MUTT PLOUGHMAN'S FAVORITE ALBUMS OF THE YEAR 2019
Thrashing Thru the Passion, The Hold Steady (2019)
“YOU WOULDN’T BE SO impressed with the sunrise if it weren’t for the darkness,” writes Craig Finn, the lead vocalist and lyricist of the New York-based rock band The Hold Steady, in a song called “You Did Good, Kid.” This line, from the second track on the band’s seventh studio album, captures for me some of the unique vision of this wondrous band. The Hold Steady is the rare rock outfit that seems to have both feet planted, so to speak, in the real world, but still is able to cast their collective eyes if not towards Heaven, then at least towards higher ground. The source of this intriguing spin on the band’s signature bar-rock sound appears to be Finn, who has made a career out of writing songs that don’t steer away from glaring realities of 21st century living (drugs, depression, the search for identity, etc.) but at the same time frequently brush against, dare I say, spiritual themes. Something that would seem to be fairly counter-cultural in an age that wants nothing to do with such things, to say nothing of the fact that it doesn’t seem like a successful formula for joyous, ear-splitting club rock. Yet, since 2003, The Hold Steady has accumulated a modest but enthusiastic fanbase, turning out in droves over the last two years to see them all over the United States and the UK. After two recent studio albums that this writer loved but seemed to let down some of that following, 2010’s Heaven is Whenever and 2014’s Teeth Dreams, this year the band released Thrashing Thru the Passion, a collection of tunes they’d been writing and recording piecemeal over the last two or three years between shows. While I appreciate all of the band’s music, this album, even if it was cobbled out of songs crafted at varying times, immediately felt like a coherent and invigorating return to form. Critically, as all five members have slid into middle age, the band seems to have made some decisions regarding their entire business model, to include recording in shorter bursts and touring only on select weekends. While these choices seem to have been a necessary path to survival, in The Hold Steady’s case the result has been a rebirth of “passion” with a fully recharged battery. And the proof is all over this record, from the humorous, note-perfect title on down. While one might expect “thrashing” to show up in a title by Anthrax or Slayer, those familiar with Finn’s lyrics easily recognize his stamp. This is a 40-something rocker who can appreciate both high and “lower” culture, capable of dropping lines like “the pilot kinda looked like Kirk Hammett” ( lead guitarist for Metallica, for those who require the assist) and “Hemingway at the Cafe Select” on the same record. More importantly to this listener, Finn brings a spiritual affinity and a steady mix of inquiry and awareness of things greater than ourselves into his yelp: “I see the whole score/And the sideways smile on the thief to the left of our Lord” (“Traditional Village”). His reference here to the “impenitent thief” crucified next to Christ is no accident, as Finn tends to zero in on flawed but redeemable human characters. But he also can infuse his writing with poetry, as in this couplet from the outstanding “Entitlement Crew”: “Distant systems in the dark and people dancing/Thanks for listening and thanks for understanding.” That second line captures Finn’s humble spirit as well. Musically, this band has always had a muscular sound infused with a sort of exuberant, guitar/keyboard/bass/drums jamminess that never outgrows its britches; they sound right at home in any setting. The musicians are all excellent and they’ve never sounded tighter. At times, they smack jarringly of an updated E Street Band, particularly on “Blackout Sam.” But he among us who has not stolen from older masters, let him cast the first fist into the air. Or something like that? The bottom line: here is a band that seems to live inside the simple fact that, as Finn is well known to holler from the stage in concert, “there’s so much joy in what we do up here.” If you want to hear what that sounds like on a record, you need to spin up Thrashing Thru the Passion - yesterday.
THE BEST ALBUM OF 2019
so that you might hear me, Bear’s Den (2019)
There are those who think that a creative artist’s best work is almost always that which is achieved while they still have youth. I don’t know if I have ever fully agreed with this point of view, but considering my own dreams and things I still want to accomplish, I definitely can’t afford to now! Furthermore, without even looking past this very list, I have chosen a runner-up album (preceding) and even an individual song (comin’ up next) that both suggest otherwise. Still, if we are honest as consumers of art, I think we can at least admit that there’s a case to be made here. My big brother is a tremendous fan of Bruce Springsteen’s entire body of influential rock n’ roll, but his favorite has always been The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, which goes back close to half a century now. There’s just something invigorating about hearing young musicians as they gather their strength, courage, and passions all together and swing for it all. I think this quality more than anything else is what makes me admire the work of the English rock band Bear’s Den, formed in 2012, whose members are all young - at least from where I’m sitting. Their third studio album, so that you might hear me, was released in April and was for me the most sonically engaging and emotionally impactful record I’ve heard all year. I was an admirer of the band’s earlier work, particularly the album Red Earth & Pouring Rain (2016) and two early EPs, and this new record only deepened the affinity I have for their work while further developing themes the band has been interested in from their earliest days. A lot of people I know don’t appreciate as much Bear’s Den’s sometimes somber writing and increasingly lush, sonically ambitious musical approach. But the band’s multi-layered textures and inward-facing lyrics are the sort of thing I’ve favored throughout my music listening life. It all speaks to me. Singer Andrew Davie has commented that many of the rich songs on so that you might hear me began simply with solitude and “isolation,” which he considers “integral to any creative endeavor.” As a working writer, I can appreciate this sentiment. He went on to say in another interview that “we try to move people in whatever way we can.” I think this accounts for their continuing experimentation and expanding sound, and it’s something I hear in the end product, especially on this album. In late April, around the time the album was launching, my teenage daughter was hospitalized briefly, and one line from a stand-out song here called “Laurel Wreath” literally made me cry: “You don’t have to be lonely alone/I could be there in a heartbeat.” I associate this with some painful experience, but I also know it is a gift to be so moved by a piece of music. This album also contains many other songs that I find lyrically and musically resonant. “Fuel on the Fire” begins with the simple but powerful lyric “I can’t find you” and ends with a beautifully harmonized vocal of the phrase, “Remembering how to love.” “Hiding Bottles” describes the pain of growing up with an alcoholic parent, and while it makes some blunt observations (“Neither devout or humble, just a solipsistic kind”), it also finds a way to be strikingly poetic (“Hiding bottles in the cold blue light”). “Crow,” “Evangeline,” and “Blankets of Sorrow” are other standouts. Musically, Bear’s Den sometimes leans too heavily on overdubs and layered production, which can offend rock n’ roll purists. But that is not the way this music comes off to me. What I hear are young musicians striving to achieve what Davie said. The fact that this can lead to overreach in a younger band endears them to me, not the opposite. It suggests that they are still not far from the beginning of what I hope will be an exciting and deepening journey, and there’s room to grow. I also had the opportunity to see them perform live twice since 2017, and not only did they sound exceptional, but it was easy to observe how much joy they were taking from playing their music in front of others (see above write-up on The Hold Steady). so that you might hear me is ultimately about trying to communicate effectively with those we love, and I can get behind that. When you think about it, there’s not much that’s more important in this brief existence.
BONUS ROUND!: THE BEST SONG OF 2019
“Moonlight Motel”, Bruce Springsteen (2019)
This is not something I have done before, because how do you choose one song as the best of the year!? But there were two factors at work here: I remember my twin brother John’s attempt to do it last year, when he chose Frightened Rabbit’s shattering song “Die Like a Rich Boy” from their final studio album - before singer-songwriter Scott Hutchinson’s horribly tragic death by suicide. John chose a non-studio version of the song being played by Hutchison only that the band posted on YouTube, and it was deeply moving. The second factor, though, was this extraordinary song itself. “Moonlight Motel” has one of the most striking and, I must say, beautiful lyrics this writer has ever encountered. It is the last song on Bruce Springsteen’s most recent solo album called Western Stars (2019), and seems to consist of the wistful recollections of an older man looking back on a past relationship with a lover - possibly an affair, possibly not - and arriving at the realization that the times he had at the titular establishment with this unnamed woman have been among the most meaningful of his life. The first time I heard this song, everything about it pointed towards its being a unique gem among a treasure trove of riches from Sprinsteen’s mind, guitar, and pen. I’ll let one verse prove it:
Last night I dreamed of you my lover
And the wind blew through the window and blew off the covers
Of my lonely bed, I woke to something you said
That it’s better to have loved, yeah it’s better to have loved
As I drove there was a chill in the breeze
And leaves tumbled from the sky and fell
Onto a road so black as I backtracked
To the Moonlight Motel.
This song could only have been written by a master - someone who’s been at their craft for decades and has learned it backwards and forwards. It leaves you with a strangely satisfying feeling that there really is not much more to be said. It’s a bit like the shot of liquor mentioned at the end of it (listen below). It needs to be savored.