This is Fifty Second Week.
It’s also likely the last Fifty Second Week. I haven’t mentioned this anywhere else, but it feels appropriate to do so here: at the end of next year, it is my intention to bring Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. to a close. It feels like the right time to finish this project off. Next year will be my 20th year writing this weekly music column, and sometime in September or October I will pass 1000 columns. Both of these seem like sufficiently round numbers to satisfy my mildly OCD brain.
But more importantly, this column has become more of a burden than a joy over the past couple years. The weekly deadline has felt more like a punishment than a healthy challenge, and I’ve fallen behind more often than I would like. This year I even took an entire month off to get my mind straight, and while I was happy to get back to writing, it was then that I made the decision to finish off this two-decade-long effort.
I’m not even sure what kind of readership this site has. I never wanted to make money with tm3am, or to promote it like a business, which I’m sure has cost me in terms of exposure. Lately, though, it’s felt quite a bit more lonely, like I’m shouting into a vacuum. I hope you’re still out there. And if you are, I hope you’ll stick around for the last 50 or so of these things. But even if you have jumped ship and will never read these words, I hope you know what your support has meant to me over the years. I’m eternally grateful.
So yeah, I expect the last Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. column will run on the last week of 2020, and I don’t want to waste that spot with Fifty Second Week, fun as it is. So this is probably the last one, which means it’s the last time I get to explain what this is and why I do it.
Put simply, I buy a ton of music during the year, much of which is worth writing about. But I never have time nor energy to devote to full reviews of everything. At the end of each year, I take a look at my backlog from that year and select 52 albums that I probably should have written about. And then I give myself 50 seconds to review each one. I have a little timer on my desktop, and when it dings, I stop writing. Even if I’m in the middle of a sentence. (Though truth be told, I’ve been doing this long enough now that I am hardly ever in the middle of a sentence when the timer dings.)
It’s a fun way to wrap up the year, and I hope it’s as enjoyable to read as it is to knock together. If you’re ready, I have 52 albums to get through. Let’s begin.
Ray Alder, What the Water Wants.
Ray Alder is the lead singer of Fates Warning, and his solo album sounds like his band, if perhaps a little more mellow. That means the melodies aren’t quite what they should be, but the instrumentation is fine and Alder’s voice more than carries this off.
The Aristocrats, You Know What…?
Grateful to Kevin Trudo for turning me on to this insane instrumental trio. These three guys are all masters at their instruments (guitar, bass, drums) and they play incredibly complicated songs with a sense of humor and joy. Really worth it even if you aren’t a musician.
Bad Religion, Age of Unreason.
Bad Religion has (almost) never sounded any different than this, so if you like (almost) anything they’ve done, this will work for you. I think if we ever needed a band like this one, now is the time. This one takes powerful aim at the age of Trump, because of course it does.
Bent Knee, You Know What They Mean.
I have no idea how to characterize this band. They’re prog, they’re rock, they have a big-throated lead singer and they incorporate a few dozen styles from around the world. This record is weird. I mean, it’s really weird. But give it a few listens and it starts to make sense.
David Byrne, American Utopia on Broadway.
As I type this review for this live album I am realizing that I never reviewed the studio record it’s based on. Big oversight. Byrne’s solo career has been delightfully idiosyncratic and American Utopia is no exception, but it’s also always been brilliantly composed and performed.
Calexico and Iron and Wine, Years to Burn.
This is quite a nice little artifact. Sam Beam’s voice blends very well with Calexico’s folksy instrumentation, and the collaboration strikes gold with the extended “The Bitter Suite.” Very enjoyable.
Bruce Cockburn, Crowing Ignites.
I will ignore my slight disappointment that one of the most politically aware and astute songwriters on earth has chosen now to release an instrumental album. Cockburn is a tremendous guitar player, though, and Crowing Ignites is a collection of songs and jams that shows just how good he is.
Cold War Kids, New Age Norms 1.
I got suckered in by the promise of ambition again. This is purportedly the first in a trilogy of new albums, but it sucks so hard that I don’t see myself buying the next two. This is an average-to-good band aiming for stadium-filling pop stardom and it hurts to listen to.
Paula Cole, Revolution.
I love that Paula Cole is still making records. Her new one is a personal and political thing, crying out for love both intimate and universal. It’s swell stuff, especially when she stretches out on songs like “Silent” and “Universal Empathy.” Really worth checking out.
Shawn Colvin, Steady On (30th Anniversary Acoustic Edition).
This is exactly what it says it is: a re-recording of Colvin’s excellent Steady On with acoustic instruments. I like hearing her older and wiser voice tackle these tunes, and the tunes themselves hold up nicely.
Comrades, For We Are Not Yet, We Are Only Becoming.
Audiofeed has been great for introducing me to new metal bands, and Comrades is one of my favorites. They have a sense of beauty that they explore in greater depth here, while still bringing the heavy. This is a lovely thing, up there with the best metal of the year.
Harry Connick Jr., True Love: A Celebration of Cole Porter.
This is a no-brainer. Connick’s own songwriting is heavily influenced by Cole Porter, so a whole album of his arrangements of Porter tunes really should have happened by now. Connick is his usual self, singing these songs with silky aplomb, and his arrangements are strong, if unimaginative.
Sheryl Crow, Threads.
I hear this hodgepodge of duets and guest appearances might be the last Sheryl Crow album. I wouldn’t be too sad if that turns out to be the case.
Jamie Cullum, Taller.
This British wunderkind keeps on making records, and somehow they keep failing to live up to his early promise for me. He has a lovely jazz-singer voice, he plays piano well, but he hasn’t yet written a set of songs that surpasses his first record.
Death Cab for Cutie, The Blue EP.
This five-song document comes on the heels of Thank You for Today, an album that showed some renewed vigor. This EP is pretty good too, with songs like “Kids in 99” and “Before the Bombs” standing tall with the ones on the main album. Glad to have them back.
A two-CD collection of Matthew Cooper’s piano-based pieces. This is lovely stuff, and good for someone like me who just discovered Eluvium a few years ago. Cooper isn’t a virtuoso player, but his pieces are designed to set moods, and they do them beautifully.
Fastball, The Help Machine.
Fastball has had a whole career after their one hit, and this is yet another brief but well-written chunk of power pop from these guys. I’m glad I’ve followed along, because there are always a few gems on each album. “All Gone Fuzzy” is my favorite this time.
Flight of the Conchords, Live in London.
As someone who never really watched the show, Live in London was a revelation. These songs are brilliant, sharp, funny and melodic. I am kicking myself for depriving myself of the likes of “Iain and Deanna” for so long.
The Flower Kings, Waiting for Miracles.
Possibly the best classic prog band on the planet, the Flower Kings took several years off after a run of lackluster records. This new one is excellent, a full-on political progtopia with bite and enough instrumental interplay to keep even the most discerning listener entertained.
Josh Garrels, Chrysaline.
I’ve always liked Garrels, and always been OK with his straightforward worship lyrics, but somehow those became a little overwhelming for me on this long, kinda slow record. Nothing here is bad – it’s all ornamental folk-pop with a sense of melody – but except for “Butterfly” it kind of sits there for me.
Grateful Dead, Ready or Not.
This is pretty cool. It’s a live record made up of the songs that would have been featured on the Grateful Dead’s follow-up to Built to Last. That album never got made, and Jerry Garcia’s death means it never will, but hearing these latter-day tunes all stitched together is neat.
Rachel Grimes, The Way Forth.
I bought this because featured player Timbre Cierpke told me to, and I’m glad she did. This is the aural equivalent of researching the life of a small town through moldy old library books, and it’s really something special. It’s quirky enough to be a stage play, and I kind of hope Grimes takes it in that direction.
This album concludes a trilogy that has taken Hammock’s gorgeous ambient music from despair to hope, and it’s been a lovely ride. This is a calm and peaceful record with only hints of darkness. It’s mostly like looking out over still waters.
Hozier, Wasteland Baby.
I’ve never been in the camp that believes that Hozier is worth paying a lot of attention to, but even so, this is a disappointing follow-up album. I can barely remember these 14 songs, and only his voice remains in my memory as a reason to enjoy this.
Inter Arma, Sulphur English.
Another stunning piece of heavy atmospherics from this band. This is huge and doomy and widescreen, and if you’ve ever liked them before, you’ll find a lot to enjoy here.
Michael Kiwanuka, Kiwanuka.
Enjoyable and eclectic third record from this underrated musician. I love “You Ain’t the Problem,” and I love how stripped-down the early tracks here are before the strings come in and send this album into orbit. I don’t know what it would take to make Michael Kiwanuka more well-known, but we should do that, whatever it is.
L7, Scatter the Rats.
Not all of these ‘90s band reunions go smoothly. This new album from these punk-rock stalwarts is fine, but nowhere near as good as they used to be. It’s a shame, really.
Madonna, Madame X.
I’m still not too sure what to make of this thing. Madonna invites a host of collaborators and takes on a number of world-music styles, and the resulting album is a bit of an ambitious mess. Some of it is embarrassing, but some of it works. I’m just not sure her fans will agree on which is which.
Bill Mallonee, Lead On, Kindly Light/This World and One More.
This long-awaited double album from Mallonee sounds exactly like you’d expect it to – the songs are classic Americana with traditional instrumentation and biting lyrics, and even though Mallonee’s voice is weaker lately, he can still pull this off. If you like his songs, here are 23 more of them.
The Mavericks, Play the Hits.
I’m amazed that the Mavericks are still at it. This covers record finds Raul Malo and company tackling the likes of “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Hungry Heart” alongside some old-school country classics, and they’re still a one-of-a-kind combo.
Alice Merton, Mint.
Merton made her name last year with the smash “No Roots,” and while it is certainly the best song on her debut album, the rest of it is pretty good too. This is danceable pop-rock with a sense of individuality, and I’m interested to see where she goes next.
Thurston Moore, Spirit Counsel.
This is awesome. Spirit Counsel is three extended pieces for guitar armies, and the sheer mass of sound generated here is amazing. If you’re into Sonic Youth for their brash rock and roll, this is something else entirely. But this, to me, is Moore’s true art.
Neal Morse, Jesus Christ the Exorcist.
In retrospect I should have given this one a WTF Award. This is a full-on two-hour prog-rock musical about Jesus, taken very seriously, and it’s giggle-worthy. I can only imagine how funny this must be to see staged live, and I can only imagine the church that would stage it.
No-Man, Love You to Bits.
Steven Wilson and Tim Bowness return with what is basically a disco-fied “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” It’s two long pieces with minimal deviation and thump-thump electronic drums, and while it isn’t bad, this feels like something Wilson did on a weekend to keep busy.
Of Monsters and Men, Fever Dream.
Wow, this is terrible. I don’t know what happened to this band, but where once they created vast and original soundscapes, now they’re churning out auto-tuned balladry for radio. The difference between this record and anything else they’ve done is absolutely and depressingly immense.
Angel Olsen, All Mirrors.
I need to give this one several more listens. What I have heard has been beautiful – string-laden epic pieces sung with conviction. My first listen through this one was extremely positive, so I don’t know why I just never made it back to it. But I will.
The Rembrandts, Via Satellite.
Always nice to have a new Rembrandts album. They’re the same as they always were – jangly pop ditties with witty lyrics and hummable melodies. I’m not surprised this didn’t set the world on fire. It’s just another set of fun tunes.
Russian Circles, Blood Year.
This is great. But then, Russian Circles are always great. This one is right in line with their others: post-rock that builds to massive towers of sound. Check this one out, or literally any other album they’ve done.
Slayer, The Repentless Killogy.
Slayer says they are finished after this tour, so this might be the final live album we ever get from them. It’s a pretty good one, even without two of the members who made this band what they are. The latter songs certainly do suffer from direct comparison to the earlier work, though.
Son Volt, Union.
A more traditional-sounding album from Jay Farrar’s outfit, this one recorded in a couple famous places. This is all nice stuff, even if it never breaks free from the old-time folksy mold it’s cast in.
Soundgarden, Live from the Artists Den.
It’s nice to have this extended document of Soundgarden live, because they were a massive beast on stage. Chris Cornell was a one-of-a-kind singer, and he’s in fine full-throated form here, powering his way through a lengthy set of classics and then-new songs.
Sweet Oblivion Feat. Geoff Tate.
You don’t expect a whole lot from Geoff Tate these days, but this new collaboration is far more interesting than anything he’s doing with Operation Mindcrime. These are soaring pop-metal songs and Tate relishes the chance to dive into them, vocally speaking. Really surprising, this one.
This one is also a surprise: it’s produced by Phil Collen of Def Leppard, and it sounds like it. This is a glossy pop-metal bid for radio play, if radio still sounded like it did in 1988. Tesla’s more rough-and-tumble sound doesn’t mesh too well with this – it feels like an odd and uncomfortable fit to me.
They Might Be Giants, My Murdered Remains.
The follow-up to I Like Fun is 32 songs long, and it’s just as witty and wonderful as you’d expect. This is another collection of Dial-a-Song tunes, which means it feels slapped together, but in a good way. It’s remarkable that these guys are still at it, and still this good.
They Might Be Giants, The Escape Team.
Even better is this short record intended to accompany a comic book project of the same name. The eleven songs on The Escape Team each highlight a character from the comic, and in lieu of another album of kids’ songs, this will do nicely.
Tow’rs, New Nostalgia.
Another AudioFeed band I’m so happy to have discovered. Tow’rs play expansive folk music with strings and horns and harmonies to die for. New Nostalgia is their sharpest and most fully realized effort, and it really deserved more attention from me. It may be too little too late, but you should hear it. www.towrsmusic.com.
Sharon Van Etten, Remind Me Tomorrow.
This one was another surprise: Van Etten covers these songs in electronic noise, which sometimes masks how personal they are. It’s another good one from her, and “No One’s Easy to Love” is one of the year’s best things.
Vanden Plas, The Ghost Xperiment: Awakening.
Yeah, this band is completely ridiculous. Yes, this is another two-part concept piece from them, and yes, it’s silly. But Vanden Plas also play convincing prog-metal as well as anyone in the game, and I appreciate them for that. This is more fun to listen to than you’d think.
Wang Chung, Orchesography.
Hands up if you expected Wang Freaking Chung to put out an orchestral album. I didn’t, but their electronic-pop songs sound really good in this setting. I’m especially fond of “The World in Which We Live,” given a new epic sheen here. This is good stuff.
War of Ages, Void.
Another AudioFeed metal band. Void is another in a long line of War of Ages albums that sound basically the same. Shouty vocals, jackhammer riffs, some electronic touches. It’s fine, but I’m waiting for this band to discover another path and start to take it.
Derek Webb, Stockholm Syndrome Live in Texas.
While we wait for Webb’s new independent release, he celebrates the 10th anniversary of his first independent release with this live recitation. I sometimes forget how good this album is, and it’s nice to have a reminder. These songs still can slice you open.
The Wonder Stuff, Better Being Lucky.
And finally, Miles Hunt and his band of the week return with a strong slice of fist-pumping rock with Hunt’s usual brand of cutting wit. Most of these songs are kind of simple, but there are no bad ones here. The Wonder Stuff continues to go unheralded on this side of the Atlantic, and I wish that were not so.
Lamenting the continued obscurity of a long-running band feels to me like a fitting way to close out this chapter of Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. Next up for me is a two-week break, as I finish up my vacation and get ready for the final year of this thing I’ve been doing for nearly half my life. If you’ve walked with me for any length of this journey, thank you very much.
Happy 2020, everyone. May the best thing that happened to you this year be the worst thing that happens to you next year. Come on back in two weeks as we set sail for the sunset.
See you in line Tuesday morning.