1” — Stetsasonic
“R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” — John Mellencamp
“War” — Bruce Springsteen
“The Manipulator” – Mixmaster Gee and the Turntable Orchestra
“Walk Like an Egyptian” – The Bangles
“When I Think of You” – Janet Jackson
“Rise” – Public Image Ltd.
“The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades” – Timbuk 3
“Sledgehammer” – Peter Gabriel
“Rumors” – Timex Social Club
“Opportunities” – Pet Shop Boys
“My Adidas” — Run-D.M.C.
“Ego Trippin’” — Ultramagnetic MCs
“South Bronx” – Boogie Down Productions
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.