Saturday, May 29, 2021

Countdown to 30: My Favorite Album From 2018


2018 was another really weird year for me in which music was often my solace. 

During a period of depression in the fall of 2018 brought on by an unrequited crush and untreated bipolar disorder, my best friend Erin and I went to see Cults for whom the opener was The Shacks. We were instantly enraptured by The Shacks and their retro sound and soft, dreamy vocals. We started going to any Shacks show we could after that. The album they were supporting was Haze. Haze is quirky in the way that only quality musicianship can be. They use omnichord in the title track for goodness sake! Vocalist Shannon Wise has a high, airy voice that floats over Max Shrager's complex retro instrumentals. Haze was what I needed at the moment I was listening to it, but it's amazing however you slice it.

All but one Lily Allen album so far has been in the runners up, so of course I have to mention her 2018 album, No Shame. Many producers worked with her on it but she chose not to work with Greg Kurstin this time as she wanted to prove she could make a good record without him.  

Mark Ronson and Ezra Koenig (of Vampire Weekend) worked with her on "My One," a song about sleeping around but really only having feelings for your special person.

Allen described the album as a "backlash to tabloids," which starts strong on the opening track, "Come On Then." "Come On Then" is about how the press tear people down for entertainment value. Tabloids would make judgements about her personal life as if they knew her, while she spent her time feeling isolated and alone in reality. No one really saw that side of her to know how things were. 

Allen wrote this album after her divorce and an identity crisis about her music. She decided that she wanted to work through her problems with music on No Shame. "Everything to Feel Something" seems to discuss destructive coping mechanisms to mental health issues. "Trigger Bang" featuring Giggs is about Allen's substance abuse issues and the way that people can be toxic to another person's growth process. 

"What You Waiting For?" is about Allen's marriage, her feelings of guilt and regret. "Your Choice" seems to be about a similar topic, but this time focusing more on Allen's annoyance at the jealousy the man seems to feel after her infidelity. Allen's voice is gentle and resigned with some vocal effects added, which contrasts the panicked rap sections by Burna Boy. The next track on this topic, "Lost My Mind" seems to me to be strongest, as it deals with the emotional fallout Allen had to deal with when she and her husband did split. "Family Man" finds Allen at her most self-deprecating about the relationship, though still trying to find a way to fix things. "Apples" somehow gets even sadder. Allen describes the idyllic start to her relationship, the breakdown, and her guilt that she couldn't avoid creating a broken home for her children like the one she had grown up in. 

"Three" is written from her daughter's point of view; she hates seeing her mother go away on tour and just wants her to stay at home. "Pushing Up Daisies" is an adorable, romantic song. I don't know what place it comes from, but it's not as sad a tone as the rest of the album, at least at face value. "Cake" is downright empowering.

Allen is unafraid of writing personal lyrics, which makes for an album that is uninhibited, tragic, and beautiful.

The snippets I heard of Egypt Station on "Carpool Karaoke" piqued my interest. I don't normally watch "Carpool Karaoke" or listen to full, new Paul McCartney albums, but when I heard bits of "Come On to Me" I was sure I wanted to hear the rest. Then I found out the whole album was produced by Greg Kurstin and I had to listen to it. I wasn't the only one. Egypt Station is the first McCartney album to debut at #1 on the U.S. charts, and the first since Tug of War in 1982 to reach #1. 

Egypt Station is a loosely-framed concept album. McCartney explained, "Egypt Station starts off at the station on the first song, and then each song is like a different station. So it gave us some idea to base all the songs around that. I think of it as a dream location that the music emanates from." 

Like Lily Allen on No Shame, McCartney also had some things he was using music to work through. He used "I Don't Know" in such a way, saying of it; "I wrote this after going through a difficult period. Like people have nothing sort of madly serious or anything, but just one of those days when it’s like, 'Oh my god, am I doing wrong here,' you know. And sometimes that’s a good way to write a song, because you’re coming from your soul. And we often used to say that writing a song was like talking to a psychiatrist, a therapist or something. Because you’re saying it… You are saying it in a song rather than in a room to a specialist." Despite the somber mood of the song, McCartney said it was cathartic getting to express the feelings out loud in song. "I Don't Know" is a great song for depression that you're completely unaware of the source of. 

"Come On to Me" is a lot of fun. It's upbeat and it revolves around a guy trying to talk to a girl at a party (according to McCartney, possibly in the '60s). The relaxed "Happy With You" follows "Come On to Me," setting a sweet, lazy tone for the album. McCartney reflected on his less-busy times, as well as the way some of his friends would self-medicate until they grew out of it or found happiness somewhere. 

Greg Kurstin and McCartney create some '80s vibes for "Who Cares," which McCartney says was a message of support to his young fans; "I was imagining young fans, or young people generally, who might be going through being picked on or being put down. These days it would be internet bullying, trolls and all that. I know it happens all over the world to millions of people so my thing was to try to give advice." McCartney says he was also inspired by the relationship Taylor Swift has with her young fans. 

The most relevant, modern sound comes from "Fuh You," one of the few tracks not produced by Kurstin, but instead Ryan Tedder. McCartney told Tedder he wanted to write a hit, and this was a song that came out of the session. Tedder wrote many hits for other artists and McCartney was encouraged to work with him by Kurstin and the fact that Tedder had written Beyoncé's "Halo." McCartney wanted to write the track in such a way that it was questionable as to what the title meant. I think that both lyrically and musically it works really well, but many critics did not, some implying that Tedder was forcing his sound on McCartney. 

"Confidante" is McCartney's love song to his guitars that have served him through the years. McCartney has a knack for writing love songs to things other than people (such as "Martha My Dear" being for his dog). He thought it only fitting to write a love song for something he would always tell his troubles to in his younger days. 

He wrote "Hand In Hand" for his third wife, Nancy Shevell as a love song not just about love, but partnership. The song was written in the early days of their relationship, but must have still rung true seven years into their marriage when he recorded it. One of the cellists who performed on the track told McCartney after the recording, "I'm getting married for the second time and I'm a little bit nervous. But this song has made me think it's going to work out all right," which made him feel certain that writing the song was the correct thing to do.

"People Want Peace" was inspired by McCartney's concert in Israel and subsequent trip to Palestine, along with something his father used to say, "People want peace. It's the politicians and the leaders who get into wars." He explored a little of this topic on "Pipes of Peace," but this is a great re-examination of the premise. McCartney dips his toe into activism again for "Despite Repeated Warnings," which is about climate change deniers (or just those who aren't working to counteract it), accomplished through the metaphor of a ship's captain who continues to steer a ship toward an iceberg. He especially intended to direct it toward politicians who were ignoring climate change and referring to it as a hoax.  

I was blown away by Egypt Station. McCartney stayed true to himself while producing music that is vibrant and current. Kurstin's work can't be understated but the writing McCartney did for Egypt Station is some of his strongest in years too. The songs are catchier than anything I've heard him do since "Ever Present Past."

The Decemberists also exceeded my expectations in 2018 with I'll Be Your Girl. The Decemberists have been on my radar for years. The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love were both beautiful albums. I was disappointed by 2015's What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World and was afraid they had just begun to lose their touch. Yet somehow, I'll Be Your Girl was better than anything I could have dreamt.

For years, the sound of The Decemberists had remained mostly unchanged. Sure, there were those who noted the difference in Hazards, but largely the folk-rock sound wasn't altered. When the first single from I'll Be Your Girl was released ("Severed"), it was clear that the band had made some changes, moving toward a synthesized sound that bordered on psychedelia. I liked "Severed" but wasn't sure how the new sound would translate to a whole album. It worked though. It worked very well.

I spent many the manic night listening to this album. Nights when I only slept 2-3 hours, I would toss and turn listening to it between Youtube videos or episodes of Glow. Frontman Colin Meloy began working on the album in the aftermath of the 2016 elections, saying "there was immediately this onset of despair. Like real despair. Real depression, and then sort of climbing out of it." "Everything is Awful" was the song written in immediate response.

"Once in My Life" kicks off the album with that kind of despair, in a song reminiscent of The Smiths' "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want." It's the kind of song you can cry to or just pray to if that's what you need. The bassline and keyboard parts are absolutely addictive and reminiscent of The Cure or New Order. It can be viewed as a romantic want as in the aforementioned Smiths song, or just as a hope about life in general. When I listened to this album again in late August/early September, this song was almost the only way I could feel my emotions expressed.

"Cutting Stone" is a more classic Decemberists track with a synthesizer running in the background and a synthesized bass part that reminds me of mid-'80s Kate Bush music. The story is dark and haunting, telling a murderous tale. It could also be another way of describing the situation in "Severed." "Severed" has an earworm of a synthesizer part, and the lyrics are perhaps the best representation of what Meloy was going for on the album. "Severed" is told from the perspective of the political leader who is trying to divide the nation. The way Meloy has written his lyrics for years, it gives the subject matter more of a storybook feel, but the message is still clear. "Starwatcher" is about impending trouble, probably beginning with the political turmoil.

"Tripping Along" has a relatively calm tone, which makes the start of "Your Ghost" all the more jarring. Jenny Conlee's vocals on "Your Ghost" are absolutely haunting (no pun intended). 

The title track wraps up the album. Meloy wanted to go with a lighter song to counteract the darkness of the rest of the album. He was playing with gender expectations and the ideas of masculinity society has typically has. 

Up until September, I would have definitely picked Egypt Station or I'll Be Your Girl as my record of the year without a doubt. But during and after September, two more excellent albums were brought to my attention. 

I mentioned back in my 2011 article that my friend Zack sometimes manages to present me with the perfect album at the perfect moment. In fall of 2018, he repeated his trick with Sun Machine by Rubblebucket. I'd never even heard of them before, but he slipped this CD to me and I found myself identifying with it as soon as I listened to "Party Like Your Heart Hurts." I had spent about a month or two at that point going to karaoke bars pretty much every night to try to hide my sadness. I met someone on one such night who had also been going out to try to hide his sadness. There was something perfect about the song that made me get ahold of Zack immediately to tell him. He sheepishly admitted that he thought I would relate to it.

The album as a whole is a confusing and lovely piece. Alex Toth and Kalmia Traver (the primary duo in Rubblebucket) went through a great deal leading up to its production including, but not limited to, their breakup as a couple, Traver's cancer diagnosis and treatment, and Toth's decision to get sober from alcohol. When Toth and Traver split romantically, they continued to feel their connection as people and continued to write and perform together. They are an unusual band to start with, their sound being a mesh of indie/art pop/psychedelia but with heavy brass. Sun Machine takes those elements and adds to them the concept of a dance-y breakup album. Themes of sadness, heartbreak and self-discovery are common throughout. Traver's voice is an unusual mixture of elements too, sometimes channeling Patty Donahue (The Waitresses), sometimes channeling disco, and most frequently providing quiet, breathy vocals. 

"Lemonade" is a standout breakup song, with lyrics like "you were like the American dream//made me want things I don't really need" and "Did I make you mean?//Or were you always that way?." "Party Like Your Heart Hurts" is a beautiful song outside of its significance to my life. "Fruity" serves as an appreciation of an ex-partner, featuring the line, "I gazed at your face for too long//'till my own was gone." 

Zack invited me to their show and it stands out in my head still as one of the best live shows I've been to in recent memory. Sun Machine is absolutely gorgeous in its' unusual songwriting and the emotions it conveys. I don't know if the duo will continue to work together, but giving the world Sun Machine was a gift enough that they should be able to do whatever they want.

At some point in early 2019, my newfound boyfriend and I started discussing a single we'd been hearing on the radio that was catchy and meaningful. I'd never managed to get into the band before, despite my attempts, but this song was really poppy and on-the-nose. The song was "Everybody's Lonely" by the band Jukebox the Ghost, a band that had been recommended to me for years since I was a fan of Tally Hall and Miniature Tigers. "Everybody's Lonely" is Jukebox the Ghost's most successful single to date, reaching #22 on the alternative charts. We decided to go to their concert (although I ended up going with Erin instead) and so I prepared myself by listening to the album they would be supporting, Off to the Races.

Off to the Races is an album largely about growing older and settling down. Between the title and "Everybody's Lonely," that might not sound like the case, but it is. The album title comes from the opening track "Jumpstarted," a song that I see several ways to interpret. To me, it seems to be about spotting the person you know you're going to settle down with. There is an element of the panic one (particularly a guy) might feel when realizing they're about to settle down, hence "my advice//is run while you still can." But that line could also be interpreted to mean "settle down while you still can" as the song uses "off to the races//got my love jumpstarted" to describe the start of a relationship. In fact, I am most inclined to believe the latter, just based on the rest of the album. The song could also just be about someone who is just chasing after multiple people they think are "the one" Perhaps that would make the most sense in another way, as it leads into "Everybody's Lonely." "Jumpstarted" works in several movements. It begins with a slow, piano-accompanied intro (reminiscent of "Somebody to Love" by Queen) laden with multi-layered backing vocals.  The band reportedly recorded over 100 vocal tracks for "Jumpstarted." The piano speeds up the tempo slightly until the whole band joins in for the first chorus. Later on, a synthesizer solo gives way to Tommy Siegel's Brian May-influenced guitar solo. The song wraps up with an acapella section that leaves the lyrical line "run while you still-" open, implying that the option of running is perhaps no longer there. 

"Everybody's Lonely" makes sense as the band's most successful single to date. It is masterful. The piano line soars and Ben Thornewill's voice is shown off, both in tone and range. Thornewill told Consequence Sound that the inspiration for the song's premise dates all the way back to World War II, when men were away at war and his grandmother asked his great grandmother why every song was about love and received the answer, "because everyone is so lonesome, dear." Even without a World War on, that still rings incredibly true years later. The song explores both the premise of songs being written to combat the loneliness, and the things people do to combat the loneliness, namely falling again and again into ultimately heartbreaking relationships. The upbeat nature of the song makes it instantly a sing-along song, and I think everyone can relate to the subject matter at least a little bit. Thornewill also draws a comparison between all of these love songs and the work of Jackson Pollock, who was constantly challenging what art was. The song poses the question of whether every love song is a piece of art, and I think by proxy, asks us if every relationship has merit, or if some are just there because, yet again, "Everybody's Lonely." Thornewill keeps time with the piano almost as much as Jessie Kristin does on drums, leaving Tommy Siegel to explore more Brian May/Jeff Lynne sounds on the guitar. All of these elements wrapped up into a 3-minute power-pop track make it hard to resist.

The band's Queen influences are heard throughout the album. The title may even be a reference to Queen's A Day at the Races. After all, Jukebox the Ghost had been doing a yearly "Halloqueen" show in which they performed one set as themselves and one as Queen. But none of this is to say they are unoriginal. Acts influenced by and compared to Queen are so prevalent that I even wrote an article compiling them back in 2015. The majority of those acts and Jukebox the Ghost have added their own twist on some of the ideas that Queen inspired. They told Google that they used Queen as the range of acceptable weirdness on the album, encouraging themselves to do stranger things within the confines of "What would Queen do?"

Not only do the boys of Jukebox the Ghost show off a range of other talents far different from Queen (such as a wider vocal range, more complex use of keys, etc), but they don't even stick to that sound influence through the whole album. On track three, they explore more of a mid/late '80s Huey Lewis/Robert Palmer kind of sound courtesy of Siegel's songwriting. "People Go Home" is the first song identifiably about growing up and settling into a boring life. It's not an endorsement by any means; more of a warning. "People Go Home" is a reminder that even though you are an adult, you should not be living to work, letting the days slip by repetitiously. 

Much like Siegel's "People Go Home," Thornewill's "Time and I" focuses on the passage of time and how life keeps rolling along whether you're ready for it or not. Thornewill was inspired by speaking with 98-year-old painter Ilana Smithkin, who said "time and I don't see eye to eye." While it's primarily about time passing and getting older, I think there is another inkling of the narrator's desire to settle down. "With our history, won't you please//Slow down for me or at least try?" is probably being addressed to time itself, but could also be intended for a lover that the narrator hopes will join him in slowing down and trying to avoid the meaningless passage of time.

Further enforcing the idea that they have found their own sound is "Fred Astaire." There's nothing derivative about "Fred Astaire," a Thornewill composition that serves as genuinely one of the cutest love songs I have ever heard. "Fred Astaire" isn't a love song about what makes a love beautiful or which of their features are the best, it is about appreciating someone who loves you for you and lets you be yourself. Something about the specifics in this song leads me to believe it came from a pretty personal place as well. As someone who is dating a songwriter, "sing the wrong lines to my own song, you don't mind" sounds far too specific to be about a random, imaginary woman. The most on-the-nose romantic line I may have ever heard though is "all my idiosyncrasies//you like 'em." I can think of a few similar lines or songs, but there is something just instantly heartwarming about the simplicity of that lyric and the way Thornewill sings it. 

Heavier guitar announces another Siegel composition with "Diane." Siegel says he was heavily influenced by The Kinks, early Beatles, and most of all The Beach Boys when writing "Diane." He wanted to write something akin to the fun of The Beach Boys Party! where the album is recorded as though it's live at a party. He said the line "you make me feel like I'm gonna die//Diane" felt a bit "like a morbid, anxiety-riddled response" to "Help Me Rhonda" by The Beach Boys. Also, listen for the harmonies in there! You won't regret it.

"See You Soon" takes the award for saddest song on the album. It's a little unclear whether the subject of the song has passed on or just moved on. No matter what, it seems as though the narrator doesn't expect to see them again. The verses are often about memories, as in "Remember when our street felt like everything?//Remember when your life felt like it would be never-ending?

Siegel's masterpiece on the album is "Boring," which features some Beach Boys harmonies. "Boring" bemoans the fact that people around the narrator are becoming adults and settling down. By the end of the song though, the narrator is actually realizing that he craves that life more than he realized, begging for the object of his affection to settle down with him, lest they "become someone lame with someone else." The apex of settling-down lines comes close to the end, with the narrator telling the subject, "I don't think you're boring//I don't think you're lame." His mindset has changed to the point that he may not realize what makes these other folks "boring" but kind of sees life with this person as its own adventure. 

"Simple as 1 2 3" is one of my favorite types of songs, the kind that describes that je ne sais quoi of falling in love, how seemingly random it can be. A thesis I have about the entire album comes from this song and the lines "So take a risk//And find a little love//Hidden where you didn't see it//'Cause the time you have is all the time you've got." I believe that the album isn't just about growing older, but about trying to settle down. Risk it. Find that love. Settle down, become boring.

To back that premise up a little more, I ask you to look at the closing track, "Colorful," particularly the pre-chorus, "Work hard, play hard, we don't have to grow up//Hide and seek, promise me that we'll never grow up." The album is about growing up, settling down, but maintaining the spark you have as a young person. Make adulting fun. We're just getting started. By the way, "Colorful" is a perfect closing track. It sums up the album, gives it closure musically, and is a good song to boot.

Best friend Erin and I at the Cults/
Shacks show, 2018.
Obviously, from the title of these articles, I am fast-approaching thirty. I'm not really upset about it. I love my life, I enjoy "adulting," and I never really reached the wild part of my youth and I'm okay with that. I have to say though, there is something comforting about this album. It's a message that we're getting older but everything will be okay. Just like MGMT's Oracular Spectacular came out just before I went to college, and ended up being the soundtrack of the late teens for many nihilistic youths, I think this album has a special place for people of my generation. Millennials have been accused of having Peter Pan syndrome (which I'm sure had nothing to do with the constant barrage of media that taught us that adults were boring and not to be trusted, living lives devoid of fun and color. Seriously, watch a '90s cereal commercial and tell me I'm wrong), and I think this album is a warm blanket telling us that it's okay to grow up. We don't have to look at relationships, raising a family and "adulting" as chores. They can be just as fun as anything we did as kids or young adults if we just approach them with the right mindset. 

I also just really like this album. It's fun and meaningful. The piano is gorgeous, the guitar work is great, and the drums add just what the songs need. Both of the songwriters in the band do great work and Thornewill's voice is incredible. I wasn't a fan of Jukebox the Ghost before this album, but now I eagerly await their next project.

That leaderboard is almost full, let's check in on it!

Join me tomorrow for my favorite album from 2019.

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