About 2019: Albums

Lit a match and saged my house down. It didn’t make a difference.

My very favorite album of 2019 contains the following stanza:

The day my daddy died/I was down the street/I lost my only friend/people don’t grow on trees.

This awkward, guileless verse was not artfully muffled, or hidden in an outro, or ‘verbed out and tucked into the mix. It is, like all of the other lyrics on A Real Good Kid, brutally comprehensible. The couplet is placed just before the climax of the last song on the album; and since the album is absolutely, unswervingly linear, it arrives at a pivotal moment in the narrative. Just before the band comes crashing in for the final time, this is what Mike Posner wants to tell us: he wants to reiterate the central theme, the reason for the album’s existence, in as flatfooted a manner as he can muster. People don’t grow on trees.

2019 was a year to huddle around the speaker and hear stories. As I still believe that the album is the best vehicle for storytelling, and fault books, essays, and paintings only for being insufficiently melodic, it was a swell year for the likes of me. Songwriters used the album form to make arguments, extend narratives, establish memorable characters, crack running jokes, and make the most of the thirty to sixty minutes the format allows them. Richard Dawson, Jenny Lewis, and Billy Woods, for instance, had a lot to say about the ravaged state of the first-world psyche, and fitted withering case-studies to music designed to reinforce the emotional tone of their suites of songs. From Julia Jacklin, David Bazan, Eva Hendricks and (accidentally, but absolutely) Aubrey Graham, we were shown snapshots of destabilized protagonists at transitional moments; by the time the music stopped, those narrators felt as real as the guys across the street. Others used a sequence of songs to tell a straightforward story: the inexhaustible Dan Campbell, for instance, returned with a continuation of the blue-collar saga of Aaron West, and Max Bemis and Tyler Okonma shared quasi-fictional — and strangely similar — set-length accounts of queer awakening. Elizabeth Nelson got specific, Ezra Furman got polemical, Ace Enders got rueful, Maxo Kream got confessional. These writers made albums that keep playing long after the last note fades; albums that pull you into their own neatly-fashioned universes and don’t let you go; albums that ask questions that are hard to answer comfortably.

Mike Posner didn’t exhibit the sort of facility with language that those other writers did. He was, however, up to something similar. He started at the top by establishing a narrator and a predicament, and then moved, song by song, to elaborate that predicament for the listener and grope toward an emotional resolution. And in spite of my own skepticism, and occasional bewilderment at his methods, I am forced to conclude that he did this better than any of those other writers, none of whom would ever attempt to get away with singing something as flatfooted as “the day my daddy died/I was down the street.” The artistic success of A Real Good Kid reminds me of two things I thought I learned long ago, although for some reason I always seem to be spacing on them. 1) When writing songs and making albums, both the words and the music are important, but neither thing in isolation is nearly as important as the way in which the words and music interact, and 2.) this isn’t a damned poetry contest.

On A Real Good Kid, Mike Posner struggles with the breakup of a relationship and the death of a parent. There’s searching, self-castigation and self-indulgence, and burning questions about how the narrator is going to reconstruct his life in the absence of his “only friend.” This probably sounds exactly like 808s & Heartbreak to you, and, well… I don’t think Mike is running from the comparison. “Wide Open”, the second song on the set, is basically “Welcome To Heartbreak”. Other songs borrow liberally from Graduation and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy; there’s even a rant-like breakdown in the middle of “Drip” set to music that’s not miles removed from “Runaway”. Kanye is thanked in the liner notes, but that probably won’t be enough for listeners allergic to wholesale borrowing. If that’s you, you’re not going to hang with this, and you should skip ahead on the list below to Richard Dawson or Jamila Woods or something like that.

But here’s one of the many things that hip-hop teaches us: we’re all on the shoulders of giants. How we got up there is immaterial. It’s what we see and what we do from that vantage that matters. In the face of some stiff competition, Mike Posner has recorded the most focused album of 2019; in fact, it’s one of the most focused albums I’ve ever heard. After staring mortality in the face, he’s got something crucial he wants to report, and he refuses to allow anything to break his concentration, even for a second. Every choice made by Mike and his producers on A Real Good Kid — right down to the timbre of the instrument sounds and the placement of the beats — is designed to further the emotional arc of the story. This second-by-second arrangement diligence coupled with Mike’s casual, near-offhand approach to storytelling is, I think, something unique in the body of contemporary pop. It may not be an original approach to composition, but it’s an entirely original amalgam of messiness and meticulousness he’s giving us here; a casual amble on a rail-straight line. A Real Good Kid manages to feel utterly relaxed, even as the subject matter that Mike is handling is as heavy as it gets. The effect of this is, again, something singular and unprecedented, and I believe that it’s an expression of Mike’s approachable personality, and his peculiar brand of self-deprecation, which is quite unlike that of any other pop star, and makes him easy to like.

Mind you, the first time I met Mike Posner, I came away from the encounter thinking I’d just met the biggest jackass in the music business.  Not that he was particularly mean to me; no, his conspiratorial will to draw me into the petty sexual politics and revenge positions of “Cooler Than Me” was part of what made the encounter so vulgar. Of course he was just treating me like a bro, and brotronica was what he was at the Bamboozle to peddle.  The ladies sure loved it — they pelted him with undergarments and waited around after the show to get a body part signed.  When “Cooler Than Me” hit on a national level a few months later, it reinforced my impression of Mike as a guy blinded by resentment — a young man so swept up in his own sense of entitlement that he was incapable of imagining that the weenie journalist sent to cover his show could do anything but commiserate.

The second time I talked to Mike Posner was a different story altogether.  this one was a phone interview, and I clearly recall dreading the ring, thinking hoo boy, this guy again, I’m in for it today.  “Cooler Than Me” had been on the charts for a few weeks and he was in Jersey to headline a show in Asbury Park.  Here, I figured, was an opportunity for some self-congratulatory bluster.  Instead, Mike was small-voiced and measured, and mostly wanted to talk about his dad.  His father had told him: all of the musicians I like (classic rock dudes, in other words) are better live, and all the musicians you like (hip-hop and EDM artists) are worse.  This offhand comment was obviously eating him alive.  Mike told me he was determined to be a different kind of artist, and insisted that whatever context he found himself in, he was going to put the lyrics first.

I thought about that a few years later when he had his other hit.  “I Took A Pill In Ibiza”, if you don’t remember, was a ’70s style confessional number in which Mike treats himself brutally; even by the standards of self-deprecating stories of minor-celebrity emptiness, this one is really hell on the narrator. It occurred to me then that Mike had always been willing to make himself look bad in the name of art, and in the age of the endlessly retouched selfie, this might be a quality worth celebrating.  He followed “Ibiza” with a dreary spoken-word set. I listened to it so you don’t have to (you didn’t), and I’m sure I thought, well, that’s the end of Mike. 

Instead we get this: a concept set about the death of his father by brain tumor. Mike’s reflections are alternately corny, clumsy, embarrassing, self-flagellating, and freighted with platitudes, and he’s matched with music that is, in part, shamelessly purloined from Kanye. Nevertheless, all of this sticks. And maybe it’s my own recent state of existential frailty that has made me susceptible to Mike’s latest round of storytelling, but also maybe not. Even on that debut album, straight from the darkest corners of the Duke University quad, he was always a sure hand at building narrative tension through compositional development and masterful sequencing of musical happenstance. There are moments on A Real Good Kid when Mike switches the beat, or brings in the choir, or gets strategically hoarse, or doubles a vocal line, or drops in a sample, and in so doing, he achieves the sort of emotional payoff that only happens when a songwriter puts the narrative meaning first, and arranges his sonic elements accordingly. Records like that do not, um, grow on trees.

Album of the Year

  • 1. Mike Posner — A Real Good Kid
  • 2. Jenny Lewis — On The Line
  • 3. Lana Del Rey — Norman Fucking Rockwell
  • 4. Billy Woods & Kenny Segal — Hiding Places
  • 5. Richard Dawson — 2020
  • 6. Charly Bliss — Young Enough
  • 7. Sunday Service Choir — Jesus Is Born
  • 8. Metronomy — Metronomy Forever
  • 9. Wand — Laughing Matter
  • 10. The Paranoid Style — A Goddamn Impossible Way Of Life
  • 11. Julia Jacklin — Crushing
  • 12. Jamila Woods — LEGACY! LEGACY!
  • 13. Tyler, The Creator — Igor
  • 14. Drake — Care Package
  • 15. Say Anything — Oliver Appropriate
  • 16. Aaron West & The Roaring Twenties — Routine Maintenance
  • 17. Bruce Hornsby — Absolute Zero
  • 18. Denzel Curry — Zuu
  • 19. Mon Laferte — Norma
  • 20. John Van Deusen — I Am Origami Pt. 3 — A Catacomb Hymn

Gosh, those are wonderful albums. If you were involved in any of them, my Richmond Flying Squirrels hat is off to you. Thank you.

Best Album Title

The Weight Of Melted Snow by French For Rabbits

Best Album Cover

Caroline Polachek’s Pang. The composition of the photograph is impeccable: I like the twist in the ladder and the breeze that threatens to pull Caroline off to the left, I like her head-down determination as she grasps for the rung, I like the slash of blue in the otherwise grey sky, and of course I like the plastic pants. Where is Caroline heading, anyway? As usual, she doesn’t bother to explain herself – she figures that she’s so brilliant that you can just bask in her bent brain-waves and call it entertainment.  And you know what?, for a brain-wave basker like me, it kindasorta works: there’s something so guileless and pure about Caroline’s gauche self-confidence that I’d almost call it sexy. Mainly, though, Pang reminds me of the things I liked about Caroline back when I bothered to think about her at all, which was… holy crap, that was 2012. Has she really been dithering around and making ch-ching noises and pitching songs to Beyoncé for seven years? Guess she has. 

Best Liner Notes And Packaging

Oliver Appropriate. Puerile minds think alike, and just like Max Bemis, I also think of rancid bodily fluids whenever I hear about something “streaming all over the internet”. Unlike Max, I don’t think I have what it takes to build a promo campaign around my disgusting joke. I lack the taste for provocation, or the desire to crowd-please a bunch of reprobates, and that’s to my infinite discredit. Max gave up on you, sophisticated listener, about three album cycles ago: he figures he’s punk rock emeritus now, and he knows that it’s the rare member of the cognoscenti who has any time for that crap.  Doubtless this bums out Sherri Dupree (and Lucy Dupree-Bemis), but they’re probably grateful that he has an outlet for his dirty jokes.  If you don’t appreciate Bemis brand lyricism by now, there’s nothing I do to inure you to the taste of his suspicious homebrew.  

So I won’t try. Instead, I’ll point out that his casual mastery of notes ‘n’ chords rock songwriting, refrain-building, and melodic development, all of which was generally in abeyance on the last few, is back in full force here. Every say anything set is a concept set, and the theme this time is Max’s homosexual urges, which are played as a revelation, but cannot be a surprise to anyone who has followed the artist for a millisecond.  This is the co-author of the Gayest Album Ever Made™, a full-length set about sexual desire for Chris Conley that included groans and shrieks from Chris Conley plus enthusiastic and wholly complicit support vox from Sherri.  Oliver Appropriate (the character) is an alternate-reality Max who freaks out and murders the young man he lusts after. That doesn’t seem like the kind of thing he’d do, but hush, just go with it. The story ends with the main character shackled to the corpse of his lover, but before we get there, there’s lots of wonderfully pithy and scathing observations about the New York independent rock demimonde. Altogether now: I know a lot of men in hardcore bands/collectively funding the Colom-biaaaaaans! Allll-together now! No? Just me? OK then. Just me. M

Album That Opens Most Strongly

Norman Fucking Rockwell

Album That Closes Most Strongly

Wildcard. Having taken the covered wagon as far as those wooden wheels would let her go, Miranda Lambert turns over the farmhands on the caravan: new sidemen, new producers, new arrangement sensibility, new sounds, etc.  Natalie Hemby is still riding shotgun, but Miranda has convened an alternate songwriting crew with Lori McKenna and Liz Rose; they’re called the Love Junkies or the Ladies Who Lunch or the Pistol Bettys or something. This woman just loves to put together girl groups.  You ever get the sense that Miranda is the key to the city of Nashville?  I do.  She’s still a fan of it/old shit, and she can cozy up to a traditionalist ballad like “Tequila Does” better than anybody in boots, but some of this record is borderline new wave in its sensibility. “Track Record” is practically a Taylor Swift song. Now, city slicker over here considers Brad Paisley’s Wheelhouse a bold and eclectic masterpiece, but the Music City crowd felt otherwise – they thought he was just horsing around, killing time before his next real record.  It wouldn’t shock me if some old-time Miranda Lambert fans felt similarly about this one. There I part company with the old-time fans. I concede that a few of these good-timey numbers are so flimsy that they wouldn’t fly at all without a magnificent singer at the yoke. Well, lucky us.  Look at what we’ve got here.

Crummy Album You Listened To A Lot Anyway

Solange’s When I Get Home. Quality control at Knowles, Inc. slips  dramatically.  Look, I hate to knock this, because — as I keep reminding myself whenever I slog my way through this brief but strangely interminable set — Solange could otherwise be doing any number of stupid ass things with her famous handle. Reality TV, sneaker design, political office, you name it. Instead she makes highly experimental, scrupulously hook-free jazz pop with a pinch of hip-hop to ensure that the proceedings don’t bog down completely. It’s ballsy. It reeks of privilege, sure, and a fair bit of (further) coasting on her sister’s acclaim, but if Beyoncé is inspired by this, then maybe all the meandering is worthwhile.  If you’ve ever sat in a dentist’s office with nothing to do but thumb through a glossy fashion mag, you might appreciate the resolution of the photographs and the weight of the paper and the opulent aroma of the little packets of perfume until you get to the end and realize there weren’t any articles in there. But whatever, you’re none the worse for it. Maybe your fingers smell funny.

Album That Sounded Like It Was The Most Fun To Make

Injury Reserve. Neither Groggs nor Ritchie With A T are much to speak about on the microphone. Moreover, when they kick topics, they’re always borderline brain-damaged, like the one about the magic Tesla that morphs on the go at the touch of an app, or the one where he and his girl are “Picasso-ing” their imaginary kids. Come to think of it, those are both the same fantasy: technowizardly creative control over things that are by nature uncontrollable. Regardless of their INT rolls, they do have talented friends, including Freddie Gibbs, whose crack-slinging boasts are so deftly delivered that it doesn’t even matter that they’re completely out of place on this album, Jersey’s own Cakes Da Killa, who does his peeved gay black man thing with extra hot sauce here, and Rico Nasty, who sets “Jawbreaker” on fire with one of the best guest verses of the year.  They all get to rhyme over Parker Corey’s beats, and there’s the real reason to pay attention to this Arizona crew: he’s having so much fun screwing around with rap verities that he pulls everybody involved into a great gyre of goofiness. Hip-hop goofiness, mind you; the essential goofiness of the great three-man rap acts of the ‘80s. So when Phonte swings by to bless the last track with an old-school “bass for your face”, it feels very very well earned, and a nice alternative for rap fans who found the latest Brockhampton too somber.   

Album That Sounded Like An Absolute Chore To Make 

Chance The Rapper’s The Big Day. I don’t want to pile on, because I like it, and I regret that it got the living shit beaten out of it. For once, Pitchfork didn’t lead the backlash. Their faint praise was positively measured next to Anthony Fantano, who cruelly dropped a zero on Chance, kickstarting a cavalcade of YouTube assassination attempts, many of which drew blood. We’ll see if the target survives. Some of the collaborations found their way into the crosshairs, particularly the Ben Gibbard and Shaun Mendes features, and I do get that. But the main knock on Chance four is the subject matter. The emcee simply would not shut up about his wife, and this rubbed un-romantics the wrong way. Granted, Chance picked a funny year to record a seventy-seven minute tribute to matrimony and heterosexual monogamy. Yet I was fascinated by the way in which Chance’s overdriven attempts to generate excitement about his marriage paralleled his capitulation to entertainment industry conventions. From my view, The Big Day is a concept set about a former independent who was powerless to prevent himself from getting gummed up in a variety of restrictive institutions, presumably because he’s a nice guy who doesn’t want to let down the folks.  

But unlike, say, Bill Cosby, he has no time for displays of ostentatious maturity – perhaps because (hopefully because?) he’s not mature in the slightest. I am pleased to report that most of what he says about his life choices is bratty as all get out. And when he realizes that fucking side chicks isn’t as satisfying as bringing his girl to his auntie’s house, his astonishment is equaled only by his gratitude to God for being right. So even if Chance is faking it somewhat, as his detractors not-unreasonably insist, I can still appreciate the man he wants to be enough to want to see him get there. If we can sit and smile through countless verses about Jeffery Williams’ enthusiasm for anal penetration, I think we can roll with an album that concerns a relationship designed to last longer than the time it takes for the rapper to get his nut.  Those of us who are crazy about our girlfriends understand.  And there are more of us than you’d think.  

Another Chore, Although Not Without Rewards

Western Stars. Less love, more tunnel. This happens to certain cowboys as the manberries wither on the vine. Springsteen brings us the daredevil as coward, not because the daredevil is afraid of a little dustup, but because domesticity scares the bejeezus out of him. Even though the stuntman has that metal (ram)rod in his leg, and the old actor gobbles viagra with his morning coffee, there’s no sign that these virile codgers are satisfying any chicks. On the contrary, these characters are wandering in the dry gulley, remembering the flashing heads of hair of their long-lost beloveds, ruing the day they followed their own star, drunk on solitude. I believe Bruce would call this “depression”, a malady he knows firsthand, or so we are told by the hardworking publicists at Shore Fire Media.  And what’s really striking about the songs here is how well they capture the mindset of the many men who’d vastly, and I mean vastly, prefer suicidal depression to actually having women around.  It’s a whole subculture: men going their own way, or MGTOW, in Internet slang.  Do aging incels really deserve string arrangements this syrupy?  Guess the Boss thinks they do.  He’s always been a generous employer.  The benefits package is impressive.

Most Consistent Album

About Jade Lilitri of Oso Oso there will be no equivocation from the guys who run IsThisBandEmo dot com. He’s all the way in, and as such, he’s this year’s designated baton carrier in the great relay race that stretches back through the Hotelier and You Blew It! through American Football and Jimmy Eat World to The Promise Ring and Mineral, and, yeah, whoo, let’s not get into the stuff before that. It’s murky. On Basking In The Glow, Lilitri hits all of his marks, which is commendable in a way – that chorus on “Impossible Game” could have come from any emo classic of the last two decades – and in another way, it suggests that he’s not pushing at the barriers of the genre as vigorously as a youngster ought.  We’ll see if it ever starts to bug me over the next, oh, ten thousand times I’m going to play this album.

Maybe Not As Consistent As Oso Oso, But In Many Ways A More Impressive Exhibition Of Sustained Vision And Tone

Care Package. With Aubrey, see, the conversation never stops. It’s a little one-sided, but that’s all right, as Stuart Murdoch said in a totally different context. The album ends, but the late-nite ruminations don’t; 40 has some sweet beats in the glitchy recesses of the hard drive. The velvet walls of the vocal booth beckon. There are always more chains to yank, and girls to confuse, smoke-rings to blow and metaphors to mix. Most of the stuff on this compilation fell in the murky interstitial area between Drake albums, although some of it was appended to sets as bonus tracks; if you heard these, they were on a playlist or tucked in a radio set, and you surely assimilated them to the forty million other drake tracks in circulation between the years 2010 and 2016.

Extracted, dusted off, and strung together in a sequence, these odds and sods tell a damned coherent tale. They’re testament to the formidable hypnotic powers of a word-weaver with a confessional style that simply can’t be mistaken for anybody else’s – a glib, quietly self-impressed delivery that conceals astonishing reserves of emotional manipulation. The Drake that emerges from Care Package is possessive, insatiably hungry, unapologetically deceitful, and dangerous precisely because sexual satisfaction isn’t all he’s after. No, Drake needs you to care, even as he knows that the care he’s going to return will be inadequate by his own standard. The character Drake is not amoral, but he’s given up on self-improvement as a sucker’s game, and his expectations for his own behavior are frighteningly low.

This is about as candid and honest a portrait of the modern North American subject as you’ll find anywhere, in any literature: the thinking fellow whose brain power serves only to dig him deeper holes, and the man of feeling who uses sentiment as a crowbar to pry open the unsuspecting.  And if this accidental album hangs together far better than most rappers’ planned full-lengths, you can put that down to the star’s narrative discipline and swiss-watch consistency.  No obligation here to shoot for the charts, no R&B hooks or music purloined from Afropop hitmakers, no passionfruit or hotlines blinging.  No, nothing but Drake verses, unadulterated and uninterrupted, for better or for worse.  Probably the purest drake experience you can have, so, um, be careful out there. 

Most Inconsistent Album

Father Of The Bride. Hey, remember that Tribe Called Quest comeback set that was mostly a Q-Tip project plus various agenda-driven attempts to redefine what the Tribe was?  Yeah, I barely do, too.  But Father Of The Bride brings all of that rushing back, with Ariel Rechtshaid in the role of omnipresent Jarobi and Danielle Haim as inescapable Busta Rhymes. Nothing new about frontman quasi-solo projects with band names slapped on them — Port Of Morrow was a really good one — but there’s something downright creepy about the way Tomson and Baio have been locked out of the control room in favor of… Dave Longstreth, et. al.?  I mean, really, Ezra. Some kind of friend you turned out to be, as your role model Barry Manilow once put it.  As for Rostam, we were promised plenty of him. But he only makes his presence felt on the late Mates Of State-y “We Belong Together” and the stupendous “Harmony Hall”, which, to be fair, is worth the price of the album all by itself. As for the main main, his knack for melody sure hasn’t deserted him, even as he settles more frequently for mannered, middle of the road expressions of ideas mined from early ‘70s proto-indiepop. I remember when he used to spazz out instead. (Though that might have been Tomson and Baio.)  Oh, and that Jenny Lewis “appearance” turns out to be a vocal sample.  Buyer beware.  Have fun but tread carefully; don’t fall for the Illuminati mind control tricks.

Also Inconsistent

2 Chainz’s Rap Or Go To The League.  Reality lyrics from 6’5” small forward Tauheed Epps of Alabama State, now with a slower crossover step.  I’m sure it would have been enjoyable to hear 2 Chainz rap about hoops while the memories of the Southwest Athletic Conference were still fresh in his mind. Nearly two decades after the last bucket, the sportscasting sorta blends in with his other old man reveries.  Which is not to say that he isn’t funny, or sympathetic: I am a codger too, and I also don’t like pointless gangbanging or, um, paying taxes. He remembers his coaches fondly; I remember Mr. Glenn Brown, and it’s easy for both of us to say now that we’re no longer in ridiculous shorts on a painted line waiting to get a deadleg from some random jocko. Because this is a 2 Chainz project, the beats and rhymes are pretty fresh, and he continues to be a master of inflection, capable of saying vicious stuff in the most jovial, avuncular manner possible. But his disinclination to self-mythologize runs him into serious trouble. If a fortysomething guy is going to stand there and tell you the truth about his life and his feelings, that’s not pop entertainment as I understand it. Look at Pusha T.  He’s older than dirt and richer than God, but he pretends he still wants to stand on a corner and sell drugs.  He cares enough about the art to lie to you.  He knows the alternative is unpalatable. 

Album That Was The Most Fun To Listen To

White Reaper. Omigosh, they’ve turned into Sloan. I guess it was inevitable. Good on Tony Esposito and Co. for going against the dream-pop trend and delivering You Deserve Love, the most awake-pop record of the year. No canned reverbs or machine psychedelia here, and, bless them, not a single moment of chill. Unlike Charly Bliss, their conceptual partners in power pop, there’s nothing political or even terribly emotional driving their urgency – they’re the same five Kentucky wiseguys they were when they named their debut album White Reaper Does It Again. They just love the verities: cars and girls and girls in cars, and a well-turned chord progression, and all the whoas and whoos in the right place. “Ring” even pre-empts the criticism – you talk too much for somebody with nothing to say, Little Ruby tells Tony. I imagine that the dirtbags and dead-leg givers at the 7-11 miss the sonic references to Van Halen and Cheap Trick. But those guys don’t buy contemporary records anyway. That’s because they’re not real. They only exist in our fevered memories.  

Album That Felt Most Like An Obligation To Get Through

The Highwomen. Further proof that Dave Cobb is a black hole at the heart of Nashville that sucks all objects of critical mass into his orbit.  Aw, heck, that makes Dave sound worse than he is; his stately, oaken, historically reverential productions aren’t that bad, are they?  So let’s try this again.  The Highwomen is further proof that Dave Cobb is a toilet in which all weighty objects in Nashville swirl until they are sucked down into the depths of his porcelain-pure mixes.  No better, huh?  How about: Dave Cobb is the Pacific garbage patch of Nashville.  No, try as I may, I can’t say anything nice about Dave Cobb, who has turned himself into a menace; maybe not at the level of Jack Antonoff, but with similar outcomes.  I do suppose Dave was the natural guy to produce the Highwomen concept, considering that two of the principals (Carlile and Shires) have already had their commercial profiles elevated via the dignified, grown-up Cobb treatment, and another (Hemby) has been Cobb-adjacent for quite some time.  The exception here is Maren, and I use the first name pointedly, because even Dave Cobb and his reverse Dorian Gray productions can’t prematurely age her.  Alas, I believe she joined the group late, and she’s not much of a presence on this album: if she sings on the back half at all, I sure can’t make her out.  

No, the star of the show here is Brandi Carlile, who is always worth hearing, but who has also been bordering on spinsterly sanctimony for a few album cycles. Some of this does feel like a victory lap for Carlile and Cobb after their Grammy recognition last year and her acceptance into the Nashville C&W family after years of knocking on the cabin door. Amanda Shires and Jason “Mr. Shires” Isbell, friends of the LGBTQ+ that they are, have even contributed a lesbian torch song for Brandi to oversing. Here’s another clue for you that this is a stealth Brandi Carlile album with recurring special guests – the Highwomen don’t even mine Natalie Hemby for material very often. I believe she only has four co-writes here, and two of them are with Carlile.  Brandi has steered her away from “Brews And Boobs On The Pontoon” and the wistful geographical specificity of Puxico, and toward some commendable yet cruller dry sentiments about inclusivity and feminism. Good thing they can all sing, right? 

There’s also a Hemby-Lambert number in the dreaded letter-to-my-child genre, and the cheeky radio single “redesigning women”, which will certainly not be a hit, but which is probably as close to the Pistol Annies as they’re capable of getting as long as Cobb is on the boards.  The best songs, unsurprisingly, are the two Maren Morris numbers, and while they may get her back in the good graces of the purists who hated her R&B moves, they just sound like Maren Morris to me.  So go ahead and like this album. I kinda do. But thank your lucky Southern stars that Miranda Lambert seems immune to Dave Cobb’s pull.    

Most Sympathetic Or Likeable Perspective Over The Course Of An Album

The Paranoid Style – A Goddamn Impossible Way Of Life. Elizabeth Nelson comes off like Paula Carino arguing with a record store clerk.  Also, she sounds out every syllable she sings with all the subtlety of a slap in the face. So why can I not stop playing this?  Well, for starters, the thirtysomething (fortysomething?) female perspective is not one that you get all that much in garage rock, and for continuers, this particular thirtysomething is a peculiar specimen. She’s obsessed with music criticism and rock history, American politics and economics, the Irish Republican experiment, and, apparently, chicken wings. It all comes at you in a mad flurry: specific calendar dates and castigations of Federal Reserve chairmen and judiciously selected quotes from classic pop songs and some very funny jokes. One track is about a Bar/None party in the early nineties – Katy McCarthy and Brian Dewan are both namechecked – while another recounts the story of the Who show where the kids were trampled to death. There’s even a bit where she sends up “Odorono”, which was itself satire. It all goes along swimmingly until she drops in a verse of “Ana Ng”, and you realize what you’ve been missing: sweetness, balance, poise, etc.  But hey, the Paul McCartney records are right over there, waiting for you, and this brilliant scuzz bomb of an album won’t take up all that much of your time. There used to be… well, not a lot of albums like this, but a few every year – albums made by total originals, back during the days when autonomy and individuality were expected from college rockers. The Eighties, basically. If we can humor and even applaud countless capitulations to pop convention from intelligent schemers with naked commercial ambitions, we remaining fans of Camper Van Beethoven (and Bongwater) deserve a few albums like this. 

Most Alienating Perspective Over The Course Of An Album

Weezer Black. I think it’s important to remember that Weezer was taking it on the chin, hard, even before Teal came out. Sketch comedians were doing bits. This unaccountable opprobrium directed toward Weezer must have baffled Rivers Cuomo, who is, above all, a student of pop-rock craft. He knows damn well he followed up the outstanding Everything Will Be Alright In The End with the very very good White and then with the reasonably worthwhile Pacific Daydream. So if he’s angry at his audience, I can’t really blame him.  What I do blame him for: writing an entire album about his recent professional resentments and fitting those gripes to California sleaze-pop accompaniment. At the level of the plot, Black is basically De La Soul Is Dead minus the human compassion and the donuts. There’s even a song about how he doesn’t want your shitty demo tapes. I think he’s justified in likening many of his recent critics to zombies, but telling them to die does strike me as gauche, especially from a guy who has flirted with Unabomber-like antisocial tendencies in the past. The references to cheap online review culture (in a song that’s a dead ringer for “Distance”-era Cake, btw, right down to the trumpet), celebrity death cults, agoraphobia, and the fickleness and inattention of the listener all pile up and leave a pretty acrid taste. It is deeply telling that Weezer released the first four songs of Black on Fortnight. Music to shoot your “friends” to. 

A Wee Bit Overexposed, Would You Not Say

Billie Eilish – When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?  This teenaged edgelord(e)’s hit debut has been widely compared to Pure Heroine. To me, it’s young Fiona Apple all the way, right down to the gothic showtunes, the jazzy nonsense, the verbosity and clumsy word choices, and the clickbaity provocation. Fiona flirted with body dysmorphia and underage sex; Billie, um, eats spiders. Also she’s got that Flowers in the Attic thing going on with her brother Finneas, who does impart a distinctive creepy spider-munching aural signature to the project that marks it as a different kind of pop proposition than what you’d get from the non-creepy likes of Grande/Swift/Rexha. You can really see this appealing to a certain type of teenage girl who feels inadequately represented by mainstream culture, but badly wants a ride on the mainstream tilt-a-whirl. As for me, I’ve kinda-sorta almost bought a copy, but I’m put off by the production inconsistency – not just the gimmicky shit like running the mix of “Xanny” through a bathroom fan (apparently), but also the blandburgers at the tail end of the set, and non-pop throwbacks like “Wish You Were Gay”, which is farther down the road to puppet theater vo-de-o-do than I’m willing to go.

Somewhat Underexposed, And Kinda Promising

Nilüfer Yanya’s Miss Universe is one of the odder ducks in the digital record store. It’s frontloaded with catchy, if fragmentary, guitar-rock numbers redolent of Britpop, degenerates fast into sub-Sade saxobeat smoothies, and then recovers for a tidy finish. There’s a vague sci-fi theme about a futuristic health care firm, and Nilüfer sings it all like she’s attempting to dislodge a peanut butter sandwich from the roof of her mouth.  I hear milk helps with that. Like way too many 2019 releases, Miss Universe deepens my suspicion that psychedelia is what you do when you can’t think of a melody, but i do give Nilüfer Yanya credit for her ambition, and for writing about something other than herself. I also like that her version of techno-dystopia isn’t (necessarily) driven by phone addiction; I mean, there are plenty of other awful trends to be vigilant about, right, kids?  33.3% chance Nilüfer turns out to be more than just the UK answer to Japanese Breakfast, and worth a couple of spins in any case. 

Album That Wore Out The Quickest

Frank Iero & The Future Violents – Barrier. Frank is sort of the Richie Sambora to Gerard Way’s Jon-Bon in that he’s considered an essential part of a landmark Jer-Z band, but if you break it down to the submolecular level, you find that he isn’t bringing much that a thousand and one other guitar players couldn’t contribute. Richie was known for his screechy “woooowh-nedd dead or aliiiive” backing vox; people said they were characteristic, I say they were characteristically bad. Frank didn’t sing much in MCR, and, um… I guess I see why. His estranged relationship to pitch isn’t so much of a problem on the brutal rockers meant to suggest Billy Corgan in the midst of a brain aneurysm, but the folkier numbers here are well beyond his abilities. He does know how to raise a middle finger artfully, and if you can handle a song called “Medicine Square Garden”, you’ll agree that he can sprawl out in front of you as belligerently as Patrick Stickles ever does.  But mostly Barrier makes me hope they’ve gotten all of the horsing around out of their systems and they’re ready to put My Chemical Romance back together for good. There must be a color of hair dye that Gerard hasn’t doused himself in yet.  He could go blue.  Go on, Gerard, lead the band through a concept record about Brainy Smurf.

Album That Made Me Cry Uncle

Norah Jones – Begin Again.  Hope springs eternal in the breast of Norah, from whom there is always morah. Not satisfied to forever be the bland blockbuster-maker behind “Don’t Know Why”, she turns the whole shebang upside down every year or so in an attempt to shake loose a spicier direction.  And isn’t that all we can ever ask of mega-selling pop musicians?, that they refrain from reiteration and instead try some shit now and again?  In that sense, Norah is a model superstar, if you could call her a superstar at all, which you really can’t, given how staggeringly effective her commercial self-sabotage has been.  As you probably know, I’ve always sorta run Norah down, even as she’s made choice after choice tailored with uncanny precision to my taste: pushing the piano in the mix, writing chord substitutions and countermelodies into her songs, gospeling it up and hanging with Belle and Sebastian and singing Everly Brothers tunes with Billie Joe. Norah Jones has done everything but show up at my door with a plate of cookies, and… I give up.  Seriously. I am now Norah Jones’s number one fan. I’m gonna go back and listen to all those old records of hers.  Anything else would be downright cruel.  

Okay, much more to come. Singles, individual achievements, blather, offensive comments, you name it. I’ll get to it all as soon as I can.