A Flaming Lips concert is a cynicism-free zone. With cynicism-free zones becoming increasingly endangered, if you should ever have the chance to see a Lips show, you should definitely jump on it. They have a great light show. Also, confetti and balloons like you’ve never seen. But mostly, what they have is a collective faith that all you need is love. All you need is love, an open mind, faith in humanity, some LSD and a shit-ton of balloons. That kind of positive spirit must be hard to hold on to, as artist and as a person, over decades, but the Flaming Lips have managed to stay weird, in the best possible way.
Here is part two (out of four) of the best records of 2019. As I said before, it’s been an unusually good year, and it’s an unusually long and diverse list. There are new works from old favorites and new favorites from new discoveries. I tried to cover as many bases as I could
1. Ghosteen – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
Nick Cave continues to explore an emotional landscape of grief and hope, grappling with the death of his son and how, in the aftermath of a life-changing tragedy, to move forward as an artist. It is both depressing and as bracing as a dive into frozen water.
2. Heard It In a Past Life – Maggie Rogers
3. Help Us Stranger – The Raconteurs
Like a lot of fans, I’d just about given up hope that Jack White would bring The Raconteurs back together. But here they are, and it sounds like no time has passed. Except for being, of course, a little bit older and wiser, it’s the same folksy roots rock than we expect from a Third Man product.
4. I Am Easy To Find – The National
5. Ilana (The Creator) – Mdou Moctar
Every year, thousands of records are released by artists all over the world that never connect with audiences outside their own local niche. But every once in a while an artist emerges who transcends genre. Mdou Moctar, of Niger, combines Taureg and Berber musical traditions with psychedelic rock reminiscent of Hendrix and Santana, making a melting-pot of an album with global appeal.
6. In the End – The Cranberries
The Cranberries were one of the definitive alternative rock bands of the 90’s, but in the decades since, they had largely been forgotten. It took the death of singer Dolores O’Riordan to get them back in the spotlight, and this posthumous album is a reminder of why they should, by all rights, have stayed popular.
7. The Lion King: The Gift – Beyonce
The Lion King remake may have been an exercise in gratuitous CGI, but bringing Beyonce on board was the best decision the Disney studio ever made. Bey’s companion album couldn’t be further away from the schlocky show tunes Elton John and Tim Rice cooked up in 1994. Leaning on uptempo Afropop, it showcases messages of positivity, courage and empowerment that are accessible enough for kiddos who loved the movie and sophisticated enough for adults who love Beyonce.
8. Love + Fear – Marina
After a short hiatus, Marina Diamandis dropped the “Diamonds” from her stage name, and moved in new, more intimate direction. Ditching the high-fructose pop she became famous for, Marina focuses on the songwriting chops she never got enough credit for. This record may not be uptempo enough for Froot lovers, but fans will recognize a more mature version of the vulnerable/witty singer, and will luxuriate in her amazing vocals.
9. LSD – Labrinth, Sia & Diplo
I love it when huge pop stars follow up their huge successes with something totally unexpected. Sia had a very great couple of years, and she followed up her string of hits by forming a supergroup with Labrinth and Diplo. Like the best supergroups it brings out the best in the supers. It’s the irreverent, fun, one-off album that keeps superstars from taking themselves too seriously.
10. No Treasure But Hope – Tindersticks
One gets the sense that all Tom Waits ever wanted was to be the piano player at some burlesque joint, preferably down the street from a greasy spoon. He really missed the boat on that one, growing up just when burlesque was going downhill. But he’s compensated for it by dedicating his career to weaving a vision of an alternate Americana where speakeasies remain the center of social life and dames still carry flasks in their garters. It’s hard to name anyone else whose work has been so untouched by the decades. Tom Waits sounded unstuck in time in the 70’s, he sounded unstuck in the 80’s, and he still sounds unstuck. The only change is that he’s gotten more fearlessly weird over the years. Obviously, it’s a timeline that plenty of people would happily trade all their modern amenities for.
In 1975 Tom Waits was seen as just another prematurely hoarse young man in a porkpie hat singing earnest songs about the travails of the drinking classes. Not entirely dissimilar from Bruce Springsteen or Randy Newman. It wasn’t selling him a whole lot of records and it wasn’t bringing the accolades either. Waits was just itching to get weird with it. So he decided to record a live jazz album, which was just about the least cool thing in the world at that time. In time, Tom Waits would grow so fully into his ‘weird guy on the train mumbling to himself persona’ that playing some version of himself in movies would become a lucrative side gig. In 1975, however, it was an absolute novelty, and a big gamble. Surprisingly, it became his biggest hit to date. Unsurprisingly, his record label fired him anyway. But the character was born.
You will pry my Doors LPs from my cold dead fingers, world. We might be moving further away from the kind of unhinged rock star megalomania that Jim Morrison represents. We’ve come to realize that Morrison was kind of a bad person, and very definitely a sick person, and maybe we shouldn’t hero worship sick, bad people. Still, Morrison remains the Platonic ideal of the mentally unstable genius, and that shit is catnip for the romantic and sexual imagination. The entire premise of Morrison’s Messianic persona was that he was living life on a different spiritual level – not necessarily a more elevated one, but definitely removed from the ordinary realms of experience – and he could take you there, and though the journey might be difficult for you, you would emerge a changed person. That promise was fulfilled for fans who felt that the music had changed them in some way, in the safety of their own home. It was a much rougher journey for people who had the misfortune of actually having Jim Morrison in their lives. According to John Densmore, being in a band with Jim was very much like being in an abusive marriage, and that seems to be the general consensus. But the mystique of the very unstable genius persists, because we still want someone to take us through to the other side, against all better judgement.
As usual when I listen to The Clash, I’m forced to conduct research. Their records may have retained their relevance because their anger cuts across the specifics of time, but many of those specifics have long ago faded from public consciousness. In this case, Joe Strummer references the history of the Spanish Civil War and compares it to the terrorist activities of Basque separatists. The Basque nationalist organization ETA was fighting the Spanish government at around the same time and with similar methods as the IRA in Northern Ireland, but with less of a political leg to stand on. In the mess of violence and political instability rocking Europe (and elsewhere) in the 1970’s, the bombings in Spain were only vaguely noted by the international consciousness, and aren’t really known about today. Though the ETA’s activities may not have interested the world the way The Troubles did, they’re another reminder of the roiling dissatisfaction of that time, which drove some people to violence and others to start playing punk music.
1 February 1942 – 21 January 2020