Every year for the past (mumble, mumble) years I’ve voted in the now-defunct Village Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop music critics’ poll, which has forced me to hone in on what I think have been the best records of the year. Or, better yet, the records that I listened to most in the past year.
They may not be the best, but they were the ones that meant something to me; that provided the soundtrack to my year. Some of these were played so much that I’m surprised the CD player’s laser didn’t cut a circular groove clear through the plastic, others got less air time but were still memorable.
Here goes, in no particular order...
Durand Jones and the Indications – American Love Call (Dead Oceans)
I was such a big fan of this classic soul outfit from Indiana’s first record that I couldn’t wait for the followup. And despite extremely high expectations, "American Love Call" kicked my ass, with its mix of sweet Chicago-style Chi-Lites soul and harder-hitting tracks like "Morning in America," which captured the unsettled political landscape of the year.
Iron & Wine / Calexico – Years to Burn (Sub Pop)
The periodic collaborations between two of America’s best roots-inspired artists is always welcome, especially after I listened to Iron & Wine’s "Beast Epic" nonstop for months in 2017-18. The songwriting skills and voice of Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam rested atop a bed of Calexico’s moody arrangements is a perfect marriage.
Steel Pulse – Mass Manipulation (Rootfire Cooperative / Wiseman Doctrine)
As a longtime Steel Pulse fan, I’m always willing to give this Birmingham, England group the time of day, even if it’s been years since I got super excited by one of its records. This one, with ace musicianship, protest songs fired with passion and catchy tunes is as good as any the band has every made. It’s up for a Grammy.
The Black Keys – Let’s Rock (Nonesuch)
I’m not sure what longtime fans think of this record, but as a casual fan at best, it’s the one that struck a chord with me most, especially for melodic tunes like "Tell Me Lies," "Walk Across the Water" and "Every Little Thing" – infused with a 1970s am radio breeze. If a record like this is the result of a five-year hiatus, I’m willing to wait again for the next one.
Lissie – When I’m Alone: The Piano Retrospective (Cooking Vinyl)
Never much of a Lissie fan – it’s not that I didn’t like her music as much as that I didn’t pay it much mind – this quiet but simmering piano- and vocals-only (mostly) walk through her career caught my ear. Songs like "When I’m Alone" and "Don’t You Give Up On Me" feel weightier in this setting and the cover of Fleetwood Mac’s "Dreams" doesn’t hurt, either.
Karen O and Danger Mouse – Lux Prima (BMG)
Put producer Danger Mouse and Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer Karen O together and what do you get? A dark, moody and ethereal record that’s part Portishead and part soundtrack to an as-yet unmade James Bond movie.
Joel Patterson – Let It Be Guitar! (Bloodshot)
The kids and I rock a lot of Beatles in the car during our daily commutes so I thought they might get a kick out of these instrumental interpretations of Fab Four hits infused with Chicago guitarist Patterson’s melange of Hawaiian, lounge, Scotty Moore and Chet Atkins sweeteners. But while I love it, I’m only allowed to hear it when I’m alone. The kids have dubbed it the "fake Beatles."
The Beatles – Abbey Road Anniversary (Universal)
Speaking of the Fab Four, I’ve been loving the 50th anniversary revisits to classics in recent years (why weren’t there solid ones for "Rubber Soul" and "Revolver"?!) and this new "Abbey Road" has been no different. I’m on the fence about the new mixes of the original record by George Martin’s son Giles. They’re fine, but are they necessary? On the other hand, the packaging with impressive books, and the outtakes and alternate mixes ... keep ‘em coming!
Big Thief – Two Hands (4AD)
These folks can’t seem to stop churning out the music. In fact, this was the band’s second record this year alone! The impassioned vocals and spacious arrangements remind of the post-punk bands I loved as a kid, yet the music doesn’t sound even vaguely retro.
Various – Country Music: A Film By Ken Burns soundtrack (Sony Legacy)
I’m no connoisseur of country music, but I like a lot of the old stuff and the double-disc version of this (there’s also a much larger and in-depth option) is packed with favorites from across the decades. Hearing these songs again has reawakened my appreciation of them. And listening anew to Tammy Wynette’s classic "Stand By Your Man" has made me realize that it’s a completely non-formulaic smash hit. The first half of the song – almost to the second – is all verses, and the second half all choruses.
Bonus pick that's not a record ...
Rolling Stone editor Fred Goodman's "Why Lhasa de Sela Matters," published recently in paperback, goes a long way to giving some overdue – and, sadly, posthumous – credit to a singer with a unique voice that was always seeking new musical roads and, likely because of that (as well as her penchant for singing mostly in Spanish and French), always seemed to evade the limelight. Each of Lhasa's three records was powerful and moving, darkness and light, passion and smoulder. When she died of breast cancer on New Year's Day 2010 at the age of 37, the world lost a truly unique musician. Goodman, author of "Mansion on the Hill," explains what made de Sela's work so powerful, what made her tick and, sadly, what took her from us so early. Type "Lhasa" into Spotify and then read this book.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.