Top Five Records of 2018
I have to admit that I’m not always on top of new releases. I’m constantly digging into old and semi-old parts of my collection to revisit things and learn more about them. This year was a little different. I seem to have spent more time on BandCamp and in record stores in 2018, and I’ve also been out more, particularly in my role as a board member at a wonderful Madison arts organization, Arts + Literature Laboratory, which has an amazing and adventurous music program. As a consequence, I also heard more local music in 2018 than I’ve heard in a long time. Its an incredible time for music in Madison and the three local releases I’ve included below have been in very heavy rotation for several months.
So here’s what I’ve come up with. Come back soon, because at the first opportunity I’m going to bore you with some reviews. In the meantime, challenge your ears a bit and check out the following. The first two are tied for the number one spot.
Mary Halvorson | Code Girl
Mary Halvorson and Bill Frisell | The Maid with the Flaxen Hair
Solid Freex | Burned Guest
Miles Okazaki | Complete Thelonious Monk
Michael Brenneis | The Plutonium Project
Anders Svanoe | 747 Queen of the Skies: State of the Baritone
December 2018 | The Fall I am Kurious Oranj
The British Post-Punk band The Fall has always been an acquired taste. I have pretty big ears (metaphorically speaking), and it even took me a while. But when I got it, I got it, and I’ve been listening to the band for 30 years. The mid-January death of singer and sole original band member Mark E. Smith (there have been over 60 members of the The Fall since 1976) wasn’t unexpected for a guy whose diet consisted of cigarettes, whiskey, and lager, but it was a major loss to music and the written word. Their music could be ugly and repetitive, or stark, or happily melodic. You could dance to some of it and brood to some of it, but you could always count on Smith’s amazing, surreal/absurdist wordplay to carry things along. His syllables wrapped tightly around a band that always seemed a little too-taut and ready to break. For a post-punk rock singer, Smith was one of my favorite poets. I’ve been listening to a couple of Fall records every day since his death, and this one (I am Kurious Oranj) happens to be on the turntable now. Its the 1988 soundtrack to a work of theater/dance commissioned by choreographer/media artist Michael Clark, and most of us who love the record have absolutely no idea how that worked out. Nor do we care. Its a fantastic record. If you’ve never heard them, this record and the later Frenz Experiment might be your best starting points. He will be missed. RIP (Rant in Peace).
December 12, 2017 | Lightning Bolt S/T EP (1999)
And now for something completely different: very first Lightning Bolt record. Super-limited, hand-screened jacket, I assume by drummer Brian Chippendale, who is also an accomplished visual artist. I was fortunate to find one in a store in St. Augustine Florida, of all places. It seems to be a mostly live recording from the legendary Providence, RI, loft building Fort Thunder when they were still working their stuff out. Deliciously shambolic. Parts of it sound like early Philip Glass being played by Rockette Morton and John French. I think…maybe. I actually have no frame of reference for Lightning Bolt, which is sort of the point. Side two is majestic. I love this band.
Bonus: at the beginning of side two there’s a short recording of legendary punk critic and basket case Claude Bessy (Kickboy Face) from Slash magazine talking trash about buying records.
December 11, 2017 | The Velvet Underground, S/T
Haven’t listened to this in forever. This is the Lou Reed “closet mix” version, which was the very first release. Reed’s mix has a muffled, boxy quality (hence the term “closet mix”). It unexpectedly works with the music, which has its own muted, intimate quality. I’m Set Free is a standout for me on this. The arrival of the drums in the first chorus is sublime, understated, and establishes a heartbeat-like pulse.
Winter 2017 | Record of the Year 2016
Yes, I’m doing it: the Records of 2016, like a proper music blog. I’ll be adding to this over the next week or so in a couple of categories, including old things because I’m often late to the party on new stuff. Go and get these at a local place like Mad City Music Exchange on the east side, B-Side downtown, or Strictly Discs on Monroe, or buy them from the artists or labels directly. For the love of Pete, don’t do the Amazon or iTunes thing. Its more fun to talk to humans, and you should be supporting your local businesses. Why? Because I said so, and also because they bring more than commerce to our fine city: they’re part of our culture, and their owners and employees are our neighbors.
So without further delay, here’s the 2016 Record of the Year.
Nels Cline: Lovers (Blue Note)
Hands-down, no contest Record of the Year, and also among the finest and most cohesive collections of music I think I’ve ever heard. Until he joined Wilco a decade+ ago, Cline was something of an omnipresent fringe figure, known to other fringe figures for aggressive improvisational music, skronky jazz, the very curious Geraldine Fibbers, and work with Mike Watt and piles of others. As open and as musically generous as he is, Cline is something of an enigma: he’s standing off to one side of the room doing something we assume is quite interesting while the rest of us are chatting away or, I dunno, watching Sherlock. And then we all stop what we’re doing because we’ve heard something we can’t quite place, and we look over to him and say “that’s cool, can you do that again, please?” For those with big ears, the Nels Cline rabbit-hole is filled with light, color, and the sound of an endlessly inventive and insatiably curious musical mind. Go down that rabbit-hole sometime. I suggest starting with New Monastery, his collection of music by under-recognized pianist/composer Andrew Hill (a frequent collaborator with Madison’s Richard Davis), a project which I think informs Lovers in very overt ways.
According to Cline, Lovers is a “mood music” record, reflecting a loosely defined genre that would later morph into tightly packaged, industry-defined marketing category of “Easy Listening.” Lovers channels Mancini, Mantovani, Gabor Szabo, and includes Rodgers and Hart and Hammerstein pieces, though not songs that might necessarily qualify as “standards.” This is music arranged to produce slow-moving shadow effects rather than stark contrasts or blasts of showy brilliance – even if there are moments when Cline brings to bear his somewhat sideways sensibilities, which can briefly transform the record’s steady forward motion into the first and last moments on a Tilt-a-Whirl, spliced together.
Part of what makes this two-record set so compelling is the way in which it moves from track-to-track and mood-to-mood, and as I understand it this was something of the intent. It propels itself forward something like a soundtrack to a film you’ve read about but haven’t seen, and when I play it, I’ve found that I need to commit to it, starting at the beginning and ending at the ending. Engaging with it can also feel like opening a newly discovered family photo album, carefully preserved in a cool, dry basement and which, when opened, reveals images that look as bright and crisp as the day they were lovingly mounted to the page with four carefully placed black-paper photo-corners. The effect is not so much nostalgic as it is restorative.
Apart from the general feel there is much to say about Lovers from a purely musical perspective, and I keep discovering more depth and detail in each listening. There’s a quivering, nearly atonal clarinet (?) passage in the first track that I hadn’t noticed until several listenings, for example, and it changes the piece completely when you’ve fully registered it. Then there’s the even-handed timbre of Cline’s guitar, which owes so much to Jim Hall but which also has the “flat but punchy” sound of idiom-defining players like Grant Green. And its hard to believe that most of the sounds he gets on Lovers emanate from his favored instrument, the Fender Jazzmaster, which in spite of its name doesn’t really sound like a jazz instrument, unless you’re paying a lot of attention to the phsyics of the thing.
But this is not preening guitar-hero stuff. One of the wonderful things about Cline is that he always seems to be pushing back against whatever tack you think he’s taking or whatever category you think he fits into. He’s a master at breaking things by adding tension and texture with some of his signature sounds (nervous, jarring vibrato, pinched harmonics, and behind-the-bridge sounds) which keep wankery at bay. Like Marc Ribot, another one of my favorite guitar players, Cline plays like every f**king note means something. There is no wasted energy here, no noodling or running-in-place. The music is constantly going somewhere.
For Cline, Lovers was a labor of love, and I love this record too. I’ve only owned it for seven months and already I am finding it hard to imagine a world in which it didn’t exist. Like the genre he’s referencing, this music seems to have been here forever.
Here’s a fun and informative short documentary about the making of the record. Also recommended.
Fall 2016 | Catch-Up
Anton Webern’s music is hard stuff. So of course I tend to binge on it. This 4LP collection has been close at hand since about 2001, when I picked it up at what I used to call “The Ten-Dollar Record Store” in Duluth (no matter what it was or what condition it was in, everything was ten bucks). Anyway, the cultural theorist Theodor Adorno used the term “concentrated listening” a lot when talking about Webern’s work, so perhaps that’ll give the uninitiated a sense of what they might be up against. For the courageous and the patient, this is killer stuff. There are supposedly “better” performances of all of this, but I love the energy of these recordings, which I believe is due to the fact that the now late and lamented, but then wunderkind conductor Robert Craft (also Stravinsky’s assistant) selected the musicians from Hollywood studio orchestras. In other words, these were modern-leaning people in that most modern of industries, and there’s just something insatiably curious and joyful about these performances that is, for want of a better term, sort of punk rock.
Other stuff in heavy rotation recently includes the Shostakovich String Quartet cycle, some Schubert Symphonies, Nation of Ulysses, Scratch Acid, No Age (a great art-damaged band I’ve been into for the past year), and Roman Gods by the forever-underrated Fleshtones.
Late September 2016 | Harvest, and Something Obscure Which Most of You Will Not Enjoy, but I Did
Neil Young: Harvest | So a friend of mine posted something on Facebook earlier today, citing the amazing lyrics of Alabama, which he had never really thought about. I listen to a lot of Neil Young but generally prefer the heavier stuff like Zuma. Its easy to forget that this record has several moments of profound heaviness, Alabama being one of them. And of course, this and Southern Man are the songs Lynyrd Skynyrd tried to skewer (with limited effect) in Sweet Home Alabama. Put them together and you have a pretty good picture of the still-active north/south divide. And some more Bill Evans, and something hard-to-find by a group led by guitarist Joe Morris, called MVP/LSD, focusing entirely on interpretations of the graphic scores of out-there pianist and composer Lowell Davidson. One of the best semi-improvised records of the past ten years. This will be in heavy rotation for a long time.
September 19, 2016 | Bill Evans and Miles
Bill Evans: Everybody Digs Bill Evans, Undercurrent (with Jim Hall), Sunday at the Village Vanguard | How soon we forget. After finishing up Ashley Kahn’s brilliant book Kind of Blue: the Making of Miles Davis’ Masterpiece, I realized I’d forgotten how many Bill Evans LPs I accumulated after a couple of years of binging many moons ago. Brilliant.
Miles Davis: Miles in the Sky | Hadn’t really listened to this very closely in eons, but picked up a lovely copy at an antique mall last week and it has been spinning a lot…except for the skip at the end of side two…AGH! Anyway its a more-or-less perfect example of just-pre-electric Miles. I love the transitional stuff. Tony Williams is particularly brilliant on this one.
August-September 2016 | More Catching Up
Well, here it is September 15 and its been a while again, since I updated this page. A busy and enjoyable summer, getting back to school, and getting out of town a couple of times meant focusing on the basics. But its also been a busy period of listening, so I’m going to summarize the past few weeks in the only way I know how: by listing the stuff stacked in front of the records, which I’m gradually putting back on the shelves. I’m usually a “binge re-filer.” I’ll play stuff for a couple of weeks, lean it up against the shelves, return to it a couple of times maybe, and then find an hour to methodically re-file everything. And then it happens again. What ends up on the floor then becomes a kind of diary of my listening patterns. Basically, it looks like the photo to the left. This is the right half of the shelves.
My Realtor workspace is also in my music room/studio, and music is always on in the background when I’m doing Realtor-stuff at my computer. And most other times. For the past couple of days, I’ve been incentivizing the re-filing or accumulated records by listening to each of them again, back-to-front, re-filing each individually, then moving on to the next one in the stack, in order of appearance. Oh, and in August I picked up these awesome early ’80s Sansui speakers that are blowing my tiny little mind, so there’s been a lot of listening.
In this light, this is most of what I’ve been listening to for the past few weeks and what’s coming up, s0me of which will eventually be getting back on the shelves, only to be taken back down at some point:
The Birthday Party: Mutiny! and Prayers on Fire
Savage Beliefs: Big Big Sky (compilation)
Derek Bailey & Jamie Muir: Dart Drug
Sir Richard Bishop: The Freak of Araby
Charles Lloyd: Soundtrack and Discovery!
Boy Dirt Car: Split EP with F.i.
Standells: Dirty Water, Try It!, and Live and Out of Sight
Karlheinz Stockhausen: Gruppen for 3 Orchestras
Earth: 2 (Special Low Frequency Version)
Sonic Youth: Goo (Mobile Fidelity pressing)
Black Sabbath: Black Sabbath and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath
Karlheinz Stockhausen: Mantra
Joe Morris, John Voigt, and Tom Plsek: The Graphic Scores of Lowell Skinner Davidson
Pentangle: Pentangle, Solomon’s Seal, and Cruel Sister (lately a little bit obsessed with these guys and Bert Jansch)
Philip Glass: Music in Similar Motion and Music in Fifths
Edgard Varese: Boulez Conducts Varese (Ameriques, Ionisation, Arcana)
Andrew Hill: Point of Departure (wonderful 45rpm re-master)
Appliances SFB: SFB
Marisa Anderson: Into the Light and Mercury
Steve Reich: Octet, Music for a Large Ensemble, Violin Phase
Deerhoof: The Magic
Luc Ferrari: Presque Rien
Pierre Schaeffer: La Triedre Fertile
Mel Powell, Vladimir Ussachevsky, Otto Leuning: Music for Electronic and Older Instruments (comp)
Fripp and Eno: No Pussyfooting
Charley Patton: Founder of the Delta Blues 1929-1934
Terry Riley: In C
Ilhan Mimaroglu: Wings of the Delirious Demon and Other Electronic Works
Velvet Underground: The Legendary Guitar Amp Tapes
Mothers of Invention: Uncle Meat
Janos Starker: Dvorak, Cello Concerto and Faure, Elegy for Cello and Orchestra
John Williams (the other one, with the guitar): Malcolm Arnold, Guitar Concerto, Op 67, and Leo Brouwer, Guitar Concerto
Joy Division: Closer
Sunn 0))): ØØ Void
My Bloody Valentine: Loveless
Sloan: Twice Removed
Bernstein/NY Philharmonic: The Four Symphonies of Charles Ives
Pat Martino: Desperado
Spiritualized: Ladies and Gentlemen, We are Floating in Space
Budapest String Quartet: Beethoven, Quartet No. 13 in B-Flat Major, Op. 130
Various: John Cage, Variations II; Henri Posseur, Trois Visages de Liege; Milton Babbitt, Ensembles for Synthesizer
George Baker: Darius Milhaud: Works for Organ
Various (vintage VoxBox): The Avant Garde String Quartet in the USA (Crumb, Cage, Brown, Wolpe, Kirchner, Feldman etc)
Brigitte Fontaine: S/T and L’Incendie (with Areski)
St. Francis Duo (Stephen O’Malley and Steve Noble): Peacemaker Assembly
Ernest Tubb: Presents the Texas Troubadours
Miles Davis: Miles in the Sky
Actually, there’s fair amount more, but you get the sense or it. Sometimes I think I’m completely out of my mind. What can I say…music makes the world go ’round. At least the little world in my basement.
April 8, 2016 | Killdozer
Killdozer, Killdozer, Killdozer.Killdozer, Killdozer, Killdozer, Killdozer, Killdozer, Killdozer, Killdozer, Killdozer, Killdozer, Killdozer. Oh and those Schubert String Quartets – again.
March! 2016 | Catching Up Again
Wow, its been a long time…March was a very busy and productive month for me, with multiple closings and successes for a wide range of clients. More to come this spring, I hope. Good news for this page: I’ve been so busy that most of what I’ve been listening to is still stacked up around my stereo. Glancing over it, here’s a bit of what has been passing through my head when I’m not out and about:
Pere Ubu: New Picnic Time and Dub Housing
Schubert: String Quartets (Melos recordings and others – yep, still addicted to them, see below)
Anton Bruckner: Symphonies 8 & 9
Dmitri Shostakovich: String Quartets and Symphony #8
Fred Frith: Guitar Solos
Skip Spence: Oar
The Fall: everything I own – I spent a week about a month ago on a massive Fall binge. And I’ve never felt better.
Scott Walker: Scott and Scott 4
Eric Dolphy: Out There
John Cage: various things
Christian Wolff: various things
Karlheinz Stockhausen: Mantra and Telemusik among others
Charles Ives: Symphonies #1 and #4, and Universe Symphony
Shuggie Otis: various
Sannhet: Known Flood – one of my favorite American New Black Metal records.
Various: French Wind Trios – wonderful compilation from the ’90s on CRD, with Faure, Auric, Honegger, others.
Various: The Wooden Guitar – super good, concise compilation of recent acoustic guitar music from Sir Richard Bishop and others. That one has been played a lot.
Among lessons learned: do not try to focus on your work when you have Ives’ Universe Symphony playing in the background. Seriously. As tempting as it sounds, don’t go there.
Week of February 1, 2016 | New Stuff
Did a little bit of new-release (newish, at least) browsing a few days ago and came back with a couple of things that made parting with cash much easier. First up:
Savages: Adore Life
My word, this is good. Great, even. Savages are misleadingly labeled a “Post-Punk Revival” band, which is ridiculous. Its like saying anyone who has composed for orchestra since the Romantic era is a Beethoven revivalist. Phooey. The first Savages LP, from 2014 if I’m not mistaken, was a shimmering, silvery blast of agitated beats and a fearlessly wide range of guitar sounds. Yes, perhaps it did sound like Echo and the Bunnymen and The Pop Group in a bar fight, but not enough to put them in any sort of revivalist bucket. I felt that it was intensely original and emotionally draining. This new one, though…a monster. A total, total, total monster. Easily my favorite new record of the past two years. I have barely stopped playing it all week. Avoid at your own peril, and don’t expect me to mansplain it to you. Just go and get (and by “go and get it” I mean get off of your duff and SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL RECORD STORES!)
Most of the last half of January | David Bowie
Hopefully I don’t need to explain why I’m binging on Bowie. Alladin Sane and Diamond Dogs yesterday and this morning, Scary Monsters coming up shortly, and that’s where I anchor myself to his discography so it’ll be a nice afternoon. Look up and say “thanks, David,” just once in the next couple of days. He changed things for the better.
5 January, 2016 | Catching Up
Long break, lots of listening. Here are some highlights.
Sunn 0))): Kannon | Interesting. Shorter pieces, Attila Csihar has a much more up-front role. Mix has a bit more air in it. I like it a lot.
Yung Wu: Shore Leave | One of The Feelies’ multiple side projects from the ’80s. I probably haven’t listened to this in ten years and it was a major surprise. There are some clunkers, but generally its a wonderful record that seems to bridge the nervousness of the earlier Feelies with the more earnest folkiness of their work after The Good Earth. Also spun Only Life a couple of times, but I have to say that it hasn’t aged well, IMHO.
John Zorn/George Lewis/Bill Frisell: News for Lulu. Wonderful trio record from 1988 focused on short versions of major Post-Bop compositions by Sonny Clark, Kenny Dorham, Hank Mobley, and Freddie Redd. One of trombonist George Lewis’ finest hours. One persistent issue for me with this record is that Zorn’s alto seems dominant and a little shrill.
Dragons 1976: On Cortez. Pretty obscure but very neat little gem of a record from 2003 by some leaders in the Chicago avant-jazz scene: Aram Shelton on alto, Jason Ajemian on bass, and Tim Daisy on drums. Pretty straightforward as these things go, but it has a brightness, liveliness, and brevity that I’ve always found interesting and attractive. The compositions are engaging and the recording is open and airy. If you can find this, pick it up. I have to confess that I don’t know offhand if this was a one-off or not. Anyway I’m glad to own it.
Iceage: Plowing into the Field Of Love. Maybe I suddenly like this band because I’ve recently been fascinated by outfits like Black Dice and No Age. Loose, guitary, totally affected vocals that in other hands would just sound stupid, but this is good.
Kenny Wheeler: Around 6. I’ve had this for several months but only just got around to it. What a fantastic record. Evan Parker features heavily and the sextet (drums, vibes, bass, trombone) is in each others’ heads. I’m not a huge fan of ECM-ized jazz but this is a major exception. Hard to explain, exactly. Check it out.
Sinawi music. Maybe its the news from North Korea, but I’ve been going down a Korean music rabbit-hole over the past few days. Sinawi is an improvised genre that often accompanies the ecstasies of shamen. I’ve always loved Korean classical music and the traditional Korean instruments have always sounded so much more robust, percussive, and powerful to me than other related musics. I don’t have any recordings of this incredible music, but YouTube has a bunch. I’m on the lookout for records.
Also over the holidays: Charles Lloyd, Swell Maps, Erase/Errata, Dave Holland, Derek Bailey, Han Bennink and Terrie Ex, and some other stuff in the pile over there, including evidence of one of my late-night Judas Priest binges (no comment).
14 December 2015 | Liquid Idiot / Idiot Orchestra
Liquid Liquid pushed out a small group of recordings of jittery funk as part of the No Wave movement, and this is a very interesting new compilation of their earlier work as Liquid Idiot and Idiot Orchestra. A regular feature at lofts and clubs including Tier 3 and the Mudd Club, the band encouraged audience members to bring their own instruments to their early shows. Idiot Orchestra was an offshoot that included a dozen or more players (clarinet, sax, trumpet, violin, cello, synth, bass, marimba and drums) resembling a No Wave version of Raymond Scott’s big band. This split LP from Superior Viaduct collects singles from 1980, both of which were originally pressed in hyper-limited editions and self-released by the bands. Not sure where I’m at with this yet, but its definitely retaining my attention. Its possible that this will lead to some No Age and Black Dice later in the day.
11 December 2015 | Talking Heads 1983 Italian Tour
Holy moley. Once in a while its a really, really good idea to loop back to Talking Heads. Those first four records, ’77, More Songs about Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and Remain in Light blew the box clean open: every one of them seemed to be a discrete project, seemingly driven by a relentless impulse to simultaneously deconstruct and reconstruct pop music. I’m not even sure I know how to react to this live show from 1983 other than to watch it again. If you don’t have time for the whole thing, just check this out. This is also pretty neat. More please.
10 December 2015 | Captain Beefheart: The Spotlight Kid
Captain Beefheart is a name known to many, but his music…maybe not so much. Listening to it can be risky if you don’t know what you’re getting into. In some ways, his music is a touchstone for the adventurous spirit of the late 1960s, but in other ways his work could have been written at any time in the late 20th Century. Drawing as much from Anton Webern and Free Jazz as from the Blues, Beefheart’s music counts among its fans Simpsons creator Matt Groening and actor Billy Bob Thornton, as well as musicians Tom Waits, Nick Cave, and countless others. The Spotlight Kid, which is on the turntable as I write, was his attempt to inch back toward a more “mainstream” Blues-based sound after the challenging masterwork Trout Mask Replica. Spotlight features the Trout Mask band, who re-channel the vaguely psychotic, structured contortions of that previous record into hard-hitting, angular rock with many interesting melodic twists and turns and lots of experimentation with timbre and orchestration. I’m a fan of transitional records, and this is one of my favorites. I’m thinking I might go back to Trout Mask after this, but frankly its a bit difficult to work with that playing in the background. Maybe when I break for lunch.
9 December 2015 | Schubert String Quartets
Today I’m revisiting the complete Schubert String Quartets six-LP set from the Melos Quartet. A well-regarded Deutsche Grammophon set from the early 1970s that I’m really glad I own. Its an incredible set of performances – precise but emotive – and a phenomenal recording. Some of the German string quartets of the 1970s (these guys and Schoenberg Quartet, for example) were made up largely of younger musicians who were born during or after World War II, and with the basic questions being directed at German culture in the years following that conflict, I find myself thinking about what these guys (and yes, mostly guys) were thinking about the music they were playing. Was it nostalgia for a Germany not wrecked (literally and metaphorically) by war fever? Were they trying to recapture aspects of German culture they felt were lost in the turmoil of the 20th century, and appropriated by the Nazis as examples of “pure” German/Aryan culture? Either way, the performances in this set show a kind of investment on the part of the musicians that doesn’t come from reading the notes on the page. The six LPs should last me through the day.