2019 (Music) In Review

Hey, I’m only a couple of weeks into 2020, so this isn’t too late, right? Right.

Anyway, here’s my favorite ten albums from 2019, in no particular order…

Gary Clark, Jr. – This Land

This guy just shreds, man. Plenty of chunky distortion and great guitar riffs, and his lyrics are pretty great, too.

The Mountain Goats – In League with Dragons

A concept album built loosely around Dungeons and Dragons? By the Mountain Goats? Sign me up for that gaming session!

The National – I Am Easy to Find

If this album only gave us “Rylan,” it would still be one of the best albums of the year. That the whole album is fantastic, start to finish, is just gravy.

The Highwomen – The Highwomen

My god, these harmonies! An update on the Highwaymen concept from back in the ’80s (that of Johnny Cash, Kris Kristopherson, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings fame) with a scad of kickass women grabbing music by the horns and it like it. I want more of this.

The New Pornographers – In the Morse Code of Break Lights

Is there such a thing as a bad New Pornographers album? I’ve yet to hear one. Weird that it didn’t have a Dan Bejar-led song on it, though.

Andrew Bird – My Finest Work Yet

Bird continues to put out challenging, engaging music consistently with each release, and this one is no exception to that. “Bloodless” was one of my favorite songs of the year.

Wilco – Ode to Joy

A mostly-acoustic affair, but it finds the Chicago band writing some of their best songs in years. It’s cozy, comfy, rainy Sunday afternoon music. And Jeff Tweedy still keeps my dream of chunky guitar hero alive.

Lizzo – Cuz I Love You

Didn’t expect this one, did you? Well, I just took a DNA test, turns out I’m 100% that guy who really likes to listen to Lizzo play the flute like a badass.

J.S. Ondara – Tales of America

Sometimes, you say it best with just an acoustic guitar and minimal backing. That’s Ondara’s debut, Tales of America, which I found through NPR. The previous sentence is the whitest sentence I have ever written, and I used to write term papers about English religion and society during the theatrical reformation period.

The Black Keys – Let’s Rock

What? Sometimes, I just like straight-ahead bluesy rock. This is not an interrogation. Go away.

Favorites: Wilco’s Summerteeth

Wilco has become, over the past twenty or so years, one of my absolute favorite bands. I first heard about them in a weird way: Glen Phillips (of Toad the Wet Sprocket fame) name dropped them in a song, which got me wondering about them. Long story short, I started with Summerteeth and never looked back.

Summerteeth was the third Wilco album. It came out originally in 1999, following the double album Being There. It’s a more refined album than Being There or their debut, A.M., with more organs, pianos, and odd little blips and quirks that presaged what was to come on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born.

The album kicks off with “Can’t Stand It,” which features keyboards, bells, and chugging guitars. “It’s all beginning/To feel like it’s ending,” Jeff Tweedy sings. At one point, he essentially howls, leading into a great instrumental break. From there, things slow down with “She’s a Jar,” a meditative, melodic tune which features a beautiful harmonica solo. “A Shot in the Arm” picks up the pace, starting off with a squall of static and noise and featuring heavily-strummed acoustic guitar.

Other standout tracks include “How to Fight Loneliness,” a song that encourages the listener to “Just smile all the time,” but the admonition feels rather hollow, as if the singer doesn’t quite believe that’s really the best way to fight loneliness. “When You Wake Up Feeling Old” is a lovely tune reminiscent of the Beatles’ “When I’m 64” in theme and general tone.

The title track is one of the best songs on the album. “It’s just a dream he keeps having/And it doesn’t seem to mean anything,” Tweedy sings over an upbeat tune, and the bird chirping and chorused “Oohs” and “Aahs” really make the song for me, as does the jangly, Byrdsy guitar figure played throughout.

The album closes with “In a Future Age,” a song that meditates on things ending and all falling to entropy. “Some trees with bend/And some will fall/But then again/So will us all.” The lyrics are simple, but very evocative and moving. Tweedy’s vocals are pitch-perfect for the song, and it rounds out the album in the best way possible.

Following “In a Future Age,” there are two songs that act as something of a coda: “Candyfloss,” a sugary ditty that features keyboards quite heavily, and an alternate version of “A Shot in the Arm.” Both are excellent and a wonderful way to actually finish out the album.

Ultimately, Summerteeth reflects Wilco growing in confidence and trying new things. The band shows growth and the album predicts the strange left turn their next couple of albums would take. I highly recommend it as a starting point for exploring Wilco’s discography. You could do far worse than this particular album.

The band has actually posted the entire album on Youtube. You can find it here.

The Beatles – Live at the Hollywood Bowl

As with most right-thinking individuals, I love the Beatles.  I’ve been listening to them since I was a small child, sitting in the living room with my father, reverentially placing the vinyl records on the turntable and dropping the needle.  I remember that the copy my dad owned of the Hey Jude collection had a skip in “Old Brown Shoe” after second verse, where the record would get stuck in an infinite loop and you had to gently nudge the needle to continue the song.

I never really thought much about their live work.  I mean, they stopped touring in, like, ’65, focusing all their time and energy on creating some of the most revolutionary studio albums of the decade.  And yeah, audiences cheered like mad when the Lads from Liverpool took the stage, but that in and of itself was a problem: there’s the old story that they couldn’t even hear themselves playing on stage at the height of Beatlemania, and there was even a legend that they sometimes didn’t actually bother even playing, since no one could hear.  You could shake your head for the “ooooh” at the right time and drive everyone nuts.

And then this album appeared.  I have a vague awareness that it’s related to a Ron Howard film, Eight Days a Week, about the Beatles during their touring years, and I was at first a bit hesitant to grab it.  I’m a little leery of releases like this; they whiff of cash grab.  But I picked it up anyway, and I’m pretty damn glad I did.

See, the thing I forgot – the thing I’m sure a lot of people forget in the wake of the years the Beatles spent not touring and performing shows – is that these guys could tear it up.  They cut their teeth playing dive bars in Hamburg; if you think they couldn’t still cut loose and barnstorm through a set just because they got matching suits and new haircuts, you don’t know these four musicians.

What strikes me the most about this particular set – aside from the fact that the Beatles still sound like they’re just having a helluva lot of fun playing music – is how breathless it all feels.  The album is 17 tracks long, and very few of them (only four) break the three-minute mark.  The rest are all considerably shorter.  They play these familiar songs, songs we’ve heard hundreds or even thousands of times, at a breakneck pace, as if they’re trying to reach the end of the song ahead of everyone else.  And there’s not much banter or piddling around between songs: someone (usually John or Paul) introduces the next song, usually saying what album it came off of, and then it’s off to the races.  They rip through “Things We Said Today” in 2:18, the Ringo-led “Boys” in a mere 2:08.  On several occasions, John and Paul actually sound literally out of breath at the end of the song, or maybe it’s a sprint.

The song selection is about what you’d expect from 1964-era Beatles: a mix of covers (such as “Dizzy Miss Lizzie,” “Long Tall Sally,” or “Roll Over Beethoven”) and well-known singles (“A Hard Day’s Night,” “Help,” “Twist and Shout,” and “Ticket to Ride”) and a few less-obvious choices (the aforementioned “Things We Said Today” or the actually slowed-down “Baby’s In Black”).  The band themselves are in fine form: everyone’s voices sound good, though John sounds like he’s holding in a laugh for most of “Help.”  Paul’s bass is a deep, melodic rumble, Ringo is clearly pounding the hell out of those drums, and the guitar interplay between John and George feels both well-practiced and loose.  This is music that’s vital and fun, and you just can’t help but sing along.  By the end of the 17-track collection’s 40-odd minutes, you’re as breathless and exhilarated as the band.

Is Live at the Hollywood Bowl a necessary Beatles album?  No, not really.  The studio versions of all these songs are almost uniformly superior in terms of quality of recording and performance.  It’s not a bad introduction, though it’s not going to do much to explain to a neophyte or an unbeliever why the Beatles were such a thing or why Beatlemania was happening.  It is a good time, though, a fun record that creates a snapshot of the Beatles as they strained against the earlier constraints of their sound and the limitations of trying to reproduce it on the stage in a live setting.  If you have any love or appreciation for the Beatles, you’ll definitely find something here worthwhile.