Top Tunes ’18: Emily Votaw< < Back to
Wow! 2018 has come and gone, and it’s about time we reflect on our favorite sounds of the past year. Leading up through the end of the year, WOUB Culture will be spotlighting what various music-centric people throughout the region have been enjoying the most for the past 12 months.
I am the arts and culture writer for WOUB Public Media. I really, really love my job.
I spend a lot of time with my boyfriend of two years, who told me “music wasn’t that important to him” when we first met but then went on to tell me casually about how he stayed in a port-a-potty for five hours in the Florida heat to see his favorite band play. He took me to Chicago for my 26th birthday this year and took oodles of pictures of me in front of Marina City.
My number one lady, Ashley Weingard, took me to Detroit for my birthday this year so that we could both finally tour the Motown Museum and cry together. It was incredible. She also went to Japan this summer and bought me super rare pressings of some of my favorite Yellow Magic Orchestra albums at a record store called Super Milk, and a Japanese pressing of my favorite Beatles album, “Rubber Soul.”
2018 was pretty good, but I’m thinking 2019 will be even better.
Boy, what a year it’s been! It’s been a pretty good one for me, although the human experience is one of intense, never-ending duality — so it’s not been without peaks and valleys, both of which the following songs and albums helped me navigate.
Mac Miller – Swimming (2018)
Yeah, I didn’t think that my year-end list of favorite albums would focus on an album released by a recently deceased, heavy-lidded saint of contemporary loneliness known primarily for dating an ephemeral pop star, either.
But Swimming is a unique animal — most likely because the dozens of uber-talented producers and musicians who wrote and recorded the album, only one of which was Miller. But, there is something — something that is difficult to articulate — to be found nested in Miller’s painfully affected vocals; something that spawned from that young man’s essence rather than talented fingers on the mixing board.
The album starts with the ennui-infused sigh of “Come Back to Earth,” a sweeping piece complete with gentle string and piano arrangements — “all my regrets look like texts I shouldn’t send,” Miller delicately cantillates as the verse — a perfect contemporary encapsulation of the volatile nature of dissatisfaction with the self. Immediately the album is tinged with the melancholy heft of an emotional hangover. “I’ll do anything for a way out of my head,” Miller unconvincingly pleads with the listener — he sounds tired, and uncertain of himself, although he reassures us that he was “drowning, but now I’m swimming.”
Miller passed away on September 7, 2018 at the age of 26 in his Studio City, CA home. He died of an accidental overdose of fentanyl, cocaine, and alcohol. Swimming had been released a little over a month earlier, the album artwork depicting our angel-eyed hero slumped against a closed door, dressed up in a sharp off-pink suit, with no shoes and dirty feet. Many of the songs on the album seem to testify to some sort of 180 that Miller felt he was supposed to be making in his life — between the DUI charge that he received in May this year and having a big pop star break up with him, that sentiment makes sense.
“Self Care,” which is currently Miller’s top Spotify single, serves as a centerpiece for the record — and it feels like an achingly self aware acknowledgement of both the enormous meaning and meaninglessness of that current millenial buzz term. It sonically mutates into “Oblivion,” in which Miller invites you to “come back to his crib and play some 45s,” which was enough to make this music nerd pay more attention to it when her boyfriend was playing this album on repeat a few weeks ago. Sure, I was doubtful of Miller, the same way I would be of any young, conventionally attractive white man who is a “popular rapper.” My pretensions aside, if I were hanging out with Miller, I would have rolled my eyes at everything he had to say up to that point when he mentions coming back to his crib to play some 45s — I mean, I’ve been waiting my whole life for someone who wasn’t over 40 to ask me that!
“Dunno” is the absolute penultimate moment on Swimming. Here we are with Miller, a modern man shivering on the precipice of eternity, clutching onto the memories of someone he thought he loved; a notion he came to most likely while his brain was bathed in a series of scintillating, meaninglessly ecstatic chemicals. The stripped down Spotify singles version (embedded in YouTube form above) made me fall all the more deeply in love with this palpitating meditation on modern alienation.
The song ends with “I think we just might be alright/Thank god/I think we’re gonna be alright, alright, okay/Hold me close, don’t hold your breath/That’s really your favorite/I know,” a desperate acknowledgement of the sweet, tender, often embarrassing intricacies of a romantic entanglement. In the end, we’re all just animals looking for a home, like David Bryne says, right? This is a melancholy hymn in a lonely time, enjoy it, (I know I will,) but consider first the refrain of the song — “I think we just might be alright,” and then, consider the title.
Haruomi Hosono and the Yellow Magic Band – Paraiso (1978)
“Paraiso” translates to “paradise” in Japanese, which Hosono (who I like to think of as the McCartney of Yellow Magic Orchestra, Sakamoto being Lennon, obviously,) creates not only with a set of nine songs that feel more like playful, tropical worlds in their own right rather than songs on this album, but with the lush and elaborate album artwork, as well.
“Shimendoka” is the second track on the album, and I’m adding it to my list of all time, absolute favorite songs. The exotic tang of the marimba takes the place of a piano in what could be a R&B pop song, were it following different musical traditions. Hosono’s complex sounds are inspired by a wealth of music from Okinawa and Hawaii that I have no familiarity with, as well as lots of music that I dearly, dearly love — namely western pop songs and rhythm and blues. This album is technically Yellow Magic Orchestra’s first, with the lineup boasting Hosono’s former Happy End band mate Shigeru Suzuki and to-be YMO members Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi, and guitarist Hirofumi Tokutake.
The album oscilliates from downright silly (and maybe deeply uncomfortable for Western listeners) on “Fujiyama Mama” (which is a cover of the very same song Wanda Jackson made famous) to loose, yet deft, musical perfection like that of the lyrical gamelan on “Shambhala Signal,” a later album cut — which transforms into the laid back groove of “Worry Beads.” Check this album out already!
Jerry Paper – Like a Baby (2018)
I first saw Jerry Paper perform at a house show in Athens in 2016 — and I was totally blown away by this man of diminutive size and his incredibly large presence. Jerry Paper is actually named Lucas Nathan, and I interviewed him earlier this year, and you can find my review of Like a Baby right here. It’s part mutated bossa nova; part Donald Fagen underbelly-of-the-world lyricism and all around hilarious in the psychedelic kind of way everything Nathan has ever put out has been.
Jeff Tweedy – Together at Last (2017)
I’m a big Tweedy fan — he was actually the first big interview I ever did for WOUB back when I was in undergrad at Ohio University in 2013. According to Spotify, Wilco was my listened to band this year, and that’s for a reason — these guys have been there for me, sonically, since I was a kid. This album features a mature Tweedy tackling some of his greatest songs all by himself. He gifts listeners with new takes on the psychedelic ruminations on time and space and personal safety of “Laminated Cat” from his side project Loose Fur; the heartbreaking sincerity of “I’m Always In Love” from Wilco’s 1999 album Summerteeth; the muted melancholy revelations of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and “Ashes of American Flags” from Wilco’s landmark 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; the underappreciated beauty of “Sky Blue Sky” from the 2007 album of the same name, among others.
Mike Heron – Smiling Men With Bad Reputations (1971)
This delectably silly and surprisingly expertly executed album by Incredible String Band core member Mike Heron is just gold. My father bought it for me for my 26th birthday, and what a present it was. I try to encourage my dad to buy me records that he loves that I might not know; because that man is 64 and he’s spent a good 54 years as a certified music geek — and the cool kind, not the kind that gleans their opinions from others music geeks. My father said that initially this album seemed very uncool in the early ’70s, thanks to the horns, which are entirely what won me over to it.
Adam Remnant – Sourwood (2018)
It’s difficult for me to articulate how important Remnant’s 2016 EP When I Was a Boy is to me. I hear those opening chords to the title track, and my heart aches with nostalgia for the first summer I was living as an adult in Athens, after I had weathered a set of particularly painful years that sent me very literally running south. I know every word to every song on that EP because I studied it laboriously when I had to get ready to interview Remnant about it in 2016 as one of my early WOUB assignments. It was a pretty intimidating task given that I had been a big Southeast Engine fan, and had also started working at a drama camp that Remnant was an instructor at — so I saw him literally every day at my second job. Turns out, Remnant is a super nice guy. When I had spoken to him in passing about a mutual appreciation for Nathan for You I felt all too privileged.
Fast forward two years, and imagine my excitement that Remnant has announced that he’s finally releasing a full-length solo album! I love “California,” and I love “Somewhere Else Tonight” even more. It’s an intimate folk rock album, and more importantly it’s the solo Adam Remnant album we have all been waiting for for so long.
So… at this point, once you’ve made it through the Mac Miller essay and the bit about Wilco, so I have some individual tracks that thrilled me this year, all compiled onto this Spotify playlist. I write a bit about the ones I haven’t tackled above, too.
Night Shop – “You Are the Beatles”
Follow me here. A backstage show at the historic Stuart’s Opera House — Waxahatchee is headlining, but some guy who goes by “Night Shop” who also worked with the bassist from The Oh Sees, is one of the openers. You don’t know what to expect from his set — but by the time Justin Sullivan breaks out the lyrics “you are the cigarette smoke outside the show/you are electricity/come into the country, let us know we could be free,” on a stripped down take on this, you know you’re in love. You buy all of his records immediately.
Dave Edmunds – “I Hear You Knocking”
This raucous, electrifying take on the Dave Bartholomew song originally recorded by Smiley Lewis in 1955 is pure, sonic satisfaction. No other way to describe the feeling it gives me in my loins!
Stephin Merritt, The 6ths, The Gothic Archies – “I Don’t Believe You (7″ Version)”
I fell deeply in love with the Magnetic Fields after watching Strange Powers, a documentary that does well at depicting how songwriter Stephin Merrit very much is a pop song Stephen Sondheim, on a very snowy weekend last January. This song is particularly poignant, and I hold it close for reasons I’d rather not disclose, but let me tell you I love this crazy re-edit of the tune best of all. It starts with a stammer and sprawls into an enormous, anxious sound.
Brad Goodall – “Casa de Mel”
I didn’t know Goodall was from Huntington, WV until this past week — and let me tell you, after spending a literal year jamming to this track, there will be a feature on the man on woub.org/culture in 2019, if I have anything to do with it! What’s not to love — the delectable drum machine, the lasso-ing keyboards, the lyrics, which are so rife with admirable debauchery and base hedonism? It’s true that I have painted out a theatrical take on this song in my head a gazillion times, and I’ve cast all the roles.
Nick Waterhouse – “Katchi (feat. Leon Bridges)”
The Nelsonville Music Festival is one of the greatest things that happens on a regular basis in this area. I always try to immerse myself in the acts performing every year as to best cover the event, which is my largest work assignment all year long, and, luckily for me, one of those artists was none other than Nick Waterhouse in 2017. This song in particular is outlandishly groovy. Nearly everything in Waterhouse’s discography is, though! When I introduced Waterhouse’s music to one of my best friends, both she and I fell in love with it, and developed schoolgirl style crushes on the bespectacled west coaster who made it.
Laraaji – “Law of Manifestation”
2018 was a year profiled in WORK, but honestly the theme of my current incarnation is work. So this song was perfect for my constant striving, which is what I am up to when I am doing my best.
Sean Paul – “Like Glue”
I don’t really care what people say,
I don’t really watch what dem wa do!
Once you hear this song, chances are you’ll be listening to it a whole lot more times. For a bit, this was the song I was listening to, for several weeks at a time.