Musicians often have a different, far-reaching perspective when it comes to evaluating the best — or their favorite — music from a given year.
As we roar into 2019, check out some high-profile and obscure bands whose recordings caught the attention and the ears of a few Michigan artists, including some from the Traverse City area.
THE ACCIDENTALS’ PICKS
Gabriel Kahane, “Book of Travelers” — Gabriel Kahane is one of my top 10 favorite artists. A multi-instrumentalist and a songwriter, he has a way of creating narrative with architecture, history and human nature. The day after the 2016 election, he got on a train and traveled 8,000 miles collecting stories from fellow passengers, and “Book of Travelers” was born. It’s an album that took my breath away. Though fairly simple in its instrumentation — oftentimes, it’s just his voice and his piano — the modulations, lyrical content and emotional impact are too complex to really put into words. The song “October 1st, 1939” compares light-hearted, optimistic passages from a grandmother’s diary as she escaped Nazi Germany, to the traveling thoughts of the reading descendant — all while creepy, hammered piano strings set the scene of terror that underscored the time. I highly recommend this album to anyone who needs a minute, anyone who wants to hear a good story.
Neko Case, “Hell-On” — Neko Case is also one of my top 10 favorite artists. In the past five years I’ve kept journals, and I devote about 10 pages in each one for lyrics that I can’t get out of my head. Case is a regular visitor of those pages. Tragedy struck while this album was being recorded: Her house burnt to the ground, and almost nothing was salvageable. The next day, she laid the vocal track for one of her songs, called “Bad Luck.” She’s kind of my idol. There are so many winners on this record, a record that she produced herself. “My Uncle’s Navy” is probably one of the most gut-wrenching songs I’ve ever heard. The raw honesty both in her voice and in her lyrics literally made me burst into tears while pumping gas somewhere on tour in Ohio. If you want an album that pulls off Band-Aids you put on your shotgun wounds and heals you … this is it.
BROCKHAMPTON, “Iridescence” — Written and recorded at Abbey Road studios in just 10 days, this record feels like a project that was years in the making. I love how the group switched out their usual pop-sensible hooks for a much more honest and direct approach to songwriting. Plus grade A production from the group’s in-house producers; the beats and instrumentals are rich and vibrant, filled with odd selections of samples and synthesizers. There are points in this record where I am shocked by the delivery and potency of the lyrics.
Father John Misty, “God’s Favorite Customer” — Sonically rich and lyrically honest, the album itches multiple scratches at once. The track list is a mix of upbeat strummer tunes and somber piano ballads. I’m always surprised when the album ends as quick as it does. The musical narrative makes it feel longer than its 38-minute run time.
Superorganism, “Superorganism” — This album is such a ride. I was immediately drawn in by similarities to some of my favorite early 2000s bands like The Go! Team, and The Books that I haven’t heard in a long time. The sonic textures are a beautiful collage of natural and synthesized samples, and the somewhat apathetic lyrics and delivery are balanced by the band’s spirit in the sing-along choruses. I love listening to this album because it feels like there’s so much creativity and personality pouring out of it. There’s no pretension, just has a wonderful collaborative spirit.
The War and Treaty, “Healing Tide” — Michael and Tanya’s voices blow me away. Ranging from country soul to Americana to rock and gospel, Buddy Miller’s production and the legendary musicians on the album lay a tight foundation that grooves and grows without feeling too big or overproduced. I love the quiet moments but my favorite parts are where Michael and Tanya’s boundless energy runs rampant, like at the end of “All I Wanna Do.” I actually feel tired imagining every ounce of blood, sweat and tears poured into the performance of these songs.
THE MOXIE STRINGS’ PICKS
Jeremy Kittel, “Whorls” — Jeremy has been one of my biggest inspirations for many years. This album was several years in the making and its artistry was worth every moment we had to wait.
Julian Allen, “Could U Be” — I’ve been waiting for someone from the Michigan scene to enter this beautiful world of trance-y EDM and beats-driven poetry. He does it masterfully.
Death Cab for Cutie, “Thank you for Today” — Great driving tunes. This album covers a range of emotions and has some instant sing-alongs.
Tall Heights, “Pretty Colors for Your Actions” — We had the pleasure of seeing these guys at the lounge at The Intersection in Grand Rapids, and our guess is the next time they come through they’ll be at Van Andel Arena. They’re beautiful tunes with lots of cello and stunning writing.
Mac Miller, “Swimming” — Captivating lyrics and really great use of beats and sounds.
THE B-SIDE GROWLERS’ PICKS
Wood Brothers, “One Drop of Truth” — This trio, (including) guitar- and bass-playing brothers Oliver and Chris Wood and percussionist Jano Rix, have definitely figured out the formula for hitting a groove in a variety of ways … acoustically, funky, jazzy, bluesy and rockin’ all come to mind. This newest (and sixth) release is no different, and the result is still great.
Angelique Kidjo, “Remain in Light” — This is a track-for-track remake of the 1980s Talking Heads release. That’s remake, not cover, for Angelique does indeed create an album that is all her own. The strong influence of her native Africa along with her incredible strong voice makes for a unique experience.
May Erlewine and The Motivations, “In the Night” — A very recent EP release from this Traverse City songstress containing just four tracks, but it’s fun, upbeat, intended for the dance floor.
Ry Cooder, “The Prodigal Son” — Icon Ry Cooder co-produced this release with his son Joachim, who also handles percussion. It’s a wonderful mixture of old tunes done up with Ry’s keen sense of production, not to mention his incredible musicianship. He gives the gospel and blues covers an authentic treatment, but with a modern metallic sheen … kinda’ like steampunk traditional or something. Creating that kind of sound and choosing songs with lyrics that are still socially relevant results in a thoroughly 21st century release.
Rory Block, “A Woman’s Soul: A Tribute to Bessie Smith” — After having just completed a bunch of tribute albums to male blues legends, Rory recently put out the first in a series honoring female blues legends … and Bessie Smith is definitely the place to start. Rory stays true to the sultriness of the originals with her vocals, and also provides all the instrumentation herself (guitars, bass, percussion). This is quite an undertaking, as many of Bessie’s ‘blues’ are really more jazz-like in their progressions. Nothing too unusual, but she accomplishes her goal of keeping great blues pioneers like Bessie Smith in the public eye … and ear.