You know those musical artists and bands that are supposed to be super influential but you only know like one or two of their hits? Or the bands that your hipster friend raves about, but every time you hear them on the radio you change the station because all you hear is noise?
I’ve been told I know a ton about music, and yeah I probably do know way more than the average person. But, there are still plenty of artists about which I am ignorant. This year I decided to randomly select one of those artists each month and do a deep dive, reading about them and listening to their songs and albums to get a better sense of who they are and what they are about. And more importantly, to see if I have been missing out on some awesome music.
For January 2020 I chose to do a deep dive on The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed. Both the band, and Lou Reed, are Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees. The Velvet Underground is regarded as one of the most influential bands in rock history. Rolling Stone ranked them as the 19th greatest artist of all time, and Lou Reed is rock royalty. But I didn’t know shit about them beyond a few hit tracks.
The Velvet Underground was active for a short period in the late 1960s and early 70s. The original lineup most notably consisted of vocalist Reed, guitarist Sterling Morrison, and John Cale on bass, keyboards, viola, and anything else he could get his hands on. Maureen Tucker was the primary drummer on all of their albums. The lineup changed a bit over the years.
The Velvets were tremendously influenced by artist Andy Warhol, who was even their manager for a while. They were part of Warhol’s “Factory” community with other artists and performers and they will always be associated with pop art and the New York counterculture scene.
I found the Velvets sound to be hard to listen to. Reed’s harsh voice over acerbic guitar riffs full of feedback, most notably on the faster, louder songs, left me reaching for noise-cancelling headphones. The slower, softer songs were much better in my opinion. That said, I understand how their sound could have been seen as revolutionary in the 1960s when compared to the melodic sound of the Beatles and the rhythm and blues influence of the Rolling Stones. The Velvet Underground sounded nothing like the popular bands of the day and without question they had an influence on the punk and alt rocks bands to come.
I came away from this experiment with an appreciation for what The Velvet Underground accomplished, but still only like their more accessible hits like Rock & Roll and Sweet Jane.
Given that I liked the slower, more accessible Velvets songs it should come as no surprise that I really liked Lou Reed’s solo work. I can’t say I’ve always been a Lou Reed fan, but I definitely enjoyed his well known songs like Dirty Blvd., Walk on the Wild Side, New Sensations, and I Love You, Suzanne. But listening to deeper tracks cemented my fandom. I can definitely see Lou Reed becoming part of my regular rotation, especially when I’m feeling in the mood for something a little on the dark side.
Perhaps no other artist wrote more eloquently about the struggles of people living on the fringes of society, likely because he truly lived among them. His demons have been well chronicled over the years, and decades of drug and alcohol use led to his death from liver disease in 2013 at the age of 71. Over the years he suffered from diabetes, hepatitis, and eventually cancer.
As the decade comes to a close and I reflect on the music that served as the soundtrack to the last 10 years of my life, I’m struck by the fact that so much of the music I enjoyed over the past decade are from bands that made their mark mostly in the 21st century. Of course, I still listen to artists from the 20th century and once in a while one of these artists made their way into my rotation with a newer offering, but for the most part the list of favorites from below are from “newer” artists.
I blogged about the common refrain I hear from people my age that “there’s no good music anymore” last summer and offered up a tribute to many of the modern acts that I love — most of which are not surprisingly reflected in the list below. What I can say in all honesty is that the artists that made my favorite list for the past decade are now among my favorite artists, artists that in every way bring me musical joy as much or in some cases even more than the artists I grew up with. I still love listening to the music of my younger years — and do so all the time — but more often than not I queue up the artists below these days.
First, a few honorable mentions from the decade that spanned 2010 to 2019:
More Than Just a Dream — Fitz and the Tantrums (2013). Lots of folks like the debut record earlier, but their sophomore album really got me moving.
The King is Dead by The Decemberists (2011). Colin Meloy’s vocals plus REM’s Peter Buck on guitar — who could ask for anything more.
AM — Arctic Monkeys (2013). Do I Wanna Know? was my ringtone for half the decade.
Codes & Keys — Death Cab For Cutie (2011). A solid record from one of my favorite bands.
My Head is an Animal — Of Monsters and Men (2012). Breakout debut from Icelandic alt rockers.
Hozier — Hozier (2014). The best debut of the decade.
Momentum — Jamie Cullum (2013). He really should be much more popular in the U.S., but this Brit can really sing and play piano.
And in order, my favorite albums of the decade:
10. Masseduction – St. Vincent (2017). I’ve always liked Annie Clark, but this album set me on fire for a few months in 2017. It was alternative, soul, and electronic all rolled into one and I couldn’t get enough of it. She made the rounds on the late night shows and combined these incredible songs with a little performance art and I fell in love. Here she is performing my favorite song from the album, Los Ageless, on the Ellen Show.
9. High Violet — The National (2010). Boxer was one of my favorite albums of the first decade of the century, so it was a happy surprise that their follow up was so good. High Violet was a huge international hit right off the bat, and Bloodbuzz Ohio really helped the band blow up. It’s still one of my favorite songs by The National, a band I rate as among the best of the entire century. Still not sure what the hell Bloodbuzz Ohio is about but Matt could sing nursery rhymes and I’d listen and weep.
8. Bankrupt! — Phoenix (2013). French pop band Phoenix seems like an odd fit for me, but their sound really makes me happy and there’s a certain 80s feel to their music that reminds me of my youth. Bankrupt! was the follow up to 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix which launched a bunch of alternative hits. But Bankrupt! shows some maturity in their sound as they weren’t afraid to slow things down a bit on a few tracks. Still, I love the upbeat ones like Trying to Be Cool.
7. Reflektor — Arcade Fire (2013). I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this album when it was first released, followed by a very strange 30 minute TV special directed by Spike Jonze and featuring Bono, Michael Cera, Ben Stiller and others. But the more I listened the more it impressed me and by the time I saw them live later in the year I was entranced by this artsy album with Haitian influences and lyrics tied to the 1959 film Black Orpheus (which I actually saw in film class in high school in 1984) and Søren Kierkegaard. Take a look at yourself and you’ll see two sides. Meanwhile, enjoy this video montage directed by Roman Coppola featuring three songs from the album.
6. Babel — Mumford and Sons (2012). I loved the Mumfords debut album but this second record hit it out of the park for me. It took the best of their folksy sound from the first record and added some pop and polish and it truly jumps off the charts. Perhaps they wore out their welcome in the mainstream too quickly with their Appalachian sound and hipster waistcoats, but I love them and Babel for me is their best record. Lover of the Light is a prime example of their unique sound.
5. Lonely Avenue — Ben Folds/Nick Hornby (2010). What do you get when you ask award-winning author Nick Hornby to write song lyrics for the first time in his life and then you put those lyrics to the piano-driven goodness that defines Ben Folds? You get Lonely Avenue, complete with songs about Bristol Palin’s white trash boyfriend, handicapped songwriter Doc Pomus, a guy hacking into his girlfriend’s computer, and an obscure American Poet with a catchy name. I love Ben Folds and Nick Hornby is one of my favorite authors. This was always going to be great. As for that obscure poet, here’s a crazy good fan-made video tribute to the song Saskia Hamilton.
4. El Camino by The Black Keys (2011). 2010’s Brothers may have broke the band big, but for my money El Camino is the true gem of the bands work this decade. And what a decade it was by the way, with not just the above two albums but also Turn Blue and Let’s Rock which each scored high on my year-end blog posts. The Keys were at the top of their game when they released El Camino in 2011 with huge hit songs like Lonely Boy and Gold on the Ceiling, but my favorite track — and my favorite Keys song period — is Little Black Submarines which is often compared to a Led Zeppelin song and certainly echoes 70s hard rock and shows off Dan and Patrick’s full range.
3. Broken Bells — Broken Bells (2010). Early in 2010 the unlikely partnership of lead singer James Mercer of The Shins and super-producer Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) gave us the innovative alternative band Broken Bells. The album garnered a Grammy nomination for best alternative album and several songs including The Ghost Inside and The High Road were ubiquitous on alt radio that year. I saw them in concert in 2010 and Mercer was tremendous live and the backing band (including Burton on keyboards) was studio perfect. I never stopped listening to Broken Bells over the decade and count The Mall & Misery as one of my favorite songs of the decade (this video was shot by a fan at a secret live set in a parking garage at SXSW).
2. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World — The Decemberists (2015). I don’t think there’s a better songwriter in modern music than Colin Meloy and this record is all the proof you need. Here Colin laments about how life in America in this decade is a dichotomy of love and hate, beauty and horror. Sandy Hook was on his mind when he wrote the songs, and the album is powerful and lovely. The Decemberists have grown over the past 20 years from folk-forward art music to polished rock music and both the aforementioned The King is Dead from 2011 and this record were perhaps the two best back-to-back offerings of the decade. I loved them both, but What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is simply genius. For a small taste of the highs and lows of this record take a listen to my two favorite tracks, the beautifully melancholy Lake Song to the upbeat, reflective love song that is Make You Better. Damn this is beautiful music.
And my favorite album of the 2010s (and it wasn’t even close):
The Suburbs — Arcade Fire (2010). The music moment of the decade for me took place on Feb. 13, 2011 when Arcade Fire shocked the pop music world by beating out a handful of the world’s biggest artists including Lady Gaga, Eminem, Katy Perry, and Lady Antebellum to win the Grammy for Album of the Year, and then closed the show with a rousing rendition of Ready to Start. I literally jumped out of my seat when the award was announced, and I don’t think I’ve come down since. Award presenter Barbara Streisand was so dumbfounded she barely got the words out. The Suburbs was unquestionably the soundtrack of the decade for me and I am confident no other album in my collection received more airtime over the past 10 years. It never lets me down. It is my go-to record when I can’t decide what to listen to. It is alternative rock majesty from start to finish. It was only the band’s third studio album but it made a statement that they were a force to be reckoned with in alternative rock. The Butler brothers used their Woodlands, Texas suburban upbringing to write songs that fit the mood of suburban life and the music that influenced them (from Depeche Mode to Neil Young according to Win Butler). It has strings and horns and keyboards and guitars and it speaks softly at times and it rocks out at times. It feels like a rock opera, but it’s really just that each song feeds off the next. In a world where songs are king, it is a complete album. The Suburbs was named the top album of the year by a wide range of review sites from BBC6 to Clash magazine to Q magazine, but I’m not suggesting it was the best album of that year or the 2010s. It was simply my favorite album of the decade.
2019 has been a banner year for music for me. For whatever reason a ton of bands I like released new music this year and while it has been a mixed bag for me I can’t remember a recent year when I had so many solid albums to choose from to get to my Top 10.
More than 30 albums caught my attention in 2019 across a wide array of genres. Alternative rock is always going to be my favorite, but this year it’s pretty obvious that modern soul and R&B have leaped to the forefront. I think we’re smack in the middle of a soul revival, one that probably owes its growth to the likes of Amy Winehouse, John Legend, Adele and others who reinvigorated the genre in the early part of the century. So many soul artists have emerged in their wake, from the more classic soul sounds of Leon Bridges, Michael Kiwanuka, and the late Sharon Jones to blue-eyed soul greats like Hozier, St. Paul and the Broken Bones and Nathaniel Rateliff. This year I added two amazing new soul artists to my rotation that you’ll see in the list below.
This year also brought some disappointments from some artists I love. Sometimes it’s hard to live up to my admiration year after year and record after record, and for a few artists this year began with high expectations and left me feeling…meh. Guster, New Pornographers, Fitz and the Tantrums, Jamie Cullum, Two Door Cinema Club, Coldplay, and Of Monsters and Men released so-so records in 2019, and perhaps most disappointing was the new record from Keane, which broke up a few years back and returned this year with the dull Cause and Effect. I liked these records, but none cracked my Top 10 or even garnered honorable mentions.
Speaking of honorable mentions, here are the albums that I liked in 2019 but didn’t quite make the cut for my Top 10. Alice Merton broke through this year with her debut album Mint, which got a lot of attention for her song No Roots but which is a great listen all the way through. Santa Fe band Beirut is an artist I discovered this year and their release Gallipoli is a sweet mix of pop and horns and indie rock. American Love Call from Durand Jones and the Indications was a suggestion from a friend that proved my point about the neo soul resurgence — this is pure soul goodness that would make Sam Cooke proud. And then there was Lux Prima from the unique combination of Karen O (lead vocalist of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and Danger Mouse (super producer Brian Burton who turns everything he touches into gold). Lux Prima defied genre logic — Clash Music described it this way: “whirring, mysterious sounds – reminiscent of sci-fi film scores – are eventually invaded by a chirpy, poignant piano…the worlds of the two creators collide instantly.” This Land from guitar god Gary Clark, Jr. was a sweet mix of Hendrix inspired rock and soul, You’re Stronger Than You Know from James Morrison added to my soul train this year, and then there was Kings and Queens / Knaves and Thieves from The Ocean Blue which proved the 80s still has legs.
Here now, my 10 favorite albums of the year:
10. Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost—Part 1 — Foals. I have to admit I didn’t know much about Oxford, U.K.-based Foals until this year. Then I heard a track on satellite radio and I was interested enough to listen to the whole album. It’s really solid alternative rock, and apparently they have a reputation in the U.K. for great live shows. Check out Exits for a taste.
9. Sound & Fury — Sturgill Simpson. There was no bigger surprise for me this year than this album from country/Americana artist Simpson. I mean, he was the first country artist to make one of my Top 10 lists when A Sailor’s Guide to Earth came out in 2016, but imagine my surprise when he released his next album this year and it was straight up rock and roll. And damn good rock and roll. Dude can shred the guitar. Check out this cut, Sing Along.
8. Kiwanuka — Michael Kiwanuka. Album number three by Michael Kiwanuka did not disappoint. His voice is truly an instrument and his sound is unmistakable. This is a brilliant record that just envelopes you in its soulful softness. It was great to see him blow up a bit by providing Cold Little Heart to the opening segment of HBO’s Big Little Lies. Kick back, relax with a cup of joe or a glass of wine, and let Michael Kiwanuka take you to your happy place. Check out Solid Ground for a sample.
7. I Am Easy To Find — The National. It could be argued that The National is my favorite band of the 21st century, and this year’s release proved once again that this band from Ohio by way of Brooklyn is doing things that other bands simply are not. I Am Easy to Find feels almost like a rock opera and brings new voices to the front to go along with the baritone genius that is Matt Berninger. My favorite track from the record is Rylan, which is arguably my favorite single track of the year. Light Years is also memorable and includes a video starring actress Alicia Vikander. To describe this album as haunting would be fair.
6. Wasteland, Baby! — Hozier. Andrew John Hozier-Byrne broke through the clutter in 2014 with his brilliant debut album that proved soul can come from a white guy from County Wicklow in Ireland. Wasteland, Baby is a memorable sophomore effort that debuted at number one on the Billboard 200. I think he sets himself apart from the slew of neo soul artists breaking out lately because his voice is so powerful and his songwriting is quite memorable. I mean, did you know Take Me to Church is about a same-sex relationship? Anyway, best track off the new record is the first track featuring rock and roll hall of famer Mavis Staples called Nina Cried Powerthat’s a message about protest songs.
5. Father of the Bride — Vampire Weekend. Sometimes I’m not looking for hard hitting rock or smooth soul, but rather pure pop that makes me nod my head along. Ezra and his college boy friends write solid pop music and this album also benefits from the addition of Danielle Haim on several songs. I’ve always been a fan of their songs, but this album is good from top to bottom. And somehow, out of all the great music I listened to this year, this one got a Grammy nomination for best album. I think it’s very good, especially Harmony Hall and This Life.
4. Black Pumas — Black Pumas. I was sitting on the sofa one day a few months ago reading and listening to Music Choice Adult Alternative on the cable TV. I love this station because I often hear new music and on this particular afternoon I was struck by a song I’d never heard before called Black Moon Rising by a band called Black Pumas. I looked them up and found out this was their debut song and the story of their formation was really unique. Two years ago Austin-based guitarist Adrian Quesada was walking along the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica when he heard singer/guitarist Eric Burton busking and was blown away. He told him he was looking for a singer just like him for his new band and not long after Burton moved to Austin and Black Pumas was born. Fast forward to today and Black Pumas have released their self-titled debut album and this month they were nominated for a Grammy for best new artist. It’s a Hollywood story for sure, but truthfully their debut album is so damn good the Grammy nomination is just icing on the cake of what I’m sure is just the start for these guys. Black Pumas is soul and funk with a modern twist and I defy you to listen to their album and not feel compelled to get up and dance. Which is exactly what I did when I saw them a few weeks ago at a tiny club in Phoenix where they set the place on fire. If you listen to only one album on my Top 10 list make it this one.
3. On the Line — Jenny Lewis. The incomparable Jenny Lewis has been a staple on my year-end lists going back to her days with alt-country band Rilo Kiley. Truth be told, I’ve been a fan even longer than that as I remember her fondly from her role in the short-lived but wonderful CBS situation comedy Brooklyn Bridge on which she played teen love interest Katie Monahan. Jenny is a Renaissance woman who infuses country, rock and pop into a sound and look all her own. Her music is smart and funny, and hard to define. She usually gets put in the Americana category or sometimes the alt-country genre but no matter what you call her sound I adore it (and her). I was lucky enough to see her live a few weeks ago at the Van Buren where I was right up front and it was easily one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. On The Line is a fabulous album that any fan of her music will love. If you’re not familiar with her sound and style, check out Rabbit Hole or Wasted Youth from her set on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
2. Let’s Rock — Black Keys. Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach have been together as the Black Keys for close to 20 years now and they have never disappointed me. Several of their records have topped my year-end list over the year and you should not be surprised to find at least one of their records from this decade high up on my soon-to-be-posted best of the decade list. Let’s Rock is classic Keys and it very nearly topped my list this year. It is aptly named as it consists of a dozen hard-rocking tracks. I literally love every song on the album, but here’s a couple I think stand out: Go and Tell Me Lies.
And my favorite album of 2019:
Social Cues — Cage the Elephant. I didn’t think much of Cage until 2015 when they released Tell Me I’m Pretty, an album produced by Dan Auerbach that infused their sound with a little taste of the Black Keys. This year they continued that sound with Social Cues and this is the one album I find myself listening to most this year. I think their updated sound is more mature and somehow both raw and polished at the same time. The band finally seems to be getting the attention it deserves, and while the Grammy selection committee still has no clue where to put them (this album was nominated for Best Rock Album this year when it should have been in the alternative category) it’s nice to see them get a nomination. Take a listen to Ready to Let Go or Night Running (with Beck on vocals) for a taste of this great record.
And they say it’s a tragic story He just wasn’t there one day But he went out in a blaze of glory And you and I, you and I just fade away
Blaze of Glory by Joe Jackson (1989 Sony Records)
It’s hard to witness your heroes fading away. Heroes seem larger than life. Unbreakable. Immortal. But the truth is, they are not immortal — like everyone else they are human and age takes its toll on all of us.
Joe Jackson understood this, as his 1989 song Blaze of Glory articulated. There is a certain mythology that comes with dying young (just ask James Dean or Jimi Hendrix) and old Western films served to ingrain this archetype in the zeitgeist.
I set out on the evening of March 9, 2019 to see my musical hero, who when I think of I still envision as that angry early 80s punk in the pointy shoes. But the truth is, Joe Jackson is 64 years old and from what I could see he isn’t a young 64. Yes, he’s touring the world and making new music at that ripe old age and that’s a hell of a lot more than I could do at 53 let alone 64. But the biggest takeaway I had from the gig was that Joe Jackson is getting old and it’s too late to die young in a blaze of glory. He has already begun to fade away.
This is not to say he didn’t put on a tremendous show at the Orpheum Theater in downtown Phoenix that night. On the contrary, at times he was downright manic, firing off fast pace lyrics and slamming the piano keys on early-career songs like One More Time, Sunday Papers, and especially I’m the Man. But during those same songs he forgot lyrics and repeated the same line more than once instead of singing the correct line. And of course, he stayed seated behind the piano for the entire show, never venturing out to engage the crowd of mostly Baby Boomers and older Gen X fans. Sitting behind the piano is fine for ballads, but you kind of want to see some movement during the fast songs.
You’re probably thinking…Len…give the guy a break…he’s 64. And you’d be right. And I loved the show. But the overwhelming feeling I came away with on this, the fifth time I’ve seen Joe Jackson in concert, was that this may be the last time I see him perform live. And that makes me sad. And nostalgic. And feeling a bit old myself. I didn’t have that feeling when I saw him last just a few years ago in Scottsdale. There was something different about the Joe Jackson I saw on the stage on this night and it was bittersweet.
Joe looked all of his 64 years. A lifetime of smoking his beloved cigarettes have taken a toll on his skin and truthfully he looks like he’s maybe had a little work done. That said, his piano skills are still world class and he can still belt out a song, including some with fast-paced lyrics that require at times a scream and at times a falsetto. You can certainly see his inner punk is fighting hard to stay relevant.
So about the music. Joe delivered on his “Four Decades Tour” a magnificent journey across more than 40 years worth of great music. He deftly sprinkled in songs from his new record, Fool, in between classics from the 80s, 90s, and 00s. The set had something for everyone, and while it’s impossible to fit in everyone’s favorites, he knew which hits the fans would respond to most. The aforementioned early songs were met with cheers and standing ovations. During the encore he brought out his original old drum machine from the early 80s and recreated Steppin’ Out just as it sounded back in 1982.
He picked a handful of favorites from the 90s and 00s like Stranger Than Fiction from the underrated Laughter & Lust record, and Citizen Sane and Wasted Time from the Rain album.
Then there were the tracks from his new record Fool. I have been listening to Fool over and over since its release a few weeks back and it is a real throwback to his earlier days. I mean, 40 years on and he can still write amazing songs that would have been well received had they been on Laughter & Lust (1991), Blaze of Glory (1989), or Big World (1986). It’s a beautifully crafted album with ballads and sarcastic anthems and an edge that has been missing on the past few albums.
He opened the show with the luxurious ballad Alchemy, about turning junk into gold.
Thrill, to secrets never told Taste, the bitter turned to sweet See, the dross turned into gold Hear, a B sharp turned to C
Alchemy by Joe Jackson (earMusic 2019)
It set a soft mood but in classic Joe fashion he launched directly into One More Time and Is She Really Going Out With Him? as if to remind us he has not gotten soft. He did Big Black Cloud and Fabulously Absolute from the new record, two songs I really love (the latter he performed on the Tonight Show a few weeks back). Again, he gave us just enough new and old to keep us wanting more.
I will give him credit for delivering a pretty long set. He played for about 90 minutes with no opening act and I came away fulfilled with his song selection. It’s never easy to please a longtime fan like me with deep cut favorites, but he did play a few of mine (including my all-time favorite Joe song Real Men) so it’s hard to argue with that.
I hope I’m wrong and Joe was just experiencing some “senior moments” on stage. But given how long he’s been smoking (he’s a fierce advocate for smoker’s rights) I have to admit when he forget a huge chunk of one song I thought maybe he was having a stroke (that’s a byproduct of working for the American Heart Association).
I should also mention that Joe put together a bang-up band for this album and tour, with the remarkable Graham Maby on bass (he’s been at his side for 40 years), Teddy Kumpel (Rickie Lee Jones, Feist, Janet Jackson, Tower of Power) on lead guitar and the powerhouse Doug Yowell (Suzanne Vega, Duncan Sheik, Judy Collins) on drums.
Overall, it was a great night for nostalgia and Joe Jackson is, and always will be, my favorite musical artist. Not too many musicians have put together a more eclectic and musically gifted discography over a 40-plus year career. And while for the vast majority of music fans he’ll likely be associated as an 80s one-hit wonder for Steppin’ Out, for those of us who knew him before then and followed him after Night & Day we have been treated to a lifetime of a musical genius.
One More Time
Is She Really Going Out With Him
Big Black Cloud
Stranger Than Fiction
King of the World (Steely Dan cover)
You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)
Each year as I compile my list of favorite albums I am struck by the variety of things I’m listening to, and also by the way my tastes change over time. I wonder if my taste is driven by the albums that are released each year, or if the albums I choose to listen to are a result of what I desire to hear? It’s an interesting thought experiment I suppose.
I can say that 2018 was a year of diverse musical selections for me. This year my tastes tilted toward the mellow and even a bit toward the alt-country/Americana. That said, I continue to be loyal to artists I’ve loved over time, like Death Cab, Franz Ferdinand, and Paul Weller. So here you go — my 10 favorite albums of 2018 (plus a few honorable mentions).
First, a few albums just fell just short of my top 10 but nevertheless are worth mentioning. Young Sick Camellia by St. Paul and the Broken Bones was a solid effort. This eight-piece soul band from Birmingham, Alabama is the whitest R&B act you’ll ever see with the most surprising-looking lead singer ever (what if CeeLo Green were white?). I’ll Be Your Girl by The Decemberists was just ok for me, which is disappointing because The Decemberists have been one of my favorite bands of the new millennium. Still, an average Decemberists album is better than no Decemberists album and it’s worth a listen. Last year’s top album on my list was by the legendary Paul Weller, who continues to be prolific, this year coming back with True Meanings. After the force that was A Kind Revolution last year this one was a little too mellow for my liking, but still Paul Weller so it deserves a place on my list even if just outside the top 10. I really liked To The Sunset by Amanda Shires, my first introduction to her but she’s been around for a while both solo and with her husband Jason Isbell’s band The 400 Unit. To the Sunset has a bluesy rock feel that struck a chord with me. Finally, perhaps the most controversial record of the year was Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino by Arctic Monkeys which was undoubtedly a departure for them but is a beautiful, moody, piano-driven anathema. I love Arctic Monkeys, and while I didn’t love this album I liked it enough to appreciate it for what it is — an experiment in pop weirdness.
And now, my 10 favorite albums of 2018 (and here’s a link to a YouTube playlist with a song from each of my favorite albums of the year):
10. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats — Tearing At The Seams. All I can say about Nathaniel Rateliff is that his music makes me happy. From the first time I heard 2015’s S.O.B. I was hooked, and this year’s album is really great down-home bar rock. Tearing at the Seams combines blues, rock, soul and a little gospel to boot. These guys are part of a great neo-soul/R&B movement that owes its start to the likes of Amy Winehouse, Adele and The Black Keys. Other artists in the genre include the aforementioned St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Fitz and the Tantrums, Hozier, Kaleo, Mayer Hawthorne, Alabama Shakes, etc.
9. The Kooks — Lets Go Sunshine. I came late to the Kooks party but I’m really starting to enjoy these boys from Brighton. If you like bands such as The Strokes, The Fratellis, or Arctic Monkeys the Kooks will be in your sweet spot. I think they are a bit more musical than the typical post-punk revival bands which for me means they are a tad more accessible than some of their peers. If you want to say that means they are a bit more pop I won’t argue.
8. Frank Turner — Be More Kind. If you like smart, interesting rock and roll then you can’t go wrong with Frank Turner. He has been churning out great album after great album for years since going solo about 10 years ago. Hard to find another rocker who went to the London School of Economics and studied at Eton with Prince William.
7. Snow Patrol — Wildness. I’ve always liked Snow Patrol and Wildness is their best record in a while. For some reason, people either hate or love these guys, maybe because they too often get compared to the lightning rod that is Coldplay, but Gary Lightbody has a voice that I just love. Wildness is solid top to bottom.
6. Franz Ferdinand — Always Ascending. It feels like these Scottish alt-rockers have been around for decades, but Always Ascending is only their fifth studio album. I finally got to see them live this year (at a small venue) and they were fantastic. Franz Ferdinand is definitely one of my favorite 80s-infused bands along with the likes of Phoenix, the Kooks, Interpol and others. I love that Franz Ferdinand embraces their 80s sound. Always Ascending is a great addition to their catalog and I love it all.
5. Leon Bridges — Good Thing. This neo-soul artists from Ft. Worth, Texas is truly blowing up this year on the heels of his second album Good Thing. His debut album Coming Home (2015) evoked memories of Sam Cooke and Al Green, and while Good Thing brings a little more modern soul touch it’s still gorgeous. I suspect Bridges is on the verge of being a household name and it’s only a matter of time before the awards start piling up. I just hope he stays true to his soul roots.
4. Neko Case — Hell-on. The brilliant Ms. Case has found her way into my top 10 several times over the past few years, both as a solo artist and with “super-band” New Pornographers. Hell-on was definitely among the contenders for my top album of the year and it’s her best work since 2009’s Middle Cyclone. I can also say that Neko scored my favorite song of the year, Last Lion of Albion, which you can hear on the YouTube mix I linked to above. FYI, she’s an amazing Twitter follow!
3. Father John Misty — God’s Favorite Customer. No album made me happier this year than Josh Tillman’s (aka Father John Misty) God’s Favorite Customer. He’s such a throwback to 70s soft rock you can’t help but have visions of Stephen Bishop or Glen Campbell. But J. Tillman is all in on this 70s sound but with observant and funny lyrics. I’m feeling good; Damn, I’m feeling so fine; I’m living on a cloud above an island in my mind; Oh baby, don’t be alarmed this is just my vibe.
2. Lord Huron — Vide Noir. This LA “indie folk” band has only put out three albums but this is the second to make my year-end favorites list following 2015’s Strange Trails. For me, top to bottom, Vide Noir is even better than Strange Trails and I find myself listening to it all the time. I’d say it has been my go-to album for 2018. Vide Noir is much more than an indie folk album. It is flat-out gorgeous musically, perhaps because it’s their major-label debut.
1. Death Cab for Cutie — Thank You For Today. Death Cab has been one of my favorite bands for more than a decade thanks in large part to three great albums in a row with Plans (2005), Narrow Stairs (2008), and Codes and Keys(2011). I admit I was a bit disappointed with 2015’s Kintsugi, so when Thank You For Today came out this year I was only cautiously optimistic. I’m happy to say this album exceeded expectations and has returned Death Cab to its well-deserved place among my favorite bands. The album is strong from top to bottom with no bad songs and I absolutely love it. I hope you do too.
I swear, not a week goes by when I don’t see someone post something on social media about how there’s no good music these days. It’s like a rite of passage — once you hit a certain age the only music that matters anymore is what you listened to when you were young. We have short memories. Don’t you recall driving with your parents when you were young and hearing them complain about how today’s music isn’t as good as when they were young? Their parents probably said the same thing to them. They don’t make ’em like Glenn Miller anymore!
The thing is, if you think there’s no good music anymore you’re just not listening. Either that or you’re closed-minded. Yeah, I said it.
Yes, the artists you grew up with are always going to have a special place in your heart. Eighties alternative is the music of my youth and I still listen to it today. My queue is always filled with The Clash, The Style Council, and Tears For Fears. But I love music so I’m always on the lookout for new things. Yes, that includes old artists. I didn’t discover John Coltrane until my 40s and I just recently started listening to alt-country.
But that also means I make it a point to listen to today’s artists and in return I have found many wonderful bands that didn’t start making music until around the start of the 21st century. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting I like today’s “pop” music. Damn if I’m going to listen to Cardi B, Charlie Puth or The Chainsmokers. Bad music is bad music and most of what’s played on the radio today is trash — as was Top 40 pop back in my day.
No, you need to do a little digging to find today’s great music. For me, that means I listen to The Spectrum on SiriusXM or a cultivated playlist on Google Play Music like Feel Good Alternative or Coffee Shop Indie. I also read reviews and listen to cuts recommended at RollingStone.com and Paste Magazine. Technology has actually made it easier to find new music without having to shell out $12 for a full-length album only to be disappointed.
This kind of musical exploration has led me to some amazing music by wonderful artists — some of which have etched a place among my all-time favorites. Arcade Fire didn’t release its first album until 2003 and they are without question one of my favorite bands.
With that as background, and because I always like to share what I’m listening to, here are just some of the 21st-century artists I love, starting with my top 10 favorite “new” artists:
The Black Keys
Fitz & The Tantrums
Mumford & Sons
And here are a bunch of others I love:
Band of Horses
Cage the Elephant
The Whitest Boy Alive/Erland Oye (solo)
Father John Misty
First Aid Kit
Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats
Of Monsters and Men
Scars on 45
The Temper Trap
Two Door Cinema Club
There’s something for everyone on the list above (except for country or hip-hop because I don’t like most country or hip-hop). And all of them either launched after Y2K or close. And if you don’t know some of them or haven’t had the chance to listen to some of them, just head over to Spotify or YouTube and give something new a try. You can’t argue with the cost.
Next time you think there’s no good music out there today, I encourage you to look and listen. Or send me a note and I’ll recommend something or make you a YouTube playlist!
Last year I had trouble finding 10 albums to write about in my annual favorite albums post, but fear not my music loving friends — 2017 came in like a lion and never stopped roaring. For me, 2017 has been a banner year, one filled with new albums from some of my favorite artists and new discoveries that made a huge impression on me. In fact, for the first time in a long while I had a real tough time picking just 10 albums to feature so this year we’re going to kick things off with a handful of honorable mentions.
Hot Thoughts – Spoon. These guys have really grown on me over the years and this year’s effort was really great. Check out Do I Have to Talk You Into It.
Ti Amo – Phoenix. This was one of my most anticipated albums of the year given how much I’ve loved their past two. I have to admit though I was a little underwhelmed. That said, I saw them in concert this summer at the Marquee and they were fantastic live. The title track is a standout.
Soul of a Woman – Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings. As farewells go, this is as good as it gets. We lost Sharon too soon, but in her short time atop the music world, she sure made the most of it. She was working on Soul of a Woman at the time of her death and it was released in November. Sail On!
Tennis – Yours Conditionally. My son introduced me to Tennis this year and I’m all in. Great sound from this husband and wife duo from Denver, who look (and sound) straight out of 1970s Los Angeles. They’ve toured with Spoon, The Shins, and Haim, and even played Coachella this year.
ZZ Ward – The Storm. ZZ’s second album was a great follow up to 2012’s Til The Casket Drops which was one of my favorites that year. The Storm is a little more polished and a little more pop, but she’s so talented I don’t care what she sings. I’m all in. Check out this great live version of Cannonball.
Declan McKenna – What do You Think About the Car? I heard McKenna’s Brazilduring the 2016 World Cup and liked it, but I didn’t know anything about him. Turns out he’s barely old enough to drive and looks like it. But when his first full-length album came out this year I really liked it and I’m betting he’ll be huge one day.
Barns Courtney — The Attractions Of Youth. I’ll be honest, I literally stumbled across this album while searching for Courtney Barnett! What a happy accident. I had heard Fire, which is a great song, but the whole album is really good.
And here’s my top 11 of the year (because, of course, 11 is one better than 10):
Hearts That Strain – Jake Bugg. This 23-year-old blues rocker from Nottingham, England made a huge impact on me when I saw him live a few years back opening for the Black Keys. That year his music was all over the place, especially Lightning Bolt. So when Hearts that Strain came out I was expecting more of the same, which would have been great. But it’s nothing like his older stuff. In fact, it sounds like he’s channeling Stephen Bishop or Glen Campbell! And guess what? It’s freakin’ beautiful! Just listen to Waiting, featuring Noah Cyrus (yes, that Noah Cyrus). Holy cow! Jake can sing soul and country as well as blues.
Human – Rag’n’Bone Man. Here’s more proof you can find good music anywhere these days. I kept hearing the song Human on an ESPN promo for NBA games and it really resonated with me. So I went to listen to the whole album on Google Play and it just blew me away. I really love the new wave of rock and soul, especially artists like Hozier and Kaleo. Rag’n’Bone Man is cut from the same cloth, but you sure wouldn’t guess it from the looks of him — check out the video for Human and you’ll see what I mean. Looks can be deceiving!
Heartworms – The Shins. James Mercer is one of a kind and I’ve always liked his work with The Shins and Broken Bells. Heartworms is classic Shins and every song is great. Name For You is one of my favorites off this record.
Colors – Beck. Beck has always been a bit of an enigma to me. He always seems to be trying out new sounds, which is cool I guess, but I really like his upbeat deejay sound. Two Turntables and Microphone! I was really optimistic when I heard the first track off Colors, Dreams, because it was upbeat. Needless to say, I fell in love when the whole album because it makes me want to get up and dance. Up All Night really sums it up for me.
Sleep Well Beast – The National. The National has become one of my favorite bands over the past decade or so and frankly I could listen to Matt Berninger sing all day long. 2007’s Boxer will always be my favorite, but Sleep Well Beast will do just fine. If you haven’t spent much time with The National I highly encourage you to do so. You should start with The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness off the new album. Such a gorgeous song.
A Deeper Understanding – The War on Drugs. I’m a little late to The War on Drugs, but better late than never. I stumbled upon them in 2014 when they released Lost in the Dream and I played the hell out of that album. This year I was really looking forward to the new record and it doesn’t disappoint. It’s definitely a deep record with luscious instrumentation and intense lyrics and it requires multiple listenings to let it sink in. I’m a sucker for piano-driven rock. Check out the video for Pain to get a sense of this deeper understanding.
Masseduction – St. Vincent. Annie Clark (AKA St. Vincent) has been around for a while now, and truthfully I never “got her.” That all changed one night last month when I saw her on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert performing her new song New York. This song hit me like a ton of bricks and I swear I played it over and over for weeks and walked around the house singing “You’re the only motherfucker in the city who forgives me.” When the whole album came out I didn’t know what to expect, and it’s a little more electronic than I typically like, but I just love it. I love every song. And I seriously considered making it the top album on this list. Check out Los Ageless to get a better sense. And for what it’s worth, she always looked a little weird to me but her new look is hot.
Low in High School – Morrissey. I’m unapologetic about loving Steven Patrick Morrissey and I was as excited as anyone to hear his new album (his 11th solo record by the way). Low in High School delivers, and seeing him live this month only brought that home. For a 58-year-old dude he can still bring it, on stage and off. Spent the Day in Bed was the first track released and it is a unique sound for him. But the message is all Morrissey, as is the rest of the record. Don’t miss I Bury the Living, my son’s favorite song on the album and a devastating attack on war and the soldier mentality. Oh Moz.
Everything Now – Arcade Fire. It had been four years since Reflektor and like all Arcade Fire fans, I anxiously awaited the release of Everything Now. The album sticks with the winning formula that has made Arcade Fire one of the best bands in the world and one of my favorite bands as well. The title track is classic Arcade Fire. This album was always going to be near the top of my 2017 list.
Whiteout Conditions – The New Pornographers. Keeping the Canadian theme going, The New Pornographers are a collective of artists that includes the tour-de-force that is Neko Case, who has found herself on my year-end list both as a solo artist and with the Pornographers. Neko is a renaissance woman and a great Twitter follow with a great sense of humor and political style. Most of all, though, Case is a wonderful singer/songwriter and Whiteout Conditions is a solid effort following on the heels of 2014’s Brill Bruisers (which made my favorites list that year). Whiteout Conditions kept me interested and entertained from start to finish. Check out High Ticket Attractions for a good example of this great album.
A Kind Revolution – Paul Weller. For more than 40 years, Paul Weller has been making music and forging revolutions. The Jam merged the 60s soul sound with 70s punk and led a literal revolution of Mods in skinny suits, Army jackets, and Vespa scooters. Instead of building on that success, Weller created the Style Council and led a wave of new romantic artists into the next generation. And when it was time to go solo, Weller returned to his soulful roots and since 1990 the Modfather has been cranking out album after album, all of which have brought him tremendous success in England and the title of one of the country’s founding fathers of rock. Now on his 13th solo effort, A Kind Revolution may just be his best solo work yet. The album is a pure blues/soul goodness complete with Weller’s hard-charging guitar-driven rock and roll perfection. Here’s a taste of the entire album in one nice little YouTube sampler for your listening pleasure. And for a longer taste, here he is on Conan performing my favorite track off the album, Long Long Road. This song is classic Weller and an example of why he has always been among my all-time favorite artists.
I’m not sure what happened to 2016. In the annals of bad years, 2016 will go down in infamy. We lost Prince and Bowie. We lost Muhammad Ali and Gordie Howe. Gene Wilder and Alan Rickman. Harper Lee and Pat Conroy. Garry Shandling and Garry Marshall. And then we elected Donald J. Trump to the most powerful job in the world. 2016 pretty much sucked (and it’s not quite over yet).
So why should I be surprised that for the first time in decades of compiling my favorite albums of the year I struggled to find 10 albums to make the list? For whatever reason, most of my favorite artists didn’t release new albums this year. And while we did get one magical farewell album from one of the greatest of all time, this year’s lot (for me anyway) would make Ziggy Stardust catch the first rocket back to from wherever he came.
That said, all is not lost. I’m pleased to report I did manage to find 10 albums that I liked enough to make a list this year. I’m tempted not to put them in any order, but like they say, no guts no glory. So here goes:
10. Sturgill Simpson — A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. Has hell frozen over? Is that, dear lord, a country album in a Len Gutman top 10 list? I’ll be the first to admit I had no idea who Sturgill Simpson was until his incredible cover of Nirvana’s In Bloom started making the rounds on the Interwebs. The song gives me goosebumps every time I hear it and I knew I had to listen to the whole album when it came out. Admittedly, Simpson is not your typical twangy pop country crap — he is described as alt country or outlaw country. Whatever you call it, the man has chops and can write a song. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a really soulful album that was inspired by his young son. Frankly, any album that features the Dap Kings is alright in my book.
9. Band of Horses — Why are you OK? It’s been six years since Infinite Arms made my top 10 list and truthfully I haven’t listened to much BOH since then. Something made me listen to this year’s Why are you OK? and I’m really happy I did. This Seattle band known for its Americana sound is definitely worth exploring, like this Casual Party.
8. Kaiser Chiefs — Stay Together. I didn’t know much about Leeds, UK band Kaiser Chiefs until I listened to Stay Together and I have to say they fall right in my sweet spot. I really love 80s inspired bands like Franz Ferdinand, Phoenix and The Kooks and Kaiser Chiefs fits the mold. I am definitely going back to listen to some of their older records to hear what I’ve been missing. In the meantime, check out Parachute from Stay Together.
7. Fitz and the Tantrums —Fitz and the Tantrums. The self-titled third album from Fitz and the Tantrums is another great dance album filled with that unmistakable Fitz sound. I make no apologies for loving these guys and while I certainly didn’t like this album as much as the band’s first two I did enjoy it. I was also fortunate to see them live this year for the fourth time in the past few years and you’re simply not going to find a more enjoyable live concert experience. Bring your dancing shoes and don’t forget to clap your hands to the beat.
6. Red Hot Chili Peppers — The Getaway. The Chili Peppers’ first album came out in 1984, the year I graduated from high school. I have to admit that over the years I’ve had a love/hate relationship with them. I didn’t like them early on, although here and there a song caught my attention. It wasn’t until 2002’s By The Way that I was really hooked, and I played that album over and over for years. By the time Stadium Arcadium came out in 2006; however, I’d cooled on them and that’s the way it stayed until the first time I heard Dark Necessities this summer. Oh man, that song stuck in my ear and when the full album was released I was a Chili Peppers fan again! Credit goes to Brian Burton (AKA Danger Mouse), who produced The Getaway, and put his unmistakable stamp on it. Damn, that guy knows how to make an album.
5. Bob Mould — Patch the Sky. You’ve got to appreciate a guy who finds his sound early on and sticks with it. When you hear Bob Mould there’s no mistaking it. Whether you first found him back in the 80s with Hüsker Dü or in the 90s with Sugar, I venture to guess that if you’re a Mould fan you like it all — as I do. So it really wasn’t a huge surprise when Patch the Sky came out in March and it was vintage Mould. If you are a fan and haven’t heard it yet I urge you to give it a listen and start with Voices in my Head. If you’re not a fan, you probably weren’t alive in the 80s!
4. The Temper Trap — Thick as Thieves. If you listened to music in 2009 you undoubtedly heard The Temper Trap’s huge hit Sweet Disposition, which went Gold in the U.S. and Platinum in the U.K. and the band’s home of Australia. But like me, you may have thought they were a one-hit wonder. Yes, they’ve been going strong down under since then, but Thick as Thieves should really put them back on the map around the world. The Temper Trap has a great sound that is one part modern and another part 80s throwback. I’ve listened to this record a lot since it came out this summer and it is solid all the way through, including this great track Fall Together.
3. Dawes — We’re All Gonna Die. Rarely does a band place back-to-back records on my favorite albums list, but this year following on the heels of 2015’s wonderful All Your Favorite Bands comes We’re All Gonna Die. I just love their sound, which has been described as having a Laurel Canyon vibe. Dawes is the kind of band that’s perfect for listening to while sitting on your patio on a warm day with a cold beer. Like I said last year, Dawes is an unabashed throwback to the likes of Fleetwood Mac, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Brown. Kick back and just Roll with the Punches.
2. Kings of Leon — Walls. I couldn’t get enough of KoL during the Only by the Night and Come Around Sundown years, but I cooled on the Followill boys in 2013 when Mechanical Bull came out. I liked it, but I didn’t love it, and in truth they were pretty overexposed there for a while. So my expectations were low when Walls came out this autumn, and maybe that’s what did it for me. Walls is KoL’s best album since 2008’s Only by the Night and since it just came out a few week’s ago I expect it will get even more ingrained in my head as time goes on. All due respect to the top album on my list this year (it deserves all the accolades it gets), Walls is really my favorite record of 2016. Take a listen to Waste a Moment and tell me I’m not right!
1. David Bowie — Blackstar. What can you say about Blackstar that hasn’t already been written? For Bowie fans it was a surprise farewell album that upon his death just a few days after its release left us stunned and in awe of the man’s genius. Who else but Bowie could have written an album about his own impending death with such grace and style. Blackstar is dark and moody, but the message is clear — his time was up. I challenge anyone not to get chills watching the video for Lazarus. Ironically, I had been listening to a lot of Bowie in the months prior to his death and I was critical of myself for not having dived deeper into the man’s discography earlier in my life. That changed in the weeks following his death as I listened to Bowie nonstop and will continue to do so until my own star is extinguished. I suspect Blackstar will take home plenty of Grammy Awards and will go down in history as the best swan song ever written. I’m not going to argue it wasn’t the best album of an otherwise mediocre year.
In the summer of 1984 I had just graduated from high school and the world was my oyster. I had car and a hot girlfriend, I was heading off to college in late August, and I quit my job without telling my parents — I had nothing but time. My girlfriend and I went to the beach, we sneaked off to find places to be alone and we did whatever 18-year-old kids do. And the soundtrack to that summer was Purple Rain.
Prince was already huge by then on the heels of 1999, which catapulted him from a fringe R&B artist to rock and roll royalty. MTV was in its heyday and Prince had enormous hits with 1999, Delirious and Little Red Corvette. Purple Rain was released in June, though we had already heard tracks from the album on the radio and by June we knew all the lyrics and dance moves from the videos. When the film hit theaters, we lined up to see it at the largest theater in the area to take it all in with the giant screen and Dolby sound. It was, for us, a revolution.
Prince was larger than life and one of the first true crossover artists with appeal to R&B, Soul, Rock, Pop and Alternative music fans alike. He was George Clinton, Jimi Hendrix and Michael Jackson rolled into one. Thriller had come out six months earlier, and like everyone we liked it and danced to it and loved the music videos. But Michael was safe. He wasn’t really dangerous. He wasn’t subversive. He wasn’t sexual. He was mainstream and our parents liked him. Prince was everything MJ was not — and he made our parents nervous which made us like him even more. If Prince came on the radio while we were in the car with our parents, they blushed at the lyrics and we secretly laughed inside knowing we alone knew Little Red Corvette was not about a car.
Eighteen year old kids are like halflings — not really kids and not yet really adults. We were exploding with sexual energy and Prince made us feel grown up. I heard someone once describe Prince as “oozing sex” and that feels right. His lyrics were sometimes raw and sometimes double entendre, but almost always sexual in nature. They hit us right in our sweet spot and we couldn’t get enough.
And then there was Purple Rain. After watching the film the first time (and we watched it over and over) we felt like we understood Prince. We knew the film was semi-autobiographical, whatever that means, and we knew he expressed himself through his music. Purple Rain was about a young man overcoming his rough family life and his desire to have his music understood to reach his dreams. “The Kid” breathed via his music. And we felt it in our bones. When he plays Purple Rain after his father shoots himself, we are in that audience feeling his pain and his love. And like everyone else, we finally understood Prince.
But the movie is secondary really. Purple Rain is about the music. Top to bottom, song for song, it is a marvelous album. It’s a rock opera. You can dance to it, grind to it and cry to it. It’s soulful and it rocks. A lot of great mainstream albums came out in 1984 including Springsteen’s Born in the USA and Van Halen’s 1984. But 1984 will always be about Purple Rain for me and my friends.
Purple Rain was (and is) a great album and it has the most meaning for me because of when it came out and the impact it had on me. But it’s not even my favorite Prince album! That honor goes to 1987’s Sign ‘o the Times, which is a much more mature record musically and lyrically. In Sign ‘o the Times Prince shows us he can write about more than sex and women. The Village Voice wrote that it: “established Prince as the greatest rock and roll musician of the era—as singer-guitarist-hooksmith-beatmaster, he has no peer.”
I admit I haven’t listened to much of Prince’s more recent efforts. I’m sure they are wonderful and I’ll probably spend some time with them now that he is gone. It’s been about 24 hours now since we first heard the news that he was gone, and I’ve listened to nothing but Prince since then and I’ll probably listen to Prince all weekend. I will relive the hits and marvel at how great they were (1999 is actually playing on the radio in the car dealership service waiting room as I write this). And I will listen to deep tracks and remember them too. I’ll probably download Sign ‘o the Times and Parade and Around the World in a Day and listen to them in their entirety as well. And I will miss Prince. But he left a lasting legacy. We’ll always have his music. And for that we should all be grateful.
‘Sometimes it snows in April
Sometimes I feel so bad, so bad
Sometimes I wish life was never ending,
And all good things, they say, never last’
I think this year was a pretty decent year for music, despite the fact that the majority of my favorite artists did not release new albums. That simply meant I looked outside my sweet spot for new music and for someone my age that’s a good thing. No point in letting yourself get stale. A lot of people my age say there’s no good music out there anymore, but I couldn’t disagree more. You just have to look, or rather listen. I suppose I could play the same artists over and over and be happy, but for me the hunt is as fun as the catch. There’s a new documentary film out this year about the history of Tower Records called All Things Must Pass. And while I have not seen it yet, the trailer reminded me of how important Tower Records was to me in my youth. I literally considered hanging out at Tower Records a night out, flipping through the rows of LPs, talking with pierced and tatted employees about the latest records, copping a squat by the magazine rack looking through copies of NME and Rolling Stone. When I worked at a record store in college I expanded my musical tastes exponentially because I was able to be exposed to so much new music.
These days, SiriusXM has become my Tower Records. I can listen to my favorites from the 80s on First Wave, the 90s on Lithium, or rock on Classic Vinyl. But more often than not I tune into The Spectrum, and in addition to my favorites I hear new music by bands I’ve never heard of…and some of them stick. And some of them become my new favorites, like The National, Phoenix, Mumford and Sons and Arcade Fire. Even better, by subscribing to a streaming music service like Google Play I can listen to entire albums by new bands to go beyond the hit tracks and see if there’s more there. Or I can read about an artist on the web and give them a listen without making a commitment. Some of them turn out to be duds, but more than a few end up on my year-end favorites list. Which brings me back to my favorite albums of 2015, which consists of a nice mix of established artists and newer artists.
First, a few honorable mentions. I really liked the new Blur record The Magic Whip, especially on the heels of Damon Albarn’s amazing solo album from last year, Everyday Robots. 25 by Adele is exactly what we expected, and although for me it’s nowhere near as good as 19 and 21, it’s still Adele and it’s still wonderful. Sound & Color by Alabama Shakes is bluesy goodness. Squeeze delivered a nice little reminder of why Difford and Tilbrook will always be among the best songwriters in rock and roll history with their first new album in decades — Cradle to the Grave. And speaking of history, one of the biggest surprises of the year for me was Pete Townshend’s reinterpretation of Quadrophenia with the Royal Philharmonic — seriously, give this a listen. Kintsugi by Death Cab For Cutie is a solid (though not great) album by one of my favorite bands. Finally, while it won’t be released until Dec. 18, early indications are that I’m really going to like Cage the Elephant’s Tell Me I’m Pretty (which was produced by Dan Auerbach). And now, here are my 10 favorite albums of 2015:
10. Beneath the Skin by Of Monsters and Men — This follow-up to the Icelandic band’s first album, 2012’s My Head is an Animal, is really great. It’s quite a bit more mellow than their debut, which was one of my favorite albums of 2012. While it’s probably a disappointment sales-wise following the huge success of My Head is an Animal (which sold more than two million copies), it nevertheless delivers the same lovely and moving sound of Nanna Hilmarsdóttir’s voice.
9. Return to the Moon by El Vy — What a happy surprise it was when I heard Return to the Moon on the radio the first time and couldn’t believe The National had a new album out that I didn’t know about. Well, turns out it was indeed The National’s Matt Berninger on lead vocals but it was a side project not a new album by one of my favorite bands. I don’t know what it is these days, but musical collaboration seems to be on the rise. I have to admit I wasn’t familiar with Brent Knopf before hearing this album, but I’m sure glad he and Matt decided to do an album together.
8. California Nights by Best Coast — Lead singer Bethany Cosentino cited Gwen Stefani, Sugar Ray and the Go Go’s as influences for California Nights and the result is pure California pop goodness. I don’t hear much No Doubt in the album, but there’s most definitely a Go Go’s vibe and frankly a Beach Boys vibe. This is Best Coast’s third studio album and the second to make my year-end list. They are the perfect example of a band I never would have found without doing some work — and I’m so glad I did.
7. A Head Full of Dreams by Coldplay — I’m an unapologetic fan of all things Coldplay but even I have to admit last year’s Ghost Stories album was a disappointment. And I was as surprised as everyone else when Coldplay announced a new album this fall, and I was skeptical, but after just a few listens I really like it. It’s upbeat with a bit of a dance edge and has 11 really solid songs on it, especially the disco-infused title track. Welcome back Chris and friends.
6. All Your Favorite Bands by Dawes — This band from Los Angeles tend to get put in the “folk rock” category but I think they are in a category of their own I like to call “California Cool.” I probably did not coin that genre, but it fits. Think 1970s California soft rock — Jackson Browne and the Eagles. This is perfect music for cruising up the coast in a convertible, which is exactly what I was doing when I discovered Dawes a few years ago. I hope your brother’s El Camino runs forever.
5. Love Stuff by Elle King — Quite the debut album from 26-year-old Tanner Elle Schneider, aka Elle King. With a huge voice and a bad-ass attitude to go along with it, King is the anti-Taylor Swift and wants you to know it. She may not be America’s Sweetheart, but she’ll be around for a long time if she keeps writing songs like Ex’s and Oh’s. I can envision dad Rob Schneider sitting up in the balcony yelling “you can do it.”
4. Yours, Dreamily by The Arcs — Released on Sept. 4 (my son’s birthday), this album featuring the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach did not disappoint. Yes, it sounds like the Keys, but if you’ve read my favorite albums lists over the past decade you already know how much I love the Black Keys. This solo project has a nice blues/soul feel that is a little less raw than the Keys, and while “Outta My Mind” could have easily been a hit for the Keys, my favorite tracks are deeper on the album, especially Put a Flower in Your Pocket. Recorded at the Sound Factory in LA, this album got a lot of plays on my stereo this fall.
3. Positive Songs for Negative People by Frank Turner — In 2013 I kept hearing this song on XM called Recovery by Frank Turner and it really grew on me. I had never heard of Turner but I listened to the whole album and really liked it. This year Turner released his sixth album and I really love it. Turner’s music is acoustic post-punk folk with a hard edge and great lyrics. I’m sure fans of his early work think he is too mellow these days, but there’s nothing wrong with being more accessible.
2. Wilder Mind by Mumford & Sons — Babel was my favorite album of 2012 and it is sure to land high on the list of my favorite records of the decade, so imagine how excited I was when the band announced it would release its third album in 2015 but that it would be more modern and would not include the banjo. What! The Mumfords without a banjo? Sacrilege! Guess what? Wilder Minds is tremendous and I think Believe is probably my favorite Mumford & Sons song ever. So they evolved. What’s wrong with that? I absolutely love Wilder Mind and listen to it all the time, and almost six months later I still turn the volume up when Believe or The Wolf comes on the radio.
1. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World by The Decemberists — 2015 began with this gift from the Decemberists and the album never stopped delivering. Frankly, it wasn’t even close this year — this album is head and shoulders above the rest for me. I was fortunate as well to see them live early this year and they were spectacular. Make You Better was easily my favorite song of the year, and the lesser known and hauntingly beautiful Lake Song stands out as well. The Decemberists have firmly planted themselves near the top of my list of favorite bands and I look forward to many years of new music from Colin and the band.