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.

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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

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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

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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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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

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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:

Next week, Muse and Hanson. Beat that combination. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at

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Church Music
Recent Missives from Another World

For most of my music-loving life I have existed in two worlds.

I adore a lot of music that everyone else knows about, music that can be heard on the radio or that racks up tons of listens on Spotify. I get and give recommendations all the time for new bands that exist in the relative mainstream. My favorite records of this year – Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer, Jukebox the Ghost’s Off to the Races, Darlingside’s Extralife – are all part of this mainstream, and I feel like I can talk to anyone about any of these records and we’ll all have similar experiences with them.

But ever since I was a child, I’ve also lived in that bizarre corner of the music world labeled Christian. As I’ve mentioned here before, my whole life changed when I picked up the Choir’s Circle Slide in 1990, based solely on the gorgeous cover art. Circle Slide was my gateway drug to a whole new world of fantastic music hidden away from the mainstream, shoved into a box marked “religious” and ignored. Unlike with most music, it’s hard to find people who have had the same experience of this stuff, so I treasure those connections when they come.

For the past few years I have been a member of a Facebook group that brings those of us who came of age in the ‘80s and ‘90s listening to Christian music together. It’s a delightfully diverse place, making room for those whose faith has never faltered, those who love the music but don’t subscribe to the beliefs, and those who no longer enjoy either the music or the faith, but want that hit of nostalgia. This music has informed my life so completely over the last 30 years or so that it’s such a joy to have people to share it with.

Not that I don’t try to mix the worlds. I’ve made it my mission to bring more attention to the bands I love from that forgotten realm, especially the Choir, Daniel Amos, the 77s and Adam Again. Next week I’m going to review the new Tourniquet album, and I’m just going to treat it like another metal record, despite the fact that I never would have heard of Tourniquet without people like Chris Callaway sharing Christian metal with me. This week I thought I would introduce you to several pretty great new records from bands and artists that have at least one foot in that world, and hopefully show that the music I’m talking about is a far, far cry from the soulless stuff on K-LOVE.

We can start with the most well-known of the bunch. Even people who aren’t familiar with Christian music have heard of DC Talk, who made a mainstream impact in the ‘90s with Jesus Freak and its major-label follow-up, Supernatural. DC Talk broke up shortly after that, with TobyMac and Michael Tait going on to have increasingly depressing careers in radio-ready “encouraging” Christian pop. But the third member of the trio, Kevin Max, has forged an altogether more fascinating solo path. He’s made more than a dozen albums in a variety of styles, each one with his signature sense of poetry and weirdness.

Max gifted us with two albums this year, both of them outside the realm of anything he’s done before. The first of them, AWOL, is a rich and textured ‘80s alternative album that features some of the best songs he’s ever written. If you’re judged by the company you keep, then the fact that Andy Rourke of the Smiths plays bass on this thing should be an indication of how good it is. The chiming guitars and lush synths scream Echo and the Bunnymen, or the Church, and Max’s singular voice sounds awesome in this setting – he’s able to go full Simon Le Bon here, and it works.

But it’s the songs that make this record. They’re unfailingly melodic, dark and atmospheric. “Prodigal (Run to You)” is a classic pop tune with some delightful guitar flourishes, “Glory Boys” is a perfect Duran Duran tribute, “Half of the Better One” jangles with the best of them, “Brand New Hit” swaggers on a bold, punky bass line and the title track feels like something the Alarm might turn out. It’s solid all the way through, and played with verve. If you miss the days of “Girls on Film” and “The Killing Moon,” this is the album for you.

Max refers to his second album of 2018 as a side project, but it’s hard for me to consider it as such. Romeo Drive is a natural evolution from AWOL, taking the plunge into full synthwave. It’s a conceptual piece that brings Blade Runner to mind more than once, particularly on the opening spoken word piece “2079.” This record pulses and throbs with vintage synthesizer sounds, and once again, Max’s voice sounds great in this context. I’m a big fan of “Arms of Orion” and “Pretend to Dance,” with its eerie oscillating keyboard sounds. This is a full-bore dive into a style Max has never tried before, and he tops it off with great covers of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and, strikingly, the 77s’ “Ba Ba Ba Ba.”

You can pick up these records and more at

Of course, while church kids were listening to DC Talk, I was in search of more obscure and interesting music from the Christian ghetto. One of the earliest bands I found myself drawn to was the Altar Boys, who were among the first Christian punk artists. Yes, this sounds like an oxymoron, but it isn’t – there’s a definite theme of rebelling from the demands of the world to Christianity, and that can easily be repurposed into punk music. The Altar Boys were great, too – they were straightforward and simple at times, but they rocked.

After five records (culminating in my favorite, the more mature Forever Mercy), the Boys broke up in 1991, but not before writing and demoing their sixth, No Substitute. That album has languished unreleased since, while leader Mike Stand has gone on to a solo career and an ongoing stint with his rockabilly band, the Altar Billies. Now, thanks to the always-wonderful Lo-Fidelity Records, No Substitute has been finished and released. And it’s really neat.

I can easily imagine this record coming out in 1991, just as it is. Substitute rocks harder than Forever Mercy, but it follows the same, more mature path, with mid-tempo songs that split the difference between Springsteen and Social Distortion. It’s a rousing collection of shout-alongs with simple spiritual messages of hope. I’m a fan of “History Comes Back to Haunt This World” and the title track, but it’s all good. More than that, though, it’s a piece of history that I never knew I needed. If you know the Altar Boys, your collection is incomplete without this. If you don’t, it’s a good way to learn what they were all about. Check it out here:

History is great and all, but what about what’s happening now? Glad you asked. I’ve found no better way of keeping up with the cutting edge of spiritual rock music than going to the AudioFeed Festival in Champaign each year. This fest has introduced me to some of my favorite new bands, and opened my eyes to several acts toiling in obscurity out of my sight. I’ve talked about many of them here, from Von Strantz to Ravenhill to Hushpad to The Soil and the Sun.

Last year’s big discovery for me was the Gray Havens, a husband and wife duo reminiscent of Gungor, but certainly doing their own thing. David and Licia Radford began their collaboration in a folksy vein, but have added more electronic instrumentation as they’ve evolved. Now with their third full-length, She Waits, they’ve fully transformed into something fascinating. Instead of acoustic folk with some electronic splashes, this album is almost fully synth-driven, with almost no guitars at all.

It’s also the most cohesive thing they’ve done. Three of its 11 songs are interludes, taking you by the hand and guiding you to the next thought, and though the songs are diverse – this record leaps from the contemplative title track to the joyous death song “See You Again” to the trippy and wonderful “High Enough” without allowing you to catch your breath – it flows beautifully. The production is layered and interesting, mixing in violins and sound effects and all manner of other things, and their choices are unfailingly surprising. “High Enough” is one left turn after another, gliding from piano to a big beat to a verse by rapper Propaganda to a refrain by Licia that will get stuck in your head. It’s a little masterpiece.

She Waits is a tidy 34 minutes, but it covers a huge amount of ground in a short time. A song like “Three Birds in Babylon” is deceptively simple – pianos, big beats – but there’s so much to it, and it’s so well written. It slides effortlessly into the comparatively straightforward soulful worship song “Storehouse,” on which David Radford really shows what he can do vocally. When “Forever” segues into the final interlude, “Morning Light,” it really feels like you’ve been somewhere, guided by expert hands.

I highly recommend this album. Previous Gray Havens records have been good, but this one is excellent, and I wouldn’t hesitate to put it in front of anyone. You can check it out here:

None of the above is what most people would consider church music. British band Rivers and Robots isn’t quite in line with the accepted idea of liturgical music either, but they’re the closest we’re going to get to this week, and I did discover them in church. I’ve come to think of Rivers and Robots as a strange and kind of beautiful experiment – they marry obvious and straightforward worship lyrics with tricky and subtle music that is far too complicated for most church worship bands to play. I’m not sure what they’re trying to prove with this experiment, but I enjoy it.

I have always been far more about the music than the words anyway, which is good, since Rivers and Robots (their name is the juxtaposition of organic and electronic that you hear in their sound) don’t put a huge amount of thought into theirs. Listen to CCM radio for half an hour and you’ll get just about all the phrases this band uses. But the music! I can’t get enough of their music. Their new album Discovery is their most synth-driven, and it contains some of their most complex work.

I can’t get enough of “Overflow,” for instance, which is really three movements strung together over six minutes. Yeah, the words are all “your love flows like a river to my soul,” but the melody is just amazing. By the time it gets to the insistent synth bass part that announces the third movement, I’m so in. That kind of thing is all over this album, and even at my most resistant to standard worship music, Rivers and Robots capture me. This is the closest I think I will ever come to enjoying straight-up worship songs, and if that kind of thing doesn’t give you gives, try this band out:

There’s more. There’s always more. I am probably always going to live half my life in this world, sending little missives back. It’s a little lonely sometimes, but it’s so worth it. There’s so much astonishingly good music that I never would have heard otherwise, and I wouldn’t trade that music for anything. My life is so much richer for it.

Next week, metal. Metal! Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at

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Rosa and Neneh
And Our Broken Politics

This week Doctor Who unveiled its Rosa Parks episode.

I’d heard rumblings of this story for months, and ever since it was announced, I’ve been holding my breath. Doctor Who has never been known for its subtlety, and it sometimes handles issues-based stories with all the grace of a blind elephant. Tackling something as momentous as the American civil rights movement would be tricky even if the production team were three or four years in. It takes either incredible confidence or extraordinary foolhardiness to try this three episodes into a brand new era, with an untested showrunner, cast and crew.

But damn if they didn’t pull it off. The episode was written by children’s book author Malorie Blackman, with some credited rewrites by Chris Chibnall, and yeah, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of Chibnall rewriting a black woman’s Rosa Parks script. But I couldn’t really pick out his influence, which is a relief. The story is about a racist time agent from the future nudging history just a little bit off its tracks to derail the civil rights movement. If Rosa Parks does not refuse to give up her seat on a crowded bus in Montgomery, Alabama, the subsequent protests and marches may not happen, the Civil Rights Act may not be signed, and history will be changed.

That’s a very Doctor Who way to approach this story, and the parts of it that were about our character-deficient villain and the Doctor’s efforts to stop him were the weakest. The strongest parts focused on Rosa herself, brought to life magnificently by Vinette Robinson, and on the reality of life in Montgomery in 1955. The story is only minutes old when Ryan is accosted in the street for trying to return a white woman’s dropped glove. Yaz is mistaken for Mexican, and the two of them are bundled in and out of windows and kept out of sight. This leads to some difficult and wonderful conversations between the two of them about how hard even modern life is for them, something Doctor Who has never really broached before.

Jodie Whittaker is at her best in this episode – she’s funny, she’s quick-witted, she’s got that sharp edge that the Doctor always has, and her heart is in the right place. She’s still effortlessly the Doctor. Everything else is still catching up with her performance, but this story doesn’t have any of the growing pains of the previous two. It’s strong and confident, and the ending – in which Graham becomes the white man without a seat who spurs the bus driver to tell Rosa to move – grapples with white complicity, even for non-racist white people.

The benchmark for a Doctor Who story about Rosa Parks is “don’t screw it up.” Amazingly, I think they did better than that. I have a couple problems with the execution, mainly centering on the villain, but they’re minor. This is the first very good episode of the Chibnall era, and it makes me hopeful for more. I’m also hopeful that the show will continue to tackle issues like racism with the same unflinching earnestness of this story. Rosa feels important, like Doctor Who leveraging its platform for a greater good, and I want more of that.

* * * * *

I do wonder what Rosa Parks would make of our modern America, in which things are only marginally better for people of color than they were in her time. Trump’s America has been hardest on those already marginalized, and that is starting to be reflected in the art being made by non-white artists. I’ve waxed ecstatic about Janelle Monae’s amazing Dirty Computer, a complex plea for love and acceptance in the face of insane waves of bigotry, and it remains my favorite album of 2018. But she’s not alone in surveying the damage of our country and turning observations into compelling art.

Which brings us to Neneh Cherry, one of the most idiosyncratic and fascinating artists I know. Ever since her second album, 1992’s incredible Homebrew, Cherry has been an artist to watch. She blithely jumps genres, mixing rap and rock and progressive pop in her heyday, then leaving virtually all of those styles behind for her subsequent works. In 2014, after taking an interminable 18 years between solo records, Cherry returned with Blank Project, a harsh and minimal record that was nothing like anything she’d done. It was fantastic.

That album was produced by Kieran Hebden, better known as Four Tet. Four years later, she’s reunited with Hebden for her new one, Broken Politics, and it’s even better. True to its title, this is a harsh look at modern life, but it’s also a beautiful thing – it’s richer and more ambient in nature than Blank Project, feeling more meditative and mournful than anything else. Pianos and stark beats abound, softer and more ethereal beds for Cherry’s wandering vocal melodies. It is, again, like nothing she has done, and again, it’s excellent.

Even more than ProjectPolitics is a headphone album. None of its songs are immediate – they weave a spell, slowly and patiently, often never reaching the moment of release their restrained arrangements seem to promise. The faint jazz overtones of something like “Deep Vein Thrombosis” never morph into full-on jamming, preferring to keep the focus on Cherry’s voice with only an electric piano and a minimal beat to keep her company. Hebden worked the same magic on Project, but while that one kept the listener at arm’s length, this one is warm and inviting and easy to love.

All of which belies the pointed nature of its lyrics. Cherry has said she prefers to stay away from grand pronouncements and big statements, focusing instead on the personal toll the political situation has taken on her and others. Activism, she says, begins with the personal. That’s not to say she doesn’t address bigger topics – the amazing “Faster Than the Truth” finds her rapping again over a tremendous restrained beat about being surrounded by lies: “All the way I run, no nearer have I come, lies travel faster than the truth…” “Shot Gun Shack” is about guns. “Black Monday” is about abortion.

But beautiful songs like “Kong” are about finding hope in small things, and speaking that hope with loud voices. “Bite my head off, still my world will always be a little risk worth taking,” she sings. Throughout Broken Politics, Cherry makes the case that rising up sometimes looks like small acts of personal dignity, of refusing to be beaten down. The music follows suit, each song delivering small, hidden bits of beauty. It’s a perfect marriage of form and function, of music and lyric completing one another.

That said, it’s still an uncompromisingly weird record. I wouldn’t expect anything less. I’m thrilled that Neneh Cherry continues to make music, nearly 30 years after her one hit, and that said music remains this bizarre, this singular. She’s a one-of-a-kind artist, and she proves it each time out. Broken Politics filters the harsh and difficult reality of our world into strange and beautiful art. It feels necessary and important, but most of all it feels 100 percent like Neneh Cherry, as awesome as ever.

Next week, church music. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at

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Best Brits Over 50
With Doctor Who, Elvis Costello and Richard Thompson

We’re two episodes into the new season of Doctor Who, and so far, it feels nothing like Doctor Who.

This isn’t a bad thing. I’ve been watching this show since I was six years old, and for all that time, it’s main message has been this: the only constant is change. Doctor Who is a story about an alien with a magic box that can go anywhere in time and space. That is possibly the greatest premise in the history of television, since it allows the show to do anything, to be anything, and to change it up from week to week. This is a show that flips genres every chance it gets, giving us a horror film one week, a science fiction adventure the next and a dramatic history lesson the next.

Add to that the concept of regeneration – the Doctor’s body changes completely every few years, allowing for new actors to play the part and entirely new casts to rotate in and out – and you have the perfect recipe for an infinitely malleable series. We’ve had 13 lead actors playing the part now, and each is very different from the other. But until this year, they’ve all shared one inescapable trait: they’ve all been white men. That’s changed with the brilliant casting of Jodie Whittaker as the first female Doctor, and it’s a shot in the arm that this series needed.

But here’s the thing: a new lead actor is rarely the sea change you’d think it is. The real changes come when the creative team refreshes, when the lead writers and producers who have made their mark on the show make room for new blood. In the revived series (the show ran from 1963 to 1989, then took a break until 2005, when Russell T. Davies returned it to our screens), we’ve seen five Doctors come and go, but the tone only significantly changed once: when Steven Moffat took over as show runner in 2010.

We’re in one of those seasons of change right now, and it might be the most significant and complete since the switch to color in 1970. Chris Chibnall, infrequent Doctor Who contributor and creator of Broadchurch, has taken the reins, and his mantra appears to be “change everything.” A lot of these changes are super exciting, from Whittaker’s casting to a whole new crop of writers and directors to the replacement of composer Murray Gold with Segun Akinola. Doctor Who, a show that has preached inclusion since the beginning, is now one of the most inclusive shows on television, hiring loads of women along with the show’s first writers of color and its first composer of color.

The result, as I said, looks nothing like Doctor Who. Virtually everything I have come to associate with the revived show, from the snappy pace to the quippy dialogue to the whole feel of the cinematography to the soaring orchestral music, is gone. Chibnall set himself a monumental task – to basically restart Doctor Who with an entirely clean slate – and he made it even more difficult by refusing to include any of the classic monsters and villains who have come to define the series as much as the Doctor and the TARDIS. No Daleks. No Cybermen. No appearances by the Master. These stories will stand or fall on their own.

So far, they’re standing, but they’re a little rickety. That’s not a surprise – Chibnall has never been the best writer in Britain, and when you change everything to this degree, there are bound to be a few growing pains along the way. Most people probably came into this 11th season (actually the 37th season, if you think of the old and new as one show) most worried about Whittaker, and how she would capture a character that has been male since its inception. As I thought she would be, she’s fantastic. She’s easily the best thing about this series so far. Her performance is manic yet measured, alien yet empathetic, much more immediately heroic than Peter Capaldi’s gruff twelfth Doctor, yet still as quirky and sometimes off-putting as every Doctor before her. She just, you know, is the Doctor, seemingly effortlessly, and when she’s on screen I can’t take my eyes off of her.

She has a full cast of companions this time, and we meet them all in the premiere, The Woman Who Fell to Earth. This is a pretty good regeneration story, Whittaker’s Doctor undergoing the usual mind-scrambling effects of changing every cell as an alien threat presents itself, and it feels intended to introduce our expansive cast, all of whom hail from the Yorkshire area of England. Graham, played by Bradley Walsh, is the gruff yet caring stepfather to Ryan, played by newcomer Tosin Cole. Ryan suffers from dyspraxia, a coordination disease, and I like how seriously the show and Cole have taken this so far. The cast is rounded off by PC Yasmin Khan, played by Mandip Gill, and she’s probably my favorite, even though we know the least about her so far.

One thing immediately apparent with The Woman Who Fell to Earth (and even more apparent with episode two, The Ghost Monument) is that the show has never looked this good. The BBC has clearly sunk some money into the cinematic style here, and the new directors seem more experimental than any of the older crop (except the amazing Rachel Talalay). There’s a darkness to the first episode that threatens to turn it into Torchwood, but the second is unfailingly bright – oppressively so – and it’s even more gorgeous. I can scarcely believe this is my little show, with its long history of rubber monster suits and wobbly sets.

As I expected, alas, Chibnall is the weak link so far. The two stories he has given us are… you know, fine. I was miles ahead of both of them, and they played out in a linear, straightforward way. Chibnall’s dialogue is functional, which is a huge comedown from the rapid-fire wit of Moffat’s Who, his characters are two-dimensional and his plotting is flimsy. The new monsters he’s introduced, the Stenza and the Remnants, are not winners, and the notion that the Stenza might be the big bad of the season is disheartening. Everyone’s doing their best with what Chibnall has given them, and I hope he settles in and finds a groove soon.

Until then, my hopes will lie with the other writers. Next week we get children’s author Malorie Blackman telling the tale of Rosa Parks, and man, I hope this is good. This season has introduced an astonishingly good new Doctor in a fairly mediocre way, and she deserves better. Honestly, everything about this season, from the actors to the cinematography to the pulsing electronic score, deserves better than what Chibnall is delivering. I’m hopeful that he’ll rise to the occasion soon enough, because he’s the only thing holding this back. Everything else feels nothing like Doctor Who, but feels right on.

* * * * *

Speaking of Brits over 50, I have a couple of them to talk about this week.

We should start with the celebration-worthy return of Elvis Costello. I will put this as simply as I can: any list of the world’s greatest living songwriters that does not include Costello is woefully incomplete. We are now more than 40 years past his riotous debut album, My Aim is True, and in that time he has given us 24 solo records and several collaborations with the likes of the Brodsky Quartet, Burt Bacharach, Allen Toussaint and the Roots. Along the way he’s tried on dozens of genres and styles, nimbly leaping from noisy guitar-rock to orchestral works to Americana to jazz standards without missing a beat.

You never quite know what Costello is going to give you next, but I’m always grateful for whatever he does. Listening to his work is like taking a master’s-level course in songwriting. His lyrics are bold and erudite, and the stories they tell rarely go where you expect. His musical choices are complex yet his songs are perfectly hummable, with new delights every few moments. He draws from so many different musical traditions that his albums often feel like classic songbooks, even though the songs themselves are all original. He makes records worthy of study, but they’re always just plain enjoyable too.

It’s been 10 years since Costello made an album with the Imposters, his longtime backing band. (They’re basically the Attractions with a different bass player.) Since then, he’s treated us to two records of dark Americana – I particularly love 2010’s National Ransom, an unheralded classic – and a stunning collaborative effort with the Roots. He’s back to business with Look Now, an absolutely wonderful collection of new songs with the Imposters and a host of guests. If you like the Elvis that made Imperial Bedroom, you’re gonna love this.

Look Now is sumptuous. Its sound is full and rich, its orchestral flourishes perfectly gauged. Costello himself sounds energized by these songs, many of which were written for Broadway shows that never saw the light of day. Several of them are sung from a woman’s point of view, including the resurrected oldie “Unwanted Number,” which adds complexity to these morality tales. Burt Bacharach and Carole King are listed as co-writers, and much of this record sounds right out of the classic heyday of pop songwriting. That the production has a Phil Spector tinge to it should not be surprising, given the material.

And the material is fabulous, from first note to last. Opener “Under Lime” is classic Costello, a sequel to National Ransom’s “Jimmie Standing in the Rain” that finds our not-quite-hero in a tryst with a showgirl. The music is amazing, taking melodic turns every few seconds and finding room for a choral arrangement and a brass band, as well as some sterling piano work by Steve Nieve. “It’s a long way down from that high horse you’re on” is as Elvis Costello a hook line as there ever has been. It takes a bit of courage to put this first – it’s so good that it threatens to outshine the rest of the record.

But the rest of the record steps up. We get some pretty piano pieces courtesy of Bacharach, like the gorgeous “Don’t Look Now,” and some killer bluesy pop, like the dark and fantastic “Mr. and Mrs. Hush.” King contributes to “Burnt Sugar is So Bitter,” a big-sounding minor-key pop masterwork reminiscent of Motown. “Suspect My Tears” is another classic, Costello giving it his all behind a sweeping string section. “I Let the Sun Go Down” is a lament for the man who lost the British empire. Amongst all of this, “Unwanted Number” (written for the 1996 film Grace of My Heart) fits in perfectly, Costello not sullying his tune by changing up the gender. (“How can I tell them, how can I express how it felt to step out of this life and into his embrace?”)

This is just a tremendous Elvis Costello album, a return to the classical pop he does so well. Not that he isn’t adept at the other styles he works in, but he seems to have a particular affinity for beautifully melodic pop music, one he hasn’t indulged in many years, and I’m overjoyed to hear him in this setting once again. The deluxe edition comes with a second CD with four more excellent songs, including last year’s single “You Shouldn’t Look at Me That Way.” Every bit of this album is a delight. I don’t know if Elvis Costello truly can do no wrong, but he’s certainly done no wrong here. Look Now is an instant classic.

Elvis Costello is 64, which makes him the second-oldest Brit in this column. (The Doctor is 55 this year.) The winner is Richard Thompson, who at 69 years old is still making vital, unshakeable music. I never see his name on lists of blisteringly good guitar players, and I’m always mystified by that. He’s been one of the very best for a long time, ever since trading in his acoustic when he left Fairport Convention in 1971. In the past few years he’s taken a tour of his catalog with three CDs of acoustic renderings, but now he’s come storming back with his 18th solo record, 13 Rivers.

And it’s awesome. Thompson traffics in a folksy-rock hybrid that finds him singing cautionary tales and old bard’s poetry over dark electric atmospheres. Opener “The Storm Won’t Come” is about a man looking for self-destruction, and it sets the tone – there’s a thunderous momentum to it, and Thompson stretches out both that deep, distinctive voice and his fantastic lead playing over six glorious minutes. I would be very surprised if anyone can hear the final minutes of this and still think Eric Clapton is all that.

The rest of 13 Rivers is just as swell. The stomping “The Rattle Within” lets loose on a tale of the darkness inside us all, with a thrilling percussive beat. The bluesy “Her Love Was Meant for Me” is a grimy crawl through a black soul. “Bones of Gilead” skips along like a freight train, “Trying” spins an oncoming wave out of bass and air, and the stonking “Pride” is like a creeping, dangerous take on a Byrds song. In the midst of this, he lets in a shaft of light with the delicate “My Rock, My Rope,” but that’s the only one. The other 12 of these rivers will drag you away in their current.

The fact that a 69-year-old man can make a record this vital, this alive, is sort of remarkable. Richard Thompson, like Elvis Costello, shows no signs of slowing down, or of sanding off the rough edges. As a guitar player and songwriter, he sounds just as hungry as he did 35 years ago. Every Richard Thompson album is worth hearing, but 13 Rivers is great even by his standards. It’s proof that he won’t go quietly, and I hope he keeps making records like this for a long time.

That’s it for this week. Next week, probably Neneh Cherry, and who knows what else. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at

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a column by andre salles