(Mike Luoma is the Programming Coordinator for WBKM.org in Burlington, Vermont — “Burlington’s Kinda Music” — and a long-time Music Director in the “Triple A” or “Adult Alternative” radio format. Before it went away, he was also a long-time Music Director in the “AOR” or “Album Oriented Rock” radio format).
Always feel a bit arrogant writing “The Best…” when it’s just, like, my opinion, man… And yet, the Dude Abiding aside, folks seem to like my choices. Some even asked when I’d be doing my list, so… here we go. My Top Ten Albums for 2018 — stuff I thought was real good this year, personal and subjective…
In the past, putting my album list together, I’ve lamented the “demise” of the album. There is a single-track mentality amongst the general public that can be overwhelming. In fact, the first year-end “Best of” album list I came across this year, over at PASTE magazine, began with that same sort of lamentation. But? For some reason, I’m not so worried anymore. Don’t feel the same threat to the album as a form of musical, artistic expression that I have previously — like the album is now more appreciated, somehow.
It’s instinctual, don’t have hard data. Maybe I’ve just finally come to be at peace with the idea that albums, singles, even EPs, can all coexist in harmony, simultaneously. Or maybe albums have finally come to be appreciated on such a scale and to such a degree that their existence is no longer “threatened”. Either way, these year-end album columns no longer need be dissertations on the worth and definition of the album as “art form”. So let’s just get to the good stuff!
After a year personally that occasionally would have made old Job cringe, music continues to be my great, soothing constant, a steady source of joy, encouragement, solace and inspiration in my life when so many other aspects of my world have crashed and burned. Speaking of… do you suppose there’s a reason one of my favorite songs this year has been the gleeful celebration of nuclear apocalypse and annihilation from A Perfect Circle, “So Long, And Thanks for All the Fish”? Hmmm.
But that’s favorite songs, and another list for later — the band’s album Eat the Elephant as a whole didn’t quite make my Top Ten album list. What did? Glad you asked! With the usual caveats about nothing being absolute and fixed…
10. Circles Around the Sun — Let It Wander — Was not familiar with this project of guitarist Neil Casal’s. The disc came my way because they were scheduled for a local Higher Ground show — that was postponed, unfortunately. Would have liked to have seen them live, especially after digging this double CD, the second release for the band. Casal is joined on here by keyboardist Adam MacDougall, one of his bandmates in the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, as well as bassist Dan Horne, and drummer Mark Levy.
There are two almost-twenty minute long “songs” on the album, “Halicarnassus” and “Ticket to Helix NGC 7293” — and they’re my kinda Space Rock! There and back again, more excursions than tunes, really. And, yes, worth the trip!
“Electric Chair (Don’t Sit There)” is a great — and more manageable sized — sample of the band. It still clocks in at a meaty 7:41, but they don’t waste your time. It’s a treat hearing Casal and MacDougall weave and trade musical phrases around and through each other, while Horne and Levy keep a solid groove on this one that doesn’t get boring.
Cool story behind this “band” — they originally came together just to record Grateful Dead-influenced instrumentals for set break music during The Dead’s “Fare Thee Well” concerts. Positive feedback — and the fact CATS enjoyed jamming together — led to them keeping it going. The music is still occasionally Dead-influenced, but the band has definitely developed its own personality. These jams owe as much to Tangerine Dream and the Dregs as they do the Dead, to my ears. And? Weirder still? There’s a Chuck D cameo! He was at the same studio and heard and loved a tune they were doing, so they got him to record an intro for it and dedicated “One For Chuck” to him.
9. Villagers — The Art of Pretending to Swim. A song made me love this album. “A Trick of the Light” was just, somehow, perfect, when it arrived this summer. The wistful longing of Conor O’Brien’s voice and lyrics float along on a gentle sea of guitar, easy percolating bass, jazzy drums and surging keys.
The rest of the album operates in a similar vibe. Villagers is mostly a solo effort, so this is all O’Brien — it’s his vibe, which is pretty chill, though he’s singing about intense topics like belief and love and truth. “Fool” is another stand-out track, and makes sense as the second single to be released from the project. And “Love Came With All It Brings” doesn’t sound exactly like, but for some reason reminds me of, Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs. Much of this album does, but not in a direct way. Like Deserter’s Songs, there’s a dreamlike quality to much of The Art of Pretending to Swim, both the warm, fuzzy good kind and the mysterious, dangerous kind, and listening draws you into that dream. And like Jonathan from Mercury Rev, O’Brien isn’t afraid to expose fragility and vulnerability in his voice and lyrics, which sometimes gives it all a gossamer, ethereal lightness. It’s jarring to reach album’s end and reawaken to cold reality.
8. Paul Weller — True Meanings. Speaking of vibes… this is my favorite Weller vibe. I know he wants to remain vital, and sometimes likes getting noisy with new young collaborators, and old noisy ones as well. But I love his music in his more folksy mode, where he picks up the English pastoral folk rock tradition mined by Steve Winwood and Traffic and some of the Canterbury Prog bands — Weller’s Wild Wood is an all-time favorite of mine. I think his work with the band Stone Foundation has influenced him on True Meanings (their 2018 album deserves an honorable mention — Weller produced and appears on Stone Foundation’s Everybody, Anyone), as their jazz-influenced rock approach is apparently in evidence here.
Weller gets a little too orchestrated and smarmy for my taste at a couple of points on True Meanings, which is why this album isn’t higher on my list. I like my Weller music on the mellow side, but not too mellow. Feel a bit like Goldilocks — too hard! too mellow! But I don’t mean to complain. Weller hits a few sweets spots on this one — “Wishing Well”, “Aspects” and “The Soul Searchers” all stand out — but I still find the lead track to be the most compelling here — “Moving On”.
7. Ty Segall — Freedom’s Goblin. I didn’t know who Ty Segall was. And then, I did. I’m sure I crossed that don’t know/know line at some point, but… I can’t really pinpoint it. A couple of years ago? Suddenly, it seemed like I’d already known of him. Maybe that’s because there’s a quality to Segall’s work that is, dare I say, Timeless? When you hear some of his tunes, you do feel like you’ve always kind of known them. It’s odd. And very cool. Check out “My Lady’s On Fire”
He’s a unique talent, the kind that, when you stumble across them, you’re caught by something, a “wait a sec, what was that?” like you’ve spotted something familiar out of the corner of your eye, but you turn, and it’s gone, and what seemed familiar is something new, a personal expression that is tapping into universals that have been mined before, but that is somehow, different, and yet true.
Had a chance to see him do a solo acoustic show last month, great experience! Seeing someone perform with just their acoustic guitar lets you know how real they are. He’s for real. Will be fun to see him with his full band — and I plan to. The guy is incredibly prolific — Freedom’s Goblin was only his first solo album this year. He also released Fudge Sandwich, a covers album. And a couple other albums and an EP with his other bands, too, for god measure.
“Alta” showcases some of Segall’s electric guitar genius. His work on Freedom’s Goblin ranges all over the place with the tunes themselves, from shredding metallic riffs to gentle folk strumming — he’s not restrained nor encumbered by preconceived notions of genre, he plays each song the way it demands to be played, from searing power to great gentleness. The unifying factor here? Simply, Ty Segall.
6. Kyle Craft — Full Circle Nightmare. This could have been Number Five. This album, and the next, are pretty equal in my listening and love this past year. Decided this should be Six and I’m already not sure, it might be Five… gotta pull the trigger, so to speak, so, Kyle Craft gets Number Six. Saw him at the end of March at Higher Ground. Small crowd — gotta turn you on to his music so you’ll go out and see him live!
Craft’s music reminds me of that era when British bands were coming out of the boogie-woogie blues era and experimenting with fusing that with their English and cabaret show tune traditions, like Humble Pie or Small Faces, or Rolling Stones in that era. Not that he sounds like them, it just feels like a similar fusion is happening here on Full Circle Nightmare, as I think you can hear on “Heartbreak Junky”
You can hear the Pacific Northwest in here a bit, too, I believe. He’s from Portland, Oregon. Maybe there’s something in the water up there that somehow roots you, plants you in the fertile soil of rock’s past, gives you an authenticity with which to approach the riffs and progressions employed previously by so many in the service of what some now call “classic rock”. I hear that in one of my favorite current bands, Blitzen Trapper, also from Portland. And in one of my new favorites, too, The Moondoggies, from north of Seattle (their 2018 album is a bit higher on this list).
5. The Record Company — All of This Life. Week to week, this album and Number Six, Kyle Craft’s Full Circle Nightmare, traded spots on my personal playlist. List position was a toss-up between the two. I guess The Record Company wins for a couple of reasons. Saw them live more recently, so I still kind of have a show afterglow. And because “I’m Getting Better (And I’m Feeling It Right Now)” has become an anthem for me — one of my favorite songs this year! It just kicks ass.
I’m about the furthest thing from a blues purist. Know the chords, know the progressions, but the basic blues pretty much bores me. Sorry. I need you to do more with it. The Record Company plays pretty straight-ahead blues rock. And yet? They do something else with it — that I can’t define! How cool is that? And, whatever that something is? Makes me excited. I wanna jump up and sing and dance and scream along! Even when it is something as traditional as “Roll Bones” — go figure.
4. Lo Moon — Lo Moon. This self-titled debut from the Los Angeles-based trio was a long time in coming. I’d been looking forward to its release since the first “single” — the 7-minute plus “Loveless” — appeared — in September 2016! This is finely-crafted art-pop with ethereal overtones and occasional wanderings into Prog Rock spaces, though I hesitate to mention that because of some people’s Anti-Prog biases. Lo Moon owes something to the mid 80’s sound of Peter Gabriel, Tears for Fears, Talk Talk and artists of their ilk, as you can hear on the album closer, a favorite, “All In”
Feel a little guilty including “Loveless” as the second representative track, I think because it’s probably been in my lists 3 times, now! But it is that good. It hooked me and made me anticipate this album’s release for almost a year-and-a-half!
3. Darlingside — Extralife. At the end of last year, when Don and Harris from Darlingside were driving up to deliver the first single “Eschaton” from this new album to radio, back when I was still with The Point, their GPS mis-led them to the station’s transmitter site, on top of a mountain. Harris still tells that story live, as I discovered when I saw them this past Friday night! Great show, and for the first time in the larger room, the ballroom, at Higher Ground. It looked close to sold out! They invited me to the show and put me on their guest list, very cool. It’s nice to be remembered personally, apart from my former radio station and employer.
So great to see their ever-growing crowds. Also great? They truly value the help I gave them along the way, and acknowledge that support — it is nice to be embraced that way by a band. Does that bias me towards them? Yeah, probably. So what? They make amazing music. Listen to their amazing, tight and intricate 4-part harmonies on “Futures”
They demonstrate a playful intelligence in their lyrics, aptly demonstrated on the aforementioned “Eschaton” — which, though it recalled for me Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus Trilogy, they explained took it’s name from the game in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. So there! And, curiously, given my earlier remark on A Perfect Circle’s “So Long…”, the word “eschaton” itself refers to the end of the world or God’s apocalypse. Simply synchronicity, I assure you.
It’s also a damn fine song, a piece of work that demonstrates the strong sense of harmony and melody possessed by Darlingside, while also showing off their quirky, experimental nature and their hybrid blending of the traditional and the futuristic. A fitting snapshot of both the band and this particular album.
We finish with a struggle! At least, an internal one — decisions, decisions… Can my Number One Album be a TIE? No. There are rules here, even if they are arbitrary and I’m imposing them on myself. That said? My Top Two albums are so close they’re like those giant multi-ton stones in ancient megalithic rock walls where you can’t even slide a slip of paper between them. So close.
2. The Moondoggies — A Love Sleeps Deep. Almost my album of the year. I’ve been watching this band since hearing the promise in their 2nd album, 2010’s Tidelands. A Love Sleeps Deep fulfills that promise, and then some! Instantly loved the lead track “Easy Coming”, our first taste of the album to come.
I don’t mean that the band sounds “retro”. The Moondoggies sound is their own, however much I use those older bands as referential shortcuts. The mood they create is evocative, reminds me of walking through the forest after a rainstorm, the smell of woodsmoke in the air — maybe that’s their native Pacific Northwest coming through, I don’t know.
When I put on the album, as “Easy Coming” — also the album’s opening track — led into “Cinders”, which directly and beautifully segued into “Match”, I knew we had an album here. There’s a creativity and an ingenuity in their work, as we find in the unexpected fever dream in the middle of “Sick in Bed”. They rock, too, as proven on “Soviet Barn Fire” and “My Mother”.
The stunning album closer and nearly-title track “Underground (A Love Sleeps Deep)” manages to bring all of the above together into an amazing and powerful eight-and-a-half minute sonic voyage the like of which I’ve not heard in quite some time. You need to know bands still make music like this.
Some years, A Love Sleeps Deep would have easily earned the top spot on my list. It almost did this year. But then, Frank Turner came back with a strong return to form musically that also showed remarkable personal insight and growth on his part. Sorry, Moondoogies.
1. Frank Turner — Be More Kind. My album of the year. The title track came before the album, back in February, and never left my mental jukebox headspace. I’ll give this away, since you’ve read this far — it’s my favorite song of the year as well. Just listen to it.
With such a powerful title track, when the official first single “Blackout” came out it seemed a weaker choice. Didn’t know what to expect from the album at that point. I’m a long-time fan of Frank’s, and while I appreciate his glossier commercial songs, I love his more raw, more personal, less detached tunes. Sure, there’s a value in those more universal, open, poppier songs, in that they’re doorways that draw folks into Frank’s world and music. But it’s when we hear his heart in a melody and lyric that he really connects with us, as above. Or when he has a bit of fun, as in “Make America Great Again”.
Luckily, as a whole, Be More Kind — the album — is a nice blend of FT’s different styles — sometimes sincere, often playful, here somewhat punky, there verging on pop-y, and always, as ever, somewhat wry and cynical with a hint of optimism. And hope. That’s the beauty, here — there is hope. There’s a rather basic message behind the entire album: if things seem shitty, how’s about doing your best not to make them shittier? And? Maybe, just maybe? Even try to do some good.
Be More Kind is a great musical response to the madness of the world circa 2018. If you love rock n’ roll and you’ve not heard Frank Turner yet, do yourself a favor and pick this up. And then get his England Keep My Bones (2011) because it’s a masterpiece. Just sayin’.
This year, there are a few Honorable Mentions as well. Already mentioned Stone Foundation — Everybody, Anyone, with Paul Weller guesting and producing. And there were actually two great instrumental rock albums this year. TAUK’s — Shapeshifter II was just slightly edged out of the Top Ten by CATS. More on the jazz side of instrumental, Robert Walter’s 20th Congress’ Spacesuit was also extremely space-tasty. Sometimes Vermonters The Essex Green returned from a long hiatus with the awesome Hardly Electronic. decker. embodied his home of Sedona, Arizona in song on his Born to Wake Up. In a similar way, S. Carey’s Hundred Acres, with its ethereal washes, sounds like the windswept north of Wisconsin, and not just thanks to the tune “True North” — almost in my Top Ten. King Tuff’s The Other is uneven, but when there are flashes of brilliance, you’ll sometimes have that. Same could be said of Phosphorescent’s return, C’est La Vie, which is good, but a little shallow, almost as if he’s too happy to delve as deep as we’re accustomed.
Thanks for reading through my Best Albums of 2018! I hope I’ve turned you on to some new music you might not have heard otherwise. You can hear songs from these albums on this Spotify Playlist:
Did you know I’m still on the radio? Now, you can listen to me EVERYWHERE — I’m on internet radio, streaming radio, on WBKM! WBKM.org. You can go there and click twice on the player to listen, or just grab the App for iOs: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/wbkm/id1408550221?mt=8.
And? My Glow-in-the-Dark Radio science fiction podcast is about to hit its 500th Episode! That happens Saturday — check it out at http://glowinthedarkradio.podomatic.com and join me Saturday for the Big Show!