1979: It’s Not Against The Law

Looking back forty years to an era I’m too young to recall—well, almost. One of my earliest memories is hearing “The Logical Song” in my parents’ car multiple times, to the point where it was likely one of the first pop songs I ever consciously liked. Of course, its words were gibberish to a four-year-old, but its melody and somewhat unique structure (that key-changing coda, with the stuttered “d-d-d-digital” followed by an electronic ringing phone noise) were things I took note of and began anticipating whenever the song reappeared.

Still, this is an odd, transitional year as a whole, with disco fading, new wave ascendant and very little else on this list untouched by either. Even the catchiest song on Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk differentiated itself from Rumours by latching onto a sort of power-pop that would flourish in the coming decade (and even sort of invent The New Pornographers twenty years later.) Meanwhile, veterans from Marianne Faithfull (I should’ve included Broken English in 100 Albums) to Bowie (of course) to Giorgio Moroder-produced Sparks adapted to the times while displaying enough insight to help define them. Of these selections, only Herb Alpert (with an accidental number one hit, thanks to General Hospital!) and Wings (with a B-side that should’ve been a hit) remained mostly unencumbered by the new, now sounds (although I’m sure the former played well in mainstream discos.)

1979 might be the precise moment that catch-all term new wave expanded to include all sorts of new mutations, from second wave ska (The Specials) to retro girl group-isms (Kirsty MacColl’s first single and maybe her most perfect still); the best dance music, on the other hand, understood a need to push its limits. Note how rock-friendly (Donna Summer), shamelessly campy (Don Armando’s Annie Get Your Gun cover) and sublime and sophisticated (the Chic organization, represented here by two cuts) it could be.

A few songs convincingly brought a familiar sound seamlessly into the present (XTC’s first Brit-Invasion pastiche, The B-52s’ surf/trash rock nirvana), while others now scan as thrillingly ahead of their time: Gino Soccio’s “Dancer” could be a ’80s or ’90s house music spectacular if you toned down the disco specifics a bit; “Video Killed the Radio Star” is thought of as an ’80s tune due to its first-ever-video-played-on-MTV status, but it fully fits the bill.) Although the Village People infamously declared they were “Ready For The ’80s” in the closing months of this year, they honestly weren’t—the likes of Blondie and later, Prince, would rapidly supplant them as cultural bellwethers.

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 1979 on Spotify:

  1. David Bowie, “DJ”
  2. Prince, “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?”
  3. XTC, “Life Begins At The Hop”
  4. Blondie, “Dreaming”
  5. The Flying Lizards, “Money”
  6. Marianne Faithfull, “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan”
  7. Patti Smith, “Dancing Barefoot”
  8. The Specials, “A Message To You Rudy”
  9. Lene Lovich, “Lucky Number”
  10. Donna Summer, “Bad Girls”
  11. Herb Alpert, “Rise”
  12. Wings, “Daytime Nightime Suffering”
  13. Roxy Music, “Still Falls The Rain”
  14. The Cure, “10:15 Saturday Night”
  15. The B-52s, “52 Girls”
  16. Dave Edmunds, “Girls Talk”
  17. Sniff N The Tears, “Driver’s Seat”
  18. Chic, “My Feet Keep Dancing”
  19. Elvis Costello and the Attractions, “Accidents Will Happen”
  20. Gino Soccio, “Dancer”
  21. Supertramp, “The Logical Song”
  22. Talking Heads, “I Zimbra”
  23. Sister Sledge, “Lost In Music”
  24. Kirsty MacColl, “They Don’t Know”
  25. Squeeze, “Up The Junction”
  26. The Buggles, “Video Killed the Radio Star”
  27. Don Armando’s 2nd Avenue Rumba Band, “I’m An Indian Too”
  28. Sparks, “Tryouts For The Human Race”
  29. Patrice Rushen, “Haven’t You Heard”
  30. The Clash, “The Card Cheat”
  31. The Jam, “Strange Town”
  32. Fleetwood Mac, “Think About Me”
  33. Ramones, “Rock N Roll High School”

1988: How Can Our Love Grow?

As part of my 100 Albums project, I posted annual song playlists from 1989-2018. Since the project’s timeline goes back to 1965, that leaves 24 additional years to make playlists for. Rather than posting chronologically, I plan to curate a random year at a time on a whim; let’s begin with 1988 since I had started compiling songs for it some time ago.

As always, these playlists are totally subjective and meant to collect my favorite songs of a single year rather than attempt a record of what 1988 was actually like for me or most listeners at the time. I heard a lot of Guns N’ Roses and Richard Marx on the radio in ’88, but they (mercifully) won’t appear here. Truth be told, this was the year I started to pay close attention to Top 40 radio (having received a dual cassette boombox for my 13th birthday) and MTV’s Top 20 Video Countdown, so I was newly aware of a world beyond “Weird Al” Yankovic and whatever my parents listened to in the car.

A few actual top 40 hits do make the list: Sade’s refreshing, proto-trip-hop groove, Tracy Chapman’s unlike-anything-else-at-the-time breakthrough single, Erasure’s enduring dance-balladry, sublime one-hit-wonder When In Rome and of course, Information Society, also unlike anything else on the radio in 1988–I still marvel that this Latin freestyle techno-pop with sci-fi/Star Trek accents (from Minneapolis, no less!) reached number 3 on the Hot 100 that October.

Still, other musical worlds existed beyond such mainstream confines: They Might Be Giants’ sui generis quirk-pop, Leonard Cohen’s ballsy reinvention as a sophisticated, smokey-voiced chanteur, Cowboy Junkies’ indie slowcore Velvets cover, Talk Talk’s own transformation from second-string new romantics into ambient-leaning experimenters.

There was another world just beyond my reach–British pop fascinated in the late ’80s/early ’90s, from club songs that crossed over to the top of the UK charts (Yazz) to weirdo one-shots like Fairground Attraction and The Primitives. The old guard continued to innovate (Siousxie and the Banshee’s craziest, fizziest hit), surprise (The Fall’s sardonic-yet-faithful Kinks cover) and expand its horizons (both Morrissey and Pet Shop Boys turning ever more orchestral.)

All this plus a guitar-pop triple-threat from Down Under (The Go-Betweens, Hunters & Collectors, Crowded House), early Sam Phillips, late ‘Til Tuesday and to cap it all off, an ode to love from Catherine O’Hara’s beguiling younger sister. Like any other year for pop, 1988 contained multitudes.

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 1988 on Spotify:

  1. Information Society, “What’s on Your Mind (Pure Energy)”
  2. Prefab Sprout, “Cars and Girls”
  3. When In Rome, “The Promise”
  4. The Primitives, “Crash”
  5. The Church, “Under The Milky Way”
  6. Sade, “Paradise”
  7. The Go-Betweens, “Quiet Heart”
  8. Tracy Chapman, “Fast Car”
  9. Everything But The Girl, “These Early Days”
  10. Hunters & Collectors, “Back On The Breadline”
  11. Fairground Attraction, “Perfect”
  12. Morrissey, “Everyday Is Like Sunday”
  13. Leonard Cohen, “Everybody Knows”
  14. Siouxsie and the Banshees, “Peek-A-Boo”
  15. They Might Be Giants, “Ana Ng”
  16. Yazz, “The Only Way Is Up”
  17. Inner City, “Good Life”
  18. Talking Heads, “(Nothing But) Flowers”
  19. R.E.M., “You Are The Everything”
  20. Cowboy Junkies, “Sweet Jane”
  21. The Dream Syndicate, “Whatever You Please”
  22. Talk Talk, “I Believe In You”
  23. Sam Phillips, “What Do I Do”
  24. Erasure, “A Little Respect”
  25. Pet Shop Boys, “Left To My Own Devices”
  26. Was (Not Was), “Somewhere In America There’s A Street Named After My Dad”
  27. ‘Til Tuesday, “(Believed You Were) Lucky”
  28. The Darling Buds, “Let’s Go Round There”
  29. Roxette, “Dressed For Success”
  30. The Fall, “Victoria”
  31. Patti Smith, “People Have The Power”
  32. Crowded House, “Better Be Home Soon”
  33. Mary Margaret O’Hara, “You Will Be Loved Again”

2018: Vibrate, Resonate

And so we’re up-to-date: the most recent completed year 100 Albums covers, not to mention my first full year of streaming (as opposed to digital downloads.) I wrote about a dozen of these songs last December and referenced a few more via the year’s top ten albums.

That leaves a number of leftovers (Neneh Cherry, Brian Fallon, Inara George, Paul Frickin’ McCartney—at least he’s still good for one great track per LP) and late discoveries, like Tracyanne & Danny (first overheard in a Pier One Imports!), an isolated track from former Vampire Weekend member Rostam, a lovely, lucid new song from the former singer of Concrete Blonde (which I can’t believe currently only has 3,149 streams on Spotify) and sharp ’90s-revival alt-rock from the awesomely-named The Beths.

I’ve chosen to highlight another leftover from Eleanor Friedberger. Over the past decade, she’s quietly established a pretty neat solo career that sounds very little like the ambitious (and in my mind, often irritating) stuff she used to do with her brother as The Fiery Furnaces. It took awhile for “Make Me A Song” to register as strongly as past singles like “When I Knew” and “He Didn’t Mention His Mother”, but it eventually did with its simple, indelible hook of “I could love you more” (among an excess of other hooks.)

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 2018 on Spotify:

  1. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, “Talking Sense”
  2. Kacey Musgraves, “High Horse”
  3. Sam Phillips, “American Landfill Kings”
  4. Neneh Cherry, “Kong”
  5. Lake Street Dive, “Shame, Shame, Shame”
  6. Chaka Khan, “Like Sugar”
  7. Brian Fallon, “If Your Prayers Don’t Get To Heaven”
  8. Inara George, “Slow Dance”
  9. Christine and The Queens, “The Walker”
  10. Paul McCartney, “Dominoes”
  11. Troye Sivan, “Bloom”
  12. Metric, “Now and Never Now”
  13. LUMP, “Curse of the Contemporary”
  14. Roisin Murphy feat. Ali Love, “Jacuzzi Rollercoaster”
  15. Janelle Monae feat. Zoe Kravitz, “Screwed”
  16. Sunflower Bean, “I Was a Fool”
  17. Jessie Ware, “Overtime”
  18. First Aid Kit, “It’s A Shame”
  19. Gruff Rhys, “Frontier Man”
  20. Twin Shadow, “Too Many Colors”
  21. St. Vincent, “Fast Slow Disco”
  22. Florence + The Machine, “Patricia”
  23. Lana Del Rey, “Mariners Apartment Complex”
  24. Calexico, “Music Box”
  25. Rostam, “In A River”
  26. Natalie Prass, “The Fire”
  27. Ray LaMontagne, “Such A Simple Thing”
  28. Johnette Napolitano, “Riding The Moon”
  29. Eleanor Friedberger, “Make Me A Song”
  30. Years & Years, “All For You”
  31. The Beths, “Not Running”
  32. Lord Huron, “The Balancer’s Eye”
  33. Ezra Furman, “I Lost My Innocence”
  34. Amen Dunes, “Believe”
  35. Field Music, “Daylight Savings”
  36. Robyn, “Ever Again”
  37. Neko Case, “Bad Luck”
  38. The Decemberists, “Once In My Life”
  39. Tracyanne & Danny, “Cellophane Girl”
  40. Tracey Thorn, “Dancefloor”

2017: Give Each Other Hope

At the time, I didn’t originally put together a year-end mix for 2017, though I did count down my 25 favorite tracks—I retained most of them here, with a few substitutions (“Losing All Sense” for Grizzly Bear instead of “Mourning Sound”; The xx’s “Replica” instead of “I Dare You”) and tracks from the year’s top albums.

A few other additions: a topical, propulsive anthem from the ever-unpredictable Canadian All-Star indie collective Broken Social Scene (with Metric’s Emily Haines on vocals), a gem from Slowdive’s surprisingly durable self-titled reunion album and a song from another British group’s own reunion album, The Clientele’s Music For The Age Of Miracles. I had never knowingly listened to them until “Lunar Days” once popped up on shuffle on Spotify and I immediately fell for it.

Iron & Wine’s slow-building “Call It Dreaming” leads this mix off and is still my favorite, but nothing encapsulates this year better than “Try Harder” by Mavis Staples. 2017 was personally a rather tough year to get through—in addition to this country’s awful new administration (there exists no kinder word to describe it), for the first time as an adult, I suddenly lost two close friends (one to a heart attack, the other, cancer.) Staples (then 78!) repeatedly wailing “Don’t do me no good to pretend / I’m as good as I can be,” over a primal, guttural guitar riff remains cathartic and still inspires me to keep moving forward.

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 2017 on Spotify:

  1. Iron & Wine, “Call It Dreaming”
  2. Laura Marling, “Soothing”
  3. The Clientele, “Lunar Days”
  4. Dua Lipa, “New Rules”
  5. Grizzly Bear, “Losing All Sense”
  6. Lindsey Buckingham & Christine McVie, “Sleeping Around The Corner”
  7. Perfume Genius, “Wreath”
  8. The War On Drugs, “Pain”
  9. Jessie Ware, “Your Domino”
  10. Sylvan Esso, “Die Young”
  11. Waxahatchee, “Never Been Wrong”
  12. Ted Leo, “Used To Believe”
  13. Charlotte Gainsbourg, “Deadly Valentine”
  14. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Cut To The Feeling”
  15. Tennis, “My Emotions Are Blinding”
  16. Goldfrapp, “Tigerman”
  17. Erasure, “Still It’s Not Over”
  18. Mavis Staples, “Try Harder”
  19. Aimee Mann, “Patient Zero”
  20. Lana Del Rey, “Love”
  21. Saint Etienne, “Magpie Eyes”
  22. Dan Croll, “Bad Boy”
  23. Alvvays, “Plimsoll Punks”
  24. St. Vincent, “MASSeduction”
  25. The xx, “Replica”
  26. Slowdive, “Sugar For The Pill”
  27. Stars, “We Called It Love”
  28. Spoon, “Tear It Down”
  29. Tori Amos, “Reindeer King”
  30. Sufjan Stevens, “Mystery Of Love”
  31. Joe Goddard feat. SLO, “Music Is The Answer”
  32. Emm Gryner, “Imagination”
  33. Lorde, “Perfect Places”
  34. Sparks, “Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)”
  35. The Mountain Goats, “Rain In Soho”
  36. Nicole Atkins, “If I Could”
  37. Alison Moyet, “The Rarest Birds”
  38. Jens Lekman, “Evening Prayer”
  39. Broken Social Scene, “Protest Song”
  40. Destroyer, “Le Regle du Jeu”

2016: I Would Rather Stay Awake

This is identical to what I originally posted at this year’s end, along with a few bonus tracks running the gamut from Lake Street Dive’s retro-disco fun to a meditative Velvet Underground cover that ended up Brian Eno’s first solo vocal track in over a decade.

Instead of once again featuring the lead single from Leonard Cohen’s final album (which at the time summed up this cursed year aptly), I’ve chosen to highlight what was originally the final track, itself the last song on cult British brother duo Field Music’s fine album Commontime. A lullabye rich with ambiguity (it could conceivably be sung to either a child or a romantic partner), it promotes empathy and generosity, the act of putting others first while still reveling in the joy it brings to you both–a feeling its melody practically radiates.

Click here to listen to my favorite songs of 2016 on Spotify:

  1. Leonard Cohen, “You Want it Darker”
  2. Santigold, “Rendezvous Girl”
  3. Sylvan Esso, “Radio”
  4. The Radio Dept., “Committed to the Cause”
  5. The Avalanches, “If I Were a Folkstar”
  6. Martha Wainwright, “Traveller”
  7. Michael Kiwanuka, “Cold Little Heart”
  8. Ben Watt, “Between Two Fires”
  9. Whitney, “No Matter Where We Go”
  10. Parquet Courts, “Berlin Got Blurry”
  11. Bastille, “Good Grief”
  12. KT Tunstall, “Turned a Light On”
  13. Corinne Bailey Rae, “Stop Where You Are”
  14. Pet Shop Boys, “Burn”
  15. The Divine Comedy, “A Desperate Man”
  16. John K. Samson, “Prayer For Ruby Elm”
  17. Florence + The Machine, “Wish That You Were Here”
  18. The 1975, “Somebody Else”
  19. Wilco, “Someone to Lose”
  20. Andrew Bird, “Truth Lies Low”
  21. Roisin Murphy, “Ten Miles High”
  22. Junior Boys, “Baby Give Up On It”
  23. Eleanor Friedberger, “Because I Asked You”
  24. Paul Simon, “Cool Papa Bell”
  25. case/lang/veirs, “Best Kept Secret”
  26. David Bowie, “Lazarus”
  27. Tegan and Sara, “U-Turn”
  28. PJ Harvey, “The Wheel”
  29. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, “Midnight Rider”
  30. Field Music, “Stay Awake”
  31. Lake Street Drive, “Call Off Your Dogs”
  32. Mitski, “Fireworks”
  33. Bat For Lashes, “Joe’s Dream”
  34. Underworld, “I Exhale”
  35. Brian Eno, “Fickle Sun (iii) I’m Set Free”

2015: I Know That She’s Right

A standout year for new music—I know, every year produces its share, but 2015 was for me another 1992 or 2004. That I wrote about three albums from this year (the most for a single year in a decade) speaks to it, along with all the great ones I didn’t include: Edge of The Sun, Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance, How Big How Blue How Beautiful, FFS, Art Angels—all of them worthy of their own entries, denied primarily for space restraints (this project isn’t called 100+ Albums), each one represented here by a standout track, with “Nobody’s Empire” increasingly looking like Stuart Murdoch’s best song nearly two decades after If You’re Feeling Sinister.

At this year’s end, I even sent out an annual mix CD to friends, something I hadn’t done since 2010 (and haven’t again at this writing.) The first 17 tracks here more or less replicate that mix: a parade of perennials (Marling, Cracknell, Gryner, Sufjan, etc.) with a few one-offs and some newbies woven in (Vampire Weekend’s bassist’s side project Baio; Courtney Barnett cannily channeling The New Pornographers while still sounding like her eccentric self.)

The remaining 20-odd songs are split between good stuff I couldn’t originally fit on an 80-minute CD (Grace Potter’s disco-rock extravaganza, Listenbee’s EDM-folk mashup, the first good Madonna song in a decade) and, as always, gems I didn’t encounter until the following year or two: Susanne Sundfor’s superior Swedish synth-pop, Natalie Prass’ classy, out-of-time balladry, and of course, Carly Rae Jepsen. The much-praised E*MO*TION is more a solid collection of singles + filler than a Classic Album to me, but oh, what singles, especially “Boy Problems”: so blissfully, self-assuredly perfect and sophisticated teen-pop, it nearly got me through the following year.

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 2015 on Spotify:

  1. Belle and Sebastian, “Nobody’s Empire”
  2. Years & Years, “Shine”
  3. Florence + The Machine, “Queen of Peace”
  4. Destroyer, “Times Square”
  5. Laura Marling, “False Hope”
  6. Baio, “Sister of Pearl”
  7. Calexico, “Miles From The Sea”
  8. Robert Forster, “A Poet Walks”
  9. Sarah Cracknell, “Hearts Are For Breaking”
  10. Twin Shadow, “When The Lights Turn Out”
  11. Emm Gryner, “The Race”
  12. Jose Gonzalez, “Let It Carry You (Dino Soccio Mix)”
  13. Roisin Murphy, “Unputdownable”
  14. Sufjan Stevens, “Fourth of July”
  15. Metric, “Fortunes”
  16. Courtney Barnett, “Elevator Operator”
  17. Marina and the Diamonds, “I’m A Ruin”
  18. Hot Chip, “Dark Night”
  19. Jamie xx/Romy, “Loud Places”
  20. New Order, “Academic”
  21. Susanne Sundfor, “Fade Away”
  22. Lianne La Havas, “Tokyo”
  23. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Boy Problems”
  24. Matthew E. White, “Rock & Roll Is Cold”
  25. Grimes, “Flesh Without Blood”
  26. The Weepies, “No Trouble”
  27. Grace Potter, “Alive Tonight”
  28. Deerhunter, “Breaker”
  29. Natalie Prass, “Why Don’t You Believe In Me”
  30. Beirut, “Perth”
  31. Tanlines, “Pieces”
  32. Listenbee, “Nottamun Town”
  33. Madonna, “Joan of Arc”
  34. Lord Huron, “Dead Man’s Hand”
  35. FFS, “Piss Off”
  36. Christine and The Queens, “Tilted”
  37. The Radio Dept., “This Repeated Sodomy”
  38. Ivan & Alyosha, “It’s All Just Pretend”
  39. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, “I Need Never Get Old”
  40. Tracey Thorn, “Let Me In”

2014: Just Some Kid From Boston

Behold, the first year since 1989 where nothing makes the cut for 100 Albums (although 1991’s selection was a compilation.) My top three of the year (Jill Sobule, Future Islands, The New Pornographers) should all make my Top 50 of the Decade list (coming January 2020!), but probably not that list’s top ten, hence their exclusion here.

On that note, I began 100 Albums in 2014 thinking I’d breeze through it in two years or so. I’ll write more about this when I reach the end; just know that as I began foraging through the past, I didn’t overlook the present. Look at all the great tracks from this year: Cibo Matto’s (artistically) triumphant return (not to mention Ben Watt’s, and Erasure’s, and Tori Amos’ and even Suzanne Vega’s!), sterling debuts from Betty Who, Lake Street Dive, Alvvays and Sylvan Esso, breakthroughs from Perfume Genius and Owen Pallett, best-songs-yet from Jessie Ware and Lykki Li, a spooky Lana Del Rey gem and even a collaboration from two of my fave artists (The Both = Aimee Mann + Ted Leo) with a leadoff single named after my hometown.

Still, the 2014 track currently giving me all the feels is “Late Bloomer” from Jenny Lewis’ The Voyager (itself probably a lock for that end-of-decade list.) Clocking in at over five minutes, it’s almost a throwback to classic folk-rock story songs like “Maggie May” or “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, but filtered through Lewis’ delicately puckish demeanor; it also sports a melody so inviting and generous I’m surprised the song isn’t more of a standard five years on.

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 2014 on Spotify:

  1. Future Islands, “Seasons (Waiting On You)”
  2. The New Pornographers, “Champions of Red Wine”
  3. Betty Who, “Somebody Loves You”
  4. Cibo Matto, “10th Floor Ghost Girl”
  5. Mac DeMarco, “Salad Days”
  6. Gruff Rhys, “American Interior”
  7. Perfume Genius, “Queen”
  8. Lykke Li, “Gunshot”
  9. Lake Street Dive, “Bad Self Portraits”
  10. Jill Sobule, “Wedding Ring”
  11. Ben Watt, “Forget”
  12. St. Vincent, “Digital Witness”
  13. Nicole Atkins, “Girl You Look Amazing”
  14. Suzanne Vega, “I Never Wear White”
  15. Stars, “From The Night”
  16. Erasure, “Reason”
  17. Tori Amos, “Promise”
  18. Lana Del Rey, “West Coast”
  19. Sylvan Esso, “Coffee”
  20. Owen Pallett, “The Riverbed”
  21. Leonard Cohen, “Almost Like The Blues”
  22. Spoon, “Inside Out”
  23. Todd Terje with Bryan Ferry, “Johnny and Mary”
  24. Alvvays, “Archie, Marry Me”
  25. La Roux, “Kiss and Not Tell”
  26. Jessie Ware, “Tough Love”
  27. Clean Bandit with Jess Glynne, “Rather Be”
  28. The Both, “Milwaukee”
  29. Broken Bells, “Control”
  30. Jenny Lewis, “Late Bloomer”
  31. Sharon Van Etten, “You Know Me Well”
  32. Royksopp, “I Had This Thing”
  33. Emm Gryner, “End Of Me”