This is Fifty Second Week.
It’s also Christmas Day. I hope you’re all having a wonderful time with family and friends, and enjoying some Christmas music. I can’t predict the future (I’m writing this a week in advance), but I’m pretty sure I’m doing the same thing right now. Perhaps in an ugly sweater. I’m on my annual vacation to the east coast, and hopefully loving every minute of it.
But I couldn’t leave you without any tm3am goodness for the entire holiday season. This is my last column of 2018, and it’s my traditional Fifty Second Week. If you’re new to this silly music column, let me tell you how this goes. I buy a lot of music during the year, and I try to hear all of it, but I’m never quite successful at that. I get to review only a small subset of the albums I hear, too. The result of all this is that, by the time I get to December, I’ve built up a backlog of unreviewed records.
So Fifty Second Week is my attempt each year to get to as many of those records as I can. I have 52 CDs in front of me, and one of those nifty online timers on my phone. I’m giving myself 50 seconds to review each of these albums. That’s all I get – if I’m in the middle of a sentence when the timers go off, it’s pencils up. Exciting, I know! This could wind up as completely unreadable gibberish!
Anyway, I hope this is as much fun for you to read as it is for me to write. Let’s get going. This is Fifty Second Week.
Aphex Twin, Collapse EP.
Every once in a while Richard James likes to remind us that he’s alive and still one of the most brilliant electronic producers on earth. This is a quick EP with titles like “MT1 t29r2,” and it’s glitchy and complex and fascinating.
As the name implies, this is a duo project between Joseph Arthur and Peter Buck of R.E.M. It ends up sounding more like Arthur than Buck, but the songs are decent, and I hope they stick together and make another one.
Autechre, NTS Sessions.
Fifty seconds to review eight hours of music? Can’t be done. This is an intense electronic journey on a staggering eight CDs, full of noise and trippy beats and an hour-long ambient piece to close things out. It’s immense and really excellent stuff.
Beach House, 7.
I’m not sure why I didn’t review this. I’ve opined on almost all of the previous Beach House records, and it might be that I’ve said everything I have to say about them. This is more sleepy shoegaze with the occasional striking melody, and it’s good, but nothing different from what they’ve given us before.
Ben Folds Five, The Complete Sessions at West 54th.
Not a new record, but a release (finally) of a legendary Ben Folds Five live outing around the time of Whatever and Ever Amen. The Five were a tremendous live outfit, and this record finds them slamming through early, punky songs with lots of energy.
Blood Orange, Negro Swan.
I really wanted to like this. Dev Hynes is a great musician, but Negro Swan just kind of wanders around looking for a hook for most of its running time. It reminds me of Frank Ocean, and I’ve never been a fan of his work. Hopefully the next record will have more focus, because Hynes is too good for this thing.
Charles Bradley, Black Velvet.
Soul singer Charles Bradley died earlier this year, far too soon. He was discovered late in life, and we only got a few albums with his thick, powerful voice. This one is a hodgepodge of recordings he made shortly before his death, but it’s really good, as usual.
The Carters, Everything is Love.
I bought this to round out the Lemonade/4:44 trilogy, and it’s, you know, fine. For an album featuring Beyonce and Jay-Z, it’s surprisingly slapdash and low-key. I’m not sure if they plan to keep collaborating, but I hope the next time they do they come up with something more exciting.
Chvrches, Love is Dead.
Here’s another band that turned in an album that sounds remarkably like their previous work. There are some very good songs on Love is Dead, and Lauren Mayberry continues to be an arresting frontwoman. But there isn’t a lot of variety here, and if you have the first two Chvrches records, you should be fine.
Cloud Nothings, Last Building Burning.
This is a legitimately awesome record and I should have reviewed it. Dylan Baldi takes his band through an absolutely ripping set of fast-paced screamers that sound like the group literally tearing down the walls around them. It’s intense and terrific.
The Collection, Entropy.
This is for Jenette Sturges, who badgered me to try this band for months. Entropy is a pretty good dramatic folk record with some sad songs that stayed with me. The Collection is a pretty good band and I wish I’d listened to Jenette and heard them sooner.
Dead Can Dance, Dionysus.
The Dead Can Dance renaissance continues with this shorter, yet no less powerful record. The band’s signature soundscapes are in full effect over two continuous acts of lovely, dark, delightful music. It’s so nice to have this group back again.
Em has said he didn’t think too much about this one, and it shows. It feels tossed off, and really focuses in on aspects of his life and personality that no one but he cares about. He seems to make bad records when he’s trying and when he’s not trying, and I’m not sure where that leaves him.
Ester Drang, The Appearances.
Ester Drang’s first record in 12 years is this EP on which they go full shoegaze. The guitars are thick and yet sound light-years away, and everything feels very My Bloody Valentine. I am a fan of the Starflyer 59 cover here, though.
The Family Crest, The War Act I.
I discovered this fantastic orchestral rock band this year, as they began this multi-album saga. This is right up my alley – dramatic songs with about 100 players adding to the epic sound. The songs are wonderful. I can’t wait to hear more from them.
Gorillaz, The Now Now.
Sort of The Fall redux, this shorter album following a longer one full of guest stars feels like a coda or an afterthought. It isn’t bad, and it’s more of a piece with Humanz than The Fall was with Plastic Beach, but it feels oddly inessential.
Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers, Bought to Rot.
The first solo album from the Against Me frontwoman is a surprise: a dark semi-acoustic country-esque thing with funny and poignant songs galore. I’m especially fond of “I Hate Chicago,” which many of my local friends seem to love too.
Great White, Full Circle.
Yes, they are still around. No, this isn’t Jack Russell’s Great White, this is the rest of the band with a new singer. Full Circle isn’t bad, but it is pretty generic, and it isn’t much different from bar-band music you can hear any weekend in any city in America.
I really got into this prog-metal band this year, and their fifth album is of a piece with their other four. It’s a conceptual piece with some killer riffs and some great instrumental interplay. If the next generation needs a prog-metal band, these guys should fit the bill nicely.
Imogen Heap, The Music of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
I had no idea that Imogen Heap wrote more than an hour of new music for The Cursed Child. This is instrumental wonderment in four suites, and some of it is based on her earlier work, but some of it is brand new. It’s all splendid, as you’d expect from a genius like Imogen.
Julia Holter, Aviary.
Bought this massive effort on a recommendation. It’s Bjork levels of strange, and it goes on forever, but it’s pretty intricate and interesting stuff. I can’t say any of it moved me or blew me away, but I’m happy to know Holter’s work now, and I will be following it.
Jon Hopkins, Singularity.
Nothing less than the best electronic album I heard in 2018. Not sure why I didn’t give this a full review, but it gets a high recommendation from me. Hopkins has been a terrific composer and musician for a long time, and this might be the best chill-out music he’s made.
Still have no idea what to make of this. It’s legit heavy metal, but with Jason McMaster of Dangerous Toys wailing all over it. If it’s a parody, no one told the band. If it’s meant to be serious, no one told McMaster. Either way, this doesn’t work at all.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Live at the Ryman.
Absolutely my favorite live album of 2018. Isbell has been on a serious roll lately – his last three albums have all been various shades of brilliant – and if you want some idea of how consistent he’s been, listen to this. It draws heavily from those last three, and the band is spot on. Isbell gets his due as a songwriter, and he deserves to.
Mark Knopfler, Down the Road Wherever.
I could listen to Knopfler play guitar for weeks on end and not get bored. His latest solo album doesn’t break any new ground – it’s still folksy with a little Dire Straits rock thrown in. But that guitar sound! It’s inimitable. You know you’re listening to Knopfler within seconds, and it’s just blissful.
I bought this because Marillion’s Steve Hogarth is on it, providing vocals on two songs. This is a solo record from the piano player of Iamthemorning, and it’s so good that it led me to buy everything by Kolyadin’s main band. These are elegant songs with drama to them, and Hogarth fits in nicely.
Another interesting prog-metal band I discovered this year. I saw them live with Between the Buried and Me, and they were pretty good, but on record they’re way more impressive. Their song structures are strange and fascinating, and this album takes you by the hand and leads you all the way through it.
Lord Huron, Vide Noir.
Another intricate-sounding record from these swampy folk-rockers, and it’s pretty great. I’m a fan of the two-part “Ancient Names,” but all of this works for me. Long live Lord Huron.
Minus the Bear, Fair Enough.
I am sad to learn that this four-song EP is the final release from Minus the Bear. This band had two lives – first as a guitar-heavy prog-influenced band and second as a keyboard-loving Rush-alike. This EP caps off the second life, and it’s good stuff. I will miss them.
Tom Morello, The Atlas Underground.
The first true solo album from the Rage Against the Machine guitarist is a guest-heavy affair that falls flat at every opportunity. I wish this were not the case, but between this and Prophets of Rage, it hasn’t been a good couple years for Morello fans.
Mt. Desolation, When the Night Calls.
Second album from this Keane side project is much like the first – country-inflected pop songs sung with a little shakiness by Tim Rice-Oxley. This isn’t bad, but it isn’t memorable, and it just seems to forestall that inevitable and much-wanted Keane reunion.
Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour.
One of the few records on this list that I straight-up love and should have reviewed more fully. This is a breezy folk-pop album, a turn away from country for Musgraves and into something warmer and more beautiful. I could listen to this on repeat for hours.
Meg Myers, Take Me To the Disco.
Second album from depresso-rocker Myers is exactly like her first. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and these songs are solid and full of life. I think this is the last clone of herself she gets to make, though. I’m interested to hear someone with such obvious talent evolve and do something new.
Willie Nelson, My Way.
An album of Sinatra songs is not the first thing I would expect from this still-kicking country outlaw, but this is pretty good. The arrangements are more on the Sinatra side than the Nelson one, but his supple voice fits in with them well. A nice experiment.
Orbital, Monsters Exist.
Another welcome return, this album for me is all about the last track. “There Will Come a Time” is a swell collaboration with Prof. Brian Cox about the end of the universe, and about how our mortality should make us better and more loving people. The rest of this album is standard Orbital, all instrumental synth madness. Welcome back, guys.
Our Lady Peace, Somethingness.
This nine-song record seems to indicate a lack of effort, but it shows that Our Lady Peace is still capable of making some pretty interesting music. Raine Maida sounds a little older and a little more worn, but his elastic voice is still the main selling point.
Peter Bjorn and John, Darker Days.
True to its title, this is a darker album from these Swedish pop wunderkinds, exploring some minor keys and more serious lyrics. But it’s still a great deal of fun, and as ever it sounds like it was put together by polished, accomplished craftsmen.
Dug Pinnick, Tribute to Jimi.
It shouldn’t be any surprise that the King’s X frontman loves Jimi Hendrix. You can hear his influence all over Dug’s solo work especially. This is a pretty decent tribute record, with Pinnick’s versions of some of Hendrix’s best known songs. No surprises, but fun.
The Prodigy, No Tourists.
The Prodigy seems content giving us the same record over and over again. This is boom-boom beats and Liam Howlett’s braying, and it works as well as it always has. Really, it does sound like the same record as last time and the time before, but I keep buying them, so maybe I’m the fool here.
Ben Rector, Magic.
A more produced and hit-hungry record from this piano-popper, but it still contains big helpings of his trademark suburban wit. I love “Old Friends,” corny as it is, and “Duo” made me smile. I hoped for more from Rector, and I hope his radio-driven phase ends soon.
Mike Shinoda, Post Traumatic.
Surprisingly effective solo record from the creative driver of Linkin Park. This album was recorded in the wake of Chester Bennington’s suicide, and his spectre haunts the whole thing. Shinoda uses this music to work through his grief and his uncertainty about what to do next. It’s emotionally heavy but enjoyable all the same.
Eleventh album from Max Cavalera’s post-Sepultura metal band, and they still kick ass. This is a solid, compact slice of heavy riffing with some interesting percussion and another installment of their instrumental “Soulfly” series. It’s just another Soulfly album, but it’s been a while since they’ve made a bad one.
Spiritualized, And Nothing Hurt.
I really want to get Spiritualized, but I don’t. These songs are too simple for me, too basic, and Jason Pierce works really hard on the arrangements and the production, and it always sounds like polishing a turd to me. The songs bore me to tears. I wish I liked this. I really do.
Sun Kil Moon, This is My Dinner.
Speaking of being bored to tears, here’s 90 more minutes of diary-entry ramblings from Mark Kozelek. This one feels like a waste of a good band, since the sound is fantastic. But the endless nature of the stream-of-consciousness songs sinks this.
Matthew Sweet, Tomorrow’s Daughter.
Official release of the bonus disc from Tomorrow Forever. This is another dozen swell Sweet songs, the product of a huge seam of inspiration over the last couple years. Together, these two Tomorrow albums represent the best work he’s done in more than a decade.
Teenage Wrist, Chrome Neon Jesus.
Another new discovery, this band makes me yearn for the glory days of Catherine Wheel. They’re shoegaze-y but smart and melodic and full of life. I’ve listened to this far more often than you’d think, considering I never mentioned it in this column. I’d call them one of my favorite new bands of the year.
Titus Andronicus, A Productive Cough.
This is half the length of the last Titus record and twice as hard to get through. Patrick Stickles indulges his love of simple Americana here, and writes these “epic” Bob Dylan-style songs that go on forever without doing anything. To drive the point home, he covers “Like a Rolling Stone.” For eight minutes. Ugh.
Jeff Tweedy, Warm.
People seem to like this solo effort from the Wilco frontman. I got about three sloppy strums into It before deciding I would hate it forever. The rest of the record didn’t change my mind. More like lukewarm. Tepid, even.
Various Artists, Johnny Cash: The Music: Forever Words.
An unwieldy title for a surprisingly successful tribute album. This is new songs written around existing and unused Johnny Cash lyrics, and the strong list of performers and composers take this as the honor it is and turn in excellent work. Elvis Costello’s track is a highlight.
Vengeance, Human Sacrifice (The First Mix).
The first Christian thrash metal album ever, now in a rawer and more immediate mix. It’s like hearing it for the first time. The band sounds like they are in the room with you. I love this album so much that I was happy to buy this alternate version of it, and it may supplant the original mix in my canon.
Kamasi Washington, Heaven and Earth.
Washington is so good. This is another double-length extravaganza from the jazz saxophone prodigy, with a hidden third disc that brings the running time over three hours. It’s extraordinary stuff, full and rich and wild when it needs to be, yet restrained when it should be. Excellent stuff.
Thom Yorke, Suspira.
This lengthy score to the new Suspira film is the first bit of Thom Yorke’s solo career I really like. It’s effective and creepy and, as it’s a film score, it doesn’t matter that most of it is soundscapes without songs. The songs here are really good too, though. I know some were worried about Thom messing with the original score, but this works really well.
And that will do it for another year. I’ll be taking next week off, and maybe the week after that as well. After 18 years I need a bit of a breather. But don’t worry, I’ll be back in 2019 with more weekly musical musings. Thank you, more than I can say, to those who have followed along on this journey and interacted with me through this column. You’re the reason I keep writing it. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
See you in year 19. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning… and to all a good night.