Oct 21, 2020

COVID life #1

 As I sit at my office desk, listening to a light rain fall and watching the haze developing around the obnoxiously bright alley light directly in my line of vision, I am mentally preparing myself for what promises to be a long, uneventful winter. With the numbers in our state tracking precipitously upwards and stronger restrictions once again looming, the reality of a COVID winter is ever so slowly beginning to set in. It could be worse, as always. We both remain gainfully employed and as difficult as balancing a full-time job with parenting and assisting with remote leaning can be, endless grateful for the unexpected time to watch our son grow every single day. That said, it's worth acknowledging the ways in which the immediate future feels gloomy. One of the balms has been weekend treks through various local nature preserves and walking trails, obviously to be a distant memory when the Chicago winter kicks in with full force. It's a good reminder of the necessity of taking stock of that which one has already to hand and finding ways to appreciate it all anew. What that means and how that looks is ever evolving. We'd all love to pretend that the extra time at home has allowed us all to indulge those long dormant hobbies and develop, no, master, those previously latent talents. But no, making it through the day with psyches intact and sanity still clutched, no matter how tenuously, is the highest we can hope for on the best of them. While I can sit here and wish for a vaccine, or more robust testing, or better yet, a nudge towards normalcy, whatever that may mean, it feels all too futile, as far out of my hands as all of these things are. For now, I'll listen to the rain growing more steady, watch the distant lightning flash and remember those things today that would have been unimaginable on an average Wednesday workday a year ago - the smell of a fresh pot of French press, my son leaning into me for a half-hearted hug during one of the breaks between his Zoom lessons and the commute home consisting of a walk from the dining room where my work laptop is set up to the chair in our sunroom where a book awaits. May we all find and savor these moments of peace in the months to come. 

Oct 20, 2020

Recently Enjoying

While I continue shaking out how I want things to evolve in this long dormant bit of digital real estate, I thought I might fill the time by passing along a list of some things I've recently been enjoying. Or at least those things that have served as momentary distractions from the unending horror show that has filled even the margins of 2020.

Albums

Low - Long Division (1995) / The Curtain Hits the Cast (1996) / Secret Name (1999)
Not new to everyone, but I didn't really start following Low's career until after they had signed with Sub Pop around the middle of last decade. I since went back to check out their highly regarded final two Kranky releases (Things We Lost in the Fire, Trust), but I'd always neglected the earlier part of the career. The Curtain Hits the Cast was the big revelation for me, epitomizing the trio's starkly beautiful slowcore roots.

Blue Oyster Cult - The Symbol Remains (2020)
The long running cult classic returns for their first new studio album in nearly two decades and, honestly, it has no right to be as good as it is. Long time BOC fans will instantly find something to love, with all of the band's trademarks in full supply - horror and sci-fi derived lyrics aided by notable authors, killer hooks and blistering guitar playing. They even make a song called "Florida Man", a twisted tale in the vein of Butthole Surfers' "Pepper" and Jim Carroll's "People Who Died" that ties the titular screw-up from our daily news reports to the curse of the conquistadors, work, and exceptionally well at that. Such a conceit would fall flat as gimmickry in lesser hands, it's a testament to these lifers that it works so well here. And it's only one of the half dozen or more truly great songs on this record.

Books

Machineries of Empire Trilogy (Ninefox Gambit / Raven Stratagem / Revenant Gun) - Yoon Ha Lee
This is a sci-fi trilogy that drops you, in a rather disorienting manner, into the middle of a universe filled with maneuvering political factions, heretics and space battle controlled by belief in the calendar imposed on them by leaders and math, lots and lots of math. It's dizzying, to start, but Yoon Ha Lee compels you forward with exceptional set-pieces, epic battles and intrigue, all while very slowly unveiling the world they have built to fill in the pieces you didn't have from the start. It is gripping and, quite rarely for a sci-fi series, it sticks the landing in spectacular fashion, tying up the loose ends in a most satisfying and consistent way. I cannot recommend this series highly enough and I can't wait to see where Yoon Ha Lee's imagination goes next.

Televsion

Lovecraft Country (HBO)
I was a big fan of Matt Ruff's novel when I read it a few years ago, so I was ecstatic to see that it was picked up to become a series on HBO. I've also really enjoyed the work I've read by H.P. Lovecraft, though acknowledging that his massive talent in crafting deeply unsettling work is balanced out by his horrific views on race, so it was a thrill to see Ruff twist the two threads into the highly original story of Atticus Turner and his family. The series ups the ante in spectacular fashion, expanding on Ruff's stories in fascinating and horrifying new ways while striking a balance between a horror anthology series that tackles different themes (the haunted house episode, the demonic possession episode, the time travel episode, etc) while weaving together an even more satisfying overarching story. The acting is superb throughout, especially Jonathan Majors' Atticus, Aunjanue Ellis' Hippolyta and Michael K. Williams' Montrose. I'm not sure I will ever completely expunge the horrifying image of Diana's pursuers in Episode 8.

Succession (HBO)
We were rather late to this one but in a way I'm really glad, since it allowed us to binge both seasons rather quickly instead of having to wait a week for each new episode. There's been a lot of digital ink spilled already about how great this is and I'm not sure I have anything of significance to add, other than to add another voice in the chorus confirming that it really is as good as you've been hearing. Individually and collectively, the entire Logan clan is as despicable and disgusting as you might expect a bunch loosely based on the Murdoch clan may be, but this is never less gripping for them being so. Kieran Culkin is a revelation as Roman Roy and Brian Cox is never less than wonderful, but it's the ensemble that makes this a show worth watching. 

Oct 14, 2020

Checking In

 I can assure you that I never intended this blog to fall into such a state of disrepair and abandonment that it became nothing more than a dumping ground for my increasingly late year end wrap ups, but that is apparently what has happened. Believe me, dear hypothetical reader, I'm as disappointed about that as you are. While I'm not naive enough to think this is the time for a grand declaration of renewed promises to fill this daily with scintillating new content, I do want to put an intention into the universe that I will return to more regular posting - if for no better reason to give myself a creative outlet and to goose myself towards working on the craft of writing. 

I probably will get my best of 2018 and 2019 lists up at some point, but in massively diminished form, likely just a list without any meta commentary, video links or images. Those are all nice but I fear providing them all for the backlog of two years feels like so much more busy work on my plate. I'm much more interested in getting the actual contents of the lists up for posterity's sake.

There are no grand plans for what I will do in this space, no overarching project or themes, but there are multiple things floating through my head that I would like to expand on over time. Again, if for nothing more than getting back into the process of writing and sharpening my skills on that front. 

For now, however many people may even bother to check back in here, I hope you are holding up as well as possible in the year of 2020 and I hope to continue filling this space with interesting thoughts and ideas very soon. 

Jan 3, 2019

2017 Year In Review Part VI: The Albums

And now we get to the grand finale and always my favorite part of year-end list making season... my favorite 75 albums of the year that was 2017.

75. Amenra - Mass VI (Neurot)
74. The Black Angels - Death Song (Partisan)
73. Mastodon - Emperor of Sand (Reprise)
72. Ty Segall - Ty Segall (Drag City)
71. Tomb Mold - Primordial Malignity (Blood Harvest)
70. Feedtime. - gas (In the Red)
69. King Woman - Created in the Image of Suffering (Relapse)
68. Julie Byrne - Not Even Happiness (Ba Da Bing)
67. Robyn Hitchcock - Robyn Hitchcock (Yep Roc)
66. Fleet Foxes - Crack-Up (Nonesuch)
65. Dunbarrow - Dunbarrow (Riding Easy)
64. All Them Witches - Sleeping Through the War (New West)
63. Real Estate - In Mind (Domino)
62. Priests - Nothing Feels Natural (Sister Polygon)
61. Crown Larks - Population (Satellite)
60. Full of Hell - Trumpeting Ecstasy (Profound Lore)
59. Here Lies Man - Here Lies Man (Riding Easy)
58. Bill Orcutt - Bill Orcutt (Palilalia)
57. Manchester Orchestra - A Black Mile to the Surface (Loma Vista)
56. Oxbow - Thin Black Duke (Hydra Head)
55. Impetuous Ritual - Blight Upon Martyred Sentience (Profound Lore)
54. SZA - CTRL (Top Dawg)
53. Petyr - Petyr (Outer Battery)
52. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - The Nashville Sound (Southeastern)
51. Roscoe Mitchell - Bells for the South Side (ECM)
50. Ex Eye - Ex Eye (Relapse)
49. Solstafir - Berdreyminn (Season of Mist)
48. Bitchin Bajas - Bajas Fresh (Drag City)
47. Chelsea Wolfe - Hiss Spun (Sargent House)
46. Ruby the Hatchet - Planetary Space Child (Tee Pee)
45. Low Flying Hawks - Genkaku (Magnetic Eye)
44. Guided by Voices - How Do You Spell Heaven (GBV Inc.)
43. Samsara Blues Experiment - One With the Universe (Electric Magic)
42. Wand - Plum (Drag City)
41. Trad, Gras Och Stenar - Tack For Kaffet (So Long) (Subliminal Sounds)
40. Galley Beggar - Heathen Hymns (Rise Above)
39. Steven Wilson - To the Bone (Caroline)
38. Haim - Something To Tell You (Columbia)
37. The Horrors - V (Caroline)
36. Purple Hill Witch - Celestial Cemetery (The Church Within)
35. Hiss Golden Messenger - Hallelujah Anyhow (Merge)
34. Shooting Guns - Flavour Country (Riding Easy)
33. The Clientele - Music for the Age of Miracles (Merge)
32. Mirror Queen - Verdigras (Tee Pee)
31. Caligua's Horse - In Contact (Inside Out)
30. Enslaved - E (Nuclear Blast)
29. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard - Polygondwanaland (ATO)
28. Charlotte Gainsbourg - Rest (Because)
27. Godspeed You! Black Emperor - "Luciferian Towers" (Constellation)
26. Ufomammut - 8 (Neurot)
25. St. Vincent - Masseduction (Loma Vista)
24. Oh Sees - Orc (Castle Face)
23. Boris - Dear (Sargent House)
22. The Body & Full of Hell - Ascending a Mountain of Heavy Light (Thrill Jockey)
21. The Jesus and Mary Chain - Damage and Joy (Artificial Plastic)


20. Causa Sui - Vibraciones Doradas (El Paraiso)
After releasing the stellar triple disc live album earlier in 2017 I wasn't expecting another new studio album from these Danish instrumental rockers, but they managed to squeeze one in near the end of the year that manages to hang with just about anything else. Four extended jams linked by one brief interlude of deep fuzz and stoner rock deliciousness.


19. Sannhet - So Numb (Profound Lore)
By the time Brooklyn's Sannhet reached this, album number three, pretty much all traces of black metal influence were removed from their sound, leaving only widescreen post-rock in its place. This led to a lot of mixed to negative reviews, but I found this to be their most engaging yet - slow-building and heavy enough to maintain those tenuous links to their metal origins.


18. Spectral Voice - Eroded Corridors of Unbeing (Dark Descent)
The debut record from this Denver based death-doom band took me completely by surprise, but I was endlessly enraptured by it every single time I pushed play. Even though I was a big fan of the off-shoot project, Blood Incantation, I wasn't prepared for the lumbering doom riffs and atmospheric death metal that Spectral Voice brings to the table. Highly recommended for folks that miss diSEMBOWELMENT.


17. Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - Who Build the Moon? (Caroline)
Yeah, this is indeed THAT Noel Gallagher and, yes, I do think the third album from his post-Oasis project is worthy of being considered one of 2017's twenty best records. I'm sure I'm in the minority, but something about this one really resonated with me. Even when he brings in the expected guests like Johnny Marr or Paul Weller, these is something about the resulting sound - triangulated somewhere between mid-period New Order, 60's psychedelia and hazy, rock-tinged trip-hop - that works surprisingly well.


16. Cloakroom - Time Well (Relapse)
The second album from Indiana's Cloakroom was another very pleasant surprise in 2017 and kudos to Relapse for continuing to move outside their comfort zone and bringing it to my attention. If anything, I would tag these guys as a shoegaze band, though one with a very heavy doom influence in the way everything is so deliberately paced. Gorgeous melodies swirl beneath, creating a heady mix that is perfect for headphone listening.


15. Colour Haze - In Her Garden (Elektrohasch)
If anything, the latest release from Colour Haze reaches back a little bit to be an extension of 2008's excellent, All, scrapping a little of the experimentation of the last two albums and digging back into those extended stoner rock grooves. Not that experiments aren't completely gone, there are songs that incorporate woodwinds and horns, but it's a bit more focused.


14. Converge - The Dusk in Us (Epitaph)
By my count, this brings Converge's total to five stone cold classic records. An incredible achievement by any band's standards, even more when four of the five were all released in a row. At this point, it's hard to keep coming up with new adjectives to describe what Converge manages to pull off, so I'm not going to try. Just lock into Jacob Bannon's vocals and Kurt Ballou's riffs and enjoy the ride.


13. Jute Gyte - Oviri (Jeshimoth)
Jute Gyte is the recording name for one Adam Kalmbach, an uber-prolific guy that seems to be releasing albums to Bandcamp on a nearly weekly basis. His work is difficult to classify, especially considering how wide ranging Kalmbach, though it frequently tends to fall towards the more experimental end of one-man black metal. The best description I've read for this comes from the Quietus, stating that Jute Gyte "works in the traditions of both hermetic weirdo black metal and experimental electronics, while drawing on the microtonal harmonies and intricate rhythms of modern academic composition". Sure.


12. Neil Young - Hitchhiker (Reprise)
Technically this might be more of an archival release but, seeing as it actually is a previously unreleased full studio album, I think it counts here. It was originally recorded in 1976 and shelved, though many of the songs found their way out (in redone forms) on later albums - from 1977's American Stars 'n Bars to 2010's Le Noise. In this original form, however, this paints a strangely beautiful portrait of Neil in the middle of the 1970s.


11. Circle - Terminal (Southern Lord)
Finland's Circle have long been one of my favorite bands, it's been a trip to follow them through various experiments, genres and moods. As usual it's a heady mix of krautrock, psychedelic rock, electronic ambience, progressive rock, glam pop and nearly anything else you could imagine. Right from the ferocious riffing of the epic 12-minute opener, you can't help but be thrilled to be in their weird world.


10. Loss - Horizonless (Profound Lore)
Funeral doom is an easy genre to play, but a hard genre to perfect. Nashville's Loss took six full years to follow-up on their debut, but this was well worth the wait. The band balances crushingly slow and heavy doom with beautiful atmospheres and sparse drumming in a way that keeps things constantly fresh. They also keep this interesting by bringing in a slew of guest vocalists to play off of Mike Meacham's growls.


9. Brand New - Science Fiction (Procrastinate! Music Traitors)
Brand New have released five albums now and I'd argue that three of them, this latest one included, are undeniable classics. Watching them evolve from third-wave emo also-rans with catchy singles into something much more deep and searching. Through unexpected segues, tape loops, damaged guitar solos and moments of cathartic release, the band wraps Jesse Lacey's self-loathing, quotable lyrics in a hell of a storm. If this is the end of the band, at least they go out on a high note.


8. Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels 3 (Run the Jewels)
I never expected this pairing to last this long, but I suppose it shouldn't be too surprising given how much more popular it has been than anything else either Killer Mike or El-P released on their own. But, hey, at least the music absolutely slaps. I think this might be my favorite of the three albums so far, Mike seems particularly energized and the guest spots from Danny Brown, Kamasi Washington and Tunde Adebimpe help elevate things to a whole new level.


7. Kendrick Lamar - DAMN. (Aftermath)
I'd be lying if I didn't admit to being underwhelmed by this after my first spin, although I think that's my fault for holding it to my expectations after his previous two classics. Approached on its own terms, this is another killer Kendrick record with plenty to chew on, U2 cameo and all. It may be the third best Kendrick Lamar record so far, but even that puts it light years ahead of most of the competition.


6. Moon Duo - Occult Architecture Vol. 1 & 2 (Sacred Bones)
I don't consider it cheating when the albums are released as part of a specific package and recorded at the same time. Moon Duo is the off-shoot of Wooden Shjips founded by guitarist Ripley Johnson and keyboardist Sanae Yamada. They create a krautrock tinged, blissed-out psychedelic rock and the Occult Architecture represents the two sides of their sound - the first volume being the darker and fuzzier end (fuzz dungeon) with the second being more uplifting and airier (crystal palace).


5. Biblical - The City That Always Sleeps (Tee Pee)
As soon as I found out these guys were associated with the space rock band Comet Control, I knew I was in for something special. What I didn't expect was Pink Floyd derived stoner rock that flew through the history of psychedelic rock over the course of its running time. The Floydian overtones are made most explicit in "Fugue State", but the band does really manage to carve out a unique sound.


4. Bell Witch - Mirror Reaper (Profound Lore)
In another example of the stellar funeral doom of 2017, Seattle's Bell Witch pushed the genre to its logical endpoint with an album comprised of one single 83 minute song. There's something to be said for pulling off such a feat at all, but Bell Witch managed to do it and make the song compelling throughout. The back half is especially haunting, incorporating achingly clear guitar lines and Erik Moggridge's vocals. This will stand up as one of the landmarks of the doom genre.


3. Algiers - The Underside of Power (Matador)
Yet another big surprise for the year. I remembered hearing about the band's 2015 self-titled debut, but it got lost in the shuffle and I never gave it a spin. Fortunately the buzz led me to their follow-up, even if I was left totally unprepared for the chaotic, post-punk soul that I was to find. I was constantly mesmerized by Franklin James Fisher's voice and how he channeled his rage into a searching, politically minded record that never sacrifices the musical intensity. Portishead's Adrien Utley was an excellent choice to produce this.


2. Pallbearer - Heartless (Profound Lore)
You might be surprised to see this placed even higher than the Bell Witch album when I considered that to be a crowning achievement in the doom genre, but I think Little Rock's Pallbearer has evolved themselves straight out of the doom world. While elements remain, this ends up closer to an '90s alt-rock progressive album than anything else, filled with soaring guitar solos, gorgeous melodies and ripples of electronic color. It's another huge step forward for an always engaging band.


1. Elder - Reflections of a Floating World (Stickman)
I became an immediate fan of Elder since I pushed play on 2011's Dead Roots Stirring for the very first time, but digesting their other full-length and EP releases could prepare me for the sonic leaps they'd take over the course of 2015's Lore and 2017's Reflections of a Floating World. The New England area band evolved from straightforward doom base into something much wider-ranging and further reaching, landing in progressive rock territory that explores a tremendous range of tones and moods. They brought in two additional guitarists for this record, allowing for exquisite layering and textures - just check out Michael Samos' pedal steel on the nine-minute instrumental interlude "Sonntag". It's a vast, widescreen take on stoner metal that surpasses all expectations, a record that I constantly found myself taking solace in.

2017 Year In Review Part V: The Tracks

Believe it or not, there were 75 tracks I loved this year, let's see what they were...

75. "Through the Roses" - Future Islands
74. "Right Now" - Haim
73. "Waiting On A Song" - Dan Auerbach
72. "Thinking of a Place" - The War On Drugs
71. "New York" - St. Vincent
70. "Love" - Lana Del Rey
69. "Opposition/Perihelion; The Coil" - Ex Eye
68. "Die 4 You" - Perfume Genius
67. "On Hold" - The xx
66. "The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness" - The National
65. "God in Chicago" - Craig Finn
64. "Up in Hudson" - Dirty Projectors
63. "In My World" - Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie
62. "Satrunz Barz" - Gorillaz f. Popcaan
61. "The Pure and the Damned" - Oneohtrix Point Never f. Iggy Pop
60. "Bosses Hang" - Godspeed You! Black Emperor
59. "Moontalk" - Laurel Halo
58. "Shine A Light" - Shabazz Palaces
57. "Til Death" - Japanese Breakfast
56. "Soothing" - Laura Marling
55. "A Wall" - Downtown Boys
54. "Rest" - Charlotte Gainsbourg
53. "How Do You Sleep?" - LCD Soundsystem
52. "T-Shirt" - Migos
51. "Continental Breakfast" - Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile
50. "The Underside of Power" - Algiers
49. "Cred Woes" - Liars
48. "Barbary Coast (Later)" - Conor Oberst
47. "Thresholds Beyond" - Spectral Voice
46. "Second One to Know" - Chris Stapleton
45. "Black Smoke Rising" - Greta Van Fleet
44. "Star Roving" - Slowdive
43. "An Intention" - Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith
42. "Wild Fire" - Laura Marling
41. "Motion Sickness" - Phoebe Briders
40. "Machine" - The Horrors
39. "Drew Barrymore" - SZA
38. "Machinist" - Japanese Breakfast
37. "Don't Delete the Kisses" - Wolf Alice
36. "Waiting Around to Die" - Power Trip
35. "Falling Asleep" - The Clientele
34. "Steambreather" - Mastodon
33. "Call It What You Want" - Taylor Swift
32. "Hot Thoughts" - Spoon
31. "The Story of O.J." - Jay-Z
30. "Truth" - Kamasi Washington
29. "The Weekend" - SZA
28. "Natural Blue" - Julie Byrne
27. "Primordial Malignity" - Tomb Mold
26. "Tinseltown Swimming in Blood" - Destroyer
25. "American Dream" - LCD Soundsystem
24. "Executioner's Tax (Swing of the Axe)" - Power Trip
23. "The Combine" - John Maus
22. "I Could Use a Love Song" - Maren Morris
21. "Show You the Way" - Thundercat f. Michael McDonald & Kenny Loggins
20. "Arkhipov Calm" - Converge
19. "Funeral" - Phoebe Bridgers
18. "Gorgeous" - Taylor Swift
17. "The Louvre" - Lorde
16. "Despacito" - Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee f. Justin Bieber
15. "Love Galore" - SZA f. Travis Scott
14. "If We Were Vampires" - Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
13. "Call the Police" - LCD Soundsystem
12. "Pay Gap" - Margo Price
11. "Hard Times" - Paramore


10. "Green Light" - Lorde
As underwhelmed and, eventually, overly annoyed as I was by "Royals", I didn't expect Lorde to ever win me over. But boy did she ever. I fell hard for this song since the first time I heard it during her appearance on Saturday Night Live. An upbeat anthem that I just couldn't get enough of, from a very unexpected source.


9. "New Year's Day" - Taylor Swift
Although several songs ended up growing on me over time, I was fairly underwhelmed by my first trip through Reputation when it was released. This song, however, stuck with me right from the start, most likely because of how different it was to the rest of the record. It's a calm, piano driven ballad that finds Taylor musing on what life is going to be like after the party when the hangover kicks in and, more importantly, who will still be there to share in it.


8. "Praying" - Kesha
Another pop star that initially turned me off before winning me over completely, "Praying" was the emotional heart of her terrific and wide-ranging album, Rainbow. It's an outpouring of grief, anger, sadness, frustration and even hope, a call for healing in even the darkest of moments. Even if you were unaware of the real-life inspiration behind the performance, it was still one of the more moving pop hits of the year.


7. "DNA" - Kendrick Lamar
While I didn't find DAMN to be as breathtaking as his previous two records, there were still a number of standouts that underscore Kendrick's status as the best rapper in the game right now. "DNA" is the lyrical standout of the record, with Kendrick's flow front and center and underlined by a chaotic, hyperactive Mike Will beat.


6. "Bad and Boujee" - Migos f. Lil Uzi Vert
Migos was one of the few mega-popular hip hop groups of recent vintage that broke through the noise of Soundcloud mumblers to grab my ears and this was the track that did it. It was mostly down to Metro Boomin' production and Offset's verses in particular, but this is the kind of confident, infectious hip-hop hit that we just don't hear enough of these days.


5. "Turn Out the Lights" - Julien Baker
The title track from Baker's second record, and intense music on the destructive power of self-doubt, was just one of the album's many emotional high points, but it's the cathartic release at the track's climax underscored by her howl and distorted guitar that pulled me in to her world. There were few moments in the year's music as emotionally naked.


4. "Cut to the Feeling" - Carly Rae Jepsen
Although it was relegated to the soundtrack for an underappreciated kid's movie, "Cut to the Feeling" will rightfully go down as one of Jepsen's best singles. An unabashedly uplifting anthem that pulls a power-pop song through modern pop production, it's an admittedly cheesy song that is sold through Jepsen's sheer optimism and vulnerable vocals.


3. "Want You Back" - Haim
While Haim's long-awaited second album didn't exactly set the world on fire in the same manner as their unexpected debut, there were still plenty of wonderful moments to be found. "Want You Back" was the cream of the crop, an exuberant gem that drew heavy inspiration from Fleetwood Mac for the vocal melody while embracing Ariel Rechtshaid's inventive production, particularly in the song's second half. Even though I didn't return to the album as a whole as often as I'd hoped, I couldn't get enough of this track.


2. "Sign of the Times" - Harry Styles
In a year in which a lot of pop singers unexpectedly won me over, One Direction's Harry Styles was probably the biggest shock of them all. I enjoyed almost all of his debut solo album, but this song was the one that continued to blow me away. Drawing on a long tradition of bombastic ballads that traced a thread through Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Prince, Coldplay, Blur and Elton John (among many others), "Sign of the Times" found Styles embracing his frontman status and winning over a lot of doubters.


1. "HUMBLE" - Kendrick Lamar
While "DNA" was the standout form DAMN in terms of Kendrick's flow, "HUMBLE" was the track that best exemplified his lyrical topics. Over a crisp and 808 dominated Mike Will beat, Kendrick starts out with, understandably, boasts about his domination of the current rap scene before turning it into a meditation on contemporary beauty standards and self-love. It's an unexpected twist, but one that reinforces Lamar's commitment to the community at large without sacrificing his lyrical attack.

2017 Year In Review Part IV: The Live Albums

And we move right on with my favorite live releases of 2017...


10. David Gilmour - Live at Pompeii (Columbia)
Yeah, I'm as surprised as anyone at placing a 2017 era live album from David Gilmour on a list like this, but it's hard to deny how fantastic this performance was. Looking back to the historic Pink Floyd performance from 1972, Gilmour revisited Pompeii in mid 2016 - this time with an actual paying audience. The setlist presents a nice balance between newer Gimour solo work and Pink Floyd classics, most impressive is how well it all blends together and how fantastic that band performs. Definitely worth watching the Blu-Ray if you have the change, this is visually stunning as well.


9. Brant Bjork - Europe '16 (Napalm)
Despite being one of the founding members of desert/stoner rock standard bearers Kyuss, Brant Bjork remains criminally underrated in the wider musical world. Thankfully for fans in the know, he's continued to release killer solo records ever since, not to mention his work in later projects like Vista Chino and his time in Fu Manchu. This double-disc release is pulled from tours in Europe with his Low Desert Punk Band, but it seems to serve as a really nice encapsulation of his solo years. A great place to start for the uninitiated.


8. Jerry Garcia & Merl Saunders - Garcia Live Volume Nine (ATO)
This two disc set captures of an early version of what would later become Legion of Mary on a summer night in Berkeley, 1974. Heads will automatically know to expect quality from Garcia and Saunders, even more so when that quality is recorded by Betty Cantor-Jackson as it is here. This is a killer show, anchored by Billy Kreutzmann's drumming and a twenty-minute jam on Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder They Come".


7. Royal Trux - Platinum Tips + Ice Cream (Drag City)
Although I've read that there is some doubt as to just how authentic this might be as a "live" document, I'm so happy to have the actual Royal Trux back that I really don't care. While both Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema hit some high points on their own, there is nothing like the explosive combination of the two of them together. The duo rearranges and reinterprets their back catalog to great, sometimes confounding, effect here - always fascinating.


6. Grateful Dead - Dave's Picks Volume 23: 1/22/78 (Rhino)
This was a long time fan favorite that finally got released in an official capacity in 2017 as part of the stellar Dave's Picks series. Coming off of their killer year in 1977, this show found the band in the Pacific Northwest and in a playful mood. A lot of attention gets paid, rightfully so, to the Close Encounters theme jam in "The Other One", but there are a lot of other stellar moments to here. Another reason to thank Betty Cantor-Jackson, as this comes from her recently returned boards.


5. Chris Robinson Brotherhood - Betty's Blends, Vol. 3: Self-Rising, Southern Blends (Silver Arrow)
Not to dump too much (well deserved) praise on Betty, but she is still at it, though this time she spends her free time behind the boards for Chris Robinson Brotherhoood, as captured on this compilation of performances from the group's Fall 2015 tour. It's a great collection that shows where the band was growing and grooving during that year.


4. Causa Sui - Live in Copenhagen (El Paraiso)
I've been a big fan of this Dutch instrumental cosmic rock band for quite some time, so I was really happy to see a 3xCD release coming out that captured the release parties for their 2013 and 2016 records, both recording in Copenhagen - especially since these guys very rarely hit the stage anywhere. The band hits a ton of different modes and tones, from laid back grooves to more dissonant almost free-jazz when they bring Johan Riedenlow and his saxophone up on stage. I was blown away by this one.


3. Sleater-Kinney - Live in Paris (Sub Pop)
Sleater-Kinney's killer comeback record, No Cities To Love, was as thrilling as it was unexpected after so many years off and thankfully we were also blessed with a live document from that album's tour. The setlist pulls from all over their career, but most remarkable is how tight and ferocious the trio sounds on every single song. It makes you wish it hadn't taken so long to get an official live document in the hands of fans.


2. Phish - St. Louis '93 (JEMP)
I love the way Phish has handled their archival live releases by bundling shows thematically or geographically. The latest example is this 6xCD set that collects two full shows, both recorded in St. Louis in 1993 - one in April, one in August. Killer versions of "Split Open and Melt", "You Enjoy Myself" and "Mike's Song > Weekapaug Groove" all get airings in the box, which captures the band in the years just before they exploded into a national phenomenon.


1. Grateful Dead - May 1977: Get Shown the Light (Rhino)
Another lovingly packaged box set from the Dead folks, this time pulling together four full shows from early May 1977, including May 8, 1977 at Cornell - long considered by many fans to be the single best Dead show ever played. I'm not sure about that, I tend to believe that would be Veneta '72, but it is a good one. Most eye-opening, though, is how killer the shows around it are - this band was absolutely on fire, ripping off all-time versions of song after song. A must hear for Deadheads around the world.

2017 Year In Review Part III: The Reissues/Compilations

Finally back to the grind, here are my ten favorite reissues and compilations of 2017.



10. Can - The Singles (Mute)
When this was first announced, I wasn't sure how essential it was going to be. Given that the best work from Can builds around extended grooves and side-long jams, how good could a compilation that collects 23 tracks over 80 minutes actually be? Pretty great, as it turns out. In addition to incorporating rare and unreleased tracks, the best of which is probably 1971's "Turtles Have Short Legs", this does a great job of addressing the band's later years.


9. German Oak - Down in the Bunker (Now-Again)
Now-Again has been absolutely killing the reissue game through its Reserve series, particularly when it comes to lost and ultra-rare albums. German Oak was a long obsessed over "lost" Krautrock band that released their only record in 1972 on a very small label. As the title suggests, this was recorded down in a former World War II bunker, a haunting sound reflected in the music. Over the years this was bootlegged many times with questionable WWII referencing song titles, thankfully Now-Again returns this to the original band members' real vision. A true gem.


8. Various Artists - Warfaring Strangers: Acid Nightmares (Numero Group)
Speaking of killer reissues labels, here's yet another gem from the Numero Group. The second in their Warfaring Strangers series (itself an off-shoot of the Wayfaring Strangers releases) runs similar in concept to Riding Easy's Brown Acid series, highlighting heavy psych rock from around the globe in the '70s and beyond. Killer artwork and terrific liner notes make this an essential release for fans of heavy rock.


7. U-Men - U-Men (Sub Pop)
Long before grunge exploded onto the national scene, Seattle was long a hotbed for forward thinking bands that lit up the underground. Between 1983 and 1987, U-Men were one of those very groups and this killer collection compiles their long out-of-print discography. Their sound was raw, dirty and explosive, though not really all that close to grunge despite becoming a key influence on folks like Mudhoney's Mark Arm.


6. Alice Coltrane - World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic (Luaka Bop)
While the work Alice Coltrane did in the late 60s and early 70s, following in the footsteps of her late husband, is well known and appreciated by fans of jazz and exploratory music alike, the work she performed in her later years has been a bit more of a mystery. This disc collects the originally cassette only chant music that Coltrane created during the 1980s on her Sai Anantam Ashram in California. While tilting a little closer to new age, the music itself suggests that Coltrane never stopped exploring her spirituality through the medium of music.


5. Richard Hell & The Voidoids - Blank Generation [40th Anniversary] (Rhino)
I'm not at all into the frustrating hunt for exclusive Record Store Day releases, but one good side effect of that day are records that get a wider release out of it, such as this fancy 2xCD reissue of the seminal punk album, Blank Generation. In addition to restoring the original 1977 cover art and track listing, it gets a second disc filled with demos, singles and live tracks that fill out this era of Hell's career. It was great to finally immerse myself in this landmark record.


4. Metallica - Master of Puppets [Remastered] (Rhino/Blackened)
Metallica's excellent reissue campaign finally gets to their landmark third album, the seminal thrash high water mark Master of Puppets. I didn't shell out for the crazy huge box, but the three disc expanded edition works nicely - adding a disc of riff tapes and demos and, more essentially, a packed disc of live tracks culled from the band's 1986 tour. Essential listening for any fan of metal.


3. Bob Dylan - Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Volume 13 (Columbia)
By now most Dylan fans are well aware of the high level of quality of this Bootleg Series. Even though I'm not enough of a Dylan-head to get the expanded versions of every release, I've managed to snag at least the smallest version of every release in the series. Even though Volume 13 may not represent his best material, it certainly has been the most revelatory for me. Covering his much maligned "gospel years" between 1979 and 1981, this presents tons of live material that shows how much this material killed on stage even when it resulted in lackluster studio albums. This goes a long way towards proving how key this period was in his overall development and points toward the Neverending Tour.


2. Wilco - A.M. / Being There (Rhino/Warner Bros.)
While it does certainly make me feel old when albums from my college years start getting that deluxe album reissue treatment, I'm appreciative for getting fresh looks at albums like these that were pretty instrumental in my developing musical tastes. I'd just barely missed out on Uncle Tupelo, but I was there from the start with Wilco, even when A.M. leaned a little too far into country for my tastes at the time. Being There, however, broke my brain open and exposed it to all the possibilities I hadn't been exploring - I must have played that thing a hundred times when it first came out. The A.M. reissue tacks on a handful of outtakes and live songs, but it's the Being There package that I love most - adding a full disc of outtakes and rarities, with another two discs that capture a full contemporary live show and a few radio appearances.


1. Husker Du - Savage Young Du (Numero Group)
One of my long-running dreams has been high quality reissues of the much mistreated Husker Du catalog - no band deserves a loving reissue campaign that those guys. While we are still waiting for that official reissue campaign to begin (I'd love for the rumors to be true about Numero picking that up as well), we at least get this beautifully crafted 3xCD collection of early material featuring 47 previously unreleased songs, including demos, recording sessions and live tracks. It's a treasure trove that captures the band at it's fiery creation, just on the verge of exploding into one of the 1980s most important underground groups.