The Top Albums of 2018

This article is late, but, in a sense, everything is hurtling towards obsolescence anyway. Do you feel the passage of time? Does the fourth, non-spatial dimension offer a sensation as you pass through it? In language, we describe time spatially; the year rushes past us, we leave moments behind. But the feel of the passage of time demands more complex metaphors. It is your notion of a permanent self, fraying; it is the transient nature of human experience echoing in old injuries flaring up; it is watercourses shifting thousands of pounds of sediment to forge new paths; it is the decay of a language that was never translated, the last living speaker senile and isolated.

It is your 25 year old co-worker asking if you’ve heard some musician on youtube, and you stare at her blankly because you quickly realize that your last new favourite album came out ten years ago.

Anyways, here’s some stuff I listened to this year.

  1. The Waitresses, Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful (1982)

In high school, when 80s nostalgia was taking over from 70s nostalgia, New New Wave was taking over from retro garage rock, and teenage Jesse was absolutely not on board. Teenage Jesse felt strongly that no quality music was produced between 1982 (Combat Rock) and 1992 (Gordon), and was more excited about the Hives than Franz Ferdinand. While I categorically refuse to take any responsibility for anything I did between the ages of 13 and 18, I still take a pretty hard line on the pervasive cheese of the era that pervaded hair metal, synthpop and, well, basically everything. I did not make exceptions for new wave or post-punk. In a very serious way my musical taste has forever trailed behind that of my much cooler high-school girlfriend.

Turns out there’s good stuff out there, though. The Waitresses are probably best known for their christmas song (an unbearable curse), or the one about exploiting the male gaze that shows up in advertisements for ladies fashion, but this album has loads to offer, including both those songs. Everyone in the 80s was writing about eternal love, excessive partying and hot girls, so it’s nice to see that there were also songs about road trips, the Russian invasion of the USA, quitting shitty jobs and feeling pretty good after a breakup, actually. Patty Donahue delivers each line with acid or sweetness, naivety or jadedness, or any combination that it requires.

Squabbling guitars, pounding drums and occasionally the literal exact same squawking saxophone from the Bojack Horseman theme jam out the minimally produced tracks. There’s a lot of two-tone ska influence on this album, but it’s crunchier than the usual flat american adaptation it usually gets. There’s some punk, some funk, some post-punk, but tons of pop. Hooks for every song and even if the players aren’t outstanding technicians, they’re clearly playing ambitiously and having fun. 

It’s light, it’s funny and thoughtful and when it’s not funny it’s still thoughtful and upbeat. This album is a blast. 

“My goals are to find a cure for irony and make a fool out of god”

 

  1. Dorothy Ashby, Afro-Harping (1968)

It’s hard for me to believe that this album came out in 1968, but it’s one of those hybrids where everything about it comes together so well that it seems to jump out of the timestream itself. Like, surely this album was influenced by Tommy Guerrero, Madlib and Danger Mouse, and not the other way around? This is the real deal, not mere source material. 

The harp lends itself to the sense of anachronism as well, but the tone of the instrument is fully integrated into the soul and jazz by Ashby’s impeccable phrasing and voicing. She sounds like she quit the orchestra to join Brasil 66 . She sounds like Django Reinhardt possessing an Viennese noblewoman in 1700. She sounds like Toumani Diabate getting remixed by RZA.

So dig in to jazz harp, an instrument that wikipedia says only 6 people have ever played. If you want to go to outer space by means of transcendental meditation, you can and should listen to Alice Coltrane, but Afro-Harping puts you through a time warp the second it starts up.

 

  1. Ry Cooder, The Prodigal Son (2018)

Ry Cooder is 71 years old, and he went on tour for this album. He played the Edmonton Folk Fest on a rainy August night, surrounded by space heaters and taking breaks for oxygen. It wasn’t his best performance, and I try not to be romantic about such things, but there was still some magic to it. Ry Cooder is the guy that John Lee Hooker calls when he needs a guitar player. He’s the guy that the Chieftains call when they want to blend genres they’re not proficient in. He doesn’t speak spanish, but he was nominated for two Latin Grammies (Grammys? That also looks wrong) (nevermind the 6 English Grammys he has). Legend has it that he taught Keith Richards how to play slide guitar. He recorded with huge names in the 60s, 70s and 80s. In the 90s, when world music was all whale songs and synths, he recorded half a dozen defining albums, and since the 2000s he’s been making contemporary protest music and socio-economic chronicles  of the United States. He writes about UFOs a lot. I guess what I’m saying is, if you don’t know about Ry Cooder, check him out.

This album of gospel tunes lensed through American socialism is, like his performance this summer, perhaps not his best work, but it’s still extremely strong, and there’s some real magic in here. Ry has the best repertoire of guitar tones in the business, and his son Joachim distinguishes the album through production that underscores earthy blues with an ethereal, dreamlike feel. It’s loose but not sloppy, and the whole album grooves from start to finish. Ry’s voice is something of an acquired taste, but there’s palpable frustration with the hypocrites, capitalists, gentrifiers and fascists that dehumanize humanity. There’s also palpable faith here, but it’s less in capital-G-god and more in human responsibility.

Here’s a weird take, though: the best version of the material is the Live In The Studio sessions on youtube. That version of Straight Street, with its loops, filtered saxophone and gentle drum brushes, shows better the wizardry that Ry can achieve on his guitar. It’s subtle and warm and strong and demonstrates how much Ry has learned in 50 years of playing with masters from all over the world. It’s in the playlist above and it’s better than any single song on the album.

“Guess I like sinners better than fascists”

 

  1. I’m just going to write about Talking Heads for like 800 words.

So, back to my cooler-than-me high school girlfriend. She introduced me to Talking Heads, who were curiously absent from the 80s revivalism of the time. One year, at the Edmonton Folk Fest, David Byrne performed a song about trying to get pizza after the apocalypse with a string quartet, we sat on a tarp and ate something deep-fried and a couple weeks later we broke up. I didn’t think about him much after that.

15 years later, and again I have a girlfriend who is much cooler than me. One evening she put on a playlist and I had a revelation that a bunch of songs I had a passing familiarity with were in fact all by the same band. Psycho Killer, Once in a Lifetime, This Must Be the Place; I honestly didn’t know. 

She later introduced me to True Stories, written and directed by Byrne, which has some incredible songs in it. John Goodman belting out countryfied new wave or Pops Staples as working some moviefied voodoo are just terrific renditions. Curiously, those versions are barely available, and the album versions are just not as good. Byrne’s delivery is so idiosyncratic that it can be really alienating, so it’s fascinating to see what other singers can do with the material. Incidentally, John Goodman can really sing. He hits that falsetto on the chorus and the song just soars.

So I started browsing the catalogue, deliberately but by no means thoroughly. Nothing but Flowers, the song about the apocalypse from earlier, is probably my favourite song so far, with its twelve string guitar, extended contrapuntal interlude and truck driver gear changes. Plus, the idea of a malcontent in paradise, longing for the good old days of strip malls is a slam-dunk song concept.

For a specific album, though, I would probably point you towards Remain in Light (1980), posted above. It’s incredibly ambitious and solid. There’s a central paradox in combining punk with funk. Funk is laidback where punk is aggressive, in punk the musicians might be loose playing together but the rhythms are straight, where funk is generally the opposite. This is precisely why a lot of attempts to hybridize the two are so embarrassing. It’s not that it can’t be done, it’s just hard. I know I’m in the minority with this take, but I maintain that RATM and RHCP are actually terrible at it and I have no idea why they’re internationally beloved and successful. Talking Heads, on the other hand, walk the razor’s edge, carefully constructing incredible songs that want for neither groove nor power. Drawing deeply from Fela Kuti’s Afrodisiac (which is also an incredible listen), Remain in Light is angular and sinuous, and it moves like a river. It’s full of all the weird lyrics and 80s studio shenanigans you might expect from Talking Heads, but in a good way. 

There are no chord changes on any song on this album, and I kind of can’t wrap my head around that. Also, I wouldn’t normally recommend outtakes, but even those are honestly pretty good.

“From the age of the dinosaurs, cars have run on gasoline”

 

  1. Big Sugar/Alkaline, Extra Long Life (2000)

This whole album is up on bandcamp!

Big Sugar always friggin’ ruled. The loudest, heaviest band in Canada was a solid decade ahead of its time, mostly through the use of Jamaican dub production techniques in a pop-rock-metal-blues context. Pop-rock didn’t really catch up to it until, like, maybe Major Lazer? The thing is, though, this isn’t affectation. Canadians taking on Jamaican music have committed all kinds of heinous crimes, from Doug and the Slugs to Snow to Magic!, but Big Sugar’s connections were always more direct. Toronto wouldn’t be Toronto without Jamaica, and Gary Lowe played for Jackie Mittoo, fer cryin’ out loud. 

This album is Gordie Johnson and company’s most dub-heavy experiment, and in addition to showing a strong command of feel and balance, they also understand that distortion and dub get along like a house on fire.

“It’s not a very hard thing for Big Sugar to do”

 

  1. Carly Rae Jepsen, E*MO*TI*ON (2015)

This album kinda fell off the 2016-2017 list, mostly because that article got way way too long, but I still want to say that this delirious piece of synth-pop is basically back-to-front jams. It’s insubstantial, but it would be completely intolerable if it weighed anything at all. Easily the best thing about post-ironic hipster pop music appreciation is that I got to play this in the bike shop where I worked and people were into it instead of calling me a vacuous scrub. It’s my #1 fear to be called a vacuous scrub.

“HEY!”

 

  1. Marty Robbins, Gunslinger Ballads and Trail Songs (1959)

I don’t have anything groundbreaking to say about this album. I haven’t discovered shocking hidden meanings or illuminating modern context. This is a concept album about cowboys. The singing is beautiful and buttery, the guitar work is surprisingly sophisticated, the swing is somewhere between bluegrass and Django, and the lyrics are hokey as hell but they’re earnest. If you’re into that, you’ll have a good time.

To the town of Agua Fria rode a stranger one fine day..”

 

  1. Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit (2015)

I can’t help but think that Courtney Barnett would’ve topped the alternative charts in the 1990s. She’s got a real Harvey Danger/Cake vibe, and I have to say there’s some actual Nirvana mixed in too. Sardonic, half-sung lyrics over crunchy guitars and off-kilter, pounding drums and bass. People describe Barnett as a singer-songwriter, evoking images of gently strummed acoustic songs with 3 chords and warbled lyrics about either break-ups or coal miner unions, but Barnett is far more musically and lyrically ambitious. 

“I’m savin’ $23 a week”

 

  1. Mon Laferte, La Trenza (2017)

Okay, so you know how Livin’ La Vida Loca is just a mash of ideas that American record producers had about “latin” music, pumped up and mixed to 11?* Like, “How about some bongos? Sure, they even call that latin percussion, so that’s perfect. We’ll get like a salsa horn section or something? Salsa is the same thing as ska, right? Oh, and how about a surf-rock guitar line? That’s, like, Mexican or something.”

Now imagine a similar concept on a full album scale: wide-ranging influence, retro arrangements, modern production. Now imagine that it doesn’t sort of generically suck, the way that La Vida Loca does. Now imagine that it’s connections to Latin American music are adapted considerately instead of cynically. That’s roughly the substrate of La Trenza. There’s a lot of ground covered on this album, but it’s cohesive. Personal, even, though charangos and cuicas and, yes, bongos and surf guitars and ska bands cascade across it.

*Note: this is a real thing. At the time, Livin’ La Vida Loca was one of the loudest songs ever produced.

“Dime cómo borro esto que siento”

 

  1. Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Rey Azucar (1995)

If you’ve been reading my top albums lists for a while, you know that I’m a weeaboo but for Latin America instead of Japan. Often I just hope that that doesn’t affect my discerning taste too much, but I can feel confident that this album would be outstanding even if I wasn’t. For starters, there’s the pedigree: Argentina’s best-named ska band, produced by two Talking Heads, and featuring Debby Harry, Mick Jones, and Big Youth, in an album conceptually inspired by the anti-colonial works Eduardo Galeano. But how does it actually sound?

Well, basically like 1990s third-wave ska. A niche taste, but I personally think that’s a good thing. The Cadillacs take the idea even further by opening up their song structures and incorporating a whole array of textures, genres and rhythms. They’re all expert players, and they’re able to breeze through structures that would totally sink, say, Less Than Jake or the Planet Smashers. 1990s third-wave ska with more stuff in it.

Really, though, the defining feature of this album is energy, whether laying down sick burns on the city of Miami or singing longingly about a starfish or covering Strawberry Fields, half-translated into Spanish. Even the tunes about being crushed by imperialist capitalism are upbeat.

gente flotando en el mar de la verguenza como astronautas”

 

  1. Various Artists, The Strombo Show: Hip 30 (2017)

This one’s not even an album, it’s podcast. It is four hours long.

https://strombo.com/radio/episode/hip30-a-celebration-of-canadas-band-the-tragically-hip/

I think we’re all still a little sad about Gord Downie. For me, Gord was the guy who taught me you could write shitkicking rock songs about colonialism or small town angst. The Hip is singular in Canadian music history, and so here’s four hours of recreations, extrapolations and inversions of their songs.

My favourite thing about this selection is how it throws the Hip into relief. Like, nobody would say they’re face-melting rock ‘n’ roll wizards with fingers of gold and feel for days, but they had something that is demonstrably difficult to recapture. Witness Blue Rodeo and The Rheostatics just barely hanging on through “Bobcaygeon”, not locking the groove at all. Witness the Barenaked Ladies low-gear version of “Ahead by a Century” just not getting off the ground at all. Witness the Sadies not having any idea what to do with “Long Time Running”. Some of the best bands in the country can’t ride out these tunes, and it’s really hard to say why.

The bright spots, though, are very bright. Harrison’s deconstructed neo-soul rendition of “Poets” is tremendously powerful. Skydiggers’ “Depression Suite” is just voice and ukulele but no matter how shaky it runs deep. Silver Pools turn in an apocalyptic “Nautical Disaster”. And then, almost at the very end of the 4 hour show, Julie Doiron steals the whole show. Her version of “Titanic Terrarium” reaches into the tune and pulls out the heart of it, plaintively beating, unfussy and fully developed. 

There’s another article to be written about how the Tragically Hip fit into three decades of Canadian music, or you could just listen to this.

“We don’t declare the war on idleness when outside it’s cold and shitty”

About Jesse Conlang

Jesse Conlang lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he has trained squirrels to operate pens and pencils at his whim. You can probably tell that by the quality of the work.
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