Another mind-bending array of releases impressed Local Spins writers over the past year — Robyn to Janelle Monae, Lindsay Lou to Urfaust, Childish Gambino to boygenius. Browse the lists, listen to the music.
Welcome to another year of powerful and empowering pop, politically potent hip hop and reimagined/imaginative/impactful rock.
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At least, that’s the conclusion of Local Spins’ staff of intrepid writers, who’ve once again skimmed the cream of the musical crop and found the tastiest morsels in a robust stew of 2018 releases — from international superstars to local/regional wonders.
Read about their selections for best albums, songs and concerts of the year — and sample music from the artists, too.
Then, return to Local Spins next week when West Michigan musicians get a chance to showcase their top picks. We’ll feature readers’ picks, too, so email your list of favorite 2018 albums to email@example.com by noon Dec. 24, sign up for the Local Spins email list and you’ll be entered into a drawing for a Local Spins gift package.
As for me, my best concert moments in 2018 came sitting in the intimate confines of River City Studios absorbing the power and glory of Michigan faves Billy Strings, The War and Treaty and The Accidentals during Local Spins Live at River City Studios sessions (though Jack White and band at 20 Monroe Live in April was right up there, too). – John Sinkevics
THE WRITERS’ PICKS: BEST MUSIC OF 2018TROY REIMINK (Local Spins writer, co-host of “New Standards” at 6 p.m. Sundays on WYCE-FM 88.1)
1. Robyn, “Honey” – “Honey” is Robyn’s “Ray of Light.” The Swedish pop innovator’s long-awaited return trades the dopamine-rush bangers from 2010’s “Body Talk” for something introspective, challenging and ultimately more rewarding. If “Body Talk” was all about crying your heart out on the dance floor, “Honey” is about piecing it back together the morning after a dark night of the inebriated soul.
2. Christine and the Queens, “Chris” – Performing as Christine and the Queens, French star Héloïse Letissier delivers concrete-solid dance anthems while presiding over a celebration of nonconformity, fluidity and pure physicality. “Chris” is a party I never want to leave.
3. Janelle Monae, “Dirty Computer” – This is the statement record Monae’s fans have waited for since “Tightrope” announced her vast talent nearly a decade ago — a radiant, sexy and self-assured effort that finally justifies all of the Prince comparisons.
4. Kacey Musgraves, “Golden Hour” – Musgraves is just as impatient with the conventions of country music as she is with men who are “classic in the wrong way.” “Golden Hour” shimmers and bursts with ideas and feelings: “High Horse” alone contains at least three hooks good enough to carry whole songs; “Space Cowboy,” whose title reveals itself as a heartbreaking play on words, is the year’s most harrowing breakup song; “Slow Burn” is a narrative master class. All that glitters here is gold indeed.
5. Beach House, “7” – Still great and somehow getting better, the dream-pop duo ventures ever further into sonic nether-realms where the line separating darkness and light blurs and disappears. Beach House’s seventh and boldest album overwhelms on nearly all fronts – emotional, textural, melodic, the pure physical experience of living inside it. “7” is both beauty and beast.
Honorable Mention: Neko Case, “Hell On”; Pusha T, “Daytona”; The 1975, “A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships”; Mitski, “Be the Cowboy”; Spiritualized, “And Nothing Hurt”; Deafheaven, “Ordinary Corrupt Human Love”; Now Now, “Saved”; Low, “Double Negative”
BEST LOCAL ALBUM: Coffin Problem, “So Good Nothing” – GR’s foremost prophets of gloomy grandeur follow their self-titled debut with a tour de force that offers slightly more of everything: more gale-force guitars, more dynamic vocals from frontman Sean Stearns and a stellar lineup of guests, more texture, more coins of sunlight penetrating the murk. Putting your head in a vice isn’t supposed to feel so good.
BEST CONCERT: David Byrne, DeVos Performance Hall, Aug. 8 – I wrote quite a bit about Byrne’s “American Utopia” tour stop back in August, a concert memory that continues to delight and confound me, as I suspect it will for the rest of my life as a music lover.
Honorable Mention: Janelle Monae, 20 Monroe Live; Against Me!, Pyramid Scheme; Deafheaven & DIIV, Pyramid Scheme
RICKY OLMOS (Local Spins writer, keyboardist for Joshua Powell)
These are listed in no particular order.
1. boygenius, “boygenius” – 2018 felt like a year of super-groups and side projects. Glorietta, Big Red Machine, Mountain Man. Though all of these releases were well-made, they were eclipsed by the pure genius of boygenius. Indie stars Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, each with a passionate following of their own, generated a fair amount of buzz by joining forces as boygenius. The self-titled EP captures the trio’s angst and lyrical mastery through a stirring full band experience and also marks a moment in time of this pure artistic collaboration.
2. Noname, “Room 25” – Deeply personal and decidedly confident, “Room 25” throws listeners into the immersive musical mind of Noname (Fatimah Nyeema Warner). Sprawling with a lush instrumental pallet of jazz, soul and Latin influences the brilliant album is nothing short of cinematic. Warner spins tongue-twisting rhymes that feel soberingly autobiographical and conversational. It’s as though she’s having a vulnerable heart to heart with the listener in the back corner of a dimly lit (super vibey) coffee shop.
3. Lucy Dacus, “Historian” – Lucy Dacus takes all the ingredients of sad indie songwriter and turns the recipe on its head. Starting with a deadpan delivery and devastating lyrics, Dacus infuses her songs with the electric backbone of driving indie-rock and a bellowing, powerful voice. But it’s the hints of hopefulness and self-assuredness that set Dacus apart from other sad song spinners. Sure, things get depressing on “Historian,” but never mopey, and fans are eager to hear what’s next for the burgeoning star.
4. Kurt Vile, “Bottle It In” – Kurt Vile has been making good music for a long time (he collaborated early on with The War on Drugs and his solo recordings date back to 2003) but it wasn’t until 2018’s “Bottle It In,” that his recognition mirrored the caliber of his work, a testament to artistic authenticity and consistency. The album is wildly unique, quirky and ultimately entrancing. Vile is entirely himself – that is, playful and witty – with music wrapped in groovy backbeats, seemingly sparse but densely layered instrumentals, and dreamy guitars.
5. Kacey Musgraves, “Golden Hour” – Arguably a masterpiece and an instant classic, one thing is certain on Kacey Musgraves’ “Golden Hour,” and that’s its spellbinding, genre-bending qualities. Musgraves breaks the mold of both country music and pop with a kaleidoscopic world of endless possibilities. Breezy and dripping with sun-soaked vibes, the album gives off a kind of ’90s songwriter feel at its core, before completely exploding from those confines with an array of unexpected elements, everything from synthesizers to disco to psychedelic explorations.
BEST MICHIGAN ALBUMS:
The War and Treaty, “Healing Tide” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D6yEaovQPh4
Brother Elsey, “Matador” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2zq76RJB-oE
Michigander, “Midland” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E3gZWIFm_o4&list=PLld1NXBSqMDillmAzbMz2uiaRKxLYftbU
BEST CONCERT: Bon Iver at Mo Pop Festival in Detroit, July 28 – Justin Vernon behind a podium of synthesizers and effects pedals. A full band that includes two drummers and a saxophonist. A carefully composed light show that seems to invent new colors. A full moon and the Detroit skyline on a perfect summer night. Hands down the best show of the year, or dare I say, in the history of the universe?
TRICIA WOOLFENDEN (Local Spins writer, co-host of ‘New Standards’ at 6 p.m. Sundays on WYCE-FM 88.1)
ALBUM OF THE YEAR: Janelle Monáe, “Dirty Computer” — Monáe’s protest album is a stunning, clever and infectious indictment of societal ails: corruption, racism, misogyny, patriarchy, oppression, violence, greed. It’s a party soundtrack that demands its audience to push harder, be better and challenge the status quo.
SONGS OF THE YEAR: 1. Childish Gambino, “This is America” (single) – It’s impossible to divorce this commercially and critically successful track from the video that catapulted it to viral fame. The video and the conversation generated in its wake are as an apt summary of 2018 as any piece of art.
2. Florence + The Machine, “Cornflake Girl” (single) – Tori Amos’ angsty mid-90s girl-power anthem gets dramatic new life in the capable arms — and powerful pipes — of Florence Welch.
3. Mitski, “A Pearl” (from “Be the Cowboy”) – Singer-songwriter Mitski’s fifth studio album packs 14 tracks into a 32-minute package that leaves the listener wanting more. While several songs popped up on my “most played” year-end list, I found myself returning again to this melancholy anti-love song.
4. Wye Oak, “The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs” (from “The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs”) -A dreamy, if somewhat ominous, study on the futility of relentless ambition.
5. Cat Power, “Woman (feat. Lana Del Ray)” (from “Wanderer”) – Mentor meets protege in this tag-team effort off Chan Marshall’s (aka Cat Power) 10th album.
BEST CONCERT: Janelle Monáe w/ St. Beauty, July 7 at 20 Monroe Live – From the lights and the costumes to the choreography and set list, Janelle Monáe’s Grand Rapids’ “Dirty Computer” tour stop was a superlative spectacle of epic proportion. An incredible show-woman from start to finish, Monae rightfully claimed her spot on the throne, enthralling a rapt house. Check out the Local Spins recap and photo gallery from the show: https://localspins.com/janelle-monae-unfurls-arena-like-spectacle-local-spins/
BEST LOCAL/REGIONAL ALBUM: The War and Treaty, “Healing Tide”
RYAN BOLDREY (Local Spins writer)
1. Lindsay Lou, “Southland” — From the first notes of the album-opening “Roll with Me” to the upbeat melodies of “The Voice” and the hauntingly sweet title track, the long-awaited follow-up to 2015’s “Ionia” proved to be well worth the wait for fans of the Michigan-bred songstress. Tracks such as bassist PJ George’s “The River that I Knew” and the Joshua Rilko-led “Simple and Sober” do a better than good job showing off the (now Nashville) band’s vocal diversity and songwriting depth, while numbers such as “Go There Alone,” “Magic Man” and “Shining in the Distance” put Lindsay’s amazingly beautiful vocal range on full display. Former bandmate Mark Lavengood (dobro and then some) appears on all but one track on the album, which also features guest spots from Lindsay’s Sweet Water Warbler bandmates May Erlewine and Rachael Davis, as well as Matt Douglas and Sam Kassirer.
2. Michigan Rattlers, “Evergreen” — They may call Los Angeles home these days, but that doesn’t make this band any less Michigan. Americana at its finest, the Petoskey-bred duo of Graham Young on guitar and vocals and Andrew Bryant on upright bass did right when they added Christian Wilder to flush out their sound on keys. The only problem I have with “Evergreen” is that it took so long for me to finally give it a spin. Songs like “Forever,” “Didn’t You Know” and “Evergreen” have that perfect image-driven, quiet Northern Michigan feel while other tunes such as “Drinking Song” and “Just Good Night” turn it up just the right amount. There’s a reason this band is popping up on the national festival scene this summer and receiving rave reviews at every turn.
3. The War and Treaty, “Healing Tide” — “Just two lovebirds singing without reverb” says the front page of their website. And with voices as pure, far-ranging and soulful as Michael and Tanya Trotter’s there is no need to add anything, well, except for maybe some music. Produced by Nashville’s Buddy Miller, The Albion duo’s first full-length has more than enough power-packed music, voice and soul to pacify the hungriest of music fans. From the anthemic “Love Like There’s No Tomorrow” to the foot-stomping, soulful “Jeep Cherokee Laredo,” the country-esque “One and the Same,” the delicate and lovely “Hearts” and the feel-good, get-down quality of the album’s title track, there isn’t a bad cut on this one. Musical guests range from Sam Bush to Emmylou Harris and Russ Pahl.
4. Jen Sygit, “It’s About Time” — It’s been said before by plenty of others, but it was definitely “about time” for a new Jen Sygit album, and this one, her first solo work in nine years, is probably the best and most powerful one yet. It’s bluesy, ballsy and vocally on point. The banjo-laden title track, hard-groovin’ “Hurricane Rider” and deep and soulful “I Try” epitomize the diversity of style on this album, and the solid songwriting throughout thread each song together masterfully. An all-star cast of musical guests featured on the work include Luther Dickinson, Dominic John Davis, Drew Howard, Mike Lynch, Rachael Davis, Geoff Ian Lewis, Colin Linde and The McCrary Sisters.
5. Cousin Avery, “Along the Way” – The Kalamazoo bluegrass band’s sophomore effort serves as a perfect highway soundtrack, sending listeners on a lively lyrical and musical journey filled with upbeat progressions and thoughtful melodies throughout. Founding members Marcus Taylor (guitar/lead vocals) and Colin Kilmer (fiddle, vocals) have found a solid mesh with their current five-piece lineup, featuring Jeff Brant (bass), Jason Bryant (drums) and Ed Martini (banjo). Songs such as the album-opening “I Won’t Let You Down” and “We’ll Find a Way” showcase Taylor’s optimistic approach to life, but it’s his darker, more introspective numbers such as “Heave Ho” and “Catapult” that make this album a well-rounded one, and Kilmer’s catchy album centerpiece “Canoe” will have you singing along, even well after the song is over.
10 NATIONAL ALBUMS WORTH ROTATIONAL CONSIDERATION: Fruition – Watching it All Far Apart, Phish – The Baker’s Dozen, Leftover Salmon – Something Higher, Rayland Baxter – Wide Awake, Marcus King – Carolina Confessions, Umphrey’s McGee – It’s Not Us, The Jayhawks – The Story of Back Roads and Abandoned Motels, Jeff Tweedy – Warm, Neville Jacobs – Neville Jacobs, Dave Matthews – Come Tomorrow
BEST CONCERT: Greensky Bluegrass, May 31, Night 1 of Camp Greensky — All three Greensky performances at their inaugural festival were special for their own reasons. Night two may have had the best setlist and night three had an absolutely unbelievable array of special guests, including Mike Gordon of Phish, Cris Jacobs and Marco Benevento, but if I have to pick one, I’ll take the opening night. There was something about walking into a freshly carved out piece of the Wellston festival grounds as “Feels Like The First Time” rang through the air. It was seeing familiar faces at every turn and dancing toward the stage in a cool, late spring breeze, realizing that while one tradition (the Bell’s Beer Garden Opener) was no more for this band, a newer, much cooler one was just beginning. And as the Kalamazoo-bred quintet segued into “Tied Down,” “All Four” and “Demons” to get things under way, every single person in that spacious field knew they were in for something special over the next three days and nights.
Honorable Mention: Elephant Revival wsg Hiss Golden Messenger and Blind Pilot May 20 at Red Rocks, Avett Brothers and Government Mule Aug. 25 at DTE Aug. 25, Trey Anastasio April 18 at 20 Monroe, Billy Strings Aug. 18 at Hoxeyville, Dave Bruzza Oct. 19 at Bells, and Steppin’ In It, May 14 at The Green Door
DEVIN ANDERSON (Local Spins writer)
Julian Allen brings sweet, minimal alt-pop to life with “Moonglo.” Driven by a vintage keyboard and a soft, infectious chorus, the song is quite the introduction to Allen as a singer-songwriter.
The Chicago native’s debut album, “Could U Be” was produced by Tyler Duncan in Ann Arbor and is flying way under the radar.
2. Punch Brothers, “All Ashore” – This title track leads the string band’s most subtle album to date. For a group of five virtuosic musicians to gel quietly in service of the song – as singer-mandolinist Chris Thile and company do here – is quite impressive. While the song and album are understated, there’s still mind-blowing, precise playing at every turn. It may take a few listens, but “All Ashore” eventually reveals itself to be a gorgeous movement of melody and poetry.
3. Unknown Mortal Orchestra, “Hunnybee” – Ruban Nielson’s latest single with psychedelic pop project Unknown Mortal Orchestra is groovy on every level. “Hunnybee” – an aching song Nielson wrote about missing his daughter while away on tour – plays like a total hit with an R&B groove and pop vocal. There are tastes of jazz, electronic, funk and rock, too. From the insatiable lo-fi chorus to the screaming outro guitar solo, “Hunnybee” is probably the most DIY tune I’ve ever heard playing in a shopping mall.
4. Wajatta, “We Know More (Than We Lead on)” – The unlikely duo of comedian-musician Reggie Watts and electronic composer John Tejada joined forces this year as Wajatta. Their experimental album, “Casual High Technology,” beams with danceable electronic pop songs. “We Know More” is the prime example, marrying Tejada’s skill as a producer with Watts’ vocal prowess and stream-of-consciousness songwriting ability. It’s simplistic by design and innocuous enough that it would sound as appropriate at a rave as it would on a rainy day at home.
5. The Go Rounds, “Code” – The Go Rounds returned this year with “Code,” an EP featuring live tracks and three new studio recordings. The title track is a dark masterwork in which the Kalamazoo band breaks entirely new ground. Droning with a dissonant groove and outlandish vocals for more than six minutes, the song is as haunting as it is catchy. I’m assured of its beauty each time the guitar oozes back in with lush, melodic arpeggios.
BEST LOCAL RELEASE: El Brandino, “A Work in Progress” – Grand Rapids’ own Brandon Proch is becoming something of a staple in West Michigan’s music scene. When he’s not lending his skills on saxophone, guitar, bass, drums and keys to a bevy of local artists, Proch channels these talents into genre-bending solo work. Proch’s debut album, “A Work in Progress,” is difficult to peg, with meanderings into folk, punk, ska, blues and jam-rock (all of which he succeeds at in equal measure). Whether it’s live-looped or a full band of instruments, Proch plays it all. “The Sentence” is the standout track; I’ve had the whole album in regular rotation since its release.
BEST CONCERT: Vulfpeck, Kamasi Washington and Knower, April 28 at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado – To witness a band as eccentric as Vulfpeck make its way from playing small Michigan festivals to becoming an internet sensation with a worldwide following has been surprising to put it mildly. So it was a milestone event to go see one of my favorite groups play its biggest headlining show to date at the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Nearly 10,000 Vulf fans were treated to a chilly, spring evening of funky pop tunes and truly athletic musicianship. It all made for an unforgettable trip.
JOHN SERBA (Local Spins writer, creator of johnserbaatlarge.com)
As Local Spins’ official metal correspondent, I need to be upfront about my biases. And the big one is, every Lemmy-less year in metal will be trash from here to eternity, and those years without a new Overkill record (it’s out in February, kids) will be less than trash. Yet, I persevere, sifting through the landfills for scraps of metallic sustenance. Upsettingly, 2018 was a weak year for Dad Thrash (a.k.a. B.S. Old Guy Metal; check out my podcast!), at least outside the touring circuit, and zero such graying bangers made my Top 5, partly because the crunchy new Metal Church record just hit, and I haven’t sat with it enough yet. So my gaze shifted to other loves, the black metal genre and Godzilla-stoner Matt Pike, who rule my top five with iron fists.
1. Urfaust, “The Constellatory Practice” – Confession: I don’t fully understand what Urfaust is doing or saying or implying with its ambient trudges through the universe and/or the mind. All I know is, the Dutch duo stirs a broiling, effluent and mystical broth, its blackish metallic weirdness seeping into all spaces conscious and unconscious, compelling meditation, introspection and obsession. “The Constellatory Practice” is suffocatingly atmospheric and layered, like a coffin collapsing on you beneath the weight of the dirt, and all you can do is squeeze your eyes shut until you see the stars. Atop churning noise, esoteric melodies and crashing waves of guitars, singer IX (don’t ruin it for me and tell me he has an earthly name) offers a haunted voice of anguish, sometimes howling, sometimes operatic, always eccentric. Urfaust has five full-lengths and a smattering of singles and EPs, some of them aggressively drunken, some of them thoughtfully symphonic, all of them strange, transcendent, experimental, elevating, depressing and irrepressible. Are they metal? Yes. No. Maybe. It’s beyond me, between only Urfaust and the universe.
2. Funeral Mist, “Hekatomb” – Funeral Mist is the terminus terrible of black metal, a true innovator and rule-breaker dwelling among the desperately gnarled and mad fringes of the genre. Which isn’t to say “Hekatomb” isn’t savage or blasphemous; it’s actually more savage and blasphemous than all of its genre brethren. Yes, all of them. Essentially the solo project of Hans Daniel “Arioch” Rosten — a.k.a. Mortuus, frontman of longstanding Swedish agitators Marduk — Funeral Mist continues the possessed spiritual desecrations of its landmark predecessor, 2009’s lusciously nasty “Maranatha,” planting one dagger in your temple and the other in your gut. Arioch’s riffs and arrangements are inspired and idiosyncratic, and his demonic vocal retches sound like he’s either swallowing the lamb of god whole, or puking it back up. You can’t say that about just anybody, you know.
3. Akitsa, “Credo” – Of all the bands strictly adhering to the grim, coarse scrape of lo-fi black metal, Quebec’s Akitsa hews closest to the groundbreaking aesthetic standards of Les Legions Noires, the enigmatic and peerless French collective that made tape hiss the most significant component of its sound. (Submit your ears to Vlad Tepes, Mutiilation (sic), Belketre and my personal favorite, Brenoritvrezorkre, for some brittle analog punishment, and thank me later.) Akitsa’s sixth full-length is a compulsive listen, rife with hissing earworms wriggling in the filthy earth of its nearly non-existent production. Progress, schmogress: “Credo” is a simple affirmation of all the things sub-subcultural, sub-sub-basement black metal does well: crackling, crumbling guitars, drums shifting from skitter to pummel, bitter vocal rasps, a pervasive whiff of alienation and solitude, and lots of somber melodies. It’s harsh and raw, stripped down to the bones of pain and despair. Happy New Year!
4. Sleep, “The Sciences”/High on Fire, “Electric Messiah” – Matt Pike, metal’s beloved and congenial hesher-Conan figure, had a great 2018, releasing a pair of major ragers from his behemoth bands, Sleep and High on Fire. He’s the riffmaster general for Sabbatherian hashmongers Sleep, which released its first album in 20 years, surprise-dropping “The Sciences” on, appropriately, 4/20, man. Expectations were so high, they craved an entire carton of Cool Ranch Doritos. The record lived up to the hype: “The Sciences” is a monolithic slab of sludgy riff-matter fed into the fuel tank of a jalopy vessel ripe for an excursion into inner or outer space, depending on your strain of choice. It rocks. A scant few months later, rumbling speedsters High on Fire birthed “Electric Messiah,” which singer/axeman Pike penned in thunderous tribute to the O.G. S.O.B. himself, Lemmy Kilmister, R.I.P. The record would be ace on the strength of the concept alone; it also happens to be Pike’s most explosive batch of riffs and songs in a decade. Stone deaf forever, you bastards.
Listen: https://youtu.be/uAs95WJ7RnI; https://youtu.be/p9LqBRvUzY0
5. Immortal, “Northern Chaos Gods” – The recent history of Immortal is convoluted, so I’ll be concise: Charismatic goofball frontman Abbath lost the trademark battle for the Immortal name, leaving guitarist and lyricist Demonaz, freshly resurrected from the medical exile of severe tendinitis, to lead the Norwegian black metal institution, supported by longtime drummer Horgh. (The matter wasn’t settled via swordfight on the side of a snowy mountain, like it should’ve been; depressingly, it happened in a very boring courtroom.) I greeted Immortal’s first Abbathless record tentatively, but “Northern Chaos Gods” swiftly smashed any skepticism with a single blow from a mighty ice hammer. Demonaz crafts slashing melodic riffs in the classic Immortal vein, arranging them as if they’re majestic, towering ice sculptures carved to extol ancient and mighty Arctic deities. The gods are no doubt as pleased by the effort as we are.
Honorable Mention: Voivod, “The Wake”; Aura Noir, “Aura Noire”; Lucifer, “II”; Memoriam, “The Silent Vigil”; Primordial, “Exile Amongst the Ruins.”
BEST CONCERT: Slayer, Lamb of God, Anthrax, Testament and Napalm Death, Van Andel Arena, Aug. 7 — This one scratched my Dad Thrash itch right nice. Assuming their drawn-out final tour doesn’t return to Grand Rapids a second time, we got a chance to say goodbye to Slayer, who enjoyed the biggest stage production of their career — read: flames, more flames, flames fired in the shape of inverted crosses — and sounded as crushing as ever, even without late, great guitarist Jeff Hanneman and drum god Dave Lombardo. Napalm Death raged intently, Anthrax and Testament thrashed with the hunger of bands half their age, and I wished Lamb of God had been replaced by Overkill or Voivod or Kreator or Obituary or Sodom or Doro or Megadeth or, really, any other band that doesn’t bore me to tears. Slayer has been surpassed by so many bands in the eviler-than-thou sweepstakes, they mostly rule Heck instead of Hell these days. But this grand career finale reminded us who started this mad dash to extremity, and why they’ll forever reign as metal’s most influential band.
MATT MARN (Local Spins writer)
1. May Erlewine & the Motivations, “In the Night” – For sporting a release date earlier this month, May Erlewine and her amazing group, The Motivations, have made a great impact on the local music scene. They’re hosting dance parties for release concerts across the state, and serenading the airwaves all over West Michigan. The four-song EP’s jazzy, upbeat songs are uplifting and her surrounding instrumental talents add extra spice perfect for battling the winter blahs, encouraging everyone listening to get up and dance.
2. The War and Treaty, “Healing Tide” – This album from Albion duo Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Blount-Trotter, otherwise known as The War and Treaty, packs the same powerful punch as the group’s earlier debut. The variety in tone and style, paired with the emotion and soul behind every word of their vocals, make “Healing Tide” an essential addition to every playlist, and will reassure fans that the now-national buzz surrounding The War and Treaty is not going to fade anytime soon.
3. Earth Radio, “Earth Radio” – The skilled, soulful vocal range of Hannah Laine leads the jazz-funk group, boasting a who’s who of great Grand Rapids instrumentalists to deliver tracks ranging from mellow, near-ambient tones all the way to funky, bass-thumping jam sessions, all on the same album. Worth enjoying at home, but once you do, go see them live. You’re welcome.
4. Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite, “No Mercy in This Land” – Seasoned artists Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite have united once more for their sophomore album as a duo, “No Mercy in this Land.” This fun mix of original blues tunes are fantastic, with Harper’s vocals leading the charge in each tune, accompanied by his guitar licks and Musselwhite’s skilled harmonica solos. Enhanced by the variety of tempos and tones, the album is a must for this blues fan, and for anyone who appreciates the passion behind the blues.
5. The Decemberists, “I’ll Be Your Girl” – The newest album from The Decemberists is one I have found very difficult to put down. The variety in the album is fun, and fascinating at the same time. There are several different stories woven within the tracks – something The Decemberists are known quite well for – but then, the album moves onto something completely different, right when you want to listen to the first song over again, to hear the story once more. From acoustic guitars to powerfully-laden synth effects, each song seems to have just the right blend of tones. Since falling in love with “I’ll Be Your Girl,” I’ve gone back to their prior discs and have begun diving deeper into their storytelling. I definitely look forward to whatever I may find.
LOCAL/REGIONAL ALBUM OF THE YEAR: Mark Harrell, “Blue Birds” – Holland singer-songwriter Mark Harrell’s words in “Blue Birds” weave together a powerful narrative of real pain and trauma, from a very real place in his own life. Songwriting offers him the opportunity to get his emotions out, and battle with his demons. Harrell strums acoustic melodies in most of the tracks as a backdrop, upon which he paints his picture of raw emotion – with a gifted storytelling style that puts you right next to the characters he describes.
BEST CONCERT: Kaleo wsg Dan Mangan, 20 Monroe Live, July 1 – When Icelandic rock band Kaleo hit 20 Monroe Live in Grand Rapids this summer, they came ready to play, giving their enthusiastic fans a show for the books. True to their Icelandic roots, Kaleo played a tune from their album, “Vor í Vaglaskógi,” written and performed in their native Icelandic language. The crowd cheered along with every note for every song and I was cheering right with them. I had been following this band all year since I discovered them, and I was thrilled to get a chance to see them live. And rest assured, they did not disappoint.
ROSS BOISSONEAU (Local Spins writer)
1. Steve Hackett, “Wuthering Nights Live in Birmingham” – The guitar virtuoso continues to explore and expand his horizons while paying homage to his past. Hackett remains one of music’s most masterful guitarists, and as a composer he’s equally adept. This set presents his complete show from last year in Birmingham. He revisits his past, first with “Shadow of the Hierophant” from his 1975 debut album, “Voyage of the Acolyte,” and later goes back even further, to “The Musical Box” from 1971’s “Nursery Cryme.” The Genesis Revisited set features a bevy of songs from “Wind and Wuthering” on the occasion of that album’s 40th anniversary (Hackett’s last with Genesis), and he keeps it current as well with a trio of tunes from last year’s The Night Siren. His band is in brilliant form throughout, especially drummer Gary O’Toole and criminally underrated keyboardist Roger King. Art that rocks.
2. Sonar with David Torn, “Vortex” – The Swiss minimalist rock quartet enlisted avant-garde rock guitarist David Torn to produce its fourth album. He ended up playing on every track, a la Eno producing and performing with Talking Heads. This recording is repetitive, striking, yet grating: Think the Clash playing Steve Reich. The band’s rawness and Torn’s weirdness are perfectly complementary. The group is also capable of toning down the rock in favor of more gentle accompaniment, as on “Waves and Particles,” providing a more engaging space for Torn to squeal over.
3. Yes, “Fly From Here Return Trip” – The 2011 original was, well, OK. Then the band enlisted the record’s producer, main lyricist and Drama-era Yes vocalist Trevor Horn to re-record all the lead vocals. Turns out the album was much better than OK. There’s one new track, Steve Howe’s “Don’t Take No for an Answer,” where he inexplicably takes the lead vocal, and some embellishments along the way. It’s altogether more lively and engaging than the original, a surprising return to form.
4. Yes (featuring ARW), “Live at the Apollo” – Another Yes album? Actually another Yes. After vocalist and co-founder Jon Anderson was unceremoniously dropped from the group, he started collaborating with the caped crusader, aka, Rick Wakeman, and the two then enlisted onetime Yes guitarist Trevor Rabin. While they are writing new music, they’ve toured with a set of tunes from across the Yes years, and their performances on this album are inspired, from “Perpetual Change” to “Rhythm of Love” and everywhere in between. The band is in great form throughout, and the new arrangements sparkle while not losing the heart of the songs. No, Rabin isn’t Steve Howe – that’s obvious on “I’ve Seen All Good People,” – but he doesn’t try to be. It’s clear that this version of the band is in great spirits.
5. Elliot Deutsch, “Make Big Band Great Again” – Bandleader and composer Deutsch is pictured on the cover with a red baseball hat with the title emblazoned on it, and with tracks like “Fake News,” “Repeal and Replace” and “the Great Wall” it seems inspired by the current political climate. But other than kicking off with “America the Beautiful” it is not at all politically inclined – it’s just great music played by a tight, swinging band. “Repeal and Replace” features some gorgeous trumpet playing, while Bob McChesney’s trombone solo on the concluding “Pink Sunset (over Gray Skies)” lends this poignant ballad heft.
BEST LOCAL ALBUM: Bob James Trio, “Espresso” – Yes, Bob James is local: He lives just outside Traverse City. He just happens to be an international jazz star as a solo artist and with Fourplay. Here he (mostly) puts aside the electronic keyboards for an acoustic trio date with Michael Palazzolo (bass) and old friend Billy Kilson (drums). In case people have forgotten, he’s a really fine and formidable pianist, and his bandmates are supple and supportive. His nine new tunes include the gently swinging “Bulgogi,” which opens the album, and a sort-of sequel to the much-sampled “Nautilus” dubbed “Submarine,” which closes it. Among those in between are two he didn’t write – Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Mister Magic.” Here and elsewhere there are some gently shimmering synth stylings in the background, along with some percussion and voice, even oboe on “One Afternoon,” but they never overwhelm, only enhance the trio.
Honorable Mention: May Erlewine and the Motivations, “Into the Night” – The songstress eschews the gentle, introspective songs she’s best known for in favor of an EP of four genial, bouncy tunes. The percolating rhythms, shimmering keyboards and horns set off her voice without burying it. They form the basis of her annual Winter Dance Parties, and they’re uniformly enjoyable without ever seeming jarring.
BEST CONCERT: Steve Reich Festival at Interlochen Center for the Arts, April 5-6 – While three Grand Rapids shows were standouts (Utopia at 20 Monroe Live and two Meijer Gardens shows: the irrepressible Herbie Hancock dancing around stage at age 78, and guitar god Steve Lukather and the rest of Toto), a much different show receives my greatest plaudits. The Steve Reich Festival at Interlochen Center for the Arts took place April 5 and 6. The first night featured Interlochen Arts Academy students, while the second night featured Chicago percussion groups Eighth Blackbird and Third Coast Percussion performing Reich’s “Sextet” and “Music for 18 Musicians.” The latter was a slowly mutating, swirling mix of marimba, xylophone, metallophone, pianos, voice, clarinets, bass clarinets and strings. Hypnotic and graceful, the piece bends and slowly shifts as the musicians move in and out of phase with one another. The percussionists shift from piano to marimba and back again, while the vocalists move the microphones from one side to the other; the music swells and fades. Magnificent, haunting and ethereal, yet powerful.
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