Death by Streaming? My (Possibly Final) List of the 10 Best Albums of the Year

[Blogger’s note: Amid alarming reports on the demise of the album, I humbly submit my picks for the best full-length releases of 2018. I’ll post them one at a time over the next several weeks, with time off for holiday merriment. Want to save the album as an art form? Then go out and purchase a vinyl LP – or a CD, if you must – from a real bricks-and-mortar shop. Don’t just stream random tracks to your phone! Read my extended rant on the subject here.]

9. Superorganism – Superorganism

cofIn the rather grumpy intro to this blog series, I laid the blame for the current dire state of the music industry squarely at the overpriced sneakers of those cursed millennials. But I must grudgingly concede that not everything the Snapchat generation does is bad. Take my #9 pick for the best albums of 2018. Superorganism, a multi-national collective of whippersnappers that features a shockingly young lead vocalist in 18-year-old Orono Noguchi, has a backstory that couldn’t be more “new school.”According to Wikipedia, founding members connected through online music forums and recruited Japanese native Noguchi after hearing her clips on Soundcloud. They emailed demos back and forth before eventually coalescing IRL in London. Despite – or is it because of?—the disparate backgrounds and unconventional formation, Superorganism’s debut is harmonious, confident, and wacky good fun.  Many of the tracks throb with the squelching electro beats of dubstep, and sound effects – frogs croaking, water splashing, tires screeching – are sprinkled liberally throughout. Orono’s adorable vocals border on blasé, but on a few cuts, like the standout single “Something for Your MIND,” she revs up her delivery to ferocious-kitty levels. Snarky humour snakes through the 10 tracks here. The opener, “It’s All Good,” samples a motivational speech by Tony Robbins, then proceeds to distort Robbins’ voice into the stuff of nightmares. On the deliriously trippy “The Prawn Song,” Noguchi imagines herself as a hipster crustacean, “chillin’ at the bottom of the sea.” I believe I can safely say it’s the catchiest synth-pop ditty about shrimp that I’ve ever heard.

 

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Death by Streaming? My (Possibly Final) List of the 10 Best Albums of the Year

After two consecutive annual lists that have been mired in mellow indie rock, I’m happy to report that my picks for the best albums of 2018 are a bit more diverse – soul, folk, rafter-shaking arena rock, and even dubstep are represented, as are venerable masters and young guns. This year’s winners are also, as in the past, testaments to the art form. With one or two arguable exceptions, they hang together as cohesive works and are meant to be listened to in their entirety, from beginning to end. And not just these, but other worthy runners-up by Beach House, Fantastic Negrito, the 1975, and Christine and the Queens. 2018 really was an embarrassment of riches musically.

Continue reading

Absolute Beginner: The Adventures of a Middle-Aged U.K. Newbie

[Blogger’s note: I was born and raised in America, moved to Canada for love in the early 2000s, and recently relocated again, in my 50s, with my British-born spouse to the southern coast of his homeland. This is an occasional series about learning new tricks in Merry Old England.]

A Toast to the Roast: Tucking into Britain’s Traditional Sunday Feast

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Photo by Andrew Burbanks, taken at the Cowshed in Bristol, England

Waaaaay back in the hot ‘n’ hazy days of summer—you know, eight weeks ago—I boldly proclaimed central air conditioning to be mankind’s greatest invention. Well, I take it back. (I’m a fickle blogger, aye, so I am.) That was warm weather me talking, high on salty sea breezes and sunscreen fumes. Chilly weather me, wrapped in a comfy, musty cardigan, pumpkin spice latte foam sloshed across my upper lip, is more inclined to bestow superlatives on autumnal pleasures. Snuggling with the spouse, so uncomfortable during the summer heatwave, earns high marks, as does binge-watching darker fare on Netflix, like The Haunting of Hill House. But the single greatest rite of fall has got to be gorging oneself to the point of delirium on an excessive feast, something Americans raise to an art form on Thanksgiving, which as I post this is just a few days away. (Lucky Canadians already had their Thanksgiving in October.) As a Yank myself, I should be pining for this annual jubilee of gluttony right about now, but I’ve discovered a U.K. equivalent that totally satisfies my expat hunger pangs. Even better, I don’t have to wait for a holiday; I can belly up to this gut-buster on any given weekend. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you my definitive pick (at least until spring) for mankind’s greatest-ever invention: the British Sunday roast. Continue reading

Absolute Beginner: The Adventures of a Middle-Aged U.K. Newbie

[Blogger’s note: I was born and raised in America, moved to Canada for love early in the new millennium, and recently relocated again, in my 50s, with my British-born spouse to the southern coast of his homeland. This is an occasional series about learning new tricks in Merry Old England.]

A Bloke Afloat: Getting Chummy with the English Seaside

btyWith the hottest summer on record in the UK nearing its inevitable end, it’s time to take stock of the personal highlights and lowlights of these past few muggy months. One definite lowlight: no central air conditioning in our flat! In the sweltering American South, where I grew up, central air is as essential to life as grits and saying “thank you, ma’am.” Here in England, the climate is usually less steamy. Most of the time my partner and I feel sufficiently cooled at home by opening windows and, of course, downing a few icy gin and tonics. This summer, as the weeks dragged on without any hint of rain and temperatures hovered in the high 20s C/mid-80s F, I was an ever-moist mess. Continue reading

Absolute Beginner: The Adventures of a Middle-Aged U.K. Newbie

[Blogger’s note: I was born and raised in America, moved to Canada for love early in the new millennium, and recently relocated again, in my 50s, with my British-born spouse to the southern coast of his homeland. This is an occasional series about learning new tricks in Merry Old England.]

Hello, Stranger, Would You Watch My Baby?
A Wary Former City Boy Struggles with Small-Town Neighbourliness

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Illustration by Jeff Cohen 

“British reserve” is a behavioural trait that’s allegedly so common in the UK it’s become a cliché.  Movies, books, even Brits themselves perpetuate the stereotype of a guarded people genetically predisposed to bottling up emotions and not making waves – “Keep Calm and Carry On” and all that. But if the cliché is true, someone neglected to tell the good folks of Southsea, the little laid-back village in which my partner and I now reside, nestled between the larger city of Portsmouth and the English Channel. After decades of living in sprawling, impersonal North American metropolises, we now find ourselves in close quarters with a community of characters who are anything but reserved. Indeed, they are an exceptionally chatty lot, alarmingly liberal with their warm greetings, all too willing to share intimate details about their personal lives, and trusting to a fault.  Continue reading

Absolute Beginner: The Adventures of a Middle-Aged U.K. Newbie

[Blogger’s note: I was born and raised in America, moved to Canada for love early in the new millennium, and recently relocated again, in my 50s, with my British-born spouse to the southern coast of his homeland. This is an occasional series about learning new tricks in Merry Old England.]

Lovely, Actually: Embracing Britain’s Cuddliest Expression

lovelypicIt was the afternoon of Prince Harry’s and Meghan Markle’s nuptials and royal wedding-obsessed folks all over Britain, indeed the world, were bunched around TV screens, hankies at the ready, to watch the blessed event. But not me and my partner. We had skipped the live airing to hunt for discounted summer attire in Portsmouth’s scruffy city centre shopping district. (Though of course we caught the two-hour BBC recap later that evening. We’re not monsters.) Well into our leisurely stroll from our flat to the shops, we overheard a cheerful male voice approaching from behind. “Hello, Nan, it’s your favourite grandson!” the voice crooned in that pleasantly sing-song way in which many Brits speak. Being a world-class sleuth, I quickly deduced that he was talking to his grandmother via mobile phone. “What’s that, Nan?” the voice continued. “No, I’m not watching it. Don’t really have any interest. You? Ah, lovely. I’m sure it is a beautiful dress. Well, I was just calling to wish Auntie Gail a happy birthday. Is she around? Lovely! Ta, Nan!” Continue reading

Hasty Takes: Snap Judgments on New Record Releases

[Blogger’s note: This is an occasional series of offhand, highly suspect reviews of current albums. I reserve the right to change my mind. In fact, count on that happening in 3, 2, 1…]

Good Thing – Leon Bridges (Columbia, 10 tracks)

cofI loved the first album by this Texas-born soul revivalist. 2015’s Coming Home was one of the most confident debuts I’d heard in many a moon and it landed at number six on my influential* 10-best list for that year. Harkening back to ‘60s soul pioneers Lee Dorsey and Sam Cooke, the record hummed with vitality. For his sophomore outing, Bridges has broadened his sound to include ‘70s-era slow jams and even a bit of ‘90s new jack swing. The lead-off track “Bet Ain’t Worth the Hand” sounds like a classic Stylistics ballad and “Shy” recalls ‘90s R&B bad boys Jodeci at their let’s-go-to-bed sultriest. Bridges is credible as a Casanova; his honeyed voice effortlessly soars to falsetto heights and plunges to pillow-talk lows.  But overall, the energy level here is waaaaay down. Part of the problem is the production, which layers on the reverb and the synthetic percussion and echo-y handclaps, diluting Bridges’ vocal delivery.  There are enough memorable tracks, such as the jazzy-cool “Bad Bad News,” that Good Thing narrowly escapes the curse of the sophomore slump. But the exuberance of that thrilling debut is sorely missed.

*Not at all influential.

Absolute Beginner: The Adventures of a Middle-Aged U.K. Newbie

[Blogger’s note: I was born and raised in America, moved to Canada for love in the early Aughts, and recently relocated again, in my 50s, with my British-born spouse to the southern coast of his homeland. This is an occasional series about learning new tricks in Merry Old England.]

A Waitrose by Any Other Name: Falling Head over Belly for Britain’s Most Sumptuous Supermarket (While Saving Room for a Side Dish of Marks & Spencer)

IMG_20180430_114131If you’re not a fan of mushy musings on affairs of the heart, I suggest you stop reading now. For the blog post that you are about to peruse positively oozes with sap; it’s fecund with romantic fervor. You see, I am smitten, utterly captivated, moon-in-June besotted. In a word, gaga. All I want to do is loll on a chaise-longue in my dressing gown and pen amorous odes to the object of my affection, but daily I’m driven to get dressed and get out so that I can once again behold my darling’s ample assets. When we’re together, my sweetheart satisfies my every whim and I have truly grown as a person thanks to our union. That’s no metaphor. I’ve literally gained weight by being just a five-minute stroll from all that I desire. It’s the only downside of falling madly in love with a supermarket. Continue reading

Absolute Beginner: The Adventures of a Middle-Aged U.K. Newbie

[Blogger’s note: I was born and raised in America, moved to Canada for love in the early Aughts, and recently relocated again, in my 50s, with my British-born spouse to the southern coast of his homeland. This is an occasional series about learning new tricks in Merry Old England.]

Who is Freddo and What’s a Krankie? Puzzling Through the References on British Television

IMG_0423As far as immigration sagas go, my move to the U.K., minus a couple of slight stumbles, has been a relative cakewalk. Yes, securing a spousal visa proved to be somewhat Kafkaesque, but in the end, I was granted entry into a beautiful country populated by friendly folks who—and this is crucial to the ease of my transition—speak the same language as I do. As I’ve discussed in a previous post, I’ve had to get used to a few British-isms during my brief time residing in the land of jumpers and crumpets, but the learning curve could have been much steeper. Everyone around me could be speaking Mandarin, or Estonian, and I’d morph into one of those Ugly American contestants on The Amazing Race who, upon arriving in a bustling foreign city centre, immediately begins screeching “DOES ANYBODY HERE SPEAK ENGLISH?” (What, you think I’d actually be able to master conversational Estonian? Not a chance in põrgu.) My North American accent may sound a trifle strange to my British neighbours, but in general they seem to understand what I’m saying, and vice-versa.

Watching British television, however, can make me feel like a bewildered traveller in dire need of a Berlitz phrasebook. Continue reading

I’m Gonna Wash That Year Right Outta My Hair: The Top 10 Albums of 2017

1: LCD Soundsystem – American Dream

cofI’ll be honest, ranking the best albums of the year can be kind of an arbitrary process. (Shocking, I know!) I employ no failsafe algorithms to ensure each record is assigned its proper numerical spot in the top 10, I just go on gut feeling. Is the latest soft-rock opus by the War on Drugs really one notch better than the first full-length collaboration by country siblings Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer? Ask me again in a few months and I may tell you a different answer. But there was no dithering over my #1 choice for the best album of 2017. American Dream, the fourth release by hipster Brooklyn act LCD Soundsystem, practically wallops you over the head with its greatness. It’s the first LCD recording since 2011, when ringleader James Murphy announced the band’s “retirement.” Coaxed by hero and colleague David Bowie—the two joined forces on Bowie’s brilliant final album, BlackstarMurphy got the gang back together and American Dream is an exhilarating example of second-wind success. It’s got most everything longtime fans want: witty, incisive lyrics, groovy electro beats that stretch into epic club jams, and the usual Rolodex of cool musical references — here you’ll hear echoes of Talking Heads, Gang of Four, Joy Division, and of course, Bowie himself. But there’s a newfound maturity to the work. Gone are tossed-off novelties like “Drunk Girls” from 2011’s This Is Happening. The expansive compositions on American Dream flow and evolve more seamlessly than on previous efforts, and the lyrics are more complex. The breathtaking “tonite” skewers the current state of pop culture, calling out “these bullying children of the fabulous, raffling off limited edition shoes.” But it also manages to be astutely self-aware as Murphy, now 47,  frets over his advancing age. “I’m a reminder, a hobbled veteran of the disc shop inquisition,” he sings/raps, “sent to parry the cocksure mem-stick filth with mine own late-era middle-aged ramblings.” Modest as those sentiments are, that’s some bravura writing there. The emotional highlight is the final track, “black screen,” a dreamy tribute to Murphy’s relationship with Bowie— “You fell between a friend and a father”—that musically recalls Bowie’s legendary Berlin sessions with Brian Eno. Ambitious, whip-smart, hilarious but also surprisingly poignant in parts, American Dream is not only far and away the best album of 2017, it’s one for the ages.