Let me once again tell you about how I purchased record albums this past year.

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

My 2017 best music purchases; or, the continuing surprise that I bought 10 albums this year.

It's that time of year where I list my favorite albums I've purchased in the last 12 months, mostly ranked by how often I've listened to them with very little other objective concerns. Though this year I bought a few objectively good albums, and that did complicate the listings. Anyway, my most played record this year isn't one I bought anyway: My good friends Jonathan Hape, Nick Baker, and Andy Foster perform together as Room and Board. They released a new EP this year and were kind enough to give me a copy. Check it out here.

Elsewise, on with the list.

10. Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner, and James McAlister's Planetarium (2017)
I really love Sufjan. I do. Since I started making these yearly lists his new releases have been at or close to the top as they come out. Here he works with some amazing collaborators all building on compositions by Nico Muhly, which makes it even more bizarre that the album mostly feels like rehashes of Stevens' earlier work. While the title itself suggests a weird expansion and dilution of Stevens's aborted 50 states project, the songs mostly sound like Age of Adz b-sides, most notably Jupiter, which sounds so close to Vesuvius to my ear that I just get the earlier track stuck in my head when I hear the newer one. And at 17 tracks the album wears thin long before it's over. Sufjan, I still love you, but I don't love this.

9. Lo Tom's s/t (2017)
It's 2017 and 90's fringe Christian acts Pedro the Lion and Starflyer 59 finally come together to form the supergroup they probably could have been 20 years ago. As two bands it was ok for me to be into in high school as far as my parents were concerned (well, so long as they didn't actually listen to Control), I've been a long time fan of both groups, and they all musically mesh quite well. Lyrically, though, Dave Bazan isn't quite as hard hitting as he has been in the past. Bad Luck Charm is like a single song version of Control, which couldn't possibly encompass everything that album had to say. Likewise some of the other songs feel more clever than smart. Still, it's well crafted guitar rock that doesn't feel like a rehash of either of the bands that make up the supergroup.

8. Spoon's Hot Thoughts (2017)
It feels kinda of like a sin to list a new Spoon album this far up the list, and Pat may never talk to me again for not putting it closer to number one, but Hot Thoughts just didn't hit me as hard as any Spoon before. Maybe it was just where I was as a person, but their last release They Want My Soul was immediately my most played album when it came out, and is still up on that list. Meanwhile, the perfectly good but not great Hot Thoughts has yet to strike me as something I need to listen to. Previous Spoon was addictive, this just isn't. I listen to each of the ten albums on this list just before ordering them and writing the reviews, and even this morning it was hard to focus on all but a couple of songs.

7. Galaxie 500's Today (1988/2009)
Awhile back I had The Aquabats' song Waterslides stuck in my head and posted the lyrics "I'll stick around to be your hero, your tugboat captain" on Facebook, to which someone responded "I love Galaxie 500". Obviously, that someone was confused, but they turned me on to this classic jangle pop band, leading ultimately to me buying the three albums they released between 1988 and 1991 when they broke up. The final song of their first album, Tugboat, was my first introduction to them by that confused Facebook friend, and is still my favorite, but all three albums are great.

6. The National's Sleep Well Beast (2017)
From here it gets very hard to rank, because I love each of the coming albums so much. Evident by Lo Tom, DAMN, Terrible Freedom, and others, 2017 was a year for songs about endurance more than hope. But sometimes endurance is all we need for hope to grow. Sleep Well Beast is a little sloppier than previous The National records, a little more chaotic, and in that a little more organic. My chief complaint about Trouble Will Find Me was that it just sounded too much like High Violet, and Sleep Well Beast rectifies that, feeling familiar without feeling repetitive. Though somewhat grittier tracks like Turtleneck push beyond anything I would expect from them.

5. Joanna Newson's The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004)
It took me a very long time to get over the shrillness of Newson's voice. Lots of people have played me her music over the years to indifference from me.  But I bought her debut on a whim and found a lyrically engaging album full of spriteful charm. And her voice grew on me pretty dang quickly to boot.

4. The Mountain Goats' Goths (2017)
Every tMG album is a slightly different take on the concept of a concept album. 2009's The Light of the World to Come took its song titles and concepts from individual verses of the Christian Scriptures. 2015's Beat the Champ are stories from the world of professional wrestling. This year we have Goths, inspired by an adolescence listening to chiefly British synth pop and gothic rock, like Bauhaus or Siouxsie and the Banshees, though the album's music is seemingly much more inspired by Nick Cave or New Order. Still the mood is invoked, and Darnielle's clever lyricism invokes the bands he's feeling inspired by in smart ways.

3. TW Walsh's Terrible Freedom (2017)
I know Walsh from his work with Pedro the Lion (and as such, he's also featured above as a member of Lo Tom), but I wasn't familiar with his solo work. Thankfully, my friend Jason Anderson (who himself makes pretty dang good music with his wife) is a big fan, and his interactions with Walsh on Twitter turned me on to Terrible Freedom.

While lyrically Terrible Freedom circles around fear and disillusionment at modern societies increase dependence on technology -- a complaint I have some issue with -- the exploration of anxiety lands on resolve, if not hope:

Open wide to the dread that's creeping.
Never let your fear turn you wild.
Come to terms with a terrible freedom.
Whatever comes, just let it arrive

2. Kendrick Lamar's DAMN (2017)
Last year I read Drew Hart's book The Trouble I've Seen and early on he challenges readers to inventory their book collections and see just how diverse they may be. My library, like that of many middle class white people, is predominantly made up of the voices of white men.

The same goes for my music collection, something I've noticed in the last few years and tried to rectify (to varying degrees, as you can see if you've read the above list). People I know who are into hip hop are often surprised that I like Kendrick or Chance the Rapper -- and I can't blame them, look at me -- but it's hard to ignore objectively good music.

Well, then again, it's not hard is it? We do it all that time. It takes empathy to get into the art created by someone whose life is -- or is perceived to be -- so different from your own. But on the flip side, seeking out the art of people different to you is a great way to start growing empathy. 

Of course I don't need to grow so much in order to relate to Lamar's lyrics of spiritual fear. I am very interested in artists exploring Christian faith outside of the confines of the Christian Music Industry, and the sense of urgency in Lamar's lyrics is impossible to ignore.

1. Beyonce's Lemonade (2016)
So Lemonade is inarguably the best album to come out in 2016, and I was very happy to see it released on vinyl late in 2017. Also, in a time when so many artists fail to include a digital download with their vinyl packages, Beyonce in her infinite goodness not only provided a download code for the album, but one for the accompanying video album.

The break up album for a relationship that didn't actually end, Lemonade is full of songs of hurt and healing, of standing up and demanding respect. Even a white dude can find that inspiring.

Another brief history of my musical consumption.

Every year I rank my top ten favorite albums that I purchased in the past 12 months irrespective of when they were actually released. This year my favorite album (And objectively one of the best released) is one I did not actually purchase -- Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book -- since I’m still unsure if you actually can purchase it? Anyway, you can stream it on any service you pay for or don’t so go check it out. Elsewise, might be indicative of my take on 2016 that the more hopeful an album is the more I liked it.

10. Factory Showroom (1996/2011)
They Might Be Giants

Part of the reason I do this list is because Pat uses it to find new music, so listing a prominent album from one of his favorite bands probably doesn’t help him out at all, but I bought a reissue this year and it’s a great album that I too love, though somehow had managed not to own (or “own”) in any format before now. It’s no Apollo 18, but it’s a fine record with some classic TMBG on it.

9. Are You Serious? (2016)
Andrew Bird

I’m a long time fan of Andrew Bird and this is a perfectly serviceable album, but it’s nothing new. The highlight (above) is a duet with Fiona Apple. The rest of the album sounds like Andrew Bird with little development from, say, Armchair Apocrypha or anything else, and perhaps even less experimentation than his previous work. He’s a great songwriter, though, so I can’t complain too much on that end. It’s also a lyrically more straightforward album, which is weird for him. Not quite gone, but exceedingly scaled back, are the gonzo metaphors and allusions of songs like A Nervous Tic Motion or Fake Palindromes from The Mysterious Production of Eggs. But in being more straightforward he’s also more open: Puma has the science jargon he frequently traffics in, but is bluntly about his wife’s thyroid cancer. But then again, can I really hold it against a man who got married, had a baby, then suddenly confronted mortality, if he’s not as experimental as I’d like?

8. Portrait of a Damaged Family (1997/2016)
Miracle Legion

A college rock album from when that term meant something. A jangle pop record from when that term existed. Reprinted for Record Store Day after the success of (and resurgence from) releasing Music from the Adventures of Pete and Pete last year. Yeah, Miracle Legion and Polaris -- the house band from the avant-garde Nickelodeon sitcom -- are one in the same, and more or less musically identical -- after all it was the same guys working together at the same time -- if a little more adult-oriented. Maybe it’s false scarcity, but considering there were only 1000 of these pressed I’m pretty glad I picked it up.

7. My Solo Project (2000)
Mates of State

A long time favorite album that I admit I’m finally owning legitimately for the first time. Great minimalist indie pop and there’s not much else to say.

6. Remember Us to Life (2016)
Regina Spektor

This is a fantastic record. I mean, I like other Regina Spektor albums more, sure. Like a lot of people I think she loses a bit with each album. But I also really loved Far and a lot of folks would put the division between good and bad Spektor albums on the other side of that particular one. I didn’t even know Remember Us to Life was coming out until I ran across this excellent interview with Spektor on Charlie Rose. The Grand Hotel and The Trapper and the Furrier are both incredible songs, as great as anything she’s ever done.


5. Wow to the Deadness EP (2016)
Steve Taylor & the Danielson Foil

Steve Taylor kickstarted an album in 2014 (it was a favorite of mine that year) with a backing band called The Perfect Foil made up of a supergroup of Christian rockers: Jimmy Abegg used to play with Rich Mullins and Charlie Peacock, Peter Furler used to play drums for The Newsboys, and John Mark Painter performs with his wife as Fleming and John. This time around they added Daniel Smith, better known as Danielson, or Brother Danielson, or the Danielson Famile, or that thing that sounds like the Shaggs meets Beefheart that Sufjan used to play with. The whole thing’s produced by Steve Albini and is exactly what all those disparate collaborators making a punk/post-punk EP should sound like. It’s great, just too short. Fortunately, as a Kickstarter backer for this, I also got a digital copy of Wow to the Liveness, a live album that includes not just the full Deadness EP, but also reinterpretations of Danielson and Taylor’s back catalogues.

4. Begin to Hope 10th Anniversary Ed. (2006/2016)
Regina Spektor

Maybe not that great that I list Spektor’s 2006 album as better than her 2016 album, but hey, a lot of people who loved Begin to Hope stopped listening to her long before Remember Us to Life came out, so I’ve got that going for me.

This is classic Regina Spektor, the woman that inspired a generation of singer-songwriters I love as well: Lisa Hannigan, Ingrid Michaelson, all great stuff that owes a debt to Spektor in general, and probably Begin to Hope in particular. I'd forgotten how much I love every single track on this record.

3. BeLoved
Steev Richter (2016)

Full disclosure, Steev is an old and dear friend of mine. I know this album has been a labor of love for him, and for you, so at the sake of my objectivity I’m not just going to say I love it, but that you should go buy it now (link), if not for him for the fact that he got Nils Cline, Ralph Carney, Tess Wiley, John Medeski, and a myriad of other talent that it’s frankly just awesome to hear all working together under the guidance of producer Danny Blume. It’s an album stacked with fantastic talent and it shows. Not least of which is Steev’s lyricism and songsmithing. And his love. 

2. Sun & Moon (2015)
Timbre

Timbre is a Nashville-based harpist who exquisitely crafts indie-folk and neoclassical music to soundtrack your dreams. Sun & Moon is a dual record sharing themes lyrically and musically. Sun is a pop record; Moon is classical compositions. Both are beautiful.

1. Winter Wheat (2016)
John K. Samson

Probably not a surprise that I like singer-songwriters. Probably not a surprise that Iike narrative or literary lyrics. I was a huge fan of John K. Samson’s late project The Weakerthans and was very excited by the announcement of Winter Wheat, and even more excited to pick it up.

The Weakerthans albums seemed to be themed to whatever major happenings were going on in Samson’s life when they were recorded: Reunion Tour, the last one, for instance danced through various forms of regret and remembrance. Winter Wheat moves on from there, both musically and emotionally, with acoustic guitar-forward songs of hope, or at least perseverance. There’s the driving Postdoc Blues that ends in a adapted paraphrasing of Active Hope by Joanna Macy (itself echoing the theology of St. Francis) which I find particularly helpful moving out of 2016:

So take that laminate out of your wallet and read it
And recommit yourself to the healing of the world
And to the welfare of all creatures upon it
Pursue of practice that will strengthen your heart

The title track has its own mantra to push us through the new year that Samson calls “the heart of the album” which he borrows from Mariam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness: “we know this world is good enough because it has to be.”
The titular wheat is used as a metaphor for making it through the roughness:

This crop withstood the months of snow
Scavengers and blight
Tuned every year towards a tiny lengthening of light
Found a way to rise

Be content. But be better.

Let it rest, all you can’t change
Let it rest and be done

Happy New Year

Two Guys and A Psycho - Eat the Government [ep]

A couple weekends ago while Pat and his family were here in the US I ended up at his parent's place to visit with them, as well as dear friends Jonathan Hape, and Andy Heney. Jonathan started poking around in boxes of old burnt cds and discovered on labeled "Adam Glass Rantings of a Mad Man" which of course we had investigate.

In the spirit of sharing embarrassing old art, I present to you the cd's contents: an "experimental" ep I recorded after being awake for 24 hours and having just finished a 10 hour shift in a school supply warehouse putting glue sticks in boxes sometime in the summer of 2004.

To the best of my knowledge I lifted the backing track to this from something Jonathan created digitally. I have no idea to what end he may have used it, but of all the things I've forgotten in my life I'm certain that producing a competent track whole-clothe in MusicMaker is not one of them. As evident from what is coming up next, I never knew how to do this.
What I could do was add distortion, narration, and 4 minutes of silence.

In your left ear you'll be hearing a loudly playing Spanish-language newscast. In your right ear you'll be hearing a different loudly playing Spanish-language newscast. Somewhere buried in there is some Beethoven.

I used to own a small plaster bust of Abraham Lincoln which was painted to look like a small pewter bust of Abraham Lincoln. He shows up in a lot of my creative work from the time. In this instance I miked Abe in one room, while I went down the hall and made a sandwich. Upon my return I tell Abe that while I liked it others may not. For some reason I then pretend that this has made Abe violently angry.

In this track I left the mic sit between a pair of headphones playing Nickleback's How You Remind Me. Then I reversed it.
I don't have to explain my art.