A few years ago I started keeping an ongoing folder on my computer of the songs, both old and new, that made an impression on me that year. Basically, my favorite songs of the year, which I’ve continued doing every year since. In 2018 (as usual) it’s a pretty big list. But, if I had to pare it down to a core few – the ones I found myself returning to the most consistently, I can narrow it down to 18…in line with the year 2018.
Looking at them grouped together, I’m realizing that I seem to go for a lot of songs that have a happy/sad juxtaposition. I knew this about myself to some degree already, but it’s becoming more evident as I get older. I like that dichotomy – it makes the songs lodge in my cortex…or is it my cerebrum?…
Anyway, let’s start off with a few less “dichotomous” songs.
Sonny and the Sunsets– “Green Blood” (2013)
I found out about this one via an interview with The Essex Green’s Sasha Bell who lists it as one of her favorites. She was spot-on. The whole album – Antenna to the Afterworld – is cool and unusual, but this story within a song closing track is the crown jewel. The slacker-in-outer-space lead vocal, the additional “hip” female vocal (Him: “Well I don’t have to tell you just how great she was.” Her:“No, you don’t.”) Even the video is fun.
Material Issue – “Kim the Waitress” (1994)
I remember liking this song a lot when I first heard it years ago, then I forgot it. I read something earlier this year that mentioned it and an “Oh yeah!” lightbulb lit up in my head. I was hooked again. This time I read up on the song and found out it was a cover, originally by an 80s band called The Green Pajamas. Their version is more lo-fi, not as immediate or impassioned – but it still has the groovy sitar which makes the song stand out from the power pop pack and gives it a link to the 1960s. I really like how Material Issue changes the lyric from “No one can save us but Kim the waitress” to “No one can save us from Kim the waitress.” It’s like he knows all is hopeless and he’s powerless whenever she comes to his table. The story behind the song from one of the Green Pajamas guys describes how he eventually got to know her better when one of his friends started dating her. He still gets Christmas cards from her signed “Kim The Waitress.”
Hollie Cook– “Survive”
The daughter of Sex Pistols’ drummer Paul Cook has been recording lush, heavy, warm, and impossibly melodic dub/reggae (or, “tropical pop,” as she calls it) for years but this album, Vessel of Love, includes “Survive” which always sounds fresh to me no matter how many times I’ve heard it. The whole album is cut from the same cloth, not a weak track throughout. Tropical with a capital ‘T’.
Caoilfhionn Rose- “Raindance”
A stellar debut album (Awaken) from an artist (name pronounced “Keelin”) whose music I’ve been following for a few years. A unified vision unites these songs of memory and of nature. She’s got one of my favorite voices – the tone of it, her phrasing, the way her Manchester, UK accent comes through sometimes. Bookended by the arresting title song (video) and “Raindance,” which is a sublime marriage of instrumentation and melody.
Scott Hirsch– “Rose’s Song”
I had originally written this song was Jackson Browne-ish, but it’s really not. I think I wrote that because it makes me think of the best sensitive singer-songwriter country rock songs of the 70s. The pedal steel, the strings…the sense of longing mixed with the sense of resolution. A really well-executed and well-paced song that in the end, sounds timeless.
Daniel Tashian – “Bordertown”
Whether under his own name or The Silver Seas moniker, Tashian is a master songwriter (in fact, he writes songs for a living for other artists as well.) I think I probably first heard of him through his long association with Josh Rouse. He put out a slightly country-influenced EP called Some Other Country as 2018 began, with little fanfare. “Bordertown” is a great sunset track. “I’ll be lost / I’ll be found…”
Jess Roden – “The Farm” (1972)
Amazing how some songs – really special songs – can be recorded but then shelved and not released till decades later. Roden put down a few tracks in 1972 with a possible eye towards a first solo album after the dissolution of his band Bronco. It was, he says, a sort of farewell to Bronco song with “the farm” being Baynhams Farm (which I think was a hang-out for the band, with some of them living there?), even though I find the lyrics a bit impenetrable. Island Records head Chris Blackwell wanted Roden to go in a different musical direction and so the track didn’t see the light of day till the Hidden Masters box set in 2012. “The Farm” is a an extension of the moody, introspective acoustic folky sound of Bronco – something Roden did very well, but mostly abandoned after this. John “Rabbitt” Bundrick’s organ playing reminds of “Whiter Shade of Pale.”
Cary Hudson – “Shoofly Blue” (2006)
I was putting together a mix of Cary Hudson and Blue Mountain (his old band) tracks and this 2006 cut jumped out at me, unlike when I first heard it years ago. It’s a song that’s deceptively simple. Tom Petty was another who was a master of that: lyrics which seem (and often were when the song was being written) spun off the top of their head, but when combined with the right music – music that fits the words and fills out and echoes/complements the words – gives those words more meaning, and makes them lodge in the listener’s consciousness. Petty’s “Free Fallin’” is a case in point. “Shoofly Blue” is another. On paper, the words might not sound all that special, but with the music a contemplative, easygoing, down-south hot summer day vibe is created. Earthy but with a dream-like atmosphere conjured by the watery psychedelic electric guitar. Frontporch extemporaneous. A little sad and a little happy.
Mapache– “Cactus Flower”
One of my favorites of last year, Mapache hasn’t put out any new music in a while, but browsing ye olde YouTube one day, I came across this performance of a so far unreleased track (though I’m told it’ll be on their next album). Being a bit of a cactus aficionado and hobbyist grower, I would have probably liked it just by the title, but its also an earworm (cactus worm?) song. Rich harmonies, rich chords and chord combos. I’m lookin’ forward to see what they do with it in the studio.
Van Duren- “Grow Yourself Up” (1977, reissued 2018)
Bursting from the speakers without wasting any time with intros or preludes, this is the featured single from a new biopic film on the unjustly forgotten power pop maverick. Mixing equal parts Big Star (with whom he was associated), the Beatles, Todd Rundgren and some Ben Folds as filtered through classic early 70s Elton John.
Rupert Hine–“Me You Mine” (1971)
This is a pretty unique song, there’s nothing that comes to mind that’s quite like it lyrically (words were by Hine’s musical cohort David MacIver.) Very impressionistic and poetic, the way the words sound together is just as important as what they’re saying and how they impart a feeling or mood of a carefree summer day. Yet, there’s still that mix of happy/sad in the music – a kind of feeling of wistfulness, maybe of fantasy. (I wrote a bit more about the album earlier in the year).
The Yearning– “Fly Me to Mexico”
This duo from Spain specializes in a retro classic 60s pop feel and “Fly Me to Mexico” is a perfect evocation of that Astrud Gilberto / Claudine Longet jet-setting chanteuse sound. When air travel still had a touch of glamor about it and airlines like Pan Am still existed. It should be snatched up by an airline for a commercial!
The shadow of Nick Drake stretches on over 40 years after his death, with a very nicely put together CD of cover versions of Drake songs included with the March 2018 issue of Mojo music magazine. Though the whole thing is good, three songs that I always felt were just average songs in his catalog are made exemplary here:
Vashti Bunyan & Gareth Dickson – “The Thoughts of Mary Jane”
Bunyan was a British folk contemporary of Drake’s and this song, to me not one of Drake’s best in comparison to some of his others, is transformed with this delicate version that sounds lyrically like it could almost be about Drake himself. Ethereal and ghostly, like it was beamed in from some afterlife.
Amber Arcades – “Which Will”
Totally transforms the song into something almost triumphant, which is a big feat as it’s about indecision and uncertainty. The chiming, bell-like guitar is transcendent.
Saxophones – “Fruit Tree”
I’ve never been crazy about Drake’s string-laden version, I think it works better as this laid-back, jazzy take. To me it sounds as if Drake is sitting at an outdoor café in Paris circa now playing the song and nobody knows who he is, and he’s kinda bemused by all the attention he’s received posthumously.
Beautify Junkyards– “Cabeca Flor”
The highlight, for me, of a very mystical, organic, dreamy psychedelic album awash in acid folk and Brazilian Tropicalia. An intriguing liminal darkness tugs at most of the tracks on The Invisible World of Beautify Junkyards, but “Cabeca Flor” (translated as Flower Head or Head of Flowers, I believe) is the bright sunshine shining down through the leaves.
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith– “An Intention”
A burbling, sensory sound world immersed in multi-tracked vocals, elongating and bending of notes and phrases.
Jon Hassell- “Dreaming”
Late night noir. There are a million stories in the naked city…
And a million songs in the naked brain.