All posts by Andre Salles

A Good Start
2019 Kicks Off With a Winning Week

I said last week that I would only write about new music if I truly enjoyed it. I am happy to report that I have thoroughly enjoyed 2019 so far.

We’ve just had the first major new music Friday of the year, and it was an extraordinary one. I bought eleven new albums, and I’m still sifting through them, listening whenever I have time. Still on my docket are new ones from Sharon Van Etten, Juliana Hatfield and James Blake. I am right now actually enjoying Guster’s Look Alive. It’s the album they have been moving toward for more than a decade now, and while it is nothing like the music I most love from them, it’s the first one since their directional shift to move me in any way. So that’s good.

Prioritizing is a difficult thing for me, and when I get a slew of new music like this, I often don’t know what to listen to first. I usually let my gut guide me on that one, figuring out on the fly which records I am most interested in. This time I chose two from long-running artists that have meant a lot to me. Even so, I’m not sure I was ready for how much Pedro the Lion’s Phoenix affected me. I’ve heard it four times now, and each time I’m drawn in, hearing new emotional layers.

Pedro the Lion is the full-band project of David Bazan, a songwriter I have adored for many years. Bazan was one of the first artists I followed through spiritual deconstruction – his early Pedro material is drenched in his faith, but as he started asking questions, he found the bottom of that faith falling out from beneath him. He detailed this struggle in raw, searing terms on his first solo album, the amazing Curse Your Branches, and has kept on detailing it through a series of increasingly insular records. His songs and his voice have remained magnificent, but his electronic sound has sealed him in.

Which is one reason it’s so exhilarating to hear him reignite Pedro with new players Sean Lane and Erik Walters. Bazan plays bass in this new incarnation, with Walters providing most of the bright, gorgeous guitar tones on Phoenix. This is a collaborative project, his new players pulling the life and soul out of these new songs. They simply explode from the speakers in a way Bazan’s work hasn’t for some time. (I’m not forgetting about Lo Tom, his delightful side project with Jason Martin and TW Walsh, and I hope we get more of that someday too.)

Phoenix is the perfect title for an album that resurrects a project many had written off for dead – this is the first album under that name in 15 years – and I’m sure Bazan intended the name in that sense, but the more grounded explanation is that these songs draw heavily on Bazan’s childhood in Phoenix for inspiration. The record opens with “Yellow Bike,” a paean to childhood that contains a lifetime of ache in one succinct line: “My kingdom for someone to ride with.”

“Model Homes” uses a family trip to see houses they could not afford as a metaphor for Bazan’s eternal hope for something better. “Circle K” turns a childhood story of spending all of his savings on nothing of value into a dark lament. “Quietest Friend” tells a tale of a 30-year-old regret, and gets fantastically meta by the end: “We could write me some reminders, I’d memorize them, I could sing them to myself and whoever’s listening, I could put them on a record about my hometown, sitting here with pen and paper, I’m listening now…” The amazing “My Phoenix” finds the adult Bazan returning to his home town to take stock. It’s one of the best songs Bazan has ever written.

Song by song, these are wonderful little things, but together they have a cumulative effect I didn’t expect. Phoenix as an album is about trying to recapture something that seems ephemeral. Bazan really did make a deeply personal trip back to Phoenix during what he acknowledges as his lowest point in 2016, and these songs find him searching his past for something lost. I will admit that when closer “Leaving the Valley” ends with a reconsideration of a verse from “Hard to Be,” off of Curse Your Branches, I usually tear up: “If I swung my tassel to the left side of my cap, after graduation will there be no going back?”

It’s not that I don’t expect a thoughtful songwriter like Bazan to put his previous conclusions through new prisms. It’s just that Phoenixis such an emotional journey, and its ending the perfect arrival point. It’s hard for me to say whether this is my favorite Pedro the Lion album, because there is so much competition. But it’s my favorite right now, and each time I listen I hold it closer.

* * * * *

I don’t have a favorite Joe Jackson album, but that’s simply because his work has been all over the map since day one. Look Sharp is probably my favorite snarky new-wave Joe Jackson album, while Night and Day is probably my favorite guitar-free keyboard panorama Joe Jackson album and Rain is my favorite piano trio Joe Jackson album and Night Music is my favorite chamber-pop Joe Jackson album, and on and on. He has no signature sound, and his disparate catalog is only bound together by his voice and his famously grouchy lyrics.

Because make no mistake, Joe Jackson has been a grumpy old man since he was an infant, and that carries through on his splendid 20th album, Fool. This record comes four years after Fast Forward, a meticulous and varied piece of work recorded in four cities with four different bands. Fool, created quickly with the Fast Forward touring band, is a tighter and more consistent record – these eight songs clearly belong together, and all sound of a piece.

They also sound like a live band finding a groove and locking in. Longtime bassist Graham Maby anchors this ensemble – he’s one of the most underrated players around, having spent the last four decades providing the backbone of every Jackson record. Guitarist Teddy Kumpel and drummer Doug Yeowell round things out, with Joe on the piano as always. The sound is rich and alive, and the songs match it. Lead single “Fabulously Absolute” is one of Joe’s most convincing rock rave-ups in years, the title track is a wild journey through half a dozen styles, and “Strange Land” is one of my favorite late-career Joe Jackson ballads.

That one works as a mission statement, lyrically speaking, as well as any of them. Jackson spends much of Fool the way he’s spent wide swaths of his career: looking around at the world in bewilderment, and occasionally in disgust. “Is this a strange land, or am I the stranger,” he asks, feeling isolated by a humanity he doesn’t recognize. “Big Black Cloud” is a spiritual sequel to Night and Day’s “Cancer,” hitting back at a world in which everything will kill you. (He even includes a reference to 9/11, to drive the point home.) “Fabulously Absolute” is an angry song about how we box people into their worst characteristics and judge them for it, delivered with Joe’s trademark lack of subtlety: “I’m just somebody to ignore, someone who doesn’t know the score, or maybe blinded by the light, ‘cause I’m a filthy troglodyte…”

Given all that, it’s a wonder that Fool ends on such a positive note. I really love the second half of this album, particularly the what-the-hell title track (which, as the liner notes suggest, “may contain traces of Twelfth Night and King Lear) and the gorgeous “32 Kisses,” a song of regret and gratitude. The album concludes with the pretty, lounge-y “Alchemy,” in which Joe points to a bewildering world with a newfound sense of wonder. Jackson is 64 years old now, and you never know whether you’re hearing an artist’s final work, so the fact that this one ends on such a high fills me with joy.

I’m not sure Joe Jackson has ever wanted to fill me with joy, but there it is. Aside from that ill-advised Duke Ellington tribute-slash-mess from a few years ago, Joe Jackson has been on a serious roll for nearly two decades now, and Fool continues the streak. Jackson’s never quite gotten his due as a songwriter and a player, existing in the margins for much of his career, but the bright side there is that he’s been able to do exactly what he wants, as often as he wants. Despite what I said above, I hope he has another 20 albums in him, and I hope they’re all as good as Fool.

OK, next week, more from this week’s bounty. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

19 Reasons to Love 2019
Why This Will Be the Best Year Ever

We now return to our regularly scheduled program.

Hello! I’m back, here with another year of this silly music column. I must, on some level, enjoy writing it, since I keep refusing to take that end-of-the-year opportunity to just stop. I don’t know how long I’m going to keep tm3am going, but at least I can say that 2018 is not going to be its last year. I have a couple long-term goals, like seeing this column through to its 20th anniversary on Nov. 29, 2020 and outlasting Paul Dailing by writing at least 1,002 of these things, so onward we go.

I’m making that sound a lot more mercenary and defeatist than I feel. In truth I’ve found the weekly deadline a difficult thing to meet over the past couple years, and have often sat down to write tm3am and found I have no energy for it. Part of it has been the frankly exhausting world we live in now, with each week bringing new things to be outraged or conflicted about. Part of it was the paltry musical offerings of last year, which brought us only one great album (and a bunch of good ones, to be fair).

But part of it is my need to recapture the reason I wanted to write this column in the first place. It’s meant to be a chronicle of the joy of being an obsessive music fan, and I need it to be more about the joyous part. So this year I may not simply write about whatever is out in record stores in a given week. Often these aren’t the records bringing me joy, and I’d like this column to reflect what I am actually enjoying listening to.

That’s not to say I won’t be focusing on new music when it moves me. In fact, most of the below reasons to love 2019 are confirmed new releases, and the others are new release rumors I am jazzed about. New music is in my blood, and this year already looks like it’s going to be better than the last. (“And it’s one more day up in the canyons…”) What follows is in no way comprehensive – there are new things coming from Solange and the Raconteurs and others that didn’t make the list, but that I am aware of. These are just the ones I’m most excited about.

Without further ado, here are 19 reasons to love 2019:

  1. Pedro the Lion, Phoenix (Jan. 18)

We’ll start with one I’ve heard already, thanks to NPR’s First Listen feature. David Bazan has convened his band for the first time in 15 years to chronicle tales of his childhood in Phoenix, Arizona, and the result is gorgeous. I’ll likely have more to say about this next week, but for now I’ll just say that there’s a huge difference between Bazan on his own and Bazan with the band, and this album exemplifies it. It’s a lovely thing.

  1. Joe Jackson, Fool (Jan. 18)

Yet another of this week’s new records. (It’s a good week – Alice Merton, Sharon Van Etten, Juliana Hatfield and Guster are all returning, as is the next artist on this list.) Joe Jackson has been on a serious upswing lately – he continues to be an acerbic lyricist and a swell melodicist, having grown into his grumpy old man persona nicely, and what I’ve heard of Fool continues the streak.

  1. James Blake, Assume Form (Jan. 18)

The last one I’ll mention from this week. Blake’s fourth album was just announced a few days ago, and already I’m excited. There’s no one like him, and even if he just continues doing what he’s always done – minimal electronic soundscapes buoyed by his ethereal, elastic voice – Assume Form will be worth hearing. I’m hopeful that he will branch out a little, and guest spots from Moses Sumney and Andre 3000 bode well.

  1. Swervedriver, Future Ruins (Jan. 25)

I remain thankful and amazed by the shoegaze revival that continues apace. Sure, we’re still waiting for another My Bloody Valentine record, but new albums from stalwarts like Slowdive and Lush, along with new bands like Teenage Wrist, have kept the dream alive. Swervedriver’s reunion album, 2015’s I Wasn’t Born to Lose You, was fantastic, and they’re cementing that reunion with a new set of songs next week.

  1. David Mead, Cobra Pumps (Jan. 29)

The last January album I will mention is also the one I am most excited for. David Mead is a songwriter’s songwriter and an incredible singer, and he’s never quite gotten his due. His last album, 2011’s Dudes, was full of snarky pop wonderment, and Cobra Pumps looks to be the same. It’s been too long since we last heard Mead’s dulcet tones, and I’m ready.

  1. All Hail the Silence, Daggers (Feb. 8)

Technically this is another January record, as it will be available to pre-orderers on Jan. 25, but it will be in stores two weeks later. This is the long-awaited double-disc debut album from BT’s ‘80s pop collaboration with singer Christian Burns, and everything I’ve heard from this has thrilled me. AHTS’ songs have a Depeche Mode meets Yazoo feel to them, and Burns is a terrific singer for this style. Very excited.

  1. Copeland, Blushing (Feb. 15)

Five years ago, Aaron Marsh and his band put out Ixora, a beautiful experiment in lush songwriting and production. Ixora was actually three albums (Ixora, its companion Twin, and the third album that appeared when you played both together in sync), and it brought Copeland into this new realm of studio wizardry and complex arrangements.Blushing is all on one disc, but from the three singles it sounds like another step into mind-bending territory for this band.

  1. Peter Mulvey, There Is Another World (Feb. 15)

I’ve been a Peter Mulvey fan since the ‘90s, and even I was blown away by Are You Listening, his first record for Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records. There Is Another World evidently came quickly, and is a reaction to the state of the country and the world. If anyone can find the dark poetry at the heart of our current malaise, it’s Peter Mulvey, and I’m very much looking forward to hearing what he has come up with.

  1. Amanda Palmer, There Will Be No Intermission (March 8)

My guess is that no one else will craft a reaction to the world quite as powerful as Amanda Palmer has on There Will Be No Intermission. This is reportedly a 78-minute monster, full of painful stories and difficult topics and righteous anger. Palmer has been charting her own course through Patreon for years now, and this is her first album created with no limitations, with every element in her control. I can’t say I expect to enjoy it, but I do expect to be moved and challenged by it. And that’s what art is for.

  1. Esperanza Spalding, 12 Little Spells (March 29)

Technically, Esperanza’s seventh album is out already – it was released song by song last year on YouTube and streaming services. But I’m old-fashioned, so I’m holding out for the CD, which will actually contain 16 little spells. Esperanza Spalding is one of the few artists out there now who deserves to be called a genius, and I’m so in for anything she does. Evidently this will be her last project in the album format, and I’m interested to see where she goes next.

  1. Three new albums from Ryan Adams (first one April 19, other release dates TBD)

The last time Ryan Adams released three albums in one year, it was 2005 and the results were pretty fantastic. (Cold Roses, Jacksonville City Nights and 29.) He’s promised to do the same in 2019, and the first of those three, Big Colors, is set for April 19. The second will be called Wednesdays, and that’s all we know right now. Adams hasn’t been on quite the same hot streak lately that he was in 2005, but he’s still one of the best, and these should all be worth hearing.

  1. Jonathan Coulton, Some Guys (April)

Internet superstar Jonathan Coulton made one of the best albums of 2017 with Solid State. He’s following it up with a bizarre project: an album of note-for-note covers of sensitive soft-rock hits of the ‘70s. You know the type – “Baker Street” and “How Deep is Your Love” and “On and On” and “Easy.” I just happen to love all of those songs. Coulton launched a stunningly successful Kickstarter for this record, and is pitching it as a blow against the patriarchy. But even if you just think of it as a bunch of lovely songs, this’ll be worth it.

  1. Devin Townsend, Empath

Now we’re into the albums I know are coming, but have no set release date. Devin Townsend remains one of the most idiosyncratic and remarkable musicians working, and over the past couple years he’s taken some victory laps, playing old albums live and putting his long-running Devin Townsend Project to bed. Empath is the first of four (I think) records he’s working on, and the opening salvo of his new direction. I’ll follow him anywhere, so I’m psyched, of course.

  1. Derek Webb, Targets

Derek Webb made the best album of 2017 with Fingers Crossed, a stark and devastating chronicle of his twin divorces from his wife and from God. He’s promised a return to the pop-rock he does so well on Targets, and I’m sure we will get more of his honest perspective on what it means to leave the life you thought you knew behind. Webb is self-releasing this album, and we’re not sure when, but I will be first in line to buy one.

  1. A new Sleater-Kinney album produced by St. Vincent

I don’t know that I need to say anything else here, right? There’s a new Sleater-Kinney album coming, and the band has been working with St. Vincent in the producer’s chair. If that sentence does nothing for you, I don’t know what to say.

  1. Fish, Weltschmertz

Thirty years after leaving Marillion to launch his solo career, Scottish singer Fish will close it out with what he has announced will be a double album. Fish’s solo work has been spotty, but not lately – his last four albums have been wonderful, and the three songs he’s released from this final one are even better. Expect long, proggy poems and some dark observations from a man who has seen it all. I’m looking forward to the record, but not to bidding Fish farewell as a recording artist. Should be a bittersweet listen.

  1. New Celldweller, Circle of Dust and Scandroid albums

The mad professor known as Klayton has so many musical personas that it’s sometimes difficult to keep up with them all. This year will definitely see a new one from his synthwave project Scandroid, called The Darkness and the Light, but we should also hear new things from his industrial metal band Circle of Dust and his genre-defying Celldweller identity. Keeping up with Klayton is hard, but very worth it.

  1. A new Tool album

I know, it feels like a pipe dream, but the rumblings are louder than ever that we might get Tool’s first record in 13 years sometime in 2019. We’re going on 30 years of this band’s existence and this will be only their fifth album. I do imagine that their complex metal sculptures take time to build, but I also hope that whatever new record they come up with won’t crumple under the weight of expectations. (See Maynard James Keenan’s other band, A Perfect Circle, for exhibit A.)

  1. Something from The Dear Hunter

And finally, an entry for which I have no evidence whatsoever, except that I really want something new from Casey Crescenzo and company. Their Acts sequence remains one of the finest musical achievements of the past 15 years, and while I’m sure we won’t get the climactic Act VI anytime soon, I’m here for anything Crescenzo wants to give us. And hey, if he wants to surprise us with Act VI, I won’t complain.

As I said, this list is in no way comprehensive. But it does represent my hope for a really strong year of music, and I’ll be here chronicling my experience navigating through it. Thanks to everyone who reads this little endeavor of mine. Year Nineteen, here we go.

Next week, Pedro and Jackson and maybe some others. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Fifty Second Week
And Farewell to 2018

This is Fifty Second Week.

It’s also Christmas Day. I hope you’re all having a wonderful time with family and friends, and enjoying some Christmas music. I can’t predict the future (I’m writing this a week in advance), but I’m pretty sure I’m doing the same thing right now. Perhaps in an ugly sweater. I’m on my annual vacation to the east coast, and hopefully loving every minute of it.

But I couldn’t leave you without any tm3am goodness for the entire holiday season. This is my last column of 2018, and it’s my traditional Fifty Second Week. If you’re new to this silly music column, let me tell you how this goes. I buy a lot of music during the year, and I try to hear all of it, but I’m never quite successful at that. I get to review only a small subset of the albums I hear, too. The result of all this is that, by the time I get to December, I’ve built up a backlog of unreviewed records.

So Fifty Second Week is my attempt each year to get to as many of those records as I can. I have 52 CDs in front of me, and one of those nifty online timers on my phone. I’m giving myself 50 seconds to review each of these albums. That’s all I get – if I’m in the middle of a sentence when the timers go off, it’s pencils up. Exciting, I know! This could wind up as completely unreadable gibberish!

Anyway, I hope this is as much fun for you to read as it is for me to write. Let’s get going. This is Fifty Second Week.

Aphex Twin, Collapse EP.

Every once in a while Richard James likes to remind us that he’s alive and still one of the most brilliant electronic producers on earth. This is a quick EP with titles like “MT1 t29r2,” and it’s glitchy and complex and fascinating.

Arthur Buck.

As the name implies, this is a duo project between Joseph Arthur and Peter Buck of R.E.M. It ends up sounding more like Arthur than Buck, but the songs are decent, and I hope they stick together and make another one.

Autechre, NTS Sessions.

Fifty seconds to review eight hours of music? Can’t be done. This is an intense electronic journey on a staggering eight CDs, full of noise and trippy beats and an hour-long ambient piece to close things out. It’s immense and really excellent stuff.

Beach House, 7.

I’m not sure why I didn’t review this. I’ve opined on almost all of the previous Beach House records, and it might be that I’ve said everything I have to say about them. This is more sleepy shoegaze with the occasional striking melody, and it’s good, but nothing different from what they’ve given us before.

Ben Folds Five, The Complete Sessions at West 54th.

Not a new record, but a release (finally) of a legendary Ben Folds Five live outing around the time of Whatever and Ever Amen. The Five were a tremendous live outfit, and this record finds them slamming through early, punky songs with lots of energy.

Blood Orange, Negro Swan.

I really wanted to like this. Dev Hynes is a great musician, but Negro Swan just kind of wanders around looking for a hook for most of its running time. It reminds me of Frank Ocean, and I’ve never been a fan of his work. Hopefully the next record will have more focus, because Hynes is too good for this thing.

Charles Bradley, Black Velvet.

Soul singer Charles Bradley died earlier this year, far too soon. He was discovered late in life, and we only got a few albums with his thick, powerful voice. This one is a hodgepodge of recordings he made shortly before his death, but it’s really good, as usual.

The Carters, Everything is Love.

I bought this to round out the Lemonade/4:44 trilogy, and it’s, you know, fine. For an album featuring Beyonce and Jay-Z, it’s surprisingly slapdash and low-key. I’m not sure if they plan to keep collaborating, but I hope the next time they do they come up with something more exciting.

Chvrches, Love is Dead.

Here’s another band that turned in an album that sounds remarkably like their previous work. There are some very good songs on Love is Dead, and Lauren Mayberry continues to be an arresting frontwoman. But there isn’t a lot of variety here, and if you have the first two Chvrches records, you should be fine.

Cloud Nothings, Last Building Burning.

This is a legitimately awesome record and I should have reviewed it. Dylan Baldi takes his band through an absolutely ripping set of fast-paced screamers that sound like the group literally tearing down the walls around them. It’s intense and terrific.

The Collection, Entropy.

This is for Jenette Sturges, who badgered me to try this band for months. Entropy is a pretty good dramatic folk record with some sad songs that stayed with me. The Collection is a pretty good band and I wish I’d listened to Jenette and heard them sooner.

Dead Can Dance, Dionysus.

The Dead Can Dance renaissance continues with this shorter, yet no less powerful record. The band’s signature soundscapes are in full effect over two continuous acts of lovely, dark, delightful music. It’s so nice to have this group back again.

Eminem, Kamikaze.

Em has said he didn’t think too much about this one, and it shows. It feels tossed off, and really focuses in on aspects of his life and personality that no one but he cares about. He seems to make bad records when he’s trying and when he’s not trying, and I’m not sure where that leaves him.

Ester Drang, The Appearances.

Ester Drang’s first record in 12 years is this EP on which they go full shoegaze. The guitars are thick and yet sound light-years away, and everything feels very My Bloody Valentine. I am a fan of the Starflyer 59 cover here, though.

The Family Crest, The War Act I.

I discovered this fantastic orchestral rock band this year, as they began this multi-album saga. This is right up my alley – dramatic songs with about 100 players adding to the epic sound. The songs are wonderful. I can’t wait to hear more from them.

Gorillaz, The Now Now.

Sort of The Fall redux, this shorter album following a longer one full of guest stars feels like a coda or an afterthought. It isn’t bad, and it’s more of a piece with Humanz than The Fall was with Plastic Beach, but it feels oddly inessential.

Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers, Bought to Rot.

The first solo album from the Against Me frontwoman is a surprise: a dark semi-acoustic country-esque thing with funny and poignant songs galore. I’m especially fond of “I Hate Chicago,” which many of my local friends seem to love too.

Great White, Full Circle.

Yes, they are still around. No, this isn’t Jack Russell’s Great White, this is the rest of the band with a new singer. Full Circle isn’t bad, but it is pretty generic, and it isn’t much different from bar-band music you can hear any weekend in any city in America.

Haken, Vector.

I really got into this prog-metal band this year, and their fifth album is of a piece with their other four. It’s a conceptual piece with some killer riffs and some great instrumental interplay. If the next generation needs a prog-metal band, these guys should fit the bill nicely.

Imogen Heap, The Music of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

I had no idea that Imogen Heap wrote more than an hour of new music for The Cursed Child. This is instrumental wonderment in four suites, and some of it is based on her earlier work, but some of it is brand new. It’s all splendid, as you’d expect from a genius like Imogen.

Julia Holter, Aviary.

Bought this massive effort on a recommendation. It’s Bjork levels of strange, and it goes on forever, but it’s pretty intricate and interesting stuff. I can’t say any of it moved me or blew me away, but I’m happy to know Holter’s work now, and I will be following it.

Jon Hopkins, Singularity.

Nothing less than the best electronic album I heard in 2018. Not sure why I didn’t give this a full review, but it gets a high recommendation from me. Hopkins has been a terrific composer and musician for a long time, and this might be the best chill-out music he’s made.

Howling Sycamore.

Still have no idea what to make of this. It’s legit heavy metal, but with Jason McMaster of Dangerous Toys wailing all over it. If it’s a parody, no one told the band. If it’s meant to be serious, no one told McMaster. Either way, this doesn’t work at all.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Live at the Ryman.

Absolutely my favorite live album of 2018. Isbell has been on a serious roll lately – his last three albums have all been various shades of brilliant – and if you want some idea of how consistent he’s been, listen to this. It draws heavily from those last three, and the band is spot on. Isbell gets his due as a songwriter, and he deserves to.

Mark Knopfler, Down the Road Wherever.

I could listen to Knopfler play guitar for weeks on end and not get bored. His latest solo album doesn’t break any new ground – it’s still folksy with a little Dire Straits rock thrown in. But that guitar sound! It’s inimitable. You know you’re listening to Knopfler within seconds, and it’s just blissful.

Gelb Kolyadin.

I bought this because Marillion’s Steve Hogarth is on it, providing vocals on two songs. This is a solo record from the piano player of Iamthemorning, and it’s so good that it led me to buy everything by Kolyadin’s main band. These are elegant songs with drama to them, and Hogarth fits in nicely.

Leprous, Malina.

Another interesting prog-metal band I discovered this year. I saw them live with Between the Buried and Me, and they were pretty good, but on record they’re way more impressive. Their song structures are strange and fascinating, and this album takes you by the hand and leads you all the way through it.

Lord Huron, Vide Noir.

Another intricate-sounding record from these swampy folk-rockers, and it’s pretty great. I’m a fan of the two-part “Ancient Names,” but all of this works for me. Long live Lord Huron.

Minus the Bear, Fair Enough.

I am sad to learn that this four-song EP is the final release from Minus the Bear. This band had two lives – first as a guitar-heavy prog-influenced band and second as a keyboard-loving Rush-alike. This EP caps off the second life, and it’s good stuff. I will miss them.

Tom Morello, The Atlas Underground.

The first true solo album from the Rage Against the Machine guitarist is a guest-heavy affair that falls flat at every opportunity. I wish this were not the case, but between this and Prophets of Rage, it hasn’t been a good couple years for Morello fans.

Mt. Desolation, When the Night Calls.

Second album from this Keane side project is much like the first – country-inflected pop songs sung with a little shakiness by Tim Rice-Oxley. This isn’t bad, but it isn’t memorable, and it just seems to forestall that inevitable and much-wanted Keane reunion.

Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour.

One of the few records on this list that I straight-up love and should have reviewed more fully. This is a breezy folk-pop album, a turn away from country for Musgraves and into something warmer and more beautiful. I could listen to this on repeat for hours.

Meg Myers, Take Me To the Disco.

Second album from depresso-rocker Myers is exactly like her first. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and these songs are solid and full of life. I think this is the last clone of herself she gets to make, though. I’m interested to hear someone with such obvious talent evolve and do something new.

Willie Nelson, My Way.

An album of Sinatra songs is not the first thing I would expect from this still-kicking country outlaw, but this is pretty good. The arrangements are more on the Sinatra side than the Nelson one, but his supple voice fits in with them well. A nice experiment.

Orbital, Monsters Exist.

Another welcome return, this album for me is all about the last track. “There Will Come a Time” is a swell collaboration with Prof. Brian Cox about the end of the universe, and about how our mortality should make us better and more loving people. The rest of this album is standard Orbital, all instrumental synth madness. Welcome back, guys.

Our Lady Peace, Somethingness.

This nine-song record seems to indicate a lack of effort, but it shows that Our Lady Peace is still capable of making some pretty interesting music. Raine Maida sounds a little older and a little more worn, but his elastic voice is still the main selling point.

Peter Bjorn and John, Darker Days.

True to its title, this is a darker album from these Swedish pop wunderkinds, exploring some minor keys and more serious lyrics. But it’s still a great deal of fun, and as ever it sounds like it was put together by polished, accomplished craftsmen.

Dug Pinnick, Tribute to Jimi.

It shouldn’t be any surprise that the King’s X frontman loves Jimi Hendrix. You can hear his influence all over Dug’s solo work especially. This is a pretty decent tribute record, with Pinnick’s versions of some of Hendrix’s best known songs. No surprises, but fun.

The Prodigy, No Tourists.

The Prodigy seems content giving us the same record over and over again. This is boom-boom beats and Liam Howlett’s braying, and it works as well as it always has. Really, it does sound like the same record as last time and the time before, but I keep buying them, so maybe I’m the fool here.

Ben Rector, Magic.

A more produced and hit-hungry record from this piano-popper, but it still contains big helpings of his trademark suburban wit. I love “Old Friends,” corny as it is, and “Duo” made me smile. I hoped for more from Rector, and I hope his radio-driven phase ends soon.

Mike Shinoda, Post Traumatic.

Surprisingly effective solo record from the creative driver of Linkin Park. This album was recorded in the wake of Chester Bennington’s suicide, and his spectre haunts the whole thing. Shinoda uses this music to work through his grief and his uncertainty about what to do next. It’s emotionally heavy but enjoyable all the same.

Soulfly, Ritual.

Eleventh album from Max Cavalera’s post-Sepultura metal band, and they still kick ass. This is a solid, compact slice of heavy riffing with some interesting percussion and another installment of their instrumental “Soulfly” series. It’s just another Soulfly album, but it’s been a while since they’ve made a bad one.

Spiritualized, And Nothing Hurt.

I really want to get Spiritualized, but I don’t. These songs are too simple for me, too basic, and Jason Pierce works really hard on the arrangements and the production, and it always sounds like polishing a turd to me. The songs bore me to tears. I wish I liked this. I really do.

Sun Kil Moon, This is My Dinner.

Speaking of being bored to tears, here’s 90 more minutes of diary-entry ramblings from Mark Kozelek. This one feels like a waste of a good band, since the sound is fantastic. But the endless nature of the stream-of-consciousness songs sinks this.

Matthew Sweet, Tomorrow’s Daughter.

Official release of the bonus disc from Tomorrow Forever. This is another dozen swell Sweet songs, the product of a huge seam of inspiration over the last couple years. Together, these two Tomorrow albums represent the best work he’s done in more than a decade.

Teenage Wrist, Chrome Neon Jesus.

Another new discovery, this band makes me yearn for the glory days of Catherine Wheel. They’re shoegaze-y but smart and melodic and full of life. I’ve listened to this far more often than you’d think, considering I never mentioned it in this column. I’d call them one of my favorite new bands of the year.

Titus Andronicus, A Productive Cough.

This is half the length of the last Titus record and twice as hard to get through. Patrick Stickles indulges his love of simple Americana here, and writes these “epic” Bob Dylan-style songs that go on forever without doing anything. To drive the point home, he covers “Like a Rolling Stone.” For eight minutes. Ugh.

Jeff Tweedy, Warm.

People seem to like this solo effort from the Wilco frontman. I got about three sloppy strums into It before deciding I would hate it forever. The rest of the record didn’t change my mind. More like lukewarm. Tepid, even.

Various Artists, Johnny Cash: The Music: Forever Words.

An unwieldy title for a surprisingly successful tribute album. This is new songs written around existing and unused Johnny Cash lyrics, and the strong list of performers and composers take this as the honor it is and turn in excellent work. Elvis Costello’s track is a highlight.

Vengeance, Human Sacrifice (The First Mix).

The first Christian thrash metal album ever, now in a rawer and more immediate mix. It’s like hearing it for the first time. The band sounds like they are in the room with you. I love this album so much that I was happy to buy this alternate version of it, and it may supplant the original mix in my canon.

Kamasi Washington, Heaven and Earth.

Washington is so good. This is another double-length extravaganza from the jazz saxophone prodigy, with a hidden third disc that brings the running time over three hours. It’s extraordinary stuff, full and rich and wild when it needs to be, yet restrained when it should be. Excellent stuff.

Thom Yorke, Suspira.

This lengthy score to the new Suspira film is the first bit of Thom Yorke’s solo career I really like. It’s effective and creepy and, as it’s a film score, it doesn’t matter that most of it is soundscapes without songs. The songs here are really good too, though. I know some were worried about Thom messing with the original score, but this works really well.

And that will do it for another year. I’ll be taking next week off, and maybe the week after that as well. After 18 years I need a bit of a breather. But don’t worry, I’ll be back in 2019 with more weekly musical musings. Thank you, more than I can say, to those who have followed along on this journey and interacted with me through this column. You’re the reason I keep writing it. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

See you in year 19. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

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

Love Me for Who I Am
The 2018 Top 10 List

Welcome to my top 10 list column.

As I mentioned last week, we have nine very good records and one great one to get through. And as I may not have mentioned, the fact that the gulf between the great album and the very good ones is so massive means that we’re really dealing with my personal taste here. If you want to quibble with any of these (except the top pick, of course) and suggest that any from my honorable mentions column should be here instead, I won’t argue. These are just the ones I listened to most, the ones that resonated with me. Your mileage may vary. Except for the number one pick. I’ll dig in pretty hard on that one.

OK, let’s get right to it. Here is my 2018 top 10 list in all its glory.

#10. Neneh Cherry, Broken Politics.

I’ve been a Neneh Cherry fan since the release of her extraordinary second album, Homebrew, in 1992. Since then she’s proven herself again and again as an unpredictable and fearless artist. Broken Politics is her fifth album, and her second with Kieran Hebden, also known as Four Tet, behind the boards. It’s her most pointed work, taking aim at a host of social ills, but it’s also perhaps her most beautiful. Cherry and Hebden concocted some gorgeous near-ambient electronic settings in which to place Cherry’s fitful, restless voice, and on songs like “Kong” and the awesome “Faster Than the Truth,” that combination strikes gold. Cherry has never let me down, and on Broken Politics she aims high and gets there with apparent ease.

#9. The Choir, Bloodshot.

The Choir remains perhaps my favorite band. So when they asked in 2017 for my money to fund the creation of Bloodshot, I ponied up with no questions asked. I had no idea what we were going to get. It turns out that Bloodshot is the saddest, most difficult and most earthbound album the band has made. It focuses on drummer Steve Hindalong’s painful divorce, and the band sets aside most of their ethereal, ambient soundscapes in favor of tangible, strummy songs that pick at the pain, opening it up wide. Songs like “Bloodshot Eyes,” “Only Reasons” and “House of Blues” are dark things, and the band measures them against rockers like “Summer Rain” and “Magic,” culminating with one of their best anthems of hope and forgiveness in “The Time Has Come.” This album is doubly bittersweet as it is the final recording project for bassist Tim Chandler, who died earlier this year. I will miss him terribly, but I’m glad we got one last Choir album with him on it, and that it’s such a powerful and important one.

#8. Frank Turner, Be More Kind.

I thought a lot about this record over the past several months. There’s no doubting it comes from a place of white man’s privilege, Turner surveying the current political landscape and arguing that things would be better if we could just be nicer to each other. He isn’t intending to give short shrift to the injustices playing out in spheres he doesn’t inhabit, but I still worry that Be More Kind is a bit blinkered. But it’s also a great album of wonderful, well-intentioned songs, ones that I found myself singing over and over as this crazy year had its way with everyone I know. Turner isn’t wrong when he suggests we should interrogate our own assumptions, admit we might be wrong and work on reconciliation, and he gets angry when he needs to, as on “1933” and “Make America Great Again.” Nestled near the end of this record is “The Lifeboat,” which may be the best song he’s ever written – it’s about leaving the old world in flames behind you and building a new one based on kindness and justice, which is exactly the way I feel coming out of 2018.

#7. Wye Oak, The Louder I Call The Faster It Runs.

Jenn Wasner has been moving toward something this compelling for a long time. The Louder I Call takes the synth-heavy sound Wye Oak had been toying with and marries it to a fantastic set of songs, emerging fully formed as an entirely new thing. The star of this record is Wasner’s voice, both as a singer and a songwriter, and it’s remarkable how completely she has transformed here from her scrappy indie origins. She’s never written a song as complex and powerful as “It Was Not Natural,” a highlight not only of this record but of the year. It surprises me that those singing her praises years ago have all but ignored this album. This is the record on which Wasner has come into her own, and it’s a glorious sound.

#6. Derri Daugherty, The Color of Dreams.

Yes, Derri is here twice, and yes, his solo record hit me harder than his work with the Choir this year. The very idea of a solo project from Daugherty, the golden voice atop the Choir’s blissful noise, has been a running in-joke among fans for close to 20 years. The Color of Dreams was well worth the wait. Daugherty’s voice works very well with the stripped-down country-inflected folk music he gives us here (and has given us with the Lost Dogs and Kerosene Halo), and given that framework, Color is a surprisingly diverse album – we have the straight-ahead rock of “Unhypnotized” and “We’ve Got the Moon,” the crawling darkness of “I Want You to Be” and the six ambient tracks at the end. But most of all we have the songs, and they’re wonderful things, from the tricky acoustic skip of “Saying Goodbye” to the aforementioned swipe at fundamentalist religion that is “Unhypnotized.” The highlight for me is “Your Chair,” Daugherty’s memorial for his father, which is easily in the running for best song of the year. It took a while to arrive, but The Color of Dreams is superb.

#5. Low, Double Negative.

Whatever I write here about Double Negative, it will not match the unsettling, skin-crawling experience of hearing it. Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker have thrown out their own rulebook on their 12th full-length, dispatching not only with their classic slowcore sound but with even their recent sonic advances. Double Negative is a nightmare, deliberately crafted and mixed to put you off balance. Static and noise hold sway, and underneath are some sweet and gentle songs trying to poke through, met with flamethrowers when they poke their heads up. The whole thing is designed to cause dread, and to capture the feeling of living in a world where disaster can happen at any time. As a reaction to the year, it succeeds wildly. For better and for worse, it may well be the most 2018 album to come out in 2018.

#4. Elvis Costello and the Imposters, Look Now.

Do I even need to say at this point that Elvis Costello is one of the finest songwriters alive? In recent years he’s dabbled in country-folk with the great National Ransom and collaborated with the Roots on the noisy Wise Up Ghost, but Look Now finds him returning to a classic pop sound. There are shades of his more ornate work with the Attractions and his tunes with Burt Bacharach here, but beyond the trappings there are a dozen perfect little Costello songs, arranged and performed with gusto. And that’s all Costello has ever needed to impress. He co-writes here with Bacharach and Carole King, and is in their rarified air, turning out wonders like opener “Under Lime” and “Mr. and Mrs. Hush,” tales of hard luck and harder people set to gorgeous orchestration and some fine playing from the Imposters. If an album is only as strong as its songs, this one’s unbreakable.

#3. Jukebox the Ghost, Off to the Races.

I think I played this album more times than any other this year. I’ve been somewhat dismayed as Jukebox the Ghost followed their pure pop muse away from the more complex and Queen-like work of their earlier records, but Off to the Races is the album on which they sold me on their new sound. It helps that this is the most Queen-influenced effort they’ve made, but they have married those excesses with some of their catchiest and most direct piano-pop. The result is joyful almost beyond description, from the danceable delight of “Fred Astaire” to the romantic “Simple as 1 2 3” to the rip-roaring “Boring,” an ode to settling down. Off to the Races is short – 10 songs in 34 minutes – but it’s as pristine and enjoyable a pop record as anyone could hope for.

#2. Darlingside, Extralife.

This one edged out Jukebox, but only just. It’s the prettiest thing I heard this year, building on the gorgeous folk of Birds Say and emerging with something that approaches transcendent. The four members of Darlingside all sing in perfect, soul-lifting harmony, and the moment in each song when the vocals intertwine and ascend is magical. It’s the same trick, but they pull it off a dozen times here, and it never gets old. The songs are lovely, from the absurdly beautiful “Hold Your Head Up High” to the rhythmically tricky “Indian Orchard Road,” and all together this album fills me with a peaceful feeling that I can’t explain. It’s alchemical in some way, but it was much needed during a year of chaos and pain.

So there you have nine very good albums. But none of them were truly great. I only heard one that fit that description, and from the moment I heard it I knew it would sit atop this list. There could be no other choice, really.

#1. Janelle Monae, Dirty Computer.

When this album came out in May, I wrote a lengthy review of it that summarizes my feelings. I won’t rehash that here, so if you’re inclined toward the deeper dive, please read it. In addition to all that, I want to talk about what makes Monae’s astonishing third album not only the best but the most important record of 2018. I know a lot of people who have been searching for an artistic response to the wave of hatred that seems to be taking over the world, searching for music that plants a flag of protest against what seems to be a rising tide of bigotry. And for me, Dirty Computer was that record.

Dirty Computer is a stomping, sex-positive sci-fi narrative about a government that erases experiences it does not approve of from the memories of its citizens. But more than that, it chronicles the awakening of Monae herself, who leaves her previous role as an android behind to be fully human here. This is an album about a black queer woman being fully herself – it is fearlessly liberated, unafraid to express that identity in bold terms. Songs like “Django Jane” and “Pynk” and the wonderful “I Like That” find her facing the fear of embracing who she is and coming out the other side in triumph. Monae is well aware that just being herself is a political statement, a stand against those in our government and in our churches who would oppress her just for being alive.

Even if Dirty Computer were just that, just a full-blooded “here I am” shouted from the mountaintops, it would be an extraordinary thing. But it’s so much more. It’s a powerful look at America from a point of view that is not often heard from or celebrated. With “Screwed,” which may be my favorite song of the year (and the most transgressive thing I have ever loved), Monae posits that sex must be powerful, since so many want to control it. With “Americans,” she takes direct aim at the bigotry she obliquely references throughout this album, and with the help of Pastor Sean McMillan, sets out a list of goals that will truly make America great: “Until women can get equal pay for equal work, this is not my America. Until same-gender-loving people can be who they are, this is not my America….”

The entire thing is executed with such vision and precision that it feels like a single thought, and taken as a whole, Dirty Computer is the most politically minded protest album I heard this year, a bulwark against a rising tide. It’s also musically astonishing, from the Princely grooves of “Make Me Feel” to the prog-rock overtones of “So Afraid” to the ultimate dance floor liberation of “Screwed.” Janelle Monae has always been brilliant, but this is the first album on which she has harnessed that brilliance in service of herself, with no disguises, knowing full well what an act of rebellion that in itself is during these times. In doing so, she made not only the best album of 2018, but the year’s only truly great statement.

Here’s hoping in 20 years we look back on an album like Dirty Computer and shake our heads in disbelief that it was ever necessary. For this year, it’s vital. And it’s without question my number one.

And that will do it. Next week is Fifty Second Week, and another year is done. Thanks to all of you who came with me on another year of this silly music column. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Never-Weres and Also-Rans
The Honorable Mentions of 2018

This year was not like other years.

I’ll go into this in a bit more detail next week, but my top 10 list is done, and the wide gulf between my number one pick and all the others albums I heard this year is immense. Looked at from a certain perspective, there shouldn’t be any honorable mentions, since everything that isn’t my number one pick is kind of interchangeable. They’re all good albums, but they’re nowhere near as good as the one I’m calling the year’s best.

But then I wouldn’t have anything to write about this week. The honorable mentions are a tradition here at tm3am, records that were very good but just not good enough to make the list. What differentiates this year’s selection from those of the previous years is that virtually all of these albums could have been among the top 10. They’re all about the same level of very good, and anyone arguing that any of the below entries should be one of the ten best of 2018 would get no sideways glances from me.

Heck, there are probably several albums I should have heard that could easily have been in this list of honorables as well. I did take time to hear the one cropping up on everyone else’s lists, Mitski’s Be the Cowboy, and I don’t think I agree that it should be anywhere near the top ten, but I’m happy to accept it in anyone else’s ranking. (I think a lot of people liked the Kacey Musgraves album more than I did too, but I did like it.) The only album I will fight to the death for is the one sitting atop my list.

This column is also my chance to go over the rules for my top 10 list, so as not to waste time with it next week. So here they are: Only full-length albums of original material that came out in 2018 are eligible for this year’s list. That seems really straightforward, but it actually causes a few conundrums for me during the year. For instance, this year there were a few EPs that could have been in the list, most particularly the debut from Boygenius and the second installment of the Oh Hellos’ mini-album series, Euros. But only full-length records are eligible.

Two albums I wish I could include are ineligible because they are not new, strictly speaking. Meshell Ndegeocello’s beautiful Ventriloquism is a covers album like few others, finding the depth and soul in the ‘80s and ‘90s songs she covers. This is the album that made me love Al B. Sure’s “Nite and Day,” and reminded me how much I have always liked Force MDs’ “Tender Love.” And Paul Simon’s In the Blue Light revisits some of his lesser-known material in new ways, including a stunning take on “Can’t Run But” and a perfect new take on “Love,” one of my favorites of his, featuring Bill Frisell on guitar. But there are no new songs, so it can’t make the list.

Live albums are also ineligible, which this year means that I can’t include the incredible The Roxy Performances box set from Frank Zappa. But you should buy this right now, if you have any interest at all in Zappa’s work. Seven CDs capturing every note played by one of his finest bands during a residency at the Roxy in 1973. It’s utterly amazing from first note to last. Surprisingly, though, it isn’t my favorite live album of the year. That honor goes to Midnight Oil, whose Armistice Day finds them in fine form in Sydney on their 2017 reunion tour. Seriously, this performance is fire.

While I am recommending things that cannot feature in my top 10 list, I’d point to R.E.M.’s 8-CD/1-DVD At the BBC set, a comprehensive box detailing their live performances for the BBC over their entire career; Daniel Amos’ stunning remaster and expansion of Horrendous Disc; and the two new Kate Bush Remastered box sets that give us her entire output in sparkling new editions. There are still 13 shopping days before Christmas, so go.

But before you go, here’s a quick look at the honorable mentions from 2018.

The earliest release that has stuck around for me is I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life by Tune-Yards. This is Merrill Garbus’ most accomplished piece of work, quirky yet weighty, and I kept listening to it throughout 2018. Also early on were Being Empty Being Filled, the new one from Listener, a band quite unlike any other, and Good Thing, the excellent sophomore record from Leon Bridges. The Bridges album remains a favorite, its soulful yet modern grooves a perfect fit for his buttery voice.

Florence and the Machine made my favorite of their records with High as Hope. Dawes did the same with Passwords, a reaction to the year and to the ways we talk to one another. Richard Thompson came roaring back with the guitar-heavy 13 Rivers, his best record in many years. Punch Brothers delivered another sterling document of their progressive bluegrass style with All Ashore. And just recently, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness delivered a third album of remarkable grace and beauty in Upside Down Flowers.

These are all records I like, but now we’re moving into the ones I love. I didn’t review Mount Eerie’s Now Only, just because it was too difficult a prospect to approach. But the album is amazing, continuing Phil Elverum’s mourning in the wake of his wife’s death while bringing in more of the sound we know and love from him. Deafheaven’s Ordinary Corrupt Human Love gave me some of the same feelings – it’s impossibly emotional noise that is heavy enough to crush you, but prefers to gently cocoon you.

While Boygenius got most of the ink, I was more enamored with See You Around, the debut record from I’m With Her. A collaboration between three geniuses – Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan – the album delivers some of the most gorgeous acoustic folk music you’re likely to hear. The Bad Plus returned with a new piano player, the swell Orrin Evans, and a really strong new record, Never Stop II, to inaugurate their next chapter.

Two of my AudioFeed bands put out great records this year. The Gray Havens put down their guitars and went electronic with She Waits, and it’s a swell, if brief, journey from grief to joy. And Von Strantz finally unveiled Through the Looking Glass, an album they made a few years ago, and it was a revelation. Jess and Kelsey fully immersed themselves in electronic textures and ‘80s synths and wrote some killer songs.

Finally, we have the Number Elevens, the albums that I almost included in the top 10 list this year. Even more so than all of the others I listed, I wouldn’t bat an eyelash if you told me any of these final four were among your absolute favorites of 2018. Two of these featured in earlier drafts of my list, so they shouldn’t be surprises, but two are relatively new, and they knocked me out.

Those two are Kamasi Washington’s vast, unlimited Heaven and Earth and Donnie Vie’s Beautiful Things. A double album of horizon-size depth, with a hidden EP that pushes it over the three-hour mark, Heaven and Earth is a visionary slice of jazz, with gigantic orchestrations and some powerhouse playing by Washington and his ensemble. Beautiful Things is a perfect compact melodic record from the Enuff Z’Nuff mastermind, the fullest and richest album he’s made and the best argument yet for his canonization among pop songwriters.

Which brings us to the ones I have mentioned before, both of which almost made the list. Stoner metal band Sleep made a triumphant return with The Sciences, the most monolithic metal record I heard this year. ( Seriously, it contains a song called “Giza Butler” that earns that title.) And the Boxer Rebellion made what I think is their very best album with the quiet, pensive, haunting Ghost Alive. I didn’t hear a flat-out prettier song this year than “Here I Am,” and the rest of the album is gorgeous as well.

OK, next week, my 10 favorites from 2018. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Merry and Bright
The Annual Christmas Album Roundup

It happened earlier than usual this year.

A couple weeks ago, my long-suffering and delightful girlfriend and I were headed to a party. We were driving down decorated streets and listening to Bing Crosby and out of nowhere, it hit me. Christmas. I can be counted on to get into the spirit at some point before December 25 each year, but this was the earliest those warm and magical feelings snuck up on me.

I just love Christmas. I love the lights, the trees, the spirit of giving, the sense of the unpredictable in the air. I even love going to church on Christmas, a tradition my friend Mike and I have upheld for more than 20 years. But most of all, I love Christmas music. I generally like to confine my enjoyment of it to about 30 days – the day after Thanksgiving until Christmas day. This year I couldn’t wait.

Christmas music just fills me with an insane joy. I even love that Mariah Carey tune all my cool friends seem to hate. It’s fun! I love jolly Christmas songs and pensive Christmas ballads and reverent Christmas hymns. It’s a canon of songs I just cannot get enough of, to the point where I buy loads of new Christmas music every year and revel in it, alongside my old favorites. (I’ve already made my way through all of Sufjan Stevens’ Songs for Christmas this year.)

So this is my annual roundup of Christmas records from this year. I bought seven new holiday platters, and surprisingly, none of them were J.D. McPherson’s Socks, so I might have to rectify that. It was an interestingly diverse bounty this year, and I’ve been enjoying it. Here’s what has been rockin’ around my Christmas tree this season.

We’ll start with the one that has received the fewest plays, for obvious reasons: William Shatner’s Shatner Claus, the Christmas Album. I blame Ben Folds for convincing me all those years ago that Shatner’s recording career wasn’t just a colossal joke. Has Been remains the best use anyone has made of Shatner’s speak-sing-intone thing, and the joke wears fairly thin over 14 tracks here.

The guest list is astonishing, though, from Henry Rollins (crashing his way through “Jingle Bells”) to Todd Rundgren to Rick Wakeman to Iggy Pop to the one and only Judy Collins. They’re all in on the joke, and listening to them tap dance around Shatner is fascinating. I don’t know why Shatner Claus exists, but on some level – some absurd, insane level – I’m glad it does.

Each year at least one or two artists decide to try their hand at original Christmas tunes. Last year it was Sia with her nutty Everyday is Christmas. This year we have a couple mostly original albums, and they’re great. The Mavericks are a country band unlike any other country band, combining Western swing and Mariachi flavors into their mix, to be topped off by the Roy Orbison-esque vocals of Raul Malo. Their Hey! Merry Christmas! is swell, basically a regular Mavericks album with holiday-themed lyrics and sweet covers of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and “Happy Holiday.”

The Old 97’s save their covers of traditional songs until the end of Love the Holidays, filling the bulk of the running time with their ramshackle country-rock. I like all of their original tunes, though, especially the rollicking “Gotta Love Being a Kid (Merry Christmas).” The record really comes to life for me when they hit their joyous covers of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Up on the Housetop,” though. The cover photo is worth the cost of admission too.

For the second year in a row, Ronnie Martin has made an appearance, returning from his self-imposed exile from Joy Electric. He calls himself Said Fantasy now, and Chorus Noel is his second EP of Christmas songs. Martin still uses nothing but vintage synthesizers, and he keeps things instrumental except for the title track, the first new song he’s written since Said Fantasy’s debut album last year. It’s so great to hear Ronnie singing one of his own songs again, and the rest of the EP is fun as well. It’s only 13 minutes long, but I enjoyed all 13 of those minutes.

Martin also ably demonstrates that the key to a lovely and timeless Christmas record is to mix up your originals with your takes on the established canon. The Monkees prove him right with their great new album Christmas Party, continuing their unlikely modern renaissance. The band sticks to the same formula that made 2016’s Good Times such a success: they enlisted Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne to produce, and wrangled new Christmas songs from the likes of Andy Partridge, Rivers Cuomo, and Peter Buck with Scott McCaughey.

The result is marvelous. You can always tell an Andy Partridge song, and “Unwrap You at Christmas” is no exception. It’s a power pop master class, of course, but it’s generous enough to sit alongside Cuomo’s “What Would Santa Do” and Schlesinger’s “House of Broken Gingerbread” nicely. Along the way the Monkees give us their takes on “The Christmas Song,” “Silver Bells,” McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” and, most fascinatingly, Big Star’s “Jesus Christ.” It’s compact and fun and just great.

One of my very favorite bands, Austin’s Quiet Company, took a darker tack on their deliciously titled new EP Baby It’s Cold War Outside. Thankfully, it’s no less delightful, especially the song that has become a new standard around my house, “Merry Christmas, the President is Terrible.” (It’s a lot more serious-minded than its title would suggest.) Taylor Muse and (ahem) company balance off their original takes with covers of “What Christmas Means to Me” and “Little Drummer Boy” and end things with a fantastic mash-up of “Carol of the Bells” and “Setting the Trap” from Home Alone. Check that out here.

QuietCo was very nearly my favorite this year, but if I have to pick one, I’m going in a much more traditional direction. I just can’t stop listening to John Legend’s A Legendary Christmas. Legend has one of those voices that just does it for me. Chills up the spine, shivers and hair standing on end. He’s just that good. A Legendary Christmas homages Bing Crosby on its cover and it sets Legend’s voice loose over rich orchestration.

So much of this is so good, but I’m particularly fond of Legend’s duet with Esperanza Spalding on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and his gorgeous take on “The Christmas Song.” This is really a perfect Christmas record, one that makes me think of snowfalls and presents when I was a child, one that evokes the nostalgic and beautiful magic of this season. I’m probably going to play it again once I’m done writing this, in fact.

I hope I’ve given you enough ideas to stock your own Christmas larder with tunes. While I will be back to writing about non-Christmas music next week (with the honorable mentions for my top 10 list), you can bet that I’ll be listening to some combination of the above while writing it. Thanks for reading. May your days be merry and bright.

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Donnie and the Forgotten Ones
Beautiful Things and The Last Reviews of the Year

This is the last straight-up review column of 2018.

I’m not sure where this year went either. It seems to have disappeared on me. In some ways, that’s good, since it’s been a difficult one for a lot of people I know. I have high hopes for 2019, though, and I’m very much looking forward to this year ticking over.

And if you’re marking that time in these columns, like I am, we’re into the special programming part of the year. Next week is my annual roundup of Christmas music, and then we’re into honorable mentions and the top 10 list and Fifty Second Week, and we’re done. I realize this leaves some important records, like Jeff Tweedy’s Warm, out in the cold, so to speak, and I plan to catch up with some of the late-year releases early in 2019.

But this is it for this year’s reviews of non-holiday albums. So I’m very glad that the first one I have on tap this week snuck in under the wire, because it’s truly great. It’s also another testament to the power of crowdfunding, as it likely would not exist without the contributions of a few hundred of us on PledgeMusic. Not every crowdfunded album turns out this well, but this is one of those instances in which the artistic freedom bought by eliminating financial concerns up front paid dividends to spare.

I’m talking about Donnie Vie, the former lead singer of Enuff Znuff, and I hope that you’re still listening, because just mentioning the fact that I have been an EZN fan for nearly 30 years makes some people question my taste. Even three decades in, people seem to lump Enuff Znuff in with the hair metal of the ‘80s, when they were never quite that. Even at their spandex-clad height, they were much more of a Beatlesque power-pop outfit, and that sensibility has only grown over the years.

Take a listen to an album like Ten, in which the Lennon/McCartney sense of craft comes to the fore, or even Paraphernalia, a louder record that never forgets the melodies. These guys have always sounded like Cheap Trick might have if they’d leaned into their Hard Day’s Night influences more heavily. Since the beginning, Donnie Vie and Chip Z’Nuff have been the songwriting team at the band’s heart, and together they’ve written some of my favorite power pop of the past few decades.

This year, the division between Donnie and the band was finally solidified. Vie has been an auxiliary member for a while, splitting after 2004’s and returning only to write and sing on 2009’s Dissonance. He hasn’t been a member of the live band for more than a decade now, and has been making terrific music on his own since 2003. But this year, Chip fully took control of Enuff Znuff as a recording act, issuing Diamond Boy, the first album to feature him as chief songwriter and vocalist.

And it was pretty good. I liked it very much. But I missed Donnie’s voice and his melodies something fierce, and I haven’t really revisited it as much as I normally would a new EZN album. If you want to hear with crystal clarity what I felt was missing on Diamond Boy, it’s here in full force on Donnie’s new album, Beautiful Things. It’s his sixth studio album, and his best by some distance, a glorious pop record full of gorgeous harmonies and songs that demonstrate the best of what he has to offer.

Seriously, I am so happy with this record. The sound is lush and full, in a way that Donnie’s more ramshackle solo work hasn’t been. This is, finally, the production that his songs have long deserved, and he’s stepped up with his best set of tunes… well, ever. I say that as a longtime fan of his work, as someone who absolutely adores not only the best of EZN, but Donnie’s own solo records. These ten songs are the best ten songs he’s ever given us.

I’m going to say this as plainly as I can: Beautiful Things is a classic power pop record, worthy of standing tall with the giants of the genre. Vie clearly worked for ages on these songs, and they all sport killer melodies and lovely twists and turns. Each one bears the mark of a master craftsman showing what he can do. Even a guitar ditty like “Plain Jane” takes a trip to the stratosphere in its chorus, refusing to just be a surface-level rocker. And when you get to a masterpiece like “I Could Save the World,” with its delightful harmonies and full-on Beatles homages, I dare you not to smile.

“I Could Save the World” was the first single from this album, and happily, it isn’t even the standout. Every song here rises to the challenge this song lays down. The title track is a bursting firework of positivity with an absolutely killer melody. “Fly” is one of the most beautiful piano ballads Donnie Vie has written, and he sings it with a tender touch. “Tender Lights” is a George Harrison-esque strummer, while “Whatever” is a double-time skip of a thing that brings a good mood with it wherever it goes. Closer “Back From the Blue” is another lovely slow tune, the kind of song that many people couldn’t imagine coming from Enuff Znuff (but which, in truth, Donnie wrote for them all the time.)

I can’t help but think that Beautiful Things is as good and as rich as it is because Donnie was given full freedom without having to worry about selling the end product. As of this writing, it isn’t even available for sale – the download has gone out to backers, those who believed and supported it, with a full release coming soon. Taking care of all those financial headaches up front clearly freed Donnie to do his best work as a writer and a record maker, and I’m so pleased with the results. Beautiful Things is a strong argument for this method of making music, and a deep reward for our faith.

It’s also just a really good little record. I wish I could point you to someplace where you could hear it and buy it, and I’ll be sure to update this when the full release happens. (Here’s “I Could Save the World” in the meantime.) If you’ve been reading my reviews of Donnie Vie and Enuff Znuff for years and never been convinced to give them a try, Beautiful Things is a great place to start. It ably demonstrates what I have been saying for 20+ years – Donnie Vie is a stunningly good songwriter and singer. If you like melodic rock of any stripe, you owe it to yourself to hear this.

* * * * *

Just enough time and space to briefly talk about a few recent records that deserved full reviews, but just didn’t get them for some reason. They’re all significant, though, and I really should at least mention them.

First up is Smashing Pumpkins, or rather three-fourths of them, reuniting for a short record with a really long title: Shiny and Oh So Bright Vol. 1/LP: No Past, No Future, No Sun. From that nearly Fiona Apple-length moniker, you might expect something excessive, something that stretches to 70-plus minutes and emphasizes Billy Corgan’s prog-rock tendencies and self-aggrandizement. I certainly didn’t expect something that only runs 31:48 and contains some of Corgan’s laziest, least interesting songwriting ever.

I can hear Corgan straining (and not just vocally) to match the orchestrated heights of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness on this thing, and the fact that it falls so far short for all that is just painful. Opener “Knights of Malta” sets the tone – four chords repeated slowly, some strings, a lame chorus. “Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)” is better, in that it apes “1979” and actually goes somewhere, but it isn’t great. None of these songs are great. Even when the band kicks up the amperage on “Marchin’ On” and closer “Seek and You Shall Destroy,” it feels like it hasn’t locked in. And then it’s over.

If this had been released as a Corgan solo album, no one would bat an eye. But it’s not. It’s the Smashing Pumpkins reunion album, with Jimmy Chamberlain on drums and James Iha on guitar, and the fact that it plummets down to earth like this is almost tragic. It’s a classic case of “such terrible food, and in such small portions,” and since I don’t like what’s here very much, I can’t really complain about how short this is. Twice as much of this wouldn’t have made me happier. I really did expect better.

I think I expected more from Tom Odell’s whole career than he’s been willing to give us so far. I absolutely loved “Can’t Pretend,” one of his first singles, and enjoyed his first album, Long Way Down. Since then, Odell has decided that he’d very much like to be Elton John, which is fine, but not quite what I wanted from him. His third album, Jubilee Road, is his most Elton, and I like it quite a bit. But I have to separate my enjoyment of it from my expectations of Odell in general.

But seriously, if you like Elton John, you will love Tom Odell, especially this new record. It’s anchored by one of Odell’s best songs, “If You Wanna Love Somebody,” with its instantly memorable hook and gospel choir. There are others just about as good as this one, like “Half as Good As You” and “Go Tell Her Now,” and Odell has centered this organic-sounding album on his striking voice and piano playing, which is a good move.

Tunes like the title track and “Son of an Only Child” wear their Reginald Dwight on their sleeve, though. Jubilee Road reminds me of Joshua Kadison’s work from the ‘90s, and if you liked that kind of Elton worship, Odell is even better at it. He’s still only 28, and is already an accomplished songwriter – honestly, “If You Wanna Love Somebody” is very nearly as perfect as pop music gets – so I hope he finds a more original groove someday. I’ll definitely be listening.

Finally, there’s Twenty One Pilots, a band I’m not supposed to like. Well, the hell with that, because their new record, Trench, is really good. The two Pilots, Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun, are joined here by Paul Meany, the mastermind behind Mutemath, and Trench sounds like an equal mix of their styles. It’s a far fuller and richer experience than Blurryface, as well as being a more mature effort – there aren’t any trifles here, just 14 well-thought-out songs.

As a longtime Mutemath fan, I hear Paul Meany’s influence everywhere here, from the beats to the keyboard sounds to the bigger, fuller melodies. But I also hear Josh and Tyler keeping their identities intact – this isn’t a Mutemath record. The rap and dubstep moments are here in full force, and a tune like “Nico and the Niners” is full-on Twenty One Pilots. Meany’s production is fantastic, melding his own sound with the band’s on songs like “Bandito,” with their full participation. It’s a different Twenty One Pilots, but it still sounds like them, if that makes sense.

Trench has an ace in the hole, though, that all by itself sets this album above its predecessor. That ace is “My Blood,” one of the finest songs of this year. A paean to companionship and family, “My Blood” is exactly what I would want from a Twenty One Pilots produced by Meany. When it slides into that delightful falsetto chorus, it’s just magical. I don’t care if I’m not supposed to like this. I do. I very much do.

OK, next week, Christmas music. If you know me, you know I’m about to switch over to the holiday tunes full time, and there have been some winners this year. After that, we’re in the endgame for 2018. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Brought to You by the Letter M
New Things from Mumford, McMahon and Midnight Oil

I recently saw Bohemian Rhapsody. The short version of my review: it’s a terrible movie, and I had a great time watching it.

I should mention that I am a lifelong Freddie Mercury fanboy. Queen was one of the first bands I truly loved – I was a dramatic kid, and their music matched my inner life pretty closely. Freddie was probably the first musician whose work I wanted to emulate. I wanted to play piano like him (I still can’t), write songs like him (no way), sing like him (ha!), and take in the full range of musical influences that he did. I’m really only partway there on that last one, because Freddie loved all kinds of music, and could write and sing in any style.

I want to come back to that, but let’s chat briefly about the movie. It plays to me like one of those VH1-produced made-for-TV films about the likes of Def Leppard and MC Hammer. Rami Malek is very good as Freddie, and the three actors they got to play his bandmates are spot on. But there are no new insights here, and in fact the script plays havoc with the timeline, setting important events later than they actually occurred and cramming a million seismic moments into a single day at the film’s end.

That day, of course, is July 13, 1985, the date of Queen’s (ahem) killer performance at Live Aid. The film faithfully recreates almost all of the band’s 20-minute set, and it’s a marvel to watch. When the film is about Queen’s music, it’s delightful. (It also stops short of Freddie’s death from AIDS-related complications. Mercury was the first celebrity whose death genuinely affected me, and I can still remember hearing about his passing on my alarm clock radio in November of 1991.)

But yeah, for a time Queen was my favorite band, and Freddie my favorite musician, and there were a few reasons for this. One of the most important ones, though, was the band’s artistic restlessness. Queen completely transformed themselves, not only album to album but often song to song. The best Queen albums play like mix tapes, like songs that have no business being strung together, but work well anyway. I’ve always responded to a desire to avoid pigeonholing, to try anything.

This doesn’t seem to be a quality that music fans prize much, and that surprises me. I often find myself in the strange position of defending a band like Coldplay or Linkin Park, and the main thing I enjoy about those bands is their complete willingness to change everything they do. Listen to A Thousand Suns, The Hunting Party and One More Light back to back and it barely sounds like the same band, let alone the band that made Hybrid Theory. My favorite bands, like Marillion, make these sonic shifts all the time, hardly ever sounding like people expect them to.

So when I defend Mumford and Sons, it’s for the same quality. I was an early adopter of the Mumford sound, latching onto it before it became ubiquitous, and I still enjoy their debut, Sigh No More. The single bass drum thump, the strummy guitar, the banjos, the dramatic folk songwriting, it was all pretty new in 2009. But then bands like the Lumineers turned it into a cliché, and then a joke. By the time the carbon copy Babel came out in 2012, the Mumford sound had run its course.

So they did what any good, restless band would do: they changed everything. And then they kept on changing. The last three Mumford records are as different from the first one as they are from each other, embracing full-on rock, melding their sound with South African textures (played by South African musicians), and now, on their fourth full-length Delta, taking in electronics and orchestral sounds to create a meditative record of whispered beauty.

If what you liked about Mumford was their fire, this won’t be for you. But if you can appreciate a band once again chucking out everything that people might expect from them and landing on something that is at once unfamiliar and fits like a glove, then I’m with you. I haven’t been able to stop listening to Delta since I bought it. Initially I was put off by just how quiet the whole thing is. Only a few songs, like the single “Guiding Light” and the sprightly “Rose of Sharon,” rise above a slow hum. But I soon picked up on the fascinating textures the band has woven into this record, and realized that with everything kept so quiet, the moments when this bursts to life are magnified. They sound epic in contrast.

The Mumford boys have called this record experimental, and also said it finds them returning to their traditional folksy instruments. The truth is somewhere in the middle – the banjos and mandolins are back, but they’re processed and removed from their usual contexts. The record is full of keyboards and subtle drums (both acoustic and electronic), and while the songs feel Mumford-ish at times, the instrumentation never does. The band takes a lot of risks here, not the least of which is producing an album that stays at a low simmer throughout, and they mostly all pay off.

What doesn’t work? The vaguely Dave Matthews-ish “Woman” isn’t exactly a winner, although I like its chorus. I like the coda of “Picture You” more than the song itself, which ambles forward on a vaguely Caribbean beat with a strong synth pulse. And, well, that’s kind of it. I like everything else, to one degree or another, and I really like Delta as a whole. The ones I like best are the quieter ones – “The Wild” starts off almost inaudibly, but builds to a string-laden climax, while “October Skies” is just lovely, right to its a cappella ending. And “If I Say” conveys desperation without Marcus Mumford raising his voice – he lets the orchestra carry it.

Elsewhere the band makes good use of the lessons they learned making Johannesburg in 2016. “Beloved” sounds like an outtake from that project, with an urgent chorus over hand percussion and an insistent beat. “Rose of Sharon” is a highlight, raising the tempo slightly and adding bouncing clean guitar. The title track, which closes the record, is simple and quiet for half its running time, but unfolds into more of that delightful clean guitar, this time in harmony, leading to an anthemic conclusion.

I have no idea who Mumford and Sons made Delta for, but it sure sounds like they made it for themselves. It is, like all of their records, a vaguely spiritual affair, with plenty of references to guiding lights and deeper truths. That much hasn’t changed, but everything around it has, and it’s changed in a way that I can’t imagine resonating with a wider pop-weaned audience. This is an artistic endeavor from note one, Mumford and company shedding their skin once again to great effect. A few years ago I was sure that Mumford and Sons would just fade away, a here-and-gone fad. But they’ve proven me wrong, more than once now, and I’m grateful. Deltais the sound of a band who wants to be here for the long haul, and I hope they are.

* * * * *

 

I have two more records brought to you by the letter M to talk about here, and both were pleasant surprises. Not that I expected either one to be bad, but I didn’t expect either one to exist, and I’m glad they both do.

Let’s start with Andrew McMahon, whose solo project is called Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness. He’s a piano player and songwriter with a winning sense of earnest sentimentality, and I’ve been a fan for a long time. He’s only 36, but he’s fronted two bands (Something Corporate and Jack’s Mannequin), and Upside Down Flowers is his third solo album. I wasn’t expecting it this year, hot on the heels of his second, Zombies on Broadway, and I also wasn’t expecting it to be the opposite of that album. Where Zombies was huge and pop-oriented, Flowers is thoughtful and organic. It’s mainly slow piano ballads, and McMahon excels at those.

I do wish I liked the opener, “Teenage Rockstars,” more than I do. It’s a very simple song, but it’s clearly an important one for McMahon – it details his time in Something Corporate, a band he started at age 16. It’s just too simple for me, thudding through an obvious chord progression and melody, which is a shame considering its personal lyric. The rest of the record is much more successful, especially “Ohio,” “Paper Rain” and “House in the Trees,” which are all classic McMahon songs.

Even the lesser ones, “Teenage Rockstars” aside, are written very well here. “Monday Flowers” is a superb little story-song, one you might expect from Ben Folds or Elton John in his prime. I’m a fan of the sparse waltz “This Wild Life,” and the anthemic “Goodnight Rock and Roll,” but I have a special place in my heart for “Careless,” which skates along on a glitchy little beat to a U2-ish chorus about pushing away those who love you most. Closer “Everything Must Go” is touching, a song about moving on, yet keeping what matters most.

Considering how quickly he must have put it together, Upside Down Flowers is a really nice little record. It’s not revelatory like the first Wilderness album, but it shines a spotlight on McMahon’s heartfelt songwriting, stripping the sound back and letting the songs breathe. There’s very little Andrew McMahon could do to make me dislike him, and this record certainly didn’t manage that.

As surprised as I was to see a new McMahon album so soon, it’s nothing compared to how gobsmacked I was to hear that Midnight Oil had reunited last year for a world tour. It’s no exaggeration to say this Australian outfit is one of the most important bands to ever stride the earth, and I envy everyone who took the opportunity to see them play for what might be the final time. I would have loved to, and I can’t for the life of me remember now why I didn’t.

But at least I have Armistice Day: Live at the Domain, Sydney as a consolation prize. Recorded on Nov. 11 of last year in one of the hometown clubs where the band began (in 1972!), Armistice Day is simply wonderful. I don’t want to spend a lot of time dissecting highlights, because there really aren’t any low lights. This is Midnight Oil live on stage, ripping through a set of songs that runs the gamut of their catalog. Peter Garrett, for years out of commission while he served as a member of the Australian parliament, is on fire here, spitting and snarling some of the most politically charged material they’ve written. Guitarist Jim Moginie and drummer Rob Hirst sound like they’ve never been away.

Midnight Oil is a band we need right now, and I hope they’re working on new material. On the evidence of Armistice Day (named after one of their most urgent songs, which opens this show), they’re in fine form, reinvigorated and ready to pounce. I’m so looking forward to what they do next.

Speaking of next, we have one more straight-up review column this year, and I’ll probably talk about the great new Donnie Vie record, among others. Then we’re into December, when I’ll be posting about Christmas music, honorable mentions and the 2018 Top 10 List. The year’s almost over. I can hardly believe it.

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See you in line Tuesday morning.

Competing Theories
Muse Goes '80s, Hanson Goes Orchestral

I’m a writer. I’ve been writing all my life, and doing it professionally since 1996. I’ve never really wanted to be anything else. Like all writers, I was a reader first, and I credit a few authors with teaching me about the joy of language and inspiring me to make it my trade. One of them is the late, great Douglas Adams, whose Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a master class in bending words to one’s will. Another is Stephen King, whose books I read at far too young an age, but whose imagination thrilled me.

Before both of them, though, there was Stan Lee.

Lee was the first author whose name I committed to memory. Spider-Man was the first character I fell in love with. In collaboration with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, Stan Lee created an entire universe that I loved to visit. My grandfather would take me on Sunday afternoons to the newsstand and buy me reprints of old ‘60s comics by Lee, Kirby and Ditko. I had no idea they were reprints – to me, they were new stories, and they burst off the page in full, glorious color.

I later learned that Stan Lee’s primary innovation in comics just happened to be the thing I loved most about his work as a boy – the heroes were flawed and fallible and relatable. I don’t think it’s any surprise to anyone who knows me that I saw myself in Peter Parker, the awkward and shy kid who lived a secret life as Spider-Man. I dreamed up secret lives for myself all the time as a kid. It was Stan Lee who taught me (through Spider-Man) that with great power comes great responsibility, a lesson that still burns at the core of who I am. From those to whom much is given, much is expected. Be grateful and treat each other well, and use your gifts to make the world a better place.

I know whole generations of kids only know Stan Lee as the old guy who crops up in every Marvel movie. I also know that among those who understand his legacy, he’s controversial, infamously unwilling to give his collaborators the credit they deserve. Stan Lee was a huckster and a showman, but he was also a creative force, and for a young kid growing up on comic books, he was my gateway to other worlds. His impact on my life and the lives of so many others is incalculable.

Stan Lee died yesterday at age 95. I join the chorus of millions paying tribute to him today, by saying simply this: Thank you, Stan, and excelsior.

* * * * *

I remember when Muse was just another guitar-rock band from England.

I was working at a music magazine when their first album, 1999’s Showbiz, came out. We received a promo copy of it, which I still have. It struck me as decent, but it never distinguished itself from the mold that Radiohead had crafted (and then shattered with OK Computer). I didn’t expect much from Muse, but I have to admit they’ve surprised me at every turn since then.

If I could have peeked 20 years into the future, I probably would have been surprised to find that Muse had not only soldiered on, but evolved into one of the most ridiculous, awesome rock bands on the planet. Their main strength and weakness remains their seemingly genetic inability to half-ass anything. They not only embrace every idea they have, good and bad, they follow those ideas to their most absurd conclusions, committing and then doubling down. When those impulses come together, we get something fantastic, like The Resistance. When they chase down folly, we get something insane, like The 2nd Law. And you never know which way they’ll go each time out.

Muse’s eighth album is called Simulation Theory. If you’ve seen the cover, drawn by the artist who designed the marketing imagery for Stranger Things, you probably know two things about the record before diving in. First, this is the album on which Muse goes full Tron, indulging all of their ‘80s synthwave fantasies. And second, in true Muse fashion, they fully committed to this transformation. When Muse says they’re going ‘80s, they mean it.

Simulation Theory is drowning in synthesizers. At times you could be forgiven for thinking you were listening to the Blade Runner soundtrack. Since they’re a trio with progressive rock tendencies, it’s always tempting to relate Muse to Rush, and the sound here falls somewhere between “Subdivisions” and “Distant Early Warning,” though not exactly like either of those. It’s big – enormous, even – with Matthew Bellamy’s elastic voice gliding atop monolithic walls of guitar and keyboard sounds out of a Thompson Twins record. Yet somehow it still sounds like Muse. (It was produced by Rich Costey, who helmed two of their classics, Absolution and Black Holes and Revelations.)

And it contains its fair share of great ideas and terrible ones, all taken deathly seriously with complete buy-in. I love “Pressure,” which sounds like classic Muse with a pulsing synth base. It has a stomping guitar part, a catchy chorus with some delightful falsetto, and an attitude that won’t quit. Right next to it is “Propaganda,” testing my patience with its “prop-op-op-op-op-pa-gan-gan-da” refrain, which sounds like it’s being delivered by a video game character. Its beat is slinky, Bellamy sounds great on it, but I just can’t do it. Every time the refrain comes around, I’m taken right out, the band’s spell broken.

But that’s life as a Muse fan, and thankfully Simulation Theory has more good ideas than bad ones. I’m not even sure what to make of “Break it To Me,” which combines a bluesy guitar part with a Middle Eastern-sounding vocal melody over a trip-hop beat, Bellamy whispering the title every few seconds. But I love “Something Human,” a slick ballad I could imagine hearing on the radio in 1985. “Get Up and Fight” is a standard Muse inspirational lyric set to surprisingly danceable synth burbles before the guitars bring it into the ‘90s, while the vaguely Gospel “Dig Down” makes the most of its throbbing bass, Bellamy channeling his inner Bono.

Given some of the excesses of Muse albums past, like the full symphonic excursions on The Resistance and Drones, this album is one of the band’s most reserved. Granted, that’s a relative term when it comes to this group, but Simulation Theory’s 11 short songs showcase their new sound without overblowing it. This is a strong piece of work, another reinvention in a career full of them. If you’d handed me this album in 1999 and told me it was by the same band who made Showbiz, I wouldn’t have believed it. They’ve gone some remarkable places just by being unafraid, and that confidence, for good and ill, is on full display on this record. When it’s good, though, it’s very good.

* * * * *

Speaking of bands that ‘90s me would have been surprised to know are still going strong, there’s Hanson.

I’m on record as a Hanson fan. I have been for a long time, probably since their second major label album, 2000’s This Time Around. They’re a swell pop band, and each of the brothers can sing, play and write indelible pop and rock tunes. They’re not earth-shakingly great, and I expect they’ll never make an album that I’d call a profound work of art. But they’re fun, and their songs are delightful.

If you want a good summary of those songs over the past 20+ years, you won’t do better than picking up String Theory, their new double album. Working with arranger David Campbell, the brothers Hanson spent the last couple years putting together a cohesive show that (ahem) strings older songs together with new ones, and dresses them up with an orchestra. The result is something like a cast recording of a Broadway revue, only with the original singers front and center. The 23 songs that make up String Theory tell a loose tale about young kids who follow their dreams, even through hard times, and come out the other side as happy adults. Which ought to remind you of three brothers from Tulsa.

I think I’m angrier than the band ever was that “MMMBop” remains their only hit, and the fact that the brothers fully embrace this song, playing it live and including it here, should make me feel better about it. “MMMBop” appears early on String Theory, in a nice mix of its early ballad form and the pop single everyone knows, and it represents youthful exuberance (along with similar early hit “Where’s the Love”). They sing it like an old friend, slotting it into their career at just the right spot, and once it’s out of the way, they dig deep into their catalog, giving us gems like “Tragic Symphony” and “Siren Call” and “Me, Myself and I.”

And what about the string arrangements? Well, they’re awesome. They’re big and bold, of course, full Broadway settings with almost no subtlety. But that’s fine, since Hanson songs are rarely subtle. The orchestrations fully reinvent an early-career trifle like “Yearbook,” and invigorate a relatively new piece of awesome like “Siren Call.” (Seriously, this is one of the best songs the Hansons have ever written.) The new tunes, like the two-part “Reaching for the Sky” and “Battle Cry,” hold everything together nicely. The second disc delves into latter-day numbers like the new single “I Was Born,” and everything wraps up with the lovely “Tonight,” from their most recent album Anthem.

I love String Theory. It’s at once a well-curated flight through the catalog of a band that I think deserves a lot more respect than they get, and a nice reinvention of that catalog. Hanson is touring this album now, playing it straight through with an orchestra, and it’s a show I’d love to see. Over the past 20 years I’ve been a longtime fan of a lot of bands who have rewarded that loyalty with consistently excellent work, and Hanson numbers among them. They knew who they were before the world did, and they never backed down, believing in their own talent. I’m so glad that String Theory is their story.

Next week, Andrew McMahon and Mumford and Sons. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

And Metal for All
Metallica, Tourniquet and My Lifelong Love of All Things Heavy

Every once in a while, I like to remind you all that I used to be a teenage metalhead.

I know it’s hard to imagine now, but once I had the whole package: long hair, denim jacket, attitude, everything. I was your typical depressed and angry teen, and metal was an outlet. It’s not an unfamiliar song, I grant you, but I sang it with gusto. And for a while there, I would rarely listen to anything else. I’m fond of saying that at one point in my life, I would have fought anyone who suggested that Megadeth’s Rust in Peace was not the best album ever made.

I’ve cut my hair, and my outfits now largely consist of button-down shirts and sweaters, but I’ve carried my love of metal with me for the rest of my life. If I’m looking for something to engage both the technical, analytical parts of my brain and my need to prance around a room screaming at the top of my lungs, I just can’t do any better. Each year I buy a dozen or more new metal records, and as the art form has branched out and evolved, so have my tastes.

I can trace this all back to a single album, a 67-minute gateway drug that has influenced my life more than most other music combined. That album is Metallica’s …And Justice for All, the first metal album I truly fell for. I remember borrowing it from Jack Sabetta in eighth grade, and listening to it over and over again for days before buying my own cassette copy. I’d never heard anything like it. These songs were massive things, full of twisty corridors and lengthy, intricate passages, and the lyrics were more socially relevant than anything else I had heard at the tender age of 14.

And of course, having no experience at all with metal and how it is supposed to sound, I spent way too long thinking that the mix on …And Justice for All was just how metal was. Spoiler: it isn’t. In fact, there is no other album ever made that sounds like this one does. That boxed-in, claustrophobic, bass-deficient mix is unique, the result of Lars Ulrich’s tin ear and insistent demands. Justice was the first album to feature Jason Newsted on bass, and Lars mixed him right out. He made his own drums sound like they were recorded from a different room. He built these strange sonic walls to deaden everything, and for the entirety of this album’s running time, you’re trapped in those walls too.

It’s been 30 years since Justice came out, and still nothing else feels quite like it. The band has just released an anniversary edition, and if you think they took the opportunity to correct what to most other people would register as a sonic mistake, you’d be wrong. Justice still sounds unimaginably terrible, but in this newly remastered version, you can hear with unprecedented clarity just how unimaginably terrible it is. In the intervening years I have come to think of the mix as a feature and not a bug – it conveys the bleak despair of every one of these songs extremely well. It’s interesting to have proof that the band agrees.

But honestly, whenever I listen to Justice, I’m 14 years old again. To paraphrase Nick Hornby, I’m not sure if I was a depressed teenager because I listened to music like this, or if I listened to music like this because I was a depressed teenager. Either way, Justice is one of the bleakest albums I own. It starts with a song about how our environment is being irrevocably destroyed (in 1988!), then moves through pieces about sorrow and insanity and the lack of any real relief for suffering people. Its big hit, “One,” is about a kid who gets his arms and legs blown off in the war, and is forced to live a mute, blind, deaf existence in a limbless shell. Cheery stuff.

And I love it. I love this record, even when it’s putting me through the interminable “To Live is to Die.”Justice is the very definition of uncompromising, with songs that stretch to eight, nine and ten minutes with no variety of sound. Even now, it remains fascinating, the last gasp of prog-metal Metallica before they decided to become rock stars. Three decades later and I still can’t get enough of it. It ignited within me a love and hunger for this kind of music, one which continues to this day.

Case in point: I’m deeply digging the new Tourniquet album, Gazing at Medusa. Without Justice, I might never have heard records like Vengeance’s Human Sacrifice and Deliverance’s self-titled debut, both of which led me to their label-mate Tourniquet’s first two albums. Had I never heard Stop the Bleeding and Psychosurgery, I would have missed out on one of the most fascinating rides in my metal-loving life.

Tourniquet has been around since 1989, led by mastermind Ted Kirkpatrick. Ted is a drummer, and one of the best in the business, but he’s also a devotee of classical music, and he brings that sensibility to everything his band does. Gazing at Medusa is the tenth Tourniquet album, and the band has been through at least as many changes. They started out playing speed-thrash with Beethoven licks thrown in, and their first three albums are largely considered their best. The arrival of singer Luke Easter in 1994 heralded an era of slower, more groove-driven material, which is reductive at best – Tourniquet has never been an easy band to box in.

Easter left the band after 2012’s terrific Antiseptic Bloodbath, and with 2014’s Onward to Freedom being more of a various artists collection, Medusa is the debut of the new Tourniquet. Their new singer is Tim “Ripper” Owens, famous for taking Rob Halford’s place in Judas Priest for a few years. (If you’ve seen that movie Rock Star with Mark Wahlberg, that’s about Owens.) Whatever else you can say about him, he’s a hell of a singer, and he attacks this material the way he attacks everything.

Kirkpatrick and longtime guitarist Aaron Guerra handle the music, with early Megadeth star Chris Poland on lead guitar solos. The result is classic Tourniquet, big and thrashy and complicated, with layered guitars and tricky passages galore. “Sinister Scherzo” is everything there is to love about modern Tourniquet, including a lengthy Poland solo. “Memento Mori” does kill the momentum a little bit – it’s reminiscent of “Officium Defunctorum,” from Psychosurgery – but they kick it back into gear with the great “All Good Things Died Here,” and never slow it down again.

The lyrics are more straightforward than Tourniquet sometimes is – they tend to couch their spiritual themes in medical metaphors, but in this case they just say what’s on their minds. “The Peaceful Beauty of Brutal Justice,” for instance, begins with a family sitting in court alongside the man who killed their daughter, and Owens just flat-out asks the question: “Where is justice in this world?” The song (which is terrific) is about how the wicked will be sent into damnation, and it makes room for, of all things, a flute melody in the middle.

For eight of these nine songs, Tourniquet sounds like a cohesive unit, (ahem) ripping through a set of songs that lives up to their legacy. The ninth is the title track, and this one features a different set of musicians for some reason, including Journey drummer Deen Castronovo on vocals, and it makes for a slightly awkward conclusion. But it’s a really good song, crashing in on half a dozen killer riffs one after the other, Kirkpatrick just tearing it up. Castronovo’s voice is more Dream Theater than Ripper’s, but it works on this song, and there’s enough energy and complexity that it still feels like Tourniquet.

I’m a longtime fan and even I didn’t expect Gazing at Medusa to be as tight, polished and strong as it is. Best of all, it just rocks – it’s great for jumping around the room like a madman. I’m all for diverse sounds in my metal – I love Soulfly and Holy Fawn and Bell Witch and Deliverance’s Bowie years – but there’s something to be said for a rip-snorting record like this one that wastes no time and just pummels you. I’d have loved this at 14, and I love it now. You can also love it at their site: www.tourniquet.net.

Next week, Muse and Hanson. Beat that combination. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.