As with years past, I sat down with every record I bought this year and listened through, then largely ignored any new discoveries to rank them based on how often I’d listened to them since purchasing. It’s time for an arbitrary list!
10. The Welcome Wagon -- Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices
I find it hard to relate to modern Christian music. I want to believe that people are sincere, but there’s just so much money involved, and so little art. Maybe I’m being too harsh. Generally the Christian music -- or Christian-adjacent music -- I like involves struggle. In that regard, there is something inherently appealing to me about mid-century gospel music, the sort of albums you find in thrift stores and “weird album covers” lists.
The Welcome Wagon is a throwback to that era, a Presbyterian minister and his wife making earnest Christian worship music. But at the same time, this is a band produced by Sufjan Stevens. It’s not necessarily challenging or thought provoking, but it is interesting
9. The B-52’s -- the B-52’s (1979, 2018)
Speaking of kitschy throwback. In lieu of saying anything that would fall short of properly praising this seminal album I’m going to tell you about the first time I consciously heard the first track, Planet Claire. I was in 8th or 9th grade and my friend Jonathan’s dad picked us up from some school function and started this album just as we got into the car. Now I’m certain I had heard Love Shack before then, but if I’d ever heard any other B-52s song I can’t say, and Planet Claire is no Love Shack, which I mean in the best ways. It was dark, I was quite probably sitting in a fold out seat in the back of the cab of a tiny pickup truck, and I was engulfed in what I was hearing. There’s a very good chance they’d dropped me off before the tape got to Rock Lobster, which there’s a small chance I may have recognized. Instead, when I asked what I was hearing, Jonathan’s dad told me they were called “The Planet Claire People” and while I don’t think I believed that, I’m certain that I didn’t know the actually answer for years. Thanks, Jeff Hape! You lovable weirdo!
8. They Might Be Giants -- Lincoln (1988, 2018)
Has there ever been a band as densely clever as TMBG? And have they themselves ever released an album as densely clever as Lincoln? I mean, like besides most of their other albums? It seems this was my year to buy reissues of albums I wished I could have gotten lucky enough to stumble across in a thrift store, or at least a used record shop. Thanks, resurgence of the vinyl industry!
7. Durand Jones and the Indications -- s/t (2017)
Apparently this album was recorded for under $500 and using an “American Idol” branded toy microphone and I cannot believe that. Just utterly brilliant throwback soul music.
6. OHMME -- s/t (2017)
Formerly known as HOMME, the Chicago multi-instrumentalist duo of Macie Stewart and Sima Cunningham formed in 2004 and has since toured with Jeff Tweedy and played with Chance the Rapper. I was lucky enough to catch them playing a small bar in Columbus when my friends in Room and Board opened for them. The full-length follow-up Parts (2018) is already my first purchase of 2019, so please look forward to hearing me write about that in a year.
5. Listener -- Being Empty: Being Filled (2018)
There was a time when Listener were two guys and washing machine -- and indeed a time before that with a different format as well -- and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss that. Now listener is a band with three people and no appliances, but still some of the most literary lyrics about regret and hope around. Each track on Being Empty: Being Filled is inspired by a different inventor/creator, some more in dedication to, some exploring motivations, and some lamenting. While the lamentful “There’s Money in the Walls” deals with Diesel’s unfulfilled dreams -- “When you don't go on, your song lives on” -- it’s the double whammy of the final two songs that pushes this record beyond, with tales of best intentions getting away from their inventors, either through hubris (the Oppenheimer inspired Manhattan Projects above) or oppression (Plague Doctor, about the inventors of Kevlar and gas masks, both invented for purely civilian purposes).
4. The Avalanches -- Since I Left You (2000, 2017)
For a very long time after I first encountered the video for Frontier Psychiatrist, I labored under the impression that it was illegal to sell this album in the US because of the copyright issues putting out an album that is almost entirely layered samples. Expertly layered samples. It’s among the best sample-based musical ventures to ever be produced. I’m pretty sure I was wrong about the legality since there was a 2001 US CD release, but last year it finally made it to vinyl here and I picked it up at one of the best record shops in the country, Vertigo in Grand Rapids, MI.
3. The Aquabats -- The Fury of The Aquabats (1997, 2018)
I think I’ve been clear in the past that I’m easily swayed by certain strains of nostalgia, but let’s be clear, The Aquabats weren’t just my favorite band in high school, they’re my favorite band now, too. I saw them for the dozenth or so time earlier this year with my longtime best friend Jonathan Hape and I can only imagine the dumb smile I had on my face the entire night. Favorite band, favorite album, new vinyl release that sounds just phenomenal. Yeah it’s a favorite for the year. Gonna have to be a pretty danged good album to beat out the joyous nostalgia kick of this one. Good thing two did.
2. mewithoutYou -- [untitled] and [untitled] E.P. (2018)
Ok, technically two releases but they have the same title and came out at the same time, so whatever. mewithoutYou has long been a source of inspiration for me, and I’m always joyful for new music from them. While lyricist and lead singer Aaron Weiss and I have followed rather different (though not too different) religious paths, his acknowledgement that such a journey is useless if you don’t keep moving is deeply affecting -- always be trying to bring your ideals in line with your actions, and always be reaching for greater ideals. In that way the band is also an inspiration for CinemaCredo.com, my new podcast where I’ll be talking to people about the film that had the greatest religious significance to them, however they define religious significance.
As for Untitled, while the first single (above) is a beautifully killer track, it’s the opener of the EP. “Bethlehem, WV”, that really hit me the hardest, perhaps because of the times I’ve yelled at God myself just over the border in Virginia. Epiphanies come in the most surprising places.
1. Janelle Monae -- Dirty Computer (2018)
So I pre-ordered the vinyl release of Dirty Computer, certifiably the best album I bought this year because it’s the best album released this year period. Just fantastic.
Anyway, so I preordered it through the label, Warner, in June and they immediately put a pending charge on my card. That’s not a problem. Honestly, I’d be fine just paying up front for a pre-order. Anyway, the charge fell off the next day. Then it showed up the next week. And gone again. Every week until mid September, two weeks before the album was scheduled to come out. I got an email explaining that Warner was “required by law” to attempt to charge me every week, and that the charge had been rejected that week, and therefore my pre-order was cancelled forever.
Anyway, I bought it from my favorite local record shop, Spoonful, like I always should have. Let that be a lesson to you.
The entire album is a celebration of living your true self, no matter the adversity. I’m particularly a fan of the closing track Americans, which features a spoken word portion by the Rev. Dr. Sean McMillian that I think dovetails well with some ideas we’ve shared before:
Let me help you in here
Until women can get equal pay for equal work
This is not my America
Until same-gender loving people can be who they are
This is not my America
Until black people can come home from a police stop without being shot in the head
This is not my America, huh!
Until poor whites can get a shot at being successful
This is not my America
I can't hear nobody talkin' to me