By Antony Lyon. Last year, my music listening habits surprised me; now I suspect they heralded the new normal. I make a lot of playlists – thirteen this year by my count. I enjoy the deliberate process of making a soundtrack for the moment, and I spent a lot of my listening time putting them together. My two most-spun albums this year were not from 2018. One was U2’s Songs Of Experience, which is a late 2017 album. Predictably, I listened to it a lot. As with any old friend, I (almost) forgive its flaws and only hear its virtues. As I said last year, it’s not an album that will convert late-period-U2 skeptics, but for the believers among us, it deepens a great band’s legacy. By a mile, my most-spun album is Teenage Fanclub’s Songs From Northern Britain. This 1998 album, a pastoral folk-rock exploration emerging from the Scottish Highlands, received a lovely polishing with a new remaster this year. This remastered edition coincided with a moment in my life, and now the album occupies one of those mystical spaces for me. I’m destined to listen to it on a walk in the Highlands and to weep like a child. I can’t wait.
There were several electronica albums this year that I connected with. And since electronica is a great soundscape for working, when I connect with one, it gets a lot of playtime from this middle-aged music geek. The best among them were Leon Vynehall’s Nothing Is Still, which bridges the natural and digital to create an immersive environment, and Maribou State’s Kingdom In Colour, which is a charming album for evening gatherings.
My indie-alternative world is shrinking, but a few broke through. Gaz Coombes’ The World’s Strongest Man finds the former Supergrass singer channeling Radiohead for a great Britpop record. DC’s Flasher produced a gauzy, blissed out pleasure with Constant Image. Let’s Eat Grandma’s I’m All Ears is the joyous expression of two millennial youths who don’t care a thing about genre or your expectations. The epic “Donnie Darko” produced the most spine-tingling musical moment of my year during one 3am listening. It’s brilliant. It’s overblown. I’m all for it. Speaking of overblown, The 1975’s A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships is too much. This is its strength. I’ve whittled it down to a lean nine songs that makes for one of the best listening experiences of the year. Every year I dismiss something that time teaches I should not have. This year, it was Isaac Gracie’s self-titled album. It’s melodramatic. It sounds like Jeff Buckley covering Oasis, which is better than the other way around! (I wrote this line before Spencer’s Year In Music description that used the same two references; if we agree, then I suppose it must be true.) I don’t know. It works when you’re in the mood. The clouds gather on the horizon. The temperature drops. Isaac Gracie is there for you.
I thought the year in singer-songwriters was solid, but shy of spectacular. Glen Hansard’s Between Two Shores has not left my rotation all year. He owns me, and I’m perfectly okay with that. Like anyone with a heart, I love Kacey Musgraves and Golden Hour is her finest yet. I enjoyed the off-kilter point of view of Portland-based Hayley Heynderickx’s I Need To Start A Garden. I waited half the year to hear the Boygenius EP, a team-up of three talented songwriters—Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus, and Phoebe Bridgers. I was not disappointed. I like their collaborative effort more than any of their solo ones, and I like their solo work quite a bit! The way their voices support each other in harmony gives the songs a depth and community that their often-starkly-alone solo work lacks (by design). It’s worth mentioning that the Villagers’ The Art Of Pretending To Swim is orchestral folk at its most ornately beautiful. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats turned out a tender beast of an album with Tearing At The Seams. Gregory Alan Isakov’s Evening Machines builds on Isakov’s previous work. My only complaint is that the album lacks the dynamic swell and intimacy of his live show.
Lastly, year-end lists and a friend’s recommendation had me seek out Jeff Tweedy’s Warm. It’s been a while since I connected with Tweedy, but this record is absolutely devastating. It’s direct and intimate. It’s the product of grappling with your place in the world, with who you are and being okay with it. This just might be the best album of the year.
Albums mentioned above:
Flasher, Constant Image
Gaz Coombes, The World’s Strongest Man
Glen Hansard, Between Two Shores
Gregory Alan Isakov, Evening Machines
Hayley Heynderickx, I Need To Start A Garden
Isaac Gracie, S/T
Jeff Tweedy, Warm
Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour
Leon Vynehall, Nothing Is Still
Let’s Eat Grandma, I’m All Ears
Maribou State, Kingdom In Colour
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, Tearing At The Seams
Teenage Fanclub, Songs From Northern Britain (2018 Remastered)
U2, Songs Of Experience
Villagers, The Art Of Pretending To Swim
The 1975, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships (Tracks 2, 4-7, 10-12, 15)