Best Thing I Heard First Quarter 2018

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Listen to the playlist on Spotify.

Wade Bowen, “Day of the Dead”

This year I learned about Red Dirt. It’s an independent strain of country music from Oklahoma and North Texas. It’s not “indie country” but every Red Dirt band is doing their own different thing, with a little more or less rock ‘n roll.

Aaron Watson was my introduction, so I’ve listened to him a lot. And this January I had Wade Bowen recommended by Spotify. The songs are hooky and studio spit-polished, but personal like the best true singer-songwriters. “Day of the Dead” stands out for its tejano-sound-border-town tale of lost love.

Diana Ross & The Supremes, “Up, Up, and Away”

I find this song irritating, generally. But I found this album through an artist interview in Uncut Magazine and it changed my view of this Jimmy Webb cheese-fest recorded by Diana Ross & The Supremes. The artist in that interview mentioned he liked to think of them not as themselves here, but a “funky space band”. The airy, jazzy arrangement is perfectly sweet without the dramatic cheesiness of other performances. It kind of blew me away. And Ross’ glassy soprano is so sincere. It lifts the song from variety show come-on to an offer I might just believe.

The Weather Station, “Thirty”

Kenton turned me on to The Weather Station, i.e. Tamara Linderman and her band. The Joni Mitchell comparisons are apt. On the slower songs, I think of Linda Perhacs as well. Or Bill Callahan (listen to him too!). Even Neil Young with that crazy horse guitar solo. She’s a great singer, but a killer lyricist as well. I’ve always loved Craig Finn’s sing-speak performances and Courtney Barnett blew everyone away last year.

The lyrics to “Thirty” start abstractly, but sharpen in verse three with a joke about the weak dollar. Verse four tumbles with word pictures and diaristic accounts of life relevant to any “slow-start” millennial coming of age about 10 years too late. Myself included.

Weyes Blood, “Diary”

In the same magazine I read about the Diana Ross & The Supremes album, there was also a great profile of The Weather Station. Everything connects! In a sidebar, Linderman lists Weyes Blood as an inspiration, with “Front Row Seat to Earth” the “best album of the past five years.” I can’t verify that, and I don’t know much more about Weyes Blood. But I get a Sixties, “Odyssey and Oracle” vibe with lots of psychedelic flute and distant-thunder interludes breaking dramatically into AM radio-worthy choruses. Sold.

Michael Nau, “Wonder”

I love how this song creaks to life in the first twenty seconds. It’s like dawn breaking on a hazy, yellow valley meadow. The artist has nothing to do today, nowhere to be, and no one waiting. He could do anything… or spend all that precious time just wondering about someone. A short, strummy, sunshiny pop delight.

Ride, “Vapour Trail”

This year was also the year I found I’d loved shoegaze all along. I never thought it would be my thing. I could appreciate the sound when I read about it, but the reality was I thought that I would find it boring so I never bothered to listen. Which is foolish. Always listen. This song is more accessible than most of Ride’s album. Droning, driving guitars picked up by an exuberant beat and neat melody. For me, it’s a relaxing kind of melancholy. The kind of thing that’s sad, even when it’s happy.

Jay Som, “The Bus Song”

I remember hearing about Jay Som on All Songs Considered early in 2017. It took my all year to look for her on my own. But somehow I was persuaded to listen to “The Bus Song” and was quickly charmed by the quirky, 90s alt vibe. The rest of her album is quite good, omnivorously hop-skipping genres. It goes well with Ride, and even Sunflower Bean. Perfect for spending the sunny afternoon in your bedroom.

Nils Frahm, “Fundamental Values”

Nils Frahm is an artist you read about fairly frequently for his piano-based instrumental albums. He’s yet another I passed on frequently as “not my thing”. But between that January Uncut and NPR, I understood this album was excellent and easy to get into. So, I tried it out and found a full basket of audio delights. I love how you can hear the soft pad of the keys depressing as he plays this intriguing theme.

James Blake, “Vincent”

I like James Blake best when he’s covering other artists. My favorite is still probably “A Case of You”. “Vincent” is a Harry Nilsson song, played here on solo piano with Blake singing the tender melody. I cried in the car, listening.

Jeffrey East, “Time Is Cold”

What a great voice! Lovely warm tone, silvery vocal runs. Essentially R&B verses, with a country radio-ready chorus. The kind of thing that would look and sound great as a duet with Alicia Keys on-stage at the Grammys. Which is the most Grammys thing I could think of. The rest of country music feels like it’s trying to catch up to the pop charts. Jeffrey East is far out ahead, succeeding without sacrificing any of his core country sound. Check out his other single “Still Crazy” for another great track.

Lo Moon, “Loveless”

NPR plugged Lo Moon relentlessly in 2017 on the strength of this huge single and its splashy drums, detached vocals, and shimmering synths. It’s not “In The Air Tonight”, but offers similar thrills by punctuating airy, eerie verses with a massive chorus.

Talk Talk, “Today”

Reviews of Lo Moon mention the vocalist’s similarities to Talk Talk. I dug into Talk Talk while eagerly anticipating the Lo Moon album and found a rich well of 80s New Romantic anthems.

Anthony Ramos, “Alright”

You might recognize Ramos’ voice from his appearance in “Hamilton” as Hamilton’s son, Philip. This uplifting anthem is at the end of his first solo EP, “Freedom”. Listen to the whole thing! It’s powerful, political soul music. He’s got great production partners giving momentum to the primarily electronic arrangements. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Joshua Hedley, “Mr. Jukebox”

Hedley is a country traditionalist with serious chops, having played Nashville’s bars and clubs for years representing himself and with other artists. This song plays on that history, building his credibility as a plays-everything-and-anything devotee of past masters. It’s a fun trifle really, but a perfect taster for his upcoming album. I hope he comes out with more tracks that maintain the craft and traditional style while bringing out a new edge to show fans what really makes him stand out.

Sunflower Bean, “Crisis Fest”

The first time I heard Sunflower Bean was on “Sound Opinions”. I’d downloaded a podcast episode before me and Angela’s Arkansas road trip in 2017. We listened to this episode on our way home, winding our way through Mark Twain National Forest to avoid flooding on Missouri’s rivers. The roller-coaster roads and bright sunshine strobing through endless rows of trees gave me the worst motion sickness. Long story short, I wasn’t paying attention to Sunflower Bean. Now I am.

The album shifts fluidly from Zeppelin rockers to gauzy dream-pop, with psychedelic flourishes and sparkly glam rock peeking in every few songs. I hear T-Rex, Big Star, Fleetwood Mac, and The Byrds at least. It’s like listening to my own personalized oldies station, but everything is brand new.

Towards the end of this quarter, I’ve felt burned out on my music. Sunflower Bean reminded me there’s so much great music to explore from the past and so much hope for more in the future.

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