Best Records of 2019

My top ten records of the year. And also a cat.
My top ten records of the year, and also a cat.

Once again, my favorite records of the year. Once again, I missed a ton of stuff and will likely find something that would have been in this list if I’d already heard it.

Best New LPs

1. Garcia Peoples–One Step Behind / Natural Facts
If Steven Hyden can cheat here, so can I. Garcia Peoples released Natural Facts early in the year and it immediately became a fixture in my weekly playlist. That album tightens the songwriting of their 2018 debut, Cosmic Cash, and beefs up the production. A fun album full of catchy songs. One Step Behind explores a different side of the band. The album has two songs. The 32 minute title track, featuring guitarist Tom Malach’s father on saxophone explores similar worlds as Terry Riley’s late ’60s and early ’70s works before slowly morphing into a more standard rock song that eventually gives way to more exploration. The second song, “Heart and Soul,” is a stunning piano ballad. Both albums are indispensable.

2. L’Eclair–Sauropodia
These five instrumentals live at the intersection of funk, psychedelia, lounge, and jazz. Yes, it’s kind of a twisted intersection. The tunes are anchored by bass and drum set, with congas, guitars, and synthesizers floating in and out. Fans of Tussle, Cavern of Anti-Matter, or Oneida will probably find a lot here to like.

3. Steve Gunn–The Unseen in Between
There was definitely a point in my life where I wouldn’t have believed it if you told me I would like this album. A record by a singer-songwriter? Right. But here we are. The main instrument is acoustic guitar, but at various points strings, bass, or the occasional drum kit underlie or weave through the guitar, supporting the song. An ethereal vocal floats through the top. The whole thing fills your head like a hazily-remembered daydream.

4. Boogarins–Sombrou Dúvida 
Boogarins’ fourth album of space rock keeps the glitchy electronics of 2017’s tour-first release Lá Vem a Morte and fuses it with the hooks and memorable melodies of its predecessor, 2015’s Manual ou Guia Livre de Dissolução dos Sonhos, one of my favorite albums of the last several years.

5. De Lorians–De Lorians
This Japanese combo worships at the altar of Frank Zappa. This short instrumental album picks up where Zappa left off when he disbanded The Mothers and takes it into an alternate universe.

6. Chris Forsyth–All Time Present
Chris Forsyth has been making music in one guise or another for a couple of decades: solo, with his Solar Motel Band, in various duo, and more. Somehow I’ve missed it all up to now. I picked up this album after hearing his interview on the Brokedown Podcast. The album is largely instrumental with a couple of vocals. It starts with a couple of uptempo electric openers, before settling into largely more relaxed tunes, some acoustic, some more electronic, eventually ending with the almost twenty-minute “Techno Top,” a fantastic jam that is reminiscent of a slowed down motorik groove. Recently, he’s been touring with Garcia Peoples as a backing band.

7. The Mountain Goats–In League with Dragons
There’s something I’ve noticed about artists that are decades into their careers. Most try to play songs from throughout their discography and so only include a couple of songs from the new album. This is common knowledge. But sometimes, they really nail and they know it. You can tell when you see the tour and they play more than half of the new record. When I saw The Mountain Goats in Toronto in May, they played ten of the fourteen songs from In League with Dragons.

8. Trey Anastasio–Ghosts of the Forest
This is the sound of someone 35 years into his career taking a risk, stretching, and pulling it off. More personal than anything he’s made to this point, Ghosts of the Forest was written and made while Trey Anastasio’s oldest childhood friend was dying of cancer. Beautiful and moving.

9. Titus Andronicus–An Obelisk
One problem with writing epic concept albums is that the audience expects that every time out. This is not that album, but it’s full of great songs, which is enough to make it onto this list.

10. Rainbow Grave–No You
Napalm Death founder and Scorn co-founded Nik Bullen and former Doom/Sore Throat vocalist Jon Pickering join forces to pound out an album of ugly, sludgy music that is not designed to please, but to express its utter, utter disappointment in you.

My top five EPs of 2019
My top five EPs of 2019

Best New EPs

1. Guerilla Toss–What Would the Odd Do?

2. Flat Worms–Into the Iris

3. Nick Lowe–Love Starvation/Trombone

4. Space Heater–Full Blast

5. Naked Giants–Green Fuzz

Best Archival Releases

Grateful Dead–Dave’s Picks Volume 30: Fillmore East, New York, NY 1/2/70
This volume of Dave’s Picks catches the band right before the departure of Tom Constanten, just as they’re shifting from the psychedelia of the late 60’s into their Americana phase.

Best Reissues

The Pop Group–Y
Released in a deluxe edition with live shows and alternate versions, and in a more stripped down version, this reissue of The Pop Group’s debut album sounds better then the version issued on CD in 2007. The standard LP version was half-speed mastered at Abbey Road and sounds amazing. It also includes the 12-inch single “She Is Beyond Good and Evil.” Crucial.

Frank Zappa–Zappa In New York (40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)
Sadly, the original uncensored version including “Punky’s Whips” and the uncut “Titties & Beer” is not included here. Apparently, an uncut tape was not in the vault. But what’s included here is excellent: a fantastic-sounding version of the original LP mix (previously unavailable on CD), two discs of alternate performances that represent a version of every song played over the four nights (including a 28 minute take on “Black Napkins”), and a disc of bonus content that includes the original “Punky’s Whips” and the full unedited “Titties & Beer.”

Stereolab–Mars Audiac Quintet
Stereolab reissued all of their Elektra-era albums (1993 to 2003) this year, most with bonus tracks. All of the albums were remastered by guitarist Tim Gane and Bo Kondren at Calyx Mastering and released on 3-LPs, 2-CDs, and download. The earliest albums benefited the most from the improved sonics. Mars Audiac Quintet offered the best package of improved sound and bonus tracks, which include the tracks from the limited edition 7-inch included with the original issue, alternate mixes, and demos. The last three albums are also noteworthy for having significantly longer versions of some tracks (originally only on the vinyl, but now included on all formats).

Best of Last Year that I Missed

Wild Nothing–Indigo

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever–Hope Downs

King Buffalo–Longing to Be the Mountain


Best Music of 2018

Best New Records

1. Optiganally Yours–O.Y. In Hi-Fi
I bought this randomly because it looked interesting and it almost immediately became my favorite record of the year. Basing songs on samples from the Optigan, an early 1970s home organ that used samples recorded on optical discs, Rob Crow and Pea Hix have created an album full of beautiful songs. The Optigan gives everything an old, but somehow timeless sound, but there is no question that the songs are the star here.

2. Yo La Tengo–There’s a Riot Going On
2018 is the year I finally gave Yo La Tengo a proper listen. No, I don’t know what took so long. Two songs into their Buffalo show, I was in. The two songs in question are both from There’s a Riot Going On: “You Are Here” and “Forever.” The former, a shuffling instrumental led by feedback guitar, opens the album and opened the show. The second layers a doo-wop backing vocal, a melancholy acoustic bass line, and a tender vocal from Ira Kaplan. The remainder of the album is no less brilliant.

3. Guerilla Toss–Twisted Crystal
Gtoss follow up their amazing 2017 LP GT Ultra with a funkier, more danceable record. Twisted Crystal digs even further into the liquid sounds of Parliament-Funkadelic, noise-rock sensibilities, and punk rock intensity.

4. Phish–Kasvot Växt: í rokk
In 2013, Phish switched up their usual “musical costume.” Instead of covering a classic album, they played “a Phish album from the future,” consisting of all new tracks written for what would become their 2014 album, Fuego. The set was less than a success, but the attempt was noteworthy. The following year, they expanded the concept and covered The Thrilling, Chilling Sounds of the Haunted House, an old Disneyland Records sound effects and scary stories record, complete with a theatrical stage show. The “covers” were new instrumental tunes, one for each story on the first side of the album that made liberal use of samples from those stories. In 2018, two years after the band went back to the original well and played a David Bowie album, fans were expecting another classic record. We were instead treated to a “cover” of an album by an obscure Scandinavian group that formed in a NATO bunker in Greenland during the Cold War. The album, written by Phish in the weeks before the show, features lyrics that sound like bad translations. Musically, it sounds like Phish filtered through late 70s/early 80s synth music. The set was immediately edited,  mastered and released as a download-only album. It’s easily the most creative work as a whole that the band has done for a long time and more fun than a lot of their recent work.

5. Cavern of Anti-Matter–Hormone Lemonade
Cavern of Anti-Matter push even further into driving synth music. This album features more drums than the first two, and the songs feel increasingly less like sketches and more like they’re taking one idea and seeing how far they can take it. Opener “Malfunction” takes an arpeggiated riff and a five-chord sequence over sixteen-and-a-half minutes before it’s exhausted. Very little else stretches over seven minutes here, but all feel like their simple elements have taken a journey.

6. The New Mastersounds–Renewable Energy
Another year, another great album from The New Mastersounds. This one has a little bit of everything they do well: Meters-inspired funk, late-night grooves, horn-led instrumentals, great guitar riffs, and one funky vocal track. “Pudding and Pie” is destined to be a classic.

7. Thievery Corporation–Treasures from the Temple
One year after a fantastic Thievery Corporation record, The Temple of I & I, got pushed down my top ten to number eleven, that record’s companion makes my main list. The twelve tracks here are largely outtakes from that record, but there are also a couple of instrumental mixes and two remixes of the two tracks featuring the explosive Raquel Jones, who made her TC debut on The Temple of I & I. As with that album, this one combines reggae, dub, hip hop, and late-night chill music into a cohesive whole that doesn’t sound like an outtake album.

8. Titus Andronicus–A Productive Cough
This one was a grower. Patrick Stickles talked about stopping after the magnum opus The Most Lamentable Tragedy. Instead, he changed course and made this record of stripped down songs that is almost folk rock in places. That point is hammered in by the cover of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” It’s uneven, but the best songs (“Real Talk,” “Above the Bodega (Local Business)”) are among their best.

9. Screaming Females–All At Once
On All At Once, Screaming Females continue to make incredible guitar rock while expanding their sonic palette. Crunchy riffs and great guitar solos abound, but they occasionally slow things down and pull the loudness back a bit.

10. Orquestra Akokán Canta José “Pepito” Gómez–Orquestra Akokán
A Cuban dance record is at once a stretch for Daptone and fits in completely with their other work. It sounds like an old forgotten album recently unearthed, like the records released on Daptone’s Ever-Soul sublabel, but it’s a new recording, made in a Havana studio using old recording techniques by a group of Cuban musicians recruited to back up José Gómez for this album. The hype is real, this record is great.

Best Reissues

Frank Zappa–Lumpy Gravy Primordial
This Record Store Day LP is a standalone release of Zappa’s original version of his first solo album, Lumpy Gravy. Released and quickly withdrawn by Capitol Records when MGM, the Mothers of Invention’s label, sued. Zappa took the stereo master back from Capitol and completely re-edited and expanded the album, interspersing the all-instrumental musical segments with dialogue recorded in a piano. The original mono edit of the album was located in Capitol’s vault and reissued as part of Lumpy Money, a three CD set exploring that album and the Mothers’ We’re Only In it for the Money. This release is the first time this album has been available in its original configuration on LP.

Grateful Dead–Anthem of the Sun 50th Anniversary Edition
The second in the Dead’s 50th Anniversary series, Anthem of the Sun includes both the original 1968 mix and Jerry Garcia’s toned-down 1971 mix. The original has been available on CD since 2002, but this set also includes a live show from the Winterland recorded in October 1967, which on its own is worth the price of entry.

Wire–Pink Flag / Chairs Missing / 154 Special Editions
These special editions include new essays, archival photographs, and interviews with the band members. But more importantly, they include all of the tracks recorded in the sessions for the original albums, most of which were originally released on non-album singles and have largely never been released on CD. They also include all of the demos recorded before each album, which shows the development of the songs from conception to the finished records as well as the songs left behind.

Best Archival Releases

Frank Zappa–The Roxy Performances
This box set from the Zappa Family Trust compiles the five shows that Frank and his band played over three days at the Roxy in Hollywood at the end of 1973. The shows were filmed for a movie that, because of several technical problems, wasn’t completed until two decades after Frank’s death. For many fans, myself included, this version of Zappa’s band was the best. The film was a holy grail for Zappa fans for decades and the release of these shows is a worthwhile supplement to the release of the film a few years ago.

Grateful Dead–Dave’s Pick Volume 26: Albuquerque Civic Auditorium, Albuquerque, NM 11/17/71 (with bonus disc)
My pick for the best of Dave’s Picks in 2018. This release pairs up a show from the first tour with Keith filling in for Pigpen with one from shortly after Pigpen’s return (12/14/71). The main show finds the band working out their stage show without their frontman. Without the big Pigpen showstoppers, the setlist starts to fall into alternating Jerry and Bob songs. The December show finds them working Pigpen’s songs back into the setlist, which is mostly new material.

Show Review: Phish, Merriweather Post Pavilion, August 11, 2018

Phish at Merriweather Post Pavilion 8/11/2018
Phish at Merriweather Post Pavilion 8/11/2018, from the lawn.

Setlist: Set 1: Blaze On, Party Time, Breath and Burning, Sugar Shack, Home, Joy, Stash, 46 Days.
Set 2: Sand, Mercury > Ghost > Fuego > Slave to the Traffic Light.
Encore: Twenty Years Later, Martian Monster, Rocky Top, Golgi Apparatus.

I have had the misfortune of spending most of Phish’s 3.0 period either living in Florida or being insanely busy. Or both, which has made it difficult to get to many shows. I got lucky in 2009 because the New Year’s run was in Miami, 20 miles from where I was living. The next closest shows they played the entire time I lived there were in or around Atlanta, about a ten-hour drive if you don’t stop. I got lucky again the next summer when I happened to be at a law school tech conference in Camden, NJ on the same two days as Phish’s two-night stand. I wouldn’t see them again until a year after I moved back to Syracuse, when they played in Rochester in 2013. I also saw CMAC in 2014 and Syracuse in 2016. I had to miss Magnaball because it was only a couple of weeks after the bar exam. I ran out of money over the summer, so I went straight back to work when it was over. If it had been a few weeks later, I probably could have made it.

So after no shows in 2017 because I had just started a new job in Buffalo, I declared 2018 the year I would finally see Phish on multi-night runs again. I started with Merriweather Post Pavilion because I wanted to check out the venue. That the shows were on a weekend was a bonus. There were rumors of another festival in Watkins Glen, but I didn’t want to count on that. I would go to Maryland and if the festival wasn’t booked, maybe I would add Camden.

Three weeks before the shows, I sprained my ankle roller skating. The short version is we were checking out a new trail, which turned out to be under construction. One of my wheels got caught in a pavement crack and I went down. By the time of the shows, I could drive again, but walking could be difficult and was definitely time-consuming. I was also unable to stand for long periods. I was looking forward to our second-night seats in the pavilion, but was not as excited about spending the first night on the lawn.

By the time, we got to the venue, it was extremely crowded. There was a long, but organized line to get into our assigned lot, Lot 2, a large parking garage. People were tailgating in the garage as we drove up. Once inside, we did a walk-around. Mine was more of a half-walk-around before finding a bench to sit on. While I was sitting, my wife found us a nice spot to set up under some trees. There was a decent view of the stage and it was sheltered a little from the sun. I hobbled over and sat in the tree until show time.

Phish took the stage shortly after 7:30. Blaze On got the Saturday rock show party started. Party Time added to the vibe. Breath and Burning slowed things down a little. So far, three newer songs, all tight, but with perfunctory jamming. The rarely played Sugar Shack was next. After a mostly tight opening, the performance seemed a bit sloppy, especially from Trey.

Page’s Home followed. It started out well enough, but eventually built into a loud, aimless, dissonant jam. A long pause followed and then Joy. I don’t really understand this placement. You have a bit of a Saturday night party vibe, even with the odd song selection. And then you drop this kind of depressing, slow song right in the middle of the set. I think it would work better later in the first set or in an encore. Or as a cool down after a hot jam, not a three minute jam on the end of Home.

But it’s a short song and next up was the first older song of the night, Stash. Stash came out of the gate a bit sloppy, with Trey tripping over the leads. Eventually, it settled down and the band finally seemed to find some kind of groove. A competent, if uninspiring, 46 Days was next and the band left after only about 65 minutes.

The second set started with a nice, well-played Sand with a kind of mellow, hypnotic jam. Mercury, one of their best new songs, was next. Trey seemed to shake off the problems he had in the first set with Mercury, deftly working through the complex changes. A beautiful Mercury worked its way to an amazing Ghost. After the head of the tune, they deconstructed it into a quiet, multipart jam that built up to a frenetic peak. At the end of the jam, Trey brought it back to the Ghost ending, which sounded as if someone shut off the tape deck. It got slower and lower until it stopped. Unfortunately, odd song choices came back as Ghost backed into Fuego. Fuego was, however, played well. A nice Slave to the Traffic Light ended another short set and the band walked off stage with 35 minutes to curfew.

Would they come back and play an epic in the encore? YEM? Something like the Guyute/Antelope encore at 12/12/1997 Albany? Maybe, as was suggested by @_beyondthepond on Twitter, a 20 minute Tweezer? No. None of those things. Instead, they played Twenty Years Later, which inspired a sing-along in my section of the lawn. The beginning of Martian Monster elicited cheers. It was, however, rather short. When they started Rocky Top, I thought that they must have one more coming before they left for the night. The Golgi closer was a great sendoff to a kind of odd show. The show wasn’t bad, but it was lackluster in parts and sloppy in others. The song selection was strange, particularly in the first set. It just seemed like something was off, especially in a venue where Phish has played some excellent shows. Tomorrow, we thought, is going to be a barn burner. That’s going to be the show we all came to see at Merriweather.

Best Music of 2017

Best New Records

1. Ted Leo—The Hanged Man
It should be the simplest thing. Writers and performers should get better at their crafts the longer they do it. But that seems to be the exception. The rule is that performers and writers peak, then level off or fall off. Depending on the artist, the peak may be earlier or later, and the fall off can be quick or drawn out. Ted Leo, however, just keeps getting better.

2. Guerilla Toss—GT Ultra
This occupied my top spot for several months until I gave The Hanged Men several listens. Noisy and intense from the beginning, Guerilla Toss has, over the past several albums and EPs, tightened up considerably. Now GT is noisy and intense with an incredible groove.

3. Laetitia Sadier Source Ensemble—Find Me Finding You
Laetita Sadier’s work outside Stereolab has always featured some of that group’s sound, besides her voice. But on her last three albums, she’s shown how much she contributed to Stereolab as a writer. Delving even further into the leftist and socialist politics that fueled the ‘Lab, Find Me Finding You is a reaction to the rise of right-wing regimes across the world.

4. Pissed Jeans—Why Love Now
Uncomfortable is probably the best way to describe Pissed Jeans. Lyrically, the band tackles unpleasant subject matter. Musically, they aren’t afraid to move away from straight hardcore and get weird. On the opening track, “Waiting on my Horrible Warning,” the music lurches and stops, aided by changing tape speeds, never sounding quite right. “The Bar is Low” ties a killer riff to unsettling lyrics discussing how easy it is for a man to seem decent because so many are so awful.

5. METZ—Strange Peace
Toronto trio METZ put together another winner. Fuzzy hardcore with great hooks.

6. Deerhoof—Mountain Moves
2017 was a tough year for a lot of people. Deerhoof meet the awful with an album full of guests including Laetita Sadier, Xenia Rubinos and Juana Molina.

7. Madness—Can’t Touch Us Now
Madness continue their late career renaissance with another slab of catchy, ska-inspired pop music. This one was recorded on 8-track with Clive Langer, one half of the production duo who produced all their early albums. The result is a very focused, live-sounding album.

8. Low Cut Connie—Dirty Pictures (Part 1)
Low Cut Connie are one of the best rock & roll bands working today. One of the two main songwriters, Dan Finnemore, left after the last album, but Adam Weiner and the guys are back with another fantastic album full of raucous piano-driven tunes, including a killer cover of Prince’s “Controversy.”

9. The Courtneys—II
This trio plays fuzzy, 60’s girl-group inspired pop songs. Catchy as hell and lots of fun.

10. Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings—Soul of a Woman
The final album from Sharon Jones and company is a strong one. Most of it was recorded before she passed in 2016, and then finished up in 2017. The first half features the up-tempo funky soul the band is known for and the second half slows it down and adds some strings.

Best Reissues

Radiohead—OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997 2017
The first disc of this two-disc set is an excellent-sounding remaster of the OK Computer album. The second is a collection of B-sides and outtakes that law out another possible path that the band could have taken after The Bends.

Grateful Dead—The Grateful Dead (50th Anniversary Edition)
The first in a series of Grateful Dead albums reissued 50 years to the day of their initial release. This new reissue features a new remastering of the original album, but none of the bonus outtakes from the previous reissue. Instead, there’s a second disc featuring two live recordings from late 1966, a few months before the album was recorded. The live recordings feature an album’s worth of material that the band discarded before the first album as they quickly morphed from electric blues into full-blown psychedelia.

Cavern of Anti-Matter—Blood-Drums
This reissue of the first Cavern of Anti-Matter features new artwork on the vein of that on their second album, void/invocation trex. The album was originally released as a one-off project in a very limited edition (500) by a German book store. Now that the group is a continuing concern, this reissue is a wider release of that initial record.

Best Archival Release

Frank Zappa—Halloween 77
Halloween was always a big holiday for Frank Zappa. He played a number of Halloween shows in New York City over the years. In 1977, he booked four shows to film for the Baby Snakes movie. They quickly sold out and two more were added. All six are on this USB drive box set. The CD version includes only the Halloween show with bonus tracks from 10/30. The first four shows feature the same setlist, with some changes on the last two nights. The best two are the final two, but it’s interesting to hear the band settle in over six shows in four nights.