I'm not down with "best of" lists or competitions for art, generally speaking... but here are some of my favorite songs from my very favorite albums of the past 12 months.
Below are some random thoughts I had during each song as I listened through the playlist. Not really presenting these songs in any particular order other than as a playlist that I might like listening to. Not a contest. These are all worth your time, imho.
Each artist’s name below is a link to their homepage so you can click through and find out more about any music you find intriguing.
Ruston Kelly - “Anchors”
This record, Dying Star, was probably the one I listened to more than any other this year. “Anchors” presents my favorite mood on a simply fantastic album. Killer tones and a melancholy atmosphere, two of the best things on the planet.
Low - “Fly”
If you’ve been looking as long as I have for a late night throb-fest worthy of being on the same playlist as one of the very best records of all time, Massive Attack’s Mezzanine (1998), I believe that Low’s latest is your answer twenty years on. So, so, so good. Dark and moody, sexy and mysterious, filled with haunting vocals and remarkable sonic experimentation.
Field Report - “Healing Machine”
Throwing all modesty to the wind, I’m including a couple records here on which you can hear my production/mix work. I think Field Report’s third album, "Summertime Songs,” is really really really good, and I think it’s criminal more people didn’t manage to find this exemplary work from one of this generation’s very best songwriters and lyricists, Chris Porterfield.
And if you hold me, just ignore what I say
And love me reckless in spite of the neck brace
And if the welcome's worn but the room is warm
Cut the bandage all the way down to the waist
Wash us in the river, sparkling clean
Hooked up to the wires and flashing lights of the healing machine
Get familiar, really. It’s a gem of a record and I’m damned proud of it. “Healing Machine” is included here mainly because it was the first song we worked on for this project… the transformation from the first time I heard the song live (at Chris’ Alverno Presents program on Charles K. Harris) and the earliest demo is really something. And the drum geek/producer in me loves the treatment we pulled off with the rhythms here… Shane Leonard performed the whole song twice and then I used the bottom end of one take for the middle of the mix and the mid/top of each take for the sides, with a lovely outro surprise groove.
Kacey Musgraves - “Love Is A Wild Thing”
Golden Hour is a triumph. A pop record to my ears that is somehow relegated to the country shelf at virtual record stores everywhere, it’s absolutely lovely throughout. On “Love Is A Wild Thing,” Kacey is her mid-tempo easy-going best, with an instantly memorable and classic melody, great production, and colorfast visual lyrics :
Running like a river trying to find the ocean
Flowers in the concrete
Climbing over fences, blooming in the shadows
Places that you can't see
Coming through the melody when the night bird sings
Love is a wild thing
Robyn - “Honey”
In my head I can still see Robyn air drumming in towering platform shoes on tour at The Rave many years ago. With the latest full-length from this Swedish pop icon, she’s at her emotional and broken best. I love dance music and have for years, but when there’s a believable story behind the pulse and pump it takes the whole experience to another level. Robyn’s sweet “Honey” does it for me.
The 1975 - “Sincerity Is Scary”
There’s, like, 5 or 6 different feels going on simultaneously here and after a hundred listens I still have no idea what they’re doing or how they did it. Redonkulous feel and a forlorn lyric combine to make the most incongruous blend of happy/sad and I’m waaaay here for it. I dig their whole new record A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, with its massive sweep through styles and influences, but for me “Sincerity Is Scary” is a highlight and scary good.
Pusha T - “The Games We Play”
I dig Pusha T’s delivery so much, but for me this beat is the highlight for Kanye’s otherwise ignominious 2018 in public life. There are other Pusha tracks with stronger lyrics and flow, imho, but this song makes me want to turn every speaker around me on full blast and just snarl my lips as I nod along. So good.
Lucie Silvas - “Just For The Record”
Nothing hits me right in the feels like a killer breakup song. This one has all the right ingredients and is surrounded by impeccable production on Silvas’ album E.G.O. For a quick study at how two different production approaches can affect the final result of a song, both Lucie Silvas and Ruston Kelly released a version of this song (they co-wrote this heartbreaker) a couple of weeks apart… take a listen to both versions and compare (here’s Ruston’s at Spotify). Both extraordinary, I say. The power of a great song.
Buffalo Gospel - “When Lonesome Comes Calling”
On The First Bell, Buffalo Gospel’s 2018 release, feels mature and ready for primetime. This song’s dynamic arrangement and layered production combine to form a worthy pedestal on which to announce a songwriter (Ryan Necci) and band coming into their own. There’s never been a time when I’ve heard the bridge in this tune and not been covered in goosebumps. If you get the chance to witness these guys (and gal) live and hear this tearjerker, be sure you've packed some Kleenex.
Bahamas - “Way With Words”
Having come out back in January, I think this is the earliest 2018 album to be represented on my list of favorites… and the latest from Afie Jurvanen, Earthtones, also got my Grammy vote for Best Engineered Album. Having Pino Palladino and James Gadson on here doesn’t hurt, but the expert tones and production from Robbie Lackritz truly launch this record to the top of the heap for me this year. The whole thing sounds massive and intimate at the same time. It’s phenomenal throughout, and somehow even better in concert. Go see Bahamas if you can.
S. Carey - “True North”
I love Sean’s voice and his musicianship, and his latest album Hundred Acres is filled with earnest and warm melodies. This song is a highlight for me especially for the delicate slide and string textures woven into the arrangement. Lovely stuff. Feels like falling in love.
Wye Oak - “The Louder I Call, The Faster I Run”
The unreasonably talented Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack surprise me here with angular grooves, a slow build, and vocals that remind me in the very best way of one of my favorite and unique vocalists of all time, Elizabeth Fraser (of Cocteau Twins, and Massive Attack’s Mezzanine). I like that they seem to be making the records that they want to make, on their terms.
Keala Settle - “This Is Me”
I love love love this song and I don’t care who knows it. Watch this video from the making of The Greatest Showman and tell me you’re not moved to tears. Absolutely terrific album production from Greg Wells, and a place in the movie’s plot that makes me want to jump out of my seat and dance with the company on screen… and I DO NOT dance.
When the sharpest words wanna cut me down
I'm gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I'm meant to be, this is me
Look out 'cause here I come
And I'm marching on to the beat I drum
I'm not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me
Versio Curs - “Fourth Of July”
This is a minute and thirty two seconds of pure punked out bliss. What a leadoff track, what a debut record (How Are You). I love these guys. “God help me, I’m getting numb.”
Thomas Abban - “Fear”
There is a lot going on in this young artist’s heart that he wants to get out into the world, clearly… and it’s fascinating to hear (and watch) him unleash it all. Maybe too much here for a casual listen, I think you might need to give his album a few chances to find space in your musical universe. I first heard about Abban through my friend Gary Witt who runs the impeccable Pabst Theater Group here in Milwaukee, long before a major label deal happened with RCA Records, so it will be interesting to see if The Industry knows what to do with Mr. Abban. I’m all in, I think he’s super interesting and I hope the best is yet to come. Also: I would kill to mix your next record, Thomas.
Halloween, Alaska - “White Car”
I came to be a massive Halloween, Alaska fan thanks to my dear friend Owen Sartori many years ago. I’d cemented their music in my brain for a thousand listens, probably, before I ever learned that one of my mixing heroes, Tchad Blake, had been such a huge part of what I’d fallen in love with on Champagne Downtown. Such is the state of (not) readily available production credits in the past decade. Their new album Le Centre is another incredible set, this time with Brett Bullion expertly handling the sonic bliss. It’s just stupid how good these guys are, and I’m thrilled they’re back with another album after a too-long hiatus that had me worried we might’ve heard the last of Halloween, Alaska. So happy that was not the case. Dig in, grab those headphones if you got em, and ready your ears and brain for the best kind of insane inspiration.
Lorde Fredd33 - “Reflections”
Was very happy to have been asked to mix the album open and closer for Lorde Fredd33’s critically acclaimed NORF: The Legend of Hotboy Ronald. With “Reflections,” the album comes to a halting end, fading into living room/television ambience and harrowing screams after some challenging lyrics :
And that’s just for black men
No wonder we trappin’
Wasn't we born trapped in?
Just following suit
When in Rome, you know that shit
We the new slaves?
That's a damn lie
Just rocking Yeezy's instead uh shackles