All posts by Andre Salles

Coping Mechanisms
Three Records, Three Ways to Deal with the World Outside

It’s funny how some bands show up right when you need them.

This has been a tough, tough week here in America, as we seem to be testing just how far our democracy can stretch before it breaks. I don’t like being political in here, because that’s really not what this silly music column is about, but when the anxiety of simply living in a place where the rule of law gets trampled and cruelty gets to gloat and take revenge gets so high that I can’t ignore it, it’ll inevitably spill out into this space. I’m having a very difficult time with the events of the past few days, as I’m sure many are.

So I was pretty happy, then, to receive word that after an eight-year absence, one of my favorite politically aware bands would be roaring back. (No, no, not Rage Against the Machine.) I’ve been a Levellers fan since the early ‘90s, when my good friend Chris played me “The Game” off of their amazing second record, Levelling the Land. Named after a political movement during the English Civil War, the Levellers are probably best described as a folk-punk band, but that doesn’t quite do them justice to me. Imagine the Waterboys with the fury of the Alarm, or Fairport Convention with a kick. I dunno. They’re just the Levellers.

The new Levellers album is called Peace, and it will be out in August. Here is the first single, “Food Roof Family,” and it’s classic Levellers. I didn’t know how much I needed this band until they were back. Their music has often helped me make sense of strange political times – their terrific 2008 record, Letters from the Underground, was a summation of and reaction to the Bush-Blair era – and I’m hopeful they can help me again.

I’ve found for me that there are only a few ways of dealing with the reality of our current era, and music is one of them. More generally speaking, though, I think there are a few ways to respond to the crushing anxiety of everyday life now, and lo and behold, I have musical examples to illustrate each one. I’m not saying these are the only ways of coping, but they’re the three options that most often present themselves to me, or that others recommend. So here goes.

  1. Take a break.

Obviously this is easier said than done, and doesn’t do anything to fix things. But sometimes you need to disengage, take a break, turn off the noise and stop thinking about it. If you’re privileged enough to be able to do this, it’s a valid response. Just don’t stay away too long.

Green Day has done exactly that on their new record, Father of All Motherfuckers. (Yep, these guys are pushing 50 and have named their new album Father of All Motherfuckers.) Green Day has always been a socially conscious band, and saw their greatest success with American Idiot, which took aim at the Bush years. Their most recent album, Revolution Radio, had a lot to say about persevering through troubled times, and its release just a month before Trump’s election was well timed.

Father of All doesn’t do any of those things. It’s a quick record that only wants to get you out on the dance floor. It spans an astonishingly short 26 minutes, and only two of its 10 songs top three minutes. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but this record is largely uninspired and insipid, so the short running time turns out to be a blessing. The singles are probably the worst, so if you made it through the Joan-Jett-cover-of-Gary Glitter-sampling “Oh Yeah,” you can probably handle the rest. (BTW, the band is donating their royalties from that song to organizations that help victims of sexual assault and rape, since Glitter is a convicted sex offender.)

That said, if all you want is half an hour of fun, and you don’t think about how generic songs like “I Was a Teenage Teenager” are, Father of All provides. It flies by in a blur, barely registering if you’re not paying attention, and its one-four-five chord progressions feel like wallpaper to me. But it definitely accomplishes its goal of being a turn-off-your-brain affair. If this whole thing took them more than a weekend, I would be surprised. But as a small vacation from weightier things, it works.

  1. Get angry.

I hesitate to admit that this is generally my default lately. I am trying to channel the anger into productivity, but sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes I just sit and seethe. And when that happens, I need angry music to channel those emotions. Often I will reach for metal – the new Sepultura is pretty excellent, for example – but for the past few days the album that has been doing it for me was a total surprise.

It’s The Unraveling, the topical and terrific new album from Drive-By Truckers. Patterson Hood and his co-conspirators have always had a lot to say, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard them so pissed off before. The music is the same gritty country-rock they’ve always delivered (and that former member Jason Isbell does so well), but the lyrics are more specific and more explosive than they’ve been.

The Neil Young-ish “Thoughts and Prayers” is a great example. It is, of course, about school shootings, and about how our politicians are bought and paid into silence and inaction. Here’s a key verse:

“When my children’s eyes look at me and ask me to explain,
It hurts me that I have to look away
The powers that be are in for shame and comeuppance
When Generation Lockdown has their day
They’ll throw the bums out and drain the swamp for real
Perp walk them down the Capitol steps and show them how it feels
Tramp the dirt down, Jesus, you can pray the rod they’ll spare
Stick it up your ass with your useless thoughts and prayers…”

Damn, right? This same razor-sharp fury fuels songs like “21st Century USA” and “Babies in Cages” and “Grievance Merchants,” each one targeting a different aspect of our current hellscape. “Are we so divided that we can’t at least agree that this ain’t the country that our granddads fought for us to be,” Hood sings, and I can only hope that he’s right.

The Unraveling ends with the glorious eight-minute “Awaiting Resurrection,” on which Hood asks if there’s an evil in this world, and then names it: “Guns and ammunition, babies in a cage, they say nothing can be done but they’ll tell us how they prayed, in the end we’re just standing watching greatness fade…” This is a record that swims through the injustices playing out every day and pulls them out into the light, and I am here for it. If you’re angry about the same things I am, The Unraveling is an album for you.

  1. Stay positive, be loving.

This is, bar none, the most difficult reaction, because it’s not natural. It’s something you have to make yourself do, something you have to learn. It’s a shifting of one’s priorities, a swallowing of one’s first reactions. I’m not great at it. I try my best, but often I need to be reminded of what I am putting out into the world, and how much more loving I could be.

And when I need those reminders this year, I expect I will turn to the beautiful new album from Nada Surf, Never Not Together. If you haven’t been paying attention to Nada Surf since “Popular,” you have missed one of the finest artistic evolutions I can name. They’ve become a wonderful band, giving us tuneful guitar-pop of the highest order on album after album. And now they’ve done it again.

Never Not Together is the band’s ninth album, and their most uplifting and hopeful. Just the act of listening to it makes me feel lighter, like the thick atmosphere of the world has lifted from my chest. Nada Surf has often been a source of positivity and resilience – just listen to The Weight is a Gift – but they’ve never been this giddy, this clearly in love with life, over an entire record. This of course means that the lyrics here are easy to make fun of – song titles include “So Much Love,” “Live Learn and Forget” and “Just Wait” – but Mathew Caws believes in them. When he says “you’re gonna be just fine, it may take some time,” he means it, and the band surrounds him with gentle and gorgeous music.

Never Not Together is a delightful thing. I’m even OK with the return of Caws’ sing-speaking, a la “Popular,” in the bouncy “Something I Should Do.” His rant this time is about empathy, and it works. The whole album works. In my darkest days, this record provides exactly the encouragement I need: stay alive, stay engaged, stay loving. Take a break if you need to, get angry if you must, but react with love as much and as often as you can. We will get through this.

Next week, Derek Webb takes aim on Targets.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Taking the High Road
Kesha Follows the Rainbow and Goes Everywhere at Once

The Good Place came to an end last week.

I haven’t talked too much about this show – which has manifestly been my favorite thing on television for the past four years – because I was afraid. I’ve certainly been guilty before of pumping up shows that failed to stick their endings. The Good Place is a show that, as it went along, became more and more dependent on that ending to clarify its message, and I was worried that it wouldn’t.

I should have had more faith. The Good Place was created by Parks and Recreation mastermind Michael Schur, and it’s clear now that he had a coherent and well-thought-out plan for what he was trying to say with his show. If you’ve never watched, I can only describe the first of many premises: Kristen Bell plays Eleanor Shellstrop, who wakes up to find herself in the afterlife. She’s told (by Ted Danson as heavenly architect Michael) that she’s in the good place, because she lived such a selfless and extraordinary life.

There’s only one problem: she didn’t, and she knows she didn’t. She quickly susses out the fact that she’s in the good place by accident, and has to learn how to be a good person in order to stay. After that, there are twists upon twists – the show in season three did not resemble the show in season one at all – but the theme remained the same: people can get better. Progress is slow, but people can improve, and we can all help each other become the best versions of ourselves.

The show took some narrative turns in its fourth and final season that made me even more nervous, but the ending was absolutely marvelous. It was, in fact, one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen on television. It managed to be entirely about these six characters we have come to love, while also nailing the themes that the show has been forwarding for four years. I am so happy to have been privileged enough to experience this show. It turned out to be the most optimistic, gorgeous thing, a show that champions incremental progress and the value of community. It’s not perfect, but it’s about as close as TV gets, and while I am glad it went out on its own terms, I’m going to miss it very much.

I say this with all the love in my heart and all the wisdom of the universe: take it sleazy, Good Place.

* * * * *

You know when something just isn’t your thing? Like, you have nothing against it or the people who enjoy it, but it just isn’t for you?

I will readily admit that for most of her career, Kesha just hasn’t been my thing. I know people who swear by her first two grimy pop records, Animal and Warrior, and I’ve never liked either one of them. “Tik Tok,” as a song, makes me want to die a little bit. Kesha’s whole persona on those albums, combined with the plastic pop production, kills any desire I might have to listen to them. I’ve gone back a couple times to see if I can get into them, and I just can’t.

Why would I try so hard to like these records? One word: Rainbow. Kesha’s third album, released in 2017 after years of public struggle with her producer/abuser Dr. Luke, was an absolute revelation. Rainbow is just awesome, a hard-hitting song cycle about perseverance, forgiveness and being the better person, and it reintroduced Kesha as an artist worth paying attention to. The songs range from punk-ish kiss-offs to lovely balladry to a duet with Dolly Freaking Parton, and I was simply blown away by the whole thing.

So of course, I was in for whatever she chose to do next. I may not like where she’s come from, but I’m jazzed to see where she’s going. I’m a little sad to report that I’m conflicted about Kesha’s fourth album, High Road – there’s a lot to like about it, but it doesn’t move me nearly as much as its predecessor. High Road was billed as a return to the carefree party-girl Kesha, and I’m thrilled to hear her moving on and getting past some of the emotional turmoil that fueled Rainbow. High Road is about flushing one’s life of negativity and focusing on feeling good, and that’s a fine place for Kesha to find herself. I’m happy for her.

But that return to her own happiness has also brought back some of the musical tics I dislike from her earlier work. The sweet piano chords that open “Tonight” drew me in – her full-throated singing voice is, as always, spectacular – but my spirits fell through the floor as soon as the “bitch, we going out tonight” nonsense began. The first four songs on High Road all hearken back to the radio-pop days, and while “Tonight” is the only one that’s truly awful – I quite like “Raising Hell,” in fact – the tone is set.

Things get better from there, and they also get weirder, which I love. Rainbow was about Kesha learning to trust her own instincts, and in the back half of High Road they largely steer her right. She’s still delightfully vulgar, even in her most delicate moments – the ballad “Shadow” includes a whole verse about the fact that she loves singing “fuck” in all of her songs – but it’s those delicate moments I like best here. “Cowboy Blues” is a tender acoustic lament, in which Kesha asks “did I fuck my whole life up?” “Resentment,” right after that, brings in Sturgill Simpson and a basically inaudible Brian Wilson for a lullaby of bitterness.

I love that Kesha seems to do whatever she wants, from the bouncy ‘60s pop of “Little Bit of Love” to the chiptune horniness of “Birthday Suit.” Her most left-field number here is “The Potato Song,” with its Cabaret-like arrangement, complete with tubas. Her voice adapts to fit each of these artistic swerves, and it’s remarkable that her musical identity can encompass all of this – hell, “The Potato Song” has a kazoo interlude, and it sounds natural.

It’s easy for me to forgive some of the album’s early missteps by the time we hit the emotional final third. “BFF” is a sweet ‘80s-style duet with her songwriting partner, Stephen Wrabel, while the wrenching “Father Daughter Dance” finds her opening up about her absent father – “He’s nothing, he’s no one, a stranger.” It’s a powerful song, and I hope she finds it within herself to write more like it, because she nails it. Closer “Chasing Thunder” is a big folk-pop song, but it sets the right wide-open-spaces note for this album to end on.

That Kesha manages all of this in 45 minutes is both High Road’s strength and weakness. She covers a lot of ground, from the blippy pop of the first songs to the organic beauty of the last ones, and sacrifices consistency to do it. But in its best moments, High Roadcatches the spark that made Rainbow such a wonder. There’s no one else I can think of who would have made this record this way, and there’s no doubt that it’s exactly what she wanted it to be. Kesha is still evolving as an artist, still finding out who she wants to be, and if High Road sounds like she wants to be everything all at once, she still proves that her journey is worth listening to.

Next week, Green Day and a few others.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Flash! Ah Ah!
When Showy Skill Is Not Enough

This week I finally caught up with BT’s two new albums from the end of last year.

For those who don’t know, BT is Brian Transeau, producer and multi-instrumentalist, and he’s a bit of a genius. I’ve been following his career since his trance-heavy early days, and his artistic evolution has been something to behold. From the glitch-heavy pop of Emotional Technology to the beautiful ambience of If the Stars Are Eternal So Are You and I to the blissful, dance-heavy A Song Across Wires, there’s no containing BT to any one genre.

He’s also frighteningly prolific – his two new records come hot on the heels of the double-disc debut from BT’s ‘80s-inspired band All Hail the Silence. The new ones are instrumental and expansive. Between Here and You is an ambient album, full of drones and atmospheres, while the awesomely titled Everything You’re Searching For is On the Other Side of Fear mixes low-key electronic styles with orchestral elements. Both of them are beautiful things, and strong additions to an already excellent catalog.

I wanted to mention these albums because they are, by and large, pretty simple things. BT is an extraordinary musician, capable of the most complex pieces – just check out his untitled record from 2017, with its multi-part suites and extended instrumental compositions. There’s no question about what BT can play, but he often chooses to devote himself to subtler work that doesn’t emphasize his chops. It’s because he knows that skill is not the be-all and end-all. True artistry requires taste, requires making choices that serve the song and the album.

That’s a clumsy segue into talking about two artists that are all technique. The relative outputs of both serve to prove that you can be among the greatest in the world at something and still not make great art with all that talent. There was a time in my life when I thought differently, when I considered mastering an instrument or one’s vocal cords the height of artistry. The two albums I’m talking about this week probably would have resonated much more deeply with me at that time in my life.

As proof of that, I used to love Eminem. I even named The Marshall Mathers LP the best album of 2000, based largely on its satirical intent and Mathers’ tongue-twisting lyrical flash. I probably would not do the same now, but I don’t think there’s any doubting Eminem’s ability. His tracks are a blur of internal rhymes and breathtaking speed, and he can set a scene and deliver a point of view like few others. In the early days, of course, that point of view was about cultural irresponsibility, about pushing the envelope with murder fantasies and multiple personalities that, I thought, hid something a lot more complex and calculating.

But if Em once had something to say, he’s long since buried it under a mountain of bad taste and self-pity. Every album since 2004’s Encore has been, in part, about the poor reaction to the previous one, and while he’s still the king of rapid-fire verses, they’ve been empty ones for a while now. I’m the guy who liked Recovery and the political material on Revival because it sounded honest, like Mathers finding purpose for his power. But neither of them were good albums, and lesser works like Kamikaze obscure them like dark clouds.

So it goes on Eminem’s frustrating 11th album, Music to be Murdered By. It’s another surprise drop, appearing unannounced two Fridays ago, and it’s a more substantial piece of work than Kamikaze for certain. Its title and design are based on an album of scary themes released in 1958 by Alfred Hitchcock. The famed director appears on his cover with an axe and a gun to his head, much like Em does here, and Hitchcock’s interludes are sampled throughout. It’s a good conceit for a guy who made his name creating mini-horror films in song.

And there’s some good stuff here, certainly, some tracks on which Eminem shows a confidence and vision he hasn’t displayed in a long time. “Darkness” is the absolute highlight of this thing. It finds Em stepping into the shoes of Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas shooter. It makes full use of the album’s chief metaphor: rappers referring to their words as weapons and their tracks as murdering the beat. Em uses this as misdirection here, as it slowly becomes clear that he’s preparing for actual murder. The track ends with news footage from various mass shootings, and by the end Mathers has done something remarkable: given us another perspective on a national epidemic of violence.

Alas, it’s the only one like it here. The rest of this record is about Eminem himself, as usual. When it opens with a track that takes Rolling Stone to task for giving Revival two and a half stars, you’d be forgiven for strapping in for a long and tedious ride. Music to Be Murdered By is better than you may expect based on that – I like “Leaving Heaven” a lot, with its unflinching look at Eminem’s childhood, and “Stepdad” is a murder fantasy that hearkens back to his more classic period. “Little Engine” is kind of awesome too. But there’s an ocean of misogyny and tastelessness to wade through (“Marsh,” “Those Kinda Nights,” etc.), and the good stuff isn’t quite worth it.

That isn’t to say Eminem isn’t still a marvel to listen to. Just try “Godzilla,” featuring the recently departed Juice WRLD. It has a basic, minimalist beat over which Mathers again proclaims himself the best in the game, but he does it at near light speed. The final verses are a feat of annunciation, Mathers switching to full auto and firing out words with amazing skill. There’s no doubting how good he is, and Music to Be Murdered By is his best in a while. But I wish he would find a focus for all this talent, the way someone like Kendrick Lamar has. Eminem needs a mission, a reason to get behind the mic. Without it he’ll keep pumping out empty records like this one.

Speaking of empty records, here’s Sons of Apollo with their second record, MMXX. (Yes, it’s named after the year in which it came out.) Sons of Apollo, you may remember, is a prog-metal supergroup consisting of Dream Theater’s Mike Portnoy and Derek Sherinian, Mr. Big’s Billy Sheehan, Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal and former Yngwie Malmsteen singer Jeff Scott Soto. If you know those names, you know exactly what this record sounds like.

In fact, if you bought the last Sons of Apollo album, Psychotic Symphony, you have pretty much heard this one too. Like Dream Theater, this band exists to show off the instrumental chops of its members. The band is led by Portnoy, and I think it’s fitting that I get to talk about him so soon after Neil Peart’s death. Portnoy is what Peart’s detractors think he was – overly flashy, busy for no reason, showing off when he could be serving the song. Peart never did any of that. He was a complex player, but his parts served the whole. Portnoy’s entire style screams “look at me” at maximum volume.

And man, I will absolutely cop to loving that sort of thing from time to time. When Dream Theater hit in the early ‘90s, they were one of my favorite bands, fusing the prog of Yes and Genesis with the explosive technical metal of Megadeth. Over time their sound has become wearying, and Portnoy brought that sound with him when he left the band in 2010. He’s been the drummer for Neal Morse’s prog projects, including Transatlantic and Flying Colors, but with Sons of Apollo he gets to set the tone. And the tone is very Dream Theater.

Within the opening minutes of MMXX, you know what you’re in for. Again, there’s no question about what these guys can play, only what they choose to, and here they deliver standard prog-metal. It’s muscular, driven by Portnoy’s energetic playing and Soto’s sorta-cheesy-but-still-impressive voice, and it makes plenty of room for Thal and Sherinian to dazzle us with their lightning-fast leads. The songs are complicated not because the songs call for complexity, but because they are showcases for the players.

There are two tracks worth mentioning, for different reasons. “Desolate July” was written in memory of David Z., a friend of the band who passed away recently. It’s a slow ballad, the kind that Dream Theater occasionally pulls out, but Soto isn’t even the lyricist James LaBrie is, and this song – heartfelt as it may be – traffics in every “no chance to say goodbye, we’re left wondering why” cliché you’ve ever heard. It’s hard to get through.

And then there is the closer, “New World Today,” which stands out for being a 15-minute five-part epic. This sort of thing is de rigueur for a band like Sons of Apollo, but if you’re in this for the flailing guitar solos and odd tempos and stop-time sections, this song contains the band’s best work. A piece like “New World Today” is the very reason a band like this one exists, and if you like 15-minute prog-metal suites, you will like this one. If you like prog-metal in general, in fact, you will enjoy this album.

I just find it surprisingly tiring. I feel like I’ve heard it all before – MMXX contains no new tricks, no new insights. It’s music played with remarkable precision and showiness, its only point being to prove again that these five guys are good at what they do. They are good at it, certainly, but sometimes just being good isn’t enough. Sheer skill rarely moves me, and more often than not these days, I am looking to be moved, not just awed. You can give me all the sound and fury in the world, but if it signifies nothing, I’m gonna be bored.

Next week, Kesha’s return and a few other things. And I’ll probably talk a bit about the Good Place finale.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The Best Album of 2020
So Far, At Least

I didn’t really know Brian Healy.

I only spoke with him a handful of times, at both Cornerstone and AudioFeed. My friend Jeff Elbel was a regular part of Brian’s bands at those festivals, so by being in Jeff’s orbit I got to meet Brian a few times. He was an imposing figure – very tall, husky build, bald, always wearing sunglasses and black clothing. But he was also, as everyone who knew him has said over the past few days, a kind and generous individual.

Brian Healy was the mastermind behind Dead Artist Syndrome, the first Christian goth band. If those two things together make no sense to you, you should probably hear some DAS. Brian had a quirky sense of humor (he titled songs “Young, Sexy and Dead” and “Jesus Wants You to Buy This Record”) and a penchant for cutting right to the heart of things, and his music – reminiscent of Bauhaus and Sisters of Mercy, led by his rumbly baritone – was unlike anything being produced in the spiritual corner of the music world. He was a misfit speaking to misfits, and in their (well, let’s be honest – our) language.

I would often wonder how Brian managed to get such great musicians to play with him. His albums and concerts featured members of the 77s, the Choir and Undercover, and my friend Jeff is certainly no slouch. The reason is simple: people loved Brian Healy. Where other subcultures might have found a lot to mock about him, this one embraced him. And I’m proud to have been a part of that.

After years of health issues, Brian Healy died last weekend of a brain hemorrhage. He was only 60 years old. He leaves behind a six-album musical legacy, but more importantly, the mark he made on the lives of so many people in this strange little corner of the music world. I’m sure this year’s AudioFeed will feature a tribute to him, and I’m sure that I will be there, singing along. Rest in peace, Brian.

* * * * *

The last year of Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. has been non-stop eulogies so far. I’m hoping for a respite from untimely death so I can talk about music again.

I’ve already heard several new records this year. I’ll get to Eminem and Sons of Apollo next week (and if you can guess the connection between the two of them, I’ll be impressed), and eventually I’d like to talk about Algiers and And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead and Cursive and a few others. But so far, one record stands above all the others for me, and it’s Making a New World by Field Music.

The brothers Brewis (David and Peter) are a lot better known in their native England, but they’ve been releasing smart, sophisticated pop records as Field Music since 2005. I usually let them come and go, and I’m not sure why. Their work is routinely excellent, thoughtful yet fun, complex yet hummable, drawing on decades of British pop from the likes of 10cc and Supertramp. I never quite know what they’re going to do next, and that’s the mark of a terrific band to me.

Case in point: 2018’s Open Here introduced them to new audiences, its Brexit-themed songs receiving much critical acclaim. So what better way to follow it up than with a concept album about World War I and its impacts on the next century of world society? That’s what Making a New World is – it grew from a project the brothers put together for the Imperial War Museum to accompany a graphic representation of the bullets fired in the first moments after armistice ended in November of 1919.

What they ended up with is a 42-minute thesis statement about the events of the war and its aftermath, and how they have shaped everyday life since. Songs are color-coded on the artwork to correspond with liner notes detailing the topics they address, ranging from skin graft surgeries to the development of the Ondes Martinot (one of the first electronic musical instruments) to the marketing of sanitary napkins. Each one of these can open up a Wikipedia wormhole that will swallow you for days.

I know, right? This all sounds like so much homework to enjoy a pop album. Well, never fear, because the music is wonderful and will sweep you along even without context. The Brewis brothers’ lyrics are impressionistic, vague poetic snatches instead of full-on history lessons, and their music is their usual blend of glorious melodies and harmonies. “A Change of Heir,” for example, is about Harold Gillies, who pioneered skin graft techniques in 1917 and went on, in 1951, to perform one of the first gender reassignment surgeries. But in the song, that idea is summed up in one line: “If the mind won’t fit the body, let the body fit the mind.”

Musically this album plays like a single thought. Its 19 tracks segue – many of them are instrumental interludes – and it’s possible to think of Making a New World as a single piece. In fact, it probably makes the most sense to think of it that way, because it will carry you along before you have time to check the track number and song title you’re on. The songs are delightfully clever, but some – like the mustard gas cautionary tale “If the Wind Blows Towards the Hospital” – are over almost as soon as they’ve begun. As songs they’re fragments. As fragments they add up to something remarkable.

This is, no doubt, a weird record. “Only in a Man’s World” finds David Brewis asking “why should a woman feel ashamed” and declaring that “things would be different if the boys bled too,” as a rejoinder against the male-led marketing of feminine hygiene products that began shortly after the war. Right after that is a song (“Money is a Memory”) about Germany’s final payments in the Treaty of Versailles, which it made in 2010.

These are uncommon subjects for pop songs, but then Field Music is an uncommon band. In a lot of ways, Making a New World is just another thoughtful, fascinating album for them. It’s been the one I have listened to most since the start of the year, and is my favorite album of 2020 so far. Yes, that’s certainly laughable, given that we’re only three weeks in, but if calling it the best album of the year so far gets a few of you to listen to it, well, mission accomplished.

Next week, Eminem and Sons of Apollo. And after that, Kesha, Pet Shop Boys, Green Day, Nada Surf, Tame Impala and on and on. Year 20, year last. Let’s go.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Only Immortal for a Limited Time
Neil Peart, 1952-2020

This is the last year of Tuesday Morning 3 A.M., and this is not how I wanted to start it. But when a musician you’ve admired for most of your life passes away, you say something. That’s how this works.

So of course I’m going to talk about Neil Peart.

I’m not absolutely sure how I started listening to Rush. I can tell you that they were in the background for me for a while before I started paying attention. I remember the video for “Time Stand Still” quite clearly, and that came out when I was 13. But I also remember people talking about Rush – friends at school and church and elsewhere – because when you’re a 13-year-old boy, Rush is one of those bands people talk about.

By the time Presto came out, I was 15 and I was making my own money. The video for “Show Don’t Tell” knocked me backwards. It was metal, but it wasn’t. It was melodic, but massive. It had a riff that went on for days, it found room for sweet keyboards in the chorus, and it had that head-spinning stop-time bit that I loved. I bought Presto. Then I bought Chronicles, because I’d read about just how vast the Rush discography was, and I had this cute idea in my younger days that greatest hits albums would ever do it for me.

Chronicles was amazing, but wasn’t enough, and over the next few months I bought every Rush album. There were 16 at that time, counting the three live records. And I proceeded to listen to those 16 albums over and over and over, puzzling them out. I loved the ones everyone else loved, of course. I remember listening to 2112 on the school bus, since the title track was just long enough to cover the whole trip. I devoured Moving Pictures and Permanent Waves. But I also couldn’t stop listening to Hemispheres or Power Windows or even Caress of Steel, a record I can probably still hum all of.

People sometimes criticize Rush for making cerebral music, for aiming for the head instead of the heart. To that I would say two things. First, I find a lot of Rush songs surprisingly moving, and not just “Closer to the Heart” either. I think they pulled on a lot of different emotions during their time. But second, I am so in for music that appeals to my head. I love twisty, difficult, even showy music that takes skill to write and perform. I love music I have to map out, music willing to take me down a hundred different melodic passageways. Rush’s work, as anyone who has tried to play it will tell you, is damn difficult. And sometimes you just want to stand in awe as masterful musicians play music masterfully.

Even at 13 I could tell that there was something special about Neil Peart. He did things no other drummer I could name at that time could do. I didn’t know, as I jammed out to “The Spirit of Radio,” that I was listening to one of the best rock drummers who ever lived. I just knew that bit in the beginning where he and Geddy Lee line up perfectly was awesome. And that he made that killer guitar riff work from behind the drum kit in a way that I couldn’t explain. And that the reggae bit was pretty cool.

Now, of course, I know how special Peart was. I know he somehow managed to hold the entire band together, giving them the bedrock they needed to explore melodically – Geddy was always up in the stratosphere somewhere, and it was Neil who locked everything in place. That he somehow did this while gaining a reputation as a flashy player is remarkable to me. I’ve never thought of him as flashy, at least not in the same way I consider disciples of his like Mike Portnoy to be flashy. Peart could play anything, and Rush songs often required him to, but listen again. He rarely does anything that doesn’t serve the song.

Peart’s lyrics helped shape Rush as much as his drumming, too. A staunch defender of free will and individualism who was also open to wonder in all its forms, Peart’s lyrics could be stuffy, but they could also be remarkably straightforward. And I think calling him overly cerebral does a disservice to his work. A song like “Bravado,” for instance, is simple and pretty: “And if love remains, though everything is lost, we will pay the price but we will not count the cost…” The Rush catalog is full of these smaller, more sentimental tunes, and I love them.

I want to talk about one of them a little more closely, if I may. It’s the first Rush song I really fell in love with, nestled there at the end of Presto, and it’s one I’ve carried with me since I was a teen. “Available Light” is probably my favorite Rush song, all told, and I don’t think it’s for nostalgic reasons – it really is a perfect piece of music. And it’s deeply, deeply hopeful: “Chase the wind around the world, I want to look at life in the available light.” When Geddy sings that line, as the band drops out behind him and cycles back to the sparse piano figure that opens the song, I still get chills.

Just listen to Peart during those choruses – he’s a monster, pushing the whole thing into orbit – and then during the instrumental bridge, in which you can hear Rush ignite my lifelong love of prog-pop. When Alex Lifeson’s soaring lead guitar comes in, I can trace every day of my fascination with the likes of Marillion back to that moment when I was 15 years old, listening to this on headphones. It’s a complex tune, but I also find it full of deep feeling and emotional power. If they’d given me nothing else but this, I still would have been a fan.

As I grew older, I realized what Peart’s true impact on my life was, beyond his incredible skill behind the drum kit. It was his absolute individualism, something that extends to Rush as a whole. Like all the musicians I admire most, Rush never played a note they didn’t believe, and never made a record for anyone but themselves. They’re a band who heard every criticism lobbed at them for 40 years and never changed or compromised. Peart’s lyrics are often about taking control of your own life, being your own person, and that’s the lesson I took from him and his bandmates. Peart was never anything but his own man.

I never did get to see Rush live, and it’s one of my great music fan regrets. I watched as the band slowed down after 1996, making music less frequently, and I knew my chance was dwindling, but I never got there. I know so many friends with stories of seeing the band live, of being gobsmacked by Peart’s technical skill and stamina – this is hard music to play for two and a half hours at a stretch – and I never collected one of my own. And now I never will.

Neil Peart retired from Rush in 2015, after one final tour. Their last album, 2012’s Clockwork Angels, feels like their last album – it’s a meaty, aggressive conceptual piece that sounds like they poured everything they had into it. I knew the decades of touring had taken their toll, and Neil wanted to spend time with his family. And after the tragedies that had befallen his life in the ‘90s, when he lost his partner and his daughter in the space of a year, who could blame him. He’d started over, fell in love again, and things were going well for him.

What I didn’t know was that Peart had contracted brain cancer, and though he fought it valiantly for more than three years, he succumbed to it one week ago today. He was only 67 years old. He leaves behind his wife and his 10-year-old daughter, and my thoughts are with them.

He also leaves behind a legacy like few others. His name stands tall with only a handful of rock drummers who have influenced damn near everyone playing today. Beyond just his technical skill, though, he carved out a 40-plus-year career doing exactly what he wanted to do, and success came organically. (Even the band’s multi-decade struggle to be recognized by the Rock Hall of Fame ended in their favor, without them having to change anything about themselves.) He set his own course, charted his own path, and made an indelible mark.

On behalf of 15-year-old me, curled up with my Walkman listening to “Available Light” for the 200th time, thank you, Neil. Rest in peace.

If you’re in the mood for a good piece on Neil’s life and career, I can recommend this one. 

* * * * *

After that, anything else I might have filled this first column of the year with would seem inconsequential, so I will hold off until next week. As I said, this isn’t how I wanted to start this final year of tm3am. Hopefully we can get back to business as usual in seven days.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Fifty Second Week
And Farewell to 2019

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.

Eluvium, Pianoworks.

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.

Hammock, Silencia.

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.

Tesla, Shock.

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.

So Don’t Stop Trying, Promise Me
The 2019 Top 10 List

I have a lot of thoughts about Star Wars.

I won’t go into them here, but suffice it to say that I truly hated The Rise of Skywalker, and the more I think about it the angrier and sadder I am about it. One of the reviews I read noted that the film was “made in bad faith,” and I think that hits at the center of my problems with it. The film was clearly designed as a repudiation of Rian Johnson and anyone who appreciated the directions he tried to take Star Wars, and with such petty and cowardly motivations at its center, it couldn’t help but fail. It was also lazy and stupid to boot.

I guess getting kicked in the face by Star Wars was something of a fitting end to a year I cannot wait to see the other side of. The music of 2019 was one of the few bright spots, getting me through more than one rough patch, so let’s concentrate on that, shall we? In fact, let’s celebrate the very best of the best of 2019, the music that stirred my soul even as the world outside was battering it.

As with most years in which the worthy musical selections were plentiful, the following list reflects my taste more than it would in a year with clear standouts. Check the lists around the internet and you’ll see no clear consensus for 2019. Of course, my own list has more than one entry on it that didn’t make anyone’s list, as far as I can see, which I’m used to. I’m surprised the album at the top didn’t get more traction, but that’s how it goes, I guess.

It’s also no surprise that this list is a little bleaker, a little sadder than others you may find. While some prefer to use happier music to set their moods (and certainly the album at number four this year helped me with that), I have always found honest sad music to be the best salve. Much of this list is about finding hope in dark places, about sinking below the surface and seeking out whatever light can break through.

In short, these are the songs that helped me get through 2019. Here we go.

#10. Coyote Kid, The Skeleton Man.

I admit some trepidation when I heard that Minneapolis favorite Marah in the Mainsail had changed their name to the more pedestrian Coyote Kid. Thankfully their big, wild sound hasn’t diminished in the slightest. The new name signals a shift in their storytelling – The Skeleton Man is the first chapter in a post-apocalyptic dystopian western full of new characters and twisty plot developments. The music still bristles with a go-for-broke energy. Like the best conceptual pieces, songs like “Strange Days” transcend their contexts to provide scream-along anthems for a year of confusion and discord. The Skeleton Man provides a clean slate for a band that feels like it’s just getting started. Listen here.

#9. Bat for Lashes, Lost Girls.

Speaking of transcending conceptual contexts, here is Natasha Khan’s brilliant tribute to the supernatural films of the 1980s. The title’s reference to The Lost Boys makes Khan’s inspiration clear, and she fully immerses herself here in the sounds of the era she’s celebrating. Lost Girls is heaven for fans of old-school synth-pop and Khan feels fully in her element in a way she hasn’t for a few records now. And this newfound comfort gives us wonderful songs like “The Hunger” and “Safe Tonight” and, finally, with “Mountains,” one of the year’s finest odes to loneliness and loss. Khan’s been great for a long time, and Lost Girls is one of her best.

#8. Over the Rhine, Love and Revelation.

Married couple Karin Bergquist and Linford Detwiler have been plying their trade for 30 years, and they still know how to open a doorway right to my heart. Love and Revelation is a brief record with a lot of magic to it. These are songs of fighting through isolation and sadness to find peace, and their simple settings keep the focus on Bergquist’s sublime voice. (I’m not sure why she’s not universally considered one of our finest singers, but in my house she is.) As if songs like “Given Road” and “Broken Angels” were not gorgeous enough, the pair offers up a perfect benediction with “May God Love You (Like You’ve Never Been Loved),” simply one of the most beautiful songs of grace I have ever heard. May they keep this up for another three decades.

#7. Peter Mulvey, There Is Another World.

Mulvey has always been a poet (despite his misgivings about poets in general), but never more so than here. Written during a harsh winter in a midwestern small town, There Is Another World provides sketches of isolation and natural beauty as Mulvey contemplates changing his life. These brief acoustic pieces rest in a complex soundscape that adds depth and dimension, and connects these songs into a single 33-minute thought. The result is the most transporting and affecting album of Mulvey’s career, one that sounds like 2019 in ways I cannot even describe.

#6. Bryan Scary, Birds.

I waited four years for progressive pop wunderkind Bryan Scary to finish Birds, and it was worth every second. As promised, this effort is a more folksy and less manic one, but that doesn’t mean the songs are any less brilliant. Scary draws on decades of folk-pop here, from Fairport Convention to 10cc to Supertramp, and each song feels like he labored on it for all four years. If you have even a passing interest in classic pop sounds, masterpieces like “Seagull” and “Quick, Wendy, Wake the Sparrow” will feel like someone speaking your secret language. This is an album that moves effortlessly from the down-home acoustics of “Royal Soil” to the absolute insanity of “Loon on the Lake,” and Scary makes it all look as natural as, well, birds flying.

#5. Coldplay, Everyday Life.

The more I listen to Everyday Life, the more I think it is Coldplay’s best album. It is certainly their most artistically restless, mixing together musicians and genres from across the world as a metaphorical statement about unity, and the band seems to have taken every detour possible away from the sound they are best known for. At first this record sounds scattered, like sixteen songs in search of a vision, but keep listening and it starts to make perfect sense. And then it starts to sound like magic. I love that Coldplay chooses to be this weird, to jump from the gospel of “Broken” to the jazz nightmare of “Arabesque” to the doo-wop of “Cry Cry Baby,” and then to sum it all up with a title track that rises above its simple lyrics to feel like an earnest cry for togetherness. I love this album, and it’s only this far down the list because the next four are so wonderful.

#4. Lizzo, Cuz I Love You.

We all needed some encouragement during 2019, and thank God, here was Lizzo preaching and living self-love and self-care with an exuberant joy and infectious confidence. This would all be enough to make me like and admire her, but she went and made one of the best pop records I’ve heard in years as well. Cuz I Love You is just a powerhouse, one great song after another come to lift your spirits. “Soulmate” was basically my jam for most of the year, and “Water Me” played backup. Virtually every song on Cuz I Love You bursts with melodic exuberance, powered by the irrepressible personality of Lizzo herself. She’s an absolute superstar, and her record is absolutely superb.

#3. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Ghosteen.

This one could not be more different from the album before it in this list. A 68-minute meditation on loss, Ghosteen finds Nick Cave working through the death of his teenage son, taking us on a journey of grief that is almost too much to bear. I cannot adequately describe what it is like to listen to this album straight through. It’s an emotionally devastating trip, one in which Cave finds his usual methods of storytelling out of his reach, unable to help him. And then he closes this album with a story, one about the omnipresence of loss, that shows him finding his footing again, however weakly. Ghosteen is a masterwork, one I cannot listen to very often, but one that speaks to me every time I do.

#2. Keane, Cause and Effect.

Keane’s long-awaited return was always high on my list of anticipated albums this year. What I didn’t expect was that their comeback album would be a sad yet hopeful song cycle about Tim Rice-Oxley’s divorce, one that dissects that ugly period in his life as openly and bluntly as Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story does. I was not expecting a Keane album to make me cry, or to hit me as fully and powerfully as this one did. These songs don’t rise with the same youthful fervor as Keane’s classic material, but they’re more thoughtful, more considered than any they’ve given us. The heart of the album lies in deeply autobiographical pieces like “Thread” and “I’m Not Leaving,” and Tom Chaplin sings his angelic heart out, telling his dear friend’s stories as if they were his own. Even the bonus track “New Golden Age” is a stunner, one of my favorite songs of the year. I don’t know what this means for Keane’s long-term future, but this album won my heart even more with each revisit. I hope they make more. I’m satisfied even if they don’t.

If you thought that was an idiosyncratic choice, my pick for the best album of 2019 will be a real surprise.

#1. Amanda Palmer, There Will Be No Intermission.

She could have called it There Will Be No Competition. I remain stunned and surprised that this record came and went with virtually no fanfare. To me it’s the most moving, extraordinary ride of the year. It takes 78 minutes to listen to this one, and getting from one end to the other is emotionally draining like few other records I know. It’s also beautifully uplifting in strange and perfect ways, confessional yet universal, tackling big topics and diving deep inside one woman’s experience. That Palmer wraps all of this together into a cohesive and beautiful whole is nothing short of artistic wizardry.

It’s a rare artist who can begin an album with ten minutes of herself at a piano and still draw you in effortlessly. “The Ride” is one of my favorite things from this year, and it tells you what kind of uncompromising journey you are in for. Palmer guides you through a wildly produced alarm bell song about global warming (“Drowning in the Sound”), a heartfelt reflection on a beloved author and her impact (“Judy Blume”), a long, ukulele-fueled, anguished cry for grace (“Bigger on the Inside”), and a stunning story-song about her failures as a parent and how she takes strength from them (“A Mother’s Confession”). Along the way she gives us “Voicemail for Jill,” the most empathetic song about abortion I have ever encountered.

And through it all she looks around at this broken, hateful, pain-filled world and she tells us what she sees. It’s not always easy to hear it, from the sinking feeling of permanent loss detailed in “The Thing About Things” to the boy who writes her after his rape in “Bigger on the Inside.” That boy asks her how she keeps fighting, and I think much of There Will Be No Intermission is her answer. The hope here is hard-won, because the agony is unflinching. But it’s love and empathy and the belief that we are all struggling, and we are all worthy. That’s what this album is about.

This record also revels in the artistic freedom that only crowdfunding can offer someone like Palmer. No label would have released this as is, and any tampering with it would have sapped some of its magic away. Every time I have listened to There Will Be No Intermission, I have come away grateful that it exists in all its messy glory, exactly the way its author intended. It’s a perfectly imperfect thing, a hard and incisive listen, an album that thrilled and moved and exhausted me like no other this year. It is exactly the right one to represent 2019 for me, exactly the right one to sit atop this list. I love it dearly, and I couldn’t imagine this year without it.

That’ll do, pig. Next week is Fifty Second Week, and then I’m taking at least a week off as we head into 2020. Have a wonderful holiday, everyone, and thank you for reading.

See you in line Tuesday morning… and to all a good night.

Also-Rans and Never-Weres
Great Albums That Didn't Quite Make the Top 10 List

By the time we reconvene on Christmas Eve, I will have seen The Rise of Skywalker.

Oddly, I don’t feel much about it at all. I’m marginally excited, mainly because I expect this thing will look and sound like Star Wars, and I always appreciate that. I would never pass up the chance to hear John Williams’ final Star Wars score, either. But I don’t care about it the same way I cared about the original trilogy, or even the prequels. The story of Star Wars was complete for me in 2005, and these bonus films haven’t filled me with the same joy.

That said, I did adore The Last Jedi for actually saying something new with Star Wars. It was a film that took aim at the things holding the franchise back – the Skywalker family, the Jedi order, the fans of around my age who refuse to let Star Wars grow. So of course it was roundly hated, and every early notice I have seen of this ninth and final film tells me that it veers right back to safe nostalgia, trampling the lessons of The Last Jedi as it goes. But we will see.

More on that next week, I expect. We’re not here to talk Star Wars, we’re here to talk about the end of 2019. I’m writing this, as usual, from my mother’s home in Massachusetts on my extended holiday break, and I’m enjoying the opportunity to take stock of the year. Personally, it was a terrible one, and I end it a lot less happy than I have been in a long time. But thankfully the music of 2019 was pretty damn good, and that’s what we come to praise, not bury, this week.

As longtime readers know, I compile a top 10 list every year, and I adhere to a few rules when I do it. Only new full-length studio albums consisting of mostly new material released between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31 are eligible. That means no live albums, no greatest-hits collections, no covers records, no albums of re-recordings and no reissues are eligible. Which means there are plenty of pretty splendid releases each year that are disqualified out of the gate.

I’d only like to mention a few of those this year, but there were many. Perhaps the most painful omission for me is With Friends from the Orchestra, the 19th Marillion album. It cannot appear in the top 10 list because it’s a revisit – the band re-recorded nine of its best songs with strings and horns. But I wish I could include it, because this album brought a new dimension to their work, even for me as a longtime fan. Including both “This Strange Engine” and “Ocean Cloud” (totaling 34 minutes between them) was a gift, and I love all of these new versions at least as much as their original counterparts, and some of them more.

I also wish I could laud Interpreting the Masters Vol. 2 by the Bird and the Bee as one of the year’s best. It’s a wild left turn for this synth-pop duo, taking on the early Van Halen oeuvre, and they reinvent these songs as if it were as easy as breathing. Their pulsing take on “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love” is one of the coolest things I heard this year, and it’s just one highlight on a record full of them. It’s so much fun.

It would be lovely to include Marc Cohn and the Blind Boys of Alabama on the top 10 list. I listened to Work to Do more than almost anything else this year. It’s an absolute delight. It’s also three new songs and seven live recordings, so I couldn’t make it fit the rules. But trust me that this thing is wonderful, particularly the long and gorgeous take on “Silver Thunderbird.” I deeply hope this record and tour has revitalized Cohn and that we hear from him again very soon.

This was also a tremendous year for reissue box sets, and I only want to mention a couple. I will probably delve further into the Frank Zappa estate’s amazing year, but there were four (count them – four) killer sets from Zappa this year, including the new Hot Rats Sessions six-CD monster that hits next week. All told we got more than 18 hours of archival Zappa goodness in 2019, and I very much enjoyed diving through it all.

But the standout has to be Prince, whose estate released what I hope is the first in a comprehensive set of boxes of classic material. This one celebrates his 1982 masterwork 1999 with a remastered version of the album, two discs of unheard rarities, a disc of alternate versions and two full live shows. This is the way it should be done, and while I wonder whether Prince would have wanted us to hear most of this, I’m happy to have it. This set is revelatory, and hopefully serves as the blueprint (purpleprint?) for future reissues.

Which brings us to the also-rans, the records that didn’t quite make the top 10. I have quite a few this time – since there was such a bounty this year, the final 10 selections reflect my personal taste a lot more than in years with fewer choices. That means your favorite of the year might have ended up here, in the runners-up list, but that’s OK. I wouldn’t quibble with anyone who claims any of the below as favorites. My list is just my favorites. Your mileage may vary.

Anyway, let’s begin. BT is another artist who had a hell of a year, giving us three new studio albums. I’ve only heard two of them, since the third comes out next week. But of the two, his collaboration with singer Christian Burns as All Hail the Silence knocked me out. This is a straight-up synth-pop homage to Depeche Mode and Erasure, and it’s an absolute delight. “English Town” is one of my favorite things of the year, and I remain grateful that I was turned on to BT back in the ‘90s. He’s been a fun artist to watch.

Jenny Lewis made a swell new solo record with On the Line, tackling some dark material with bright melodies. Same can be said of both halves of The Civil Wars, John Paul White and Joy Williams, who impressed on their respective solo albums. Joe Jackson returned with one of his very best, a proggy pop monster called Fool, which shows that this cranky old man still has it even after 40 years in the business.

I owe Jeremy Krommendyk for getting me to listen to French metal masters Alcest – their new one, Spiritual Instinct, is a beast, but a fragile and beautiful one. On the other end of the spectrum (though not really) is ambient duo Hammock, who completed their recent trilogy with the peaceful, beautiful Silencia. These two records feel like different sides of the same coin, both bands interested in creating the most gorgeous music they can, in their own ways.

And then there’s Devin Townsend, who has been an under-the-radar genius for decades now. He seemed to take a leap forward with Empath, a record that threw all of his many genre experiments and influences into a blender and presented the mixture without concession or apology. It’s heavy, it’s proggy, it’s quirky, it flies by without giving you a moment to catch your breath. It’s the ultimate Devin Townsend album, and it came close to the list this year.

But it didn’t quite get there. And neither did these last six selections, which I would call the number elevens. In an alternate universe quite like this one, any of these records could be on the list proper. I love all of these records, and if you want to argue for their inclusion, I would not put up a fight.

In no particular order, then. Brittany Howard took a step forward out of Alabama Shakes to make a strange and glorious solo record called Jaime. Virtually none of it sounds like what you’d expect from Howard, and that makes me excited for her future efforts. David Mead’s Cobra Pumps sounds exactly like you’d expect from him – it’s ten short, rocking, immaculately crafted pop tunes, delivered with style.

English band Foals hit us with a double album in two parts, called Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost. With a more clockwork first half and a more live-band, raucous second half, Foals showed off all sides of their math-y sound to great effect. Fellow Brits Elbow returned with one of their very best records, Giants of All Sizes, and while there’s nothing surprising here, it’s all splendid stuff.

One of my favorite returns of the year was Pedro the Lion, roaring back after ten years of leader David Bazan’s solo career. Phoenix is about the titular city, but also about rising from the ashes, and it’s a well-considered return to a sound and a subject matter I thought he’d left behind. And finally, there is Leonard Cohen, whose first posthumous album, Thanks for the Dance, overcomes the odds to feel like a perfect capper to an extraordinary career.

That’s what I have for you. Next week we’ll dive into the 2019 top 10 list, and I’ll probably have some words about Star Wars. Until then, I plan on enjoying my vacation. Here’s hoping you all get some well-deserved time off with family and friends. Talk to you on Christmas Eve.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Tis the Season
New Holiday Songs for the End of the Year

It’s beginning to look a lot like… well, autumn, to be honest.

But we’re only two weeks away from Christmas, which means this year is racing to a close. As you may know, I have a personal philosophy about Christmas music – that it should only be played between the day after Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. Thanksgiving was 12 days ago, and it’s been non-stop holiday joy around Casa de Salles. I have a lot of perennial favorites, and I’ve been joyously cycling through them.

I also had the thrill of seeing Over the Rhine’s Christmas show this year in an intimate venue in Chicago, and that was wonderful. The set was made up of songs from the band’s three holiday records, and some of the best tunes from their new record, Love and Revelation. Linford Detwiler joked during the show that they’d invented a new genre: the reality Christmas song. And it’s true. After a difficult and painful year, fake cheer would not have gone down quite as well as these hard-won tales of hope peeking through the darkness. It was exactly the mood I needed.

That’s not to say that the holly jolly tunes aren’t working for me this year. But I’ve had to rely on my old standbys, because 2019 just didn’t come through with the new Christmas albums. That’s not to say there haven’t been any – we wouldn’t be here discussing it if there were none – but they are few. In fact, for new Christmas records that I added to my collection this year, there are only two. (No, I didn’t buy John Legend’s record again just to get the newly updated “Baby It’s Cold Outside.”)

But the two I bought are great, so let’s talk about them. First is Sara Groves, one of my favorite singer/songwriters. I rarely think of her when listing my favorites, but I’ve never heard anything from her that I haven’t loved. That includes her previous Christmas album, the glorious O Holy Night, from 2008. That album has been such a part of my Christmases for so many years that I almost didn’t want a follow-up, for fear of disappointment.

I shouldn’t have worried. Groves is just delightful, and her second Christmas album, Joy of Every Longing Heart, is gorgeous. Its seven carols and two originals are all impeccably arranged, and Groves’ warm voice still feels like an old friend. She rewrites the melody of “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” a bold move in any case, but doubly so with one of my favorite carols. Except she nails it, giving this most lovely of laments a new spin that actually works. She sticks close to the originals otherwise, mixing the traditional (“Come Thou Long Expected Jesus”) with the whimsical (“Winter Wonderland”).

And there at track five, she gives us a Sara Groves classic in the form of “We Wait,” a superb cry out into the darkness with a clever piano figure and a sweet chorus. Her other original, “Just Like They Said,” is similarly lovely, a first-person account of the birth of Jesus from a forgotten bystander. That’s one thing Groves does very well: she finds a person who hasn’t been heard and gives that person a voice. Joy of Every Longing Heart is missing a novelty tune as great as “Toy Packaging,” but otherwise is a terrific second Christmas record from a tremendous talent.

Eric Owyoung also has a history of Christmas music. His one-man project, Future of Forestry, issued three EPs in a series called Advent between 2010 and 2013, and they’re terrific. Owyoung plays epic pop music and sings it with an expansive voice. His work is heavily orchestrated, soaring, room-filling stuff, and his fourth Christmas record, Light Has Come, is no exception.

This is basically a fourth volume in the Advent series in all but name. It contains four originals and three carols, all of which are performed in classic Future of Forestry style. There’s a fragile beauty to these songs, no matter how big the arrangements get. Owyoung’s own songs here are sweet and poppy – “We Are Home” is a particularly pretty one, though the title track is likely my favorite.

The carols are where my heart lies, though. Owyoung also does “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” and it’s great, but “I Wonder as I Wander” surpasses it. I’ve always loved this song, and Owyoung’s version of it gives me goosebumps. Future of Forestry is independent and obscure, and Owyoung deserves a wider audience. Check him out at www.futureofforestry.com.

And that’s it. Well, not quite. I did buy one other holiday record, but it celebrates a different holiday. I don’t know where I first heard about Hanukkah+, but I’m glad I did. This is a collection of Jewish artists singing mostly original songs about Hanukkah, and it’s a total delight. Much of this is delivered with a wry sense of humor, as evidenced by the first two tracks: Jack Black bellowing out the traditional “Oh Hanukkah” and Adam Green (of the Moldy Peaches) smirking his way through “Dreidels of Fire,” a song that offers up the central miracle of Hanukkah with a chuckle: “How the hell do you explain that shizz?”

That’s not to say this record is not a serious reflection. Haim does a swell job with Leonard Cohen’s immortal “If It Be Your Will,” for instance, and Craig Wedren, formally of Shudder to Think, closes things out beautifully with his own “Sanctuary.” Others split the difference: the Flaming Lips and Loudon Wainwright III give us songs that are right in line with their catalogs, and the Watkins Family Hour (here just Sean and Sara Watkins) zip through a fun instrumental called “Hanukkah Dance.”

Hanukkah+ is a lot of fun, and even though I am sure there are jokes I don’t get, I’m drawn in by the humor and the genuine affection these artists have for their tradition. I’m more than happy to add this collection to my holiday listening. It’s helped me enjoy the end of what has been a downer of a year. May your holidays be bright, whatever your tradition, and may the music of the season help you find light in the darkness.

Next week, the honorables and also-rans from the year.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The Last Gasp of 2019
Two Big Albums Mark the End of our New Music Year

2019 is officially out of gas.

I don’t mean that as a criticism in any way. Every year runs out of gas around this time, when it comes to new music. We’ve seen the last big new music Friday of the year, and it’s one I’d been anticipating for some time. Last week I chose to concentrate on Coldplay, but this week – my last straight-up review column of 2019 – will take a look at the other big ones from Nov. 22.

But here’s a quick look at what else to expect through the end of the year. Last week gave us a live version of The Soft Bulletin from the Flaming Lips, and a massive re-release box set for Prince’s brilliant 1999 album. (I’ll be digging into this over the coming days.) This week will see the release of The Decalogue, a piano piece by Sufjan Stevens performed by Timo Andres, as well as the new album from one half of The Who. And December 13 will bring us the debut from Canadian supergroup Anyway Gang and a live record from Gary Numan. All interesting, but nothing that I expect to change the shape of the year.

The two I have on tap this week were bright spots in my new release calendar, though, records that could have rewritten my top 10 list. This is always a possibility this far into the year, and given how much enjoyment I am getting out of (and how many words I spent on) the new Coldplay record, you can imagine that this is a case in point. Could this happen again, this late into the year?

Enough preamble for you? Fair enough. The first of our contestants this week is Beck, whose new Hyperspace is his 14th album. Hands up if you heard “Loser” in 1994 and thought, “Now there’s a guy who will stick around for 25 years and one day have 14 albums to his name.” I certainly didn’t, but Beck Hansen has proven himself a remarkably versatile and interesting artist. His catalog has a number of ups and downs, as you’d expect from someone who takes as many risks as he does, but he’s been on a hot streak lately with the gorgeous Morning Phase and Colors, his more mature take on “party Beck.”

I wish I could say that Hyperspace keeps that streak alive, but it’s pretty forgettable, alas. This is, for some reason, Beck’s radio pop album, full of pretty average programmed beats and autotuned vocals and cliched lyrics. I tried to make a case that Beck is satirizing this style, the way he took on sex-funk on Midnite Vultures, but I can’t. This is just a boring stab at music that never sounds like a good fit for him.

Hyperspace was largely produced by Pharrell Williams, and it’s tempting to lay the blame at his feet. The half-hearted hip-hop of “Chemical,” for instance, sounds like something Williams would have conjured up for someone more steeped in this genre, and Beck gamely takes it on, but never seems comfortable. But then, I think the same about “See Through,” a truly awful bit of pseudo-club-soul, and that one’s produced by Greg Kurstin.

No, I think this is mainly Beck’s doing – he’s taking another risky step sideways, and this one didn’t quite pay off. There are certainly songs I like, most notably “Saw Lightning,” which picks up the pace like nothing else here. The closing mini-epic “Everlasting Nothing” is pretty decent folksy Beck too, although by that point I have been ready to turn this off, every time. I know in a year or two he’ll be back with something that sounds nothing like this, and hopefully that one will work better for me. As it is, I am putting Hyperspace on the “interesting failures” pile.

I was a lot more worried about our other big-deal release of the week, Leonard Cohen’s Thanks for the Dance. Cohen was, to me, one of the finest and most compelling songwriters who ever lived, and I’m still mourning him even though he died three years ago. The final album of his life, You Want It Darker, came out 19 days before his death, and it was the perfect capstone to a peerless catalog. The songs on Darker found Cohen facing death without much hope for something better on the other side, and it was unflinching and powerful stuff.

Did we need another album after that one? Before I heard Thanks for the Dance, I would have said no. I’m always wary of these posthumous affairs – I feel like if Cohen wanted us to hear this, or to consider this part of his oeuvre, he probably would have said so. I braced myself for a collection of scraps, of recorded conversations set to music, of unfortunate outtakes that only serve to diminish Cohen’s legacy. I am overjoyed to report that Thanks for the Dance is none of those things. It’s quite wonderful, and I hesitate to find out more about how it was made, lest its spell be broken.

Dance was produced by Cohen’s son Adam, and he enlisted an army of brilliant musicians, including Beck, Daniel Lanois, Patrick Leonard, Matt Chamberlain and Damien Rice to create the musical accompaniment. Cohen is only credited with lyrics here (except on “The Hills,” which he wrote in its entirety), which gives the impression that these tracks were recorded as poems, and Cohen’s low, rumbly voice sticks mainly to speak-singing here, as he’s done for some time.

And man, it’s so good to hear that voice again. It sounds like truth to me, like wisdom, especially in these later albums where he is gazing into the abyss and reporting back to us what he sees. All of these lyrics fit in nicely with his usual themes, and none of them seem unfinished to me. (Maybe “Puppets,” the one here that seems a little facile.) It’s as dark as midnight, and that tone is set by the first track, “Happens to the Heart.” By the time it ends with this couplet – “I was handy with a rifle, my father’s 303, I fought for something final, not the right to disagree” – you’re swept up in Cohen’s imagery, and his despair.

The music here is perfect. I feared a tendency to over-egg these pieces, to try for larger orchestration in an attempt to make them more impactful. I shouldn’t have worried. Adam Cohen has a lot of experience working with his father’s words, and he has crafted a subtle, at times nearly inaudible, bed for them to lie on. The erotic “The Night of Santiago” is beautiful, ten musicians coming together to make something so quiet, so focused on the lyric, that I can imagine Leonard nodding in approval. That’s the feeling throughout, that the lyric is the most important thing here – when Sharon Robinson adds her voice to “It’s Torn,” she slips into the background, supporting Cohen beautifully.

My fears, it seems, were unwarranted.Thanks for the Dance is a lovely final bow from Cohen, aided by a team of artists who all clearly revere him and his work. The closing track, “Listen to the Hummingbird,” could not be more sublime: “Listen to the hummingbird whose wings you cannot see, listen to the hummingbird, don’t listen to me,” Cohen says as a benediction, and I have no trouble imagining him sanctioning these as his final words. It’s just the touch of spirituality and humor that made him a legend. I’m grateful for one last chance to hear from him, and I’m afraid I’ll be disobeying his final exhortation as often as I can.

That about wraps it up for 2019, and my schedule for the final four weeks is as follows. On Dec. 10 I’ll dig into some Christmas music from the year, on Dec. 17 I’ll list my honorable mentions and ineligible-but-worthy releases, and on Christmas Eve I will post my top 10 list. That leaves New Year’s Eve for Fifty Second Week, and then we’re into 2020. Thanks to all who have come with me on this journey. Excited to dive into year twenty.

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See you in line Tuesday morning.