Welcome to the Best Songs of 2019 countdown. I’ll be your host.
I’ve compiled this list every year for more than a decade — since 2007 in fact. I exchange lists with Mike of B-Sides Narrative and we hem and haw and grumble about the songs we left off the list and the artists that we somehow didn’t hear during our sonic travels. There’s too much music for anyone to hear. I suppose you have a shot if your full-time job requires it. Even though I’m actually paid a small sum to write about music for Music Meet Fans, I barely even scratch the surface. I’d love to spend more time enjoying contemporary jazz, blues, and more experimental electronic music. I’m just one guy with a pavlovian response to female-fronted electro-pop outfits. Honestly if I didn’t consciously explore other artists, this list would consist of 80% female-fronted electro-pop. That’s my default setting. That’s the frequency that makes me purr.
The Best Songs of 2019 challenged me more than other years. My “Hits list” — the list that I assemble all year long featuring songs I’ve heard that I like/love/might grow to love ballooned to 300 in December as I tried to play catch up on all the music I missed. Selecting 100 became self-flagellation. So there’s 129 songs on my list. Sue me. Mike said I could. (He has more than 130!)
2019 challenged me in other ways, too. The volume of good music, the music that resonated, for one. Personally and professionally I had to confront a few demons as well. So these weren’t always just songs. These were sonic crutches. They were gateways to clarity and momentary peace. They were distractions and encouragement and moments of zen when the words just weren’t there. The right piece of music at the right time can improve your whole day. And if you improve every day with music, that’s a life.
Keep listening. Keep digging and keep searching for the music that resonates at your frequency. Don’t just turn on the radio and listen to whatever oldies channel comes on. Consciously dig deeper. The music that becomes yours doesn’t live on the surface. It lives in the shadows waiting to become exquisitely, personally yours.
Spotify Playlist (Top 128):
30Hz Top 25 Songs of 2019:
“Too Much” – Carly Rae Jepsen
I wish to have a sliver of the fun that Carly Rae Jepsen seems to have performing and being Carly Rae Jepsen. The Canadian pop icon’s music has grown up from her “Call Me Maybe” days. “Too Much” is mature pop songwriting from an artist that never seems to exhaust her enthusiasm for life.
“Hey, Ma” – Bon Iver
A month ago Bon Iver wouldn’t have sniffed the Top 100. I wasn’t fond of this song and couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for Bon Iver’s new record. It wasn’t as good. It wasn’t anything we hadn’t heard before. But then XMU beat this song into my brain. A switch flipped, and I finally saw this track’s fragile, haunting beauty.
“So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings” – Caroline Polachek
A name that sounds like a Flight of the Conchords track backed by an inescapable hook, Caroline Polachek’s porcelain voice, and a dash of Hall & Oates musicality.
“Demands” – Makthaverskan
In my intro, I should have added female-fronted Swedish post-punk alongside female-fronted electro-pop as the sounds that just get me. “Demands” comes from a two-song EP which means that there’s (hopefully) another full record on the horizon. Can you hear the giddy in my voice?
“Fare Thee Well” – Jessica Pratt
I called Jessica Pratt’s 2019 record Quiet Signs a masterpiece in multiple conversations this year. Upon my first listen I added “Fare Thee Well” to my 2019 Final list and I’ve never second-guessed either assessment. You may not love her high-pitched delivery, but there’s an otherworldly synesthesia between her voice at music.
“Forgot Your Name” – Mini Mansions
Shamelessly plucked from Edgar Wright’s list. An infectious throwback banger from idiosyncratic DEVO-inspired LA-based pop outfit.
The simple backing piano and vocals give me hymn-brand chills. I’m not a religious man, but certain songs give me faith. Indianapolis Sisters Lily and Madeleine Jurkiewicz harmonies on this track might just qualify as angelic.
“bad guy” – Billie Eilish
I want to first confess that I don’t “get” Billie Eilish. Her whole thing confuses me and I assume that’s becomes I’m over 30. That said, “bad guy” is a fresh wound of a pop track. A rolling synthetic bassline, hushed vocals and a radical tonal shift. This artist’s got brass lady balls and even though I don’t totally understand her massive popularity, I get it.
“Sympathy” – Vampire Weekend
While everyone else was out repping that earworm “Harmony Hall” I was listening quietly to the rest of the record and “Sympathy” jumped out and grabbed me by the throat. It almost feels like Rostam’s back with the band.
“The Imperial” – The Delines
Lead singer Amy Boone underwent three years of treatment and rehab after her legs were broken when she was hit by a car in Austin, Texas. The band waited to release their second record The Imperial until her return. This track invokes a broken-down Dusty Springfield. Pitch-perfect neo-soul.
“Trampoline” – SHAED
My 7yo is obsessed with this song. She’s also obsessed with Ariana Grande and the soundtrack to some Nickelodeon show called Victorious. So take from that nugget what you will.
“Can’t Stop Your Lovin'” – Poolside (feat. Panama)
There’s a literal cottage industry of “Can’t Stop Your Lovin'” remixes. Don’t mess with the rest. Daytime Disco lives in this easy-listening mid-tempo groove. Life is better with Poolside on the turntable.
“Death Stranding” – CHVRCHES
It’s actually pretty funny that in a year without a CHVRVCHES album I still found the ways and means to add two CHVRCHES songs to my Best of List. This one comes from a video game that I never bothered to play. “Death Stranding” features the band’s regular flourishes. Slow build to a catharsis, perfect production. The way Lauren’s Scottish brogue comes through when she says “down.”
“Dylan Thomas” – Better Oblivion Community Center
Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst’s side project puts all other side projects to shame. “Dylan Thomas” channels the Traveling Wilbury’s and modern, existential malaise.
“hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me” – Lana Del Rey
I won’t admit how many songs from Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell made it onto my 2019 Hits list (okay, it was five). This is personal, scorched earth songwriting that will stand the test of time. If we’re talking about any single record from this year 25 yeas from now it’ll be this one.
The Japanese House, aka London’s Amber Bain, has another one of those transcendent voices, instantaneous transporation. Whenever I heard a song from The Japanese House, I paused whatever I was doing so I can drape myself in her velvet.
“All Night” – Pure Bathing Culture
Any song I call an “anthem” inspires me to sing the chorus wherever I am. Whatever I’m doing. It can be quite embarrassing when I’m listening on headphones because I lose myself in Pure Bathing Culture and especially this particular track. Suffice to say that I am not as talented a pop vocalist as Sarah Versprille.
“Not” – Big Thief
Adrianne Lenker uses negation to explain her world. “Not the meat of your thigh/Nor your spine tattoo/Nor your shimmery eye/Nor the wet of the dew,” she sings. Big Thief creates lush, beautiful soundscapes (see: “UFOF” and “Shark Smile”) but this is not lush and beautiful. This is forest after the fire. The riverbed after the drought.
“Oblivions” – The National
Essentially a B-side on The National’s wonderful new record “I Am Easy to Find” (which is itself a a kind of experimental companion to Mike Mills’ film of the same name). Matt Berninger sings backup vocals to Bryce Dessner’s wife Pauline de Lassus. It’s a meditation on the nature of the human condition within a marriage. Mills called it the masterpiece on the record. Obviously, I agree. You could pick something prosaic like “Light Years” but that’d be your wrong choice.
“All Mirrors” – Angel Olsen
Introspective deep-dives into the darkness. Listening to Angel Olson’s All Mirrors feels like being alone with your thoughts. It’s not a suicide record so much as a search for peace in the center of a tornado.
“Nothing Baby” – Magdalena Bay
Barely a song. A snippet. A hook. An homage to Gwen Stefani, perhaps. Found on Magdalena Bay’s tapestry of unfinished tracks, mini mix vol. 1, “Nothing Baby” has no peers. It hits its beat, embraces the wall-to-wall hook and then just ends. You could listen to this track a dozen times and not feel satiated and maybe that’s why it climbed all the way up to #3.
“Red Bull & Hennessey” – Jenny Lewis
I killed one song this year for everyone in my household. For Jenny this is a proper banger. It even features a pretty rocking guitar solo. There may have been “better” songs on “On the Line,” but this one made me love Jenny Lewis even more — as if that were even possible.
“Seventeen” – Sharon Van Etten
Sharon Van Etten’s having a moment and we’re along for the ride. “Remind Me Tomorrow” attained crossover notoriety despite Sharon’s further sonic experimentation. She performed “Seventeen” on Kimmel. Rolling Stone devoted an entire spread to the track as a “Song You Need to Know.” Van Etten looks back on being 17 with only a small amount of romanticism. It’s mostly a dirge for an uncertain future with the unique perspective of having lived the life in between. Unlike other years there was no controversy surrounding my choice for #1. The other songs stepped aside for Sharon Van Etten to assume the throne.
Just when I thought I wasn’t enamored with the music of 2018… I compiled my Best Songs of 2018 list and realized, well… that I wasn’t that enamored with the music of 2018. I fell at the feet of a few select albums and those albums consumed my year. My love for Arctic Monkey’s Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino forced me to re-evaluate the entire Arctic Monkey’s catalog. (It’s better than I remembered!) Of course I had a new CHVRCHES record, so I even had to grapple with my steadily increasing CHVRCHES fanboy tendencies (I’m incorrigible.)
Overall, however, 2018 was another year filled with highs and lows, just like any other. Even though popular culture continues to tout rap’s new directions, I can only shrug because what the hell is that even? What happened to beats, rhymes & life? You guys aren’t even trying to rhyme and god forbid we introduce a decent beat. Indie rock has fallen back into an interminable mid-tempo cruising speed, proper rock & roll failed to leave a mark, and I even liked not one — but two country albums. (What?)
At the outset I made an effort to digest a wider variety of music styles. As a result I spent more time with soul, blues and modern jazz. Genres in which I tend to live in the past. Each year I tend to discover many great jazz records… made in the 1950’s. My list reflects those efforts in fits and spurts and I even found a few terrific jazz records made after 1960. (The hell you say.)
And now for my yearly disclaimer. I’m just one human listening to music and these selections reflect my year in music. I share my picks because maybe you’ll find some new favorites for yourself. I also carry on because my friend Michael Smith at bsidesnarrative.com have been exchanging lists every year since 2007.
Music sustains us through the tough times and improves the good ones. It gives us hope for the future and convinces us we’re more deep and soulful than we really are. Music is a constantly renewing life blood. Never stop listening to new music.
The minute you stop listening to new music is the moment you become old.
101. “Falling Into Me” – Let’s Eat Grandma
100. “Mice” – Billie Marten
99. “Birds” – The Shacks
98. “How Can I Love You” – Yellow Days
97. “True to You” – Deep Cuts
96. “We Appreciate Power” Grimes (feat. HANA)
95. “Anthem (To Human Justice)” – Logan Richarson
94. “Make Me Feel” – Janelle Monáe
93. “New Birth in New England” – Phosphorescent
92. “Foundation” – Public Practice
91. “The Bug Collector” – Haley Heynerickx
90. “Once In My Life” – The Decemberists
89. “Thread” – David Bazan & Kevin Devine
88. “The Walker” – Christine and the Queens
87. “Wild Blue Wind” – Erin Rae
86. “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” – Ashley McBryde
85. “Everybody Wants to Be Famous” – Superorganism
84. “Bad Bad News” – Leon Bridges
83. “My Friend the Forest” – Nils Frahm
82. “Nearer My God” – Foxing
81. “Honeymooning” – Holy Motors
80. “It’s Alright” – Slow and Steady
79. “Lemon Glow” Beach House
78. “Meateater” – ALASKALASKA
77. “Tokyo Bay” – Nick Lowe
76. “Suspirium” – Thom Yorke
75. “better alone” – Lykke Li
74. “Straight Shot” – DeVotchKa
73. “Fireworks” – First Aid Kit
72. “MJ” – Now, Now
71. “Paper Trails” – Celebration
70. “Scream Whole” – Methyl Ethyl
69. “Egyptian Luvr” – Rejjie Snow (feat. Aminé and Dana Williams)
54. “Everybody’s Coming to My House” – David Byrne
53. “Blue Girl” = Chromatics
52. “Nobody” – Mitski
51. “Don’t You Know” -Durand Jones & The Indications
50. “Your Dog” – Soccer Mommy
49. “Semicircle Song” – The Go! Team
48. “Welcome to the Milk Disco” – Milk Disco
47. “Gold Rush” – Death Cab for Cutie
46. “Powder Blue / Cascine Park” – Yumi Zouma
45. “Don” – Ocean Wisdom
44. “Space Cowboy” – Kacey Musgraves
43. “List of Demands” – The Kills
42. “Far Behind You” – Lyla Foy (feat. Jonathan Donahue)
41. “Fallingwater” & “Light On” – Maggie Rogers
40. “Saturdays” – Twin Shadow (feat. HAIM)
39. “Modafinil Blues” – Matthew Dear
38. “This is America” – Childish Gambino
37. “Rosebud” – U.S. Girls
36. “Sense of Discovery” – Simple Minds
35. “Know My Name” – Das Body
34. “Jeannie Becomes a Mom” – Caroline Rose
33. “Late to the Fight” – LUMP
32. “Jeep Cherokee Laredo” – The War and Treaty
31. “Oh No, Bye Bye” – Sunflower Bean
30. “Confirmation” – Westerman
29. “Give Up” – I See Rivers
28. “How Simple” – Hop Along
27. “Can’t Do Better” – Kim Petras
26. “Honey” – Robyn
And now for my Top 25 portion of The Best Songs of 2018. Because I’m becoming more of a realist in my old age, I now recognize that nobody’s going to read 100 blurbs (we’re very busy Internet surfers). Instead of half-assing 100 blurbs, I’m only half-assing 25. You’re welcome.
“Heaven/Hell” – CHVRCHES (from the Hansa Sessions)
Just another song on CHVRCHES solid 2018 LP Love is Dead soared on this acoustic version with a blast of strings and stripped down vocals. It’s an entirely new song. Go ahead. Close your eyes, throw your head back and sing along. #NoJudgment
“Twanguero” – Electric Sunset
The search for new surf guitar artists usually proves futile. Spain’s Diego Garcia paid back that investment tenfold.
“Formless and New” – Rubblebucket
Psychedelic arty dream-poppers took the same old same old and added big beats, brass and pitchy synth to make something familiar but f#cking fresh as hell.
“Emily” – Clean Cut Kid
Easily the best cut from Fleetwood Mac in 2018.
“Eva” – HAERTS
Epic dream-pop in four movements.
“Roll (Burbank Funk) – The Internet
Irresistible California funk. Lush instrumentation, groovy bassline, and honey-dripped vocals.
“I’ll Make You Sorry” – Screaming Females
Punk-lite vets peak with their seventh record? Not saying they did, just saying it’s an argument you could make that wouldn’t be weird. Marissa Paternoster has the best name and warble in the business.
“Wide Awake” – Parquet Courts
“Peach” – Broods
Trippy, electro-pop from New Zealand has pinpointed your pleasure center with dreamy vocals over block-rocking beats.
“Short Court Style” – Natalie Prass
June Christy + Booker T. = “Short Court Style”
“Boss” – Little Simz
I haven’t been this enamored with a female rapper since Ice Cube gave the world Yo Yo in 1991. The rolling bassline will make you believe that you’ve got moves, too.
“Letting Go” – Wild Nothing
Wild Nothing’s sound perfectly distilled into one individual song. They’ll never be a more Wild Nothing song than the jangly, melancholic “Letting Go”.
“Strange Embrace” – Kitten
This poppy, hook-laden confection makes me purr.
“Night Shift” – Lucy Dacus
Swallow-your-soul storytelling with beautiful, tortured musicality. If you don’t know the name Lucy Dacus, you should get acquainted. Immediately.
“Future Me Hates Me” – The Beths
Riot grrls had a strong showing on the countdown because more so than any other 2018 microgenre the ladies recognized the power of a well placed guitar riff and a hooky chorus.
“Over the Midnight” – Jonathan Wilson
The first song added to my 2018 Hits List survived the gauntlet to earn a spot in the Top 10. Lush soundscape with Cat Stevens lyrical stylings.
“She Remembers Everything” – Roseanne Cash, Sam Phillips
Haunting strings and hooky, soul churning lyricism.
“Me and My Dog” – boygenius (Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus)
If you would have said to me, “Jay, I charge you with creating the ultimate female singer-songwriter supergroup,” I would have chosen Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus. Now that you mention it, I would have added Maggie Rogers, too, but who am I to quibble?
“Not Tonight” – Ten Fé
London duo’s irresistible candy-coated alt-rock. A Khan-worthy ear worm.
“May Your Kindness Remain” – Courtney Marie Andrews
Repeated refrains or song titles can become grinding and pretentious — or beautiful and meditative.
“Four Out of Five” – Arctic Monkeys
Until now I’d always lost the Monkeys’ lyricism among the bombast. Clever twists of phrase and irony have never been more lounge lizardy.
“Driving” – Grouper
I am a child It is a gift that my mother gave me
Watching the pavement Stretch out and fade You gave me
Along the highway They look to see The nature of the crash To see the body
And it is time We’re on our way I wonder Whether you realize How much I love you
Today, the land Is slightly wider than the sky
And we are driving Oh, life Life in the tunnel Made of the sun frame
“Helpless” – The Regrettes
Hamiltonian cover refashioned for hooky riot grrrlllllls with perfect pop sensibilities.
“Graffiti” – CHVRCHES
I won’t apologize for my Lauren Mayberry obsession — I stand by my assertion that this is some of her best songwriting.
“Love It If We Made It” – The 1975
I dismissed this song after first listen, but it’s off-kilter backdoor not-a-pop-song pop qualities wore me down until I couldn’t deny this band’s emerging greatness any longer. This is my best song of all the best songs of 2018 at this very moment. Check back tomorrow.
Originally released in November of 1979 under the title English Garden in the UK. For the North American release, CBS/Columbia Records (the album was released by Epic elsewhere) stripped away the title and transformed Bruce Woolley from an erstwhile Elvis Costello/Elton John hybrid into a proto-Chris Isaak. Note the UK cover below:
The cover grabbed me. There’s something about the promise of a 1940’s crooner transplanted into the 1980’s (in this instance 1979) that piques my curiosity. When I’m crate diving and blindly choosing which unknown records to sample, I rarely seek Internet consultation. At worst I’m out $3. At best I’ve uncovered a slumbering and forgotten gem.
I love the anticipation of placing the needle on the turntable and not knowing anything about what’s going to come spewing forth from my speakers. That moment of gestation, signaled by the static and the 30Hz hum of the needle sliding across the vinyl. I’m guaranteed to hear something brand new to me.
So you’ll understand my shock when I sat down to give Bruce Woolley & The Camera Club a first listen and heard — side one, track two — “Video Killed the Radio Star” emitting from my speakers. It sounded more like The Cars by way of Brian Eno doing “Video Killed the Radio Star,” but nevertheless, there was no mistaking that hook.
What ho?! A cover? But the sleeve dates the release as 1979 and I knew, without any doubt, that The Buggles released The Age of Plastic, featuring “Video Killed the Radio Star” in 1980. So not a cover?
More investigation was required. To the Interwebs I flew.
A successful singer-songwriter for a decade before recording with his band The Camera Club, Bruce Woolley had penned songs for The Studs and Dusty Springfield before becoming frustrated with the opportunities afforded to his work. In 1977, Woolley began tinkering with Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes on a project called, that’s right, The Buggles. Shortly before The Buggles (Horn and Downes) signed to Island Records, Woolley departed to form The Camera Club with Matthew Seligman (future bassist in The Soft Boys), Rod Johnson, Dave Birch and a young Thomas Dolby.
Bruce Woolley and The Camera Club
For The Camera Club’s debut LP, Woolley recorded both “Video Killed the Radio Star” and “Clean / Clean,” songs originally co-written with Horn and Downes for The Buggles. Here’s the interesting twist of fate. The Buggles’ The Age of Plastic dropped in January of 1980 (two months after the UK release of Woolley’s English Garden), and North American ears wouldn’t hear The Camera Club until November of the same year. Both records were recorded in 1979 and crossed the Atlantic like ships in the night.
Critics describe The Age of Plastic as a landmark 1980’s Technopop album. Artists such as Daft Punk and Phoenix have cited the record as a major influence. Bruce Woolley & The Camera Club couldn’t even coerce CBS into releasing their second album.
Many critics (mostly old stodgy ones) lauded Bruce Woolley’s version of “Video Killed the Radio Star,” calling The Buggles’ version novelty kitsch. The Buggles made the music of the future and certain folksy critics didn’t exactly know what to make of it. It’s psychedelic science fiction, fearful of the mass media culture just over the horizon, made with pre-dated techniques of electronic production. Progress causes growing pains.
While I’d love to laud The Camera Club as the real “Video Killed the Radio Star” artist, I can’t hop up on that soapbox. They’re yin and hang, complementary flipsides of a 7″ single, and I’m grateful to have finally turned the record over. One is iconic, the other an eager sidekick.
The Camera Club’s new wave sound echoes comfortable trends during the transition into the 80’s. It’s impossible to listen to songs such as “English Garden” and not hear Brian Eno’s 1977 classic Before And After Science. The album relies on Bruce Woolley’s songwriting. As an artist, Woolley embraced a brand of optimism and earnestness that had faded among commercial artists.
After The Camera Club disbanded in 1982, Woolley returned to his bread and butter. He penned “Slave to the Rhythm” for Grace Jones (a song originally intended for Frankie Goes to Hollywood) and even wrote the seminal ambient electronic track “A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules from the Center of the Ultraworld” for The Orb’s debut 1989 album. He returned to stage performance with The Radio Science Orchestra, a theremin-led ensemble and worked on the score to Baz Lurhmann’s Moulin Rouge!
Bruce Woolley & The Camera Club’s one and only record might be a footnote in the careers of The Buggles and Thomas Dolby, but it’s a highly listenable curiosity. The record provides a little extra context for the first wave of artists inspired by the sounds of the coming artificial age. Not only was Bruce Woolley one of the first casualties, but he also became an innovator.
And if you want to dig a little deeper into “Video Killed the Radio Star” lore, here’s Geoff Downes talking about the history of the song.
Originally released in May 1985 in Australia under the title Shine, this self-titled debut for the Melbourne band Kids in the Kitchen hit the International market a year later with a different cover and sans the Shine title.
I came across this nugget in a Half Price Books — the one with all the vinyl. If you’re a HPB shopper, you know there’s one in your area that gets all the interesting records. If you’re jonesing for some more Barbara Streisand or Kenny Loggins (and let’s be honest, who isn’t?) feel free to visit any of the others.
While my musical tastes skew in all directions, when I visit this particular shop there’s only one thing on my mind. Odd or interesting 1980’s selections. All I need to do is unearth a few before the kids lose their minds. I generally have 12 minutes. On this day, I had 9 before meltdown. Commence extreme crate diving.
Normally by the time I hit the “K” section I’ve got a handful of prospects tucked under my arm and my daughters (ages 8 and 5) are moaning about being bored or asking me how far I think the 45s will fly. That means the fingers start flying faster and I might miss a gem or two. That Kids in the Kitchen cover, however, would not be overlooked. Bright yellow polo shirts? Red scarves? Smug new waveness or post-punk record label conformity? Are those a dozen eggs? Nakatomi Plaza? All bathed in the sickly neon streaming in through the “Kids in the Kitchen” monicker atop the sleeve.
It screams “the record label said we’d make bank if we sell ‘edgy’ but I’m really just thinking about that half-finished bag of Doritos at home in the pantry.” Also, “Cravats are itchy.”
The band definitely falls under the auspices of the angsty, synthesized shadow cast by new wave / new romantic bands such as Ultravox or Visage, but Kids in the Kitchen never met a Duran Duran groove they didn’t like. So while, lead singer Scott Carne likes to elongate his vowels to profess his depth and inner turmoil, there’s a poppier, commercial softness here rather than cold artificiality.
This is probably best represented by the band’s most successful track, “Current Stand,” which serves up a radio-friendly and potently hooky chorus, simple melodies and 1980’s sexy sax. Pure palatability.
The album’s first two singles “Change in Mood” and “Bitter Tears” promise more, perhaps, and would have rightfully qualified them as a band to watch — if they’d hung around long enough to evolve into something more interesting. Solid pop vocals and a pleasant blend of electronics and instrumentation only goes so far.
It’s not too surprising that the band got lost in the new wave shuffle despite registering Australian Platinum. They’re ear-friendly but overly familiar, especially considering this record didn’t reach U.S. or U.K. ears until the middle of 1986 — a time when this new wave had long since reached its peak.
The band splintered shortly after the release of this debut. The guitarist and keyboardist quit, and Kids in the Kitchen only released one more record, 1987’s Terrain before calling it quits in 1988.
The Kids stay in the Kitchen. As a relative oddity due to the fact that it never saw a CD release outside Australia, vinyl’s the only way to smell what the kids are (still) cooking. It’s not going to be a rotation staple, but I could see some “Change the Mood” cravings coming back around in time for a midnight snack.
Every year since 2005, my friend Mike at bsidesnarrative.com and I have been compiling our “Best of” lists. It’s a competition without a winner or a loser. It’s a way for us to communicate about music and share our thoughts without being able to chat as much as we’d like anymore. The above link will take you to his list.
The 100 Best Songs of 2017
The year 2017 was a bunch of whatever. Broken. The Upside-Down became our reality. While all that nonsense raged on and fueled our fears and whipped our disillusionment into a lather, the year found time to beget a veritable trough of earhole-worthy jams. It was a year of transition, a coming-to-terms with the dumpster-fire status quo. We may not like the world in which we live, but the torrent of inspired and reactionary art may be the silver lining to the coming apocalypse. #SmallVictories
I tweaked the “Best of” rules this year. For 2017, I’m only allowing myself one song from each artist. This benefits you in two ways. 1) You won’t be forced to read a list of nothing but Valerie June, The War on Drugs, and Alvvays, and 2) I get to pick more artists and more songs. If you’re reading any of these 2017 lists, you’re likely looking to find new records and artists to make these days more meaningful/beautiful/soulful/tolerable. Or you’re hate reading and shaking your fist angrily at your computer screen. Either way, thanks for the click.
And I reserve the right to completely change my mind about all of these songs next week.
Disclaimer in perpetuity: I’m still just one guy and while I listen to a lot of music, there are people who listen to a lot more. Like the folks at Aquarium Drunkard, My Old Kentucky Blog and Said the Gramophone — my three go-to music blogs. In many ways their input came together to form these year-end lists like Voltron.
Bonus picks: “What’s That Perfume That You Wear” – Jens Lekman; “No Coffee” – Amber Coffman; “Runaway” – Julietta; “Do You Still Love Me?” – Ryan Adams; “No One Like You” – Blue Hawaii; “Still Waking Up” – Tim Darcy; “I Know A Place” – MUNA; “I Promise” – Radiohead; “Keep Walking” – Kelly Lee Owens; “Soothing” – Laura Marling; “Wild Indifference” – Joan Shelley; “Westermarck” – Charly Bliss; “Stellular” – Rose Elinor Dougall; “Sweet Saturn Mine” – The Moonlandingz; “call the police” – LCD Soundsystem; “The Fear” – The Shins; “Old Time” – Willie Nelson; “Ran” – Future Islands; “You Never Come Closer” – Doris; “1234” – Kevin Morby; “There’s a Honey” – Pale Waves; “Baby Luv” – Nilufer Yanya; “Thinning” – Snail Mail
“Sorrow” – Paul Shaffer And The World’s Most Dangerous Band (with Jenny Lewis) / “Valerie” – Ra Ra Riot / “Can’t Help Falling in Love” – Beck / “Fragments” – Blondie
For whatever reason, covers dominated my earholes in 2017 and while I have a hard time ranking cover songs in the main countdown, I reserve this slot for trends/miracles that deserve a little bit of time and attention. Back on January 6th, “Sorrow” was actually the very first track added to my “2017 Hits” list, which is the year-long collection of tracks from which I draw this countdown. To wrap up the covers portion of this countdown, Blondie checks in with a defiant, goddammit I’m still relevant wave goodbye on her cover of Adam Johnston’s piano ballad.
“Valley Boy” – Wolf Parade
So I cheated and added #101. I couldn’t neglect my boy Spencer Krug, who more than any other indie vocalist sings at the frequency of 30Hz.
“French Press” – Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
Melbourne 80’s indie-rock nostalgists sound like Real Estate and the Strokes at the same time. My birthday wish from 2009 just came true.
“Heartstruck – Wild Hunger” – Hamilton Leithauser, Angel Olsen
Angel Olsen shares Leithauser’s delicious appreciation for expressive 60’s-leaning vocal styles. The two bounce verses off each other like cunning Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em linguists.
“T.V. M.A.C.” – Mega Bog
Neo-jam-glam on *ahem* wry toast.
tie: “If We Were Vampires” – Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit / “Alleyway” – Anna Tivel
This is me. Weeping. Like a baby.
“Let ‘Em Talk” – Kesha (feat. Eagles of Death Metal)
Kesha’s Freedom Party 2017. A killer kiss off track backed by grumbly guitar rockers Eagles of Death Metal. The pop diva never sounded as comfortable in her own shoes as she does here, doubling as a riot grrrl.
“Running Second” – Ainslie Wills
The terms “fierce” and “symphonic” come to mind when considering Melbourne’s Ainslie Wills. This teaser track from a pending 2018 LP promises more great things from this underrated songstress from down under.
“The Blackout” – U2
Most will balk when I suggest the best track on U2’s latest album sounds like a lost gem from the Pop era. “The Blackout” forces Adam Clayton to the foreground and the result is the freshest U2 track since “Discoteque.” #ILikePopGoddammit
“Ouija” – Graveyard Club
Dueling vocals and baroque synth. Stop teasing me with greatness and release the new record already you morose Minneapolis bastards.
“Deadly Valentine” – Charlotte Gainstbourg
Dramatic, grief-laden 6-minute vocal opus backed by strings and loss. Inspired in part by the apparent suicide of her half-sister, the Parisian actress and singer produced her greatest record to date. This song is one that will linger and grow and transform the more you listen.
“Ugly Human Heart Pt. 1 & 2” – Daniel Romano
An eccentric two-part romper stomper from the Canadian singer-songwriter.
“Call on God” – Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings
I challenge you to give yourself to this song. Listen to the hope and the majesty in Sharon Jones’ vocals. Knowing the battles she fought and the live she lived. You will be moved. The late, great soul singer released the best record of her career after she was already gone. Her spirit endures.
“Rules” – Hoops
Two minutes and thirteen seconds of Hoops jangle-pop perfection. Why bother with more when you jangle that hard?
“Follow My Voice” – Julie Byrne
Julie Byrne’s voice reacts and recoils, occasionally suffocated. It’s a fragile human spirit — that voice. Gazing upon its mortality with wonder and fear and the depth of human emotion.
“Grandma Hips” – Your Old Droog, Danny Brown
I don’t know Coney Island’s Your Old Droog from a ceramic mixing bowl, but he had the wisdom to share the microphone with Danny Brown.
“Heavy Hearts” – Hater
Swedish quarter dropped their first full-length featuring this standout showcase of melodrama rock. Soaring vocals with a side of clouldberry jangle and jam-pop.
“Elegy” – Leif Vollebekk
Liquid melancholy backed by simple piano chords, metronomic drumbeats. Think Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” recorded on a bedroom eight-track.
“39 by Design” – Drab Majesty
Andrew Clinco channels Clan of Xymox. Some have called it “neo-goth,” but let’s all agree never to speak that term again. Pitch-perfect deep, dark thoughts with guitar, reverb and deep, mumbly vocals.
“Pink Up” – Spoon
While “Hot Thoughts” got all the airplay, the understated “Pink Up” rose up from the B-side depths to rule Spoon’s excellent 2017 LP — their best since 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.
*also eligible for the countdown: “Hot Thoughts”
“When the Heart Attacks” – Gabrielle Papillon
Paste Magazine liked Gabrielle Papillon to Ben Folds, Joanna Newsom and Tori Amos as one of our most important singer-songwriters. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m new here. I “discovered” this tremendous talent on her fifth LP.
“Show You the Way” – Thundercat (feat. Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins)
Soul/funk/jazz impresario Thundercat (Stephen Bruner) impressed and beguiled in equal measure on 2017’s Drunk. Any artist that recreates a lounge-style atmosphere and introduces the likes of Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins as special guests in the middle of a song (without *much* irony) has my eternal affection.
“Cold Apartment” – Vagabon
When Lætitia Tamko’s vocals interrupt the opening silence on “Cold Apartment” you stand up and take notice. Without tremendous range, she cuts with unique precision and gives Vagabon a singular identity.
“Dog Years” – Maggie Rogers
Fun fact: I stayed a couple nights in Easton, Maryland — Maggie Rogers’ hometown. I had some amazing oysters in a crab shack in February. I loaded them up with paralyzing amounts of horseradish and hot sauce. But anyway. This NYC-educated singer-songwriter’s the real deal and if you’re not listening to Maggie Rogers right now you’re going to miss out on the time period during which you can say you listened to Maggie Rogers way back when.
“Judy French” – White Reaper
It seems that someone, perhaps Louisville’s White Reaper, is having some fun on their Wikipedia page: “White Reaper is the worst band in the history of bands. Known for making the crowd want to punch a baby, their garbage sound should not be tolerated.” While I’m loathe to cite a Pitchfork review, I love that they summed up the White Reaper sound as cheeky, classic rock for the Camaro-set.
“Talisa” – Daniele Luppi / Parquet Courts
Italian producer Daniele Luppi unites superheroes of indie rock — Karen O and Parquet Courts — on this balls-forward guitar and bass driven driven ode to former model Talisa Soto.
“J-Boy” – Phoenix
Total snoozefest. Recommending a Phoenix track. What is this 2003? What’s old is new again. Phoenix and frontman Thomas Mars keep evolving. 17 years young, yet they’ve never sounded stale.
Music feeds nostalgia, it places moments in time, and for a certain generation, few records documented a time and place more precisely than U2’s fifth record, The Joshua Tree, in March of 1987. Impossible details remain vivid, imprinted forever.
Where were you when you first heard the opening of “Where the Streets Have No Name”? Can you remember how you felt when the Edge’s guitar first broke through that wall of synthesizer? Maybe you don’t quite remember the feeling, but you know where you were the first time you heard U2’s The Joshua Tree. Something as mundane as a placing a cassette in a car radio becomes epic poetry. The color of the car. The passengers. Maybe there were none. The smell of the Spring air, the type of flowers blooming… and you don’t even like flowers.
For someone born into an era of digital music, a sonic grab bag of unlimited potential, it’s perhaps difficult to comprehend the way a specific record release could freeze time, if only for a short while. Movies retain the power to unite a movement around an individual work of art, but by and large, those days in music have passed. Unlimited availability, fractured attentions, and the ways in which we consume and download music have eroded the event record.
It’s no longer my favorite U2 record, but the imprint of that moment of discovery remains; The Joshua Tree has positioned itself outside traditional criticism. The band has existed long enough to survive multiple shifts in tone and ideology. They’ve turned fans into naysayers (and vice versa), but the one constant remains that one record in the middle of their discography.
The Joshua Tree Track Listing:
Tinged with gospel, blues, and folk influences, The Joshua Tree would become U2’s greatest success, selling more than 25 million copies, but also the record they desperately longed to escape. Bono famously described Achtung Baby as “the sound of four men chopping down the Joshua Tree.” Bestowing further accolades upon the record seems futile. Instead I’d like to track back and take a slightly different perspective on the record.
The trio of songs that open the record reek of perfection – their omnipresence might diminish their luster to the point that they’ve become background music, easily tuned out. 30 years of constant airplay tends to turn even the greatest songs into Roger Williams.
Check back in with these songs one more time. Listen to “With or Without You” with your eyes closed. Tune into Larry Mullen’s subtle changes in cadence and Adam Clayton’s heartbeat bassline. The synth fills in the blank spaces followed by Bono’s lovesick vocals. “See the stone set in your eyes / see the thorn twist in your side.” The swell before the damn breaks at the three-minute mark. Try to recapture that virgin listen, embrace the way that all the pieces of U2 fit together. Embrace the bothersome, overplayed perfection.
Too Much Respect?
Focus on the so-called B-sides of this record. “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and “With or Without You” don’t make this record a paradigm on their own, but it’s often difficult to see the lesser successes beyond those 800 pound gorillas.
The Edge’s “Bullet the Blue Sky” guitar solos over the years:
As The Edge channels Jimi Hendrix on “Bullet The Blue Sky,” it might seem as if the album takes a left turn, but in the context of the band’s discography, “Bullet” points toward the future, toward Rattle and Hum and eventually Achtung Baby, where guitar-forward became the rallying cry. After the slow-burn symbiosis of the album’s opening volley, “Bullet The Blue Sky” pulls the rug out, shifting and undermining expectations, just when the listener slips into complacency.
In my opinion, the album’s most important song doesn’t even reside on the overworked first side. “Red Hill Mining Town” was meant to be the album’s second single after “With or Without You,” but the band was unhappy with Neil Jordan’s video, and Bono had trouble performing the song during rehearsals. Recently he said about the song “I used to write songs that I couldn’t sing. And sometimes that was okay because the strains of the notes I couldn’t reach was part of the drama, but occasionally they would really just wreck the next show.”
U2’s first performance EVER of Red Hill Mining Town in 2017:
“Red Hill Mining Town” proved to be such a problem that U2 never played it live until May of 2017 in Vancouver for the 30th Anniversary Tour of The Joshua Tree. The politically potent track introduces the B-side with a jolt of melancholic energy that rises to a hopeful crescendo. Bono’s strained vocals included, “Red Hill” stands as a fascinating blemish on the record that shows Bono’s struggles as a songwriter reaching beyond his comfort zone – a comfort zone that had already made U2 one of the biggest acts on the planet.
Place in the U2 Discography?
Say what you will about the latter half of the band’s career, but no one could ever say that U2 became satisfied or complacent. Constant re-invention has been the only consistency. The band may never again reach the resplendent creative heights of this period in their career, but U2 remains relevant and perhaps undervalued – now thirty years removed from the album that made time stand still.
The 30th Anniversary Edition of The Joshua Tree is available in a number of different formats including a 4-CD Super Deluxe Edition, 2-CD Deluxe, and 7 LP Super Deluxe. All Deluxe Editions include the band’s live performance at Madison Square Garden on September 28th, 1987.
The Joshua Tree Verdict in 2017
You’d be hard pressed to find a U2 fan who claims The Joshua Tree to be their favorite record or even favorite U2 record. And I don’t believe this is a case of merely proving fandom through deep cuts, which is a legitimate nuclear hazard in music writing and appreciation. Denying value as a result of popularity turns discographies on their heads. In this case, maybe, because the band has released three career’s worth of records. That said, a U2 fan who denies the value of The Joshua Tree has just become embittered, jaded, perhaps senile. The Joshua Tree remains a vital classic that may have lost some of its luster over 30 years due to omnipresence. Time, however, has eroded none of its visceral ability to invoke some piece of you in 1987… or whenever it was that you first heard the slow build of that opening track.