What does it mean to write about music when most people can instantly access new music, with or without subscription services? Because music is a relational thing, maybe we need to focus our writing more on the context for the music: people involved in making it, the scene (or lack thereof) that gave rise to the music, how we experience the music, how the music shapes us, and probably even the chicanery involved in creating it.
So, this year, I want to emphasize context a little more than describing how my favorite records sound. I am not going to rank my list, because I think they’re all pretty great for different reasons.
Not Thrilled by Fine China
After some very good reunions by Swevedriver, Loop, The Dream Syndicate, Ride, and Slowdive, “getting the band back together” isn’t as bad as it once sounded. Add Fine China to that list. Sure, Rob Withem has made some great synthpop with Foxglove Hunt since the last Fine China record was released 13 years ago, but I didn’t expect a comeback album to be quite this good. Sure, it’s more of the same Smiths-meets-New Order stuff like they’ve always done (long, long before bands on Captured Tracks tried the same thing), but Withem has also been listening to Dire Straits and working on his vocals. I sure hope this isn’t the final Fine China record.
The Sky Looks Different Here by Paper Dollhouse
I don’t really know where ambient pop ends and dreampop begins, but I’m guessing Paper Dollhouse is somewhere in the middle. Sometimes fully-formed, and sometimes only snippets and soundscapes, the songs seem to just float by, as electronica and dub are buried beneath blankets of reverb. It kinda sounds like the group listens a lot of 4AD records that I also enjoy so maybe it’s referential and nostalgic, but the record also feels like the future. Furthermore, nobody seems to mind when they enter my office and I’m playing Paper Dollhouse. It’s kinda like the weird music that I can get away with.
Singularity by Jon Hopkins
When we had a baby, I feared that I’d spend my life being annoyed by Imagine Dragons or Hot Chelle Rae or something else that my son would love. But for now, he loves Jon Hopkins (and I’m perfectly fine with that). And since our son is seven and you must play songs to death when you’re a kid, we listened to Singularity a lot.
Absence by Kristjan Randalu
With my new job, I spend a lot of my time in an office, not in a classroom. So I find myself streaming quite a bit of music as I do paperwork. Then I become aware of how instant access to so much music might be changing me. Then I started to second-guess my feelings about the albums I enjoyed on Spotify. How could I call an album a year-end favorite if I hadn’t actually purchased it?
Absence is one such album. I haven’t purchased it (yet), so how could I call it a favorite? I’ve bought so many other ECM releases in the past, so what’s stopping me now? Where’s my commitment? Sheesh. I guess these are sorta legitimate questions, but still. Why am I so hard on myself?
Randalu is an Estonian pianist who plays in that airy, spacious, European style. The songs are focused, but they also just kinda float. I like this record a lot. I guess that’s all that matters to make it on my year-end list.
September Love by Stephen’s Shore
Another weird thing about music now is how, because it’s too expensive to fill your closet with records that you’ll never sell, some bands will press only a limited number of records. I get it. I still have about 15 three-inch CDs I burnt for a small tour I played back in 2002. But I also don’t feel like paying $80 for a band’s new LP on Discogs just because I learn about an album a month after the band sold out of the 25 LPs it pressed for a short tour. So until Meritorio Records re-issues the record, I guess I’ll just keep streaming it.
Portrait with Firewood by Djrum
I think Portrait with Firewood benefits from a single, uninterrupted listen. The album feels like a long journey through drum and bass, sparse passages of Keith Jarrett-ish improvisational piano, and even some unexpected cello arrangements. Sorry, I don’t really know how to describe this record. And I feel that’s a great thing.
Look Now by Elvis Costello and the Imposters
By the this point, Elvis is basically like an old friend to me. Sometimes I don’t know how good his records really are; I just buy them. He’s a great collaborator, but there’s no way he’s going to make another full-length albums with Allen Toussaint, The Roots, or Burt Bacharach. And then there was the cancer diagnosis. So I started to wonder if he’d ever release another really good solo album again. But oh my, Look Now feels like a return to Imperial Bedroom, elegant and still a little snarky. Pretty much everything I need from an Elvis Costello record.
Both Directions at Once by John Coltrane
Was Brian WIlson’s Smile a new record back in 2004? I’m not sure. Is Both Directions at Once, with its previously unreleased recordings, a new record? I say yes.
The songs here aren’t the usual uninteresting rough drafts for an artist’s later, more realized work. These songs were intended for a release and might have stood up well next to albums like Coltrane and Ballads. (At least I’d like to think so. But who really knows?) Plenty of (digital) ink was spilled to promote this album, featuring some outlandish claims by labels, publicists, and respected jazz artists. Not sure that I can add to the conversation in any meaningful way, but I’ve enjoyed listening to this record this year with my son.
Zebra by Arp
I usually buy vinyl, but sometimes I still buy CDs. This was one of the CDs I bought in 2018.
The Hex by Richard Swift
By 2003, I had been making music for a while. And somehow, Richard Swift obtained a CD with some of my songs. Then one of my friends got on AOL Instant Messenger after seeing Starflyer 59 play somewhere in Arizona and told me that Swift was raving about my song, “Heart Beat Next to Mine.”
Thing is, I don’t know how he got a copy of my CD. But it led to an interesting pen pal relationship where Swift would email me about his favorite Harry Nilsson records. We met a few times, and he seemed really nice. Swift became sorta like my muse, even when he moved on to playing with and producing much bigger bands.
Over the past ten years or so, Swift dabbled in old R&B, Beefheart, and doo-woppy fragments with varying results. I’d always wanted more songs than sounds and snippets from him, you know maybe a proper follow-up to Atlantic Ocean or something. But he was an artist who followed his own muse and I had to be okay with that. (It wasn’t like he was twiddling his thumbs. Swift spent the past decade producing some truly great albums for other artists.) And now, The Hex seems like the follow-up I wanted. But since Swift passed before the album was released, it’ll also be his swan song.