Month: March 2020

Favorite Music 2019

Craig Finn – I Need a New War

Craig Finn is best known as the singer and principal songwriter for The Hold Steady. His songs for The Hold Steady often tell stories about druggy teenage hoodrats dealing with their teenage problems in the hazy aftermath of massive parties. In Finn’s solo work — I Need a New War is his fourth solo album — he follows those messed up kids into their 30s and 40s. These songs are still about people with problems, but they are now adult problems: “Then the doctor left a message, said we’re looking at these numbers from your chest”; “I wore the right shoes, I wore the right shirt, I went to the city, the city didn’t work”; “I’ve been keeping up with payments, man, I’ve been managing the pain.” Finn’s protagonists are marginalized people, seeking refuge in small acts of kindness and tentative expressions of identity: Something to Hope For.

I feel like I’m painting this as a dark record, but it really isn’t. It’s a record about resilience and optimism in the face of adversity. Two songs late in the record, “Holyoke” and “Her With the Blues” are wryly humorous and seem as autobiographical as anything Finn’s ever written.

This was the album I listened to the most in 2019.

Craig Finn & The Uptown Controllers – Live Performance, Minneapolis, MN, 8-Jun-2019

Seeing Craig Finn in a concert setting, what stood out is his ability as a low-key but engaging frontman and the flexibility and sensitivity of the band he’s assembled, The Uptown Controllers. Seeing Finn in a small venue in front of an adoring home-town audience was a real treat.

Squeeze – Live Performance, Minneapolis, MN, 3-Sep-2019

I wrote about this concert last year. We had great seats thanks to a friend with connections, and my expectations were far exceeded. My favorite concert of the year.

The National – I Am Easy to Find

When we saw The National in 2018 (I wrote about that concert here) the US was in the middle of the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings and the band, and especially singer Matt Berninger, were palpably angry. I have to believe that the strong presence of female voices on I Am Easy to Find is, at least in part, a product of that anger. The album features vocals from Gail Ann Dorsey, Lisa Hannigan, Mélissa Laveaux, Eve Owen, Diane Sorel, Kate Stables, Mina Tindle, and Sharon Van Etten. Carin Besser contributed to the writing of the album. Mike Mills‘ short film with the same name (linked above), starring Alicia Vikander, was developed in parallel to the album and is a moving portrayal of one woman’s life. The inclusion of all these new voices takes I Am Easy to Find to places The National have never been before.

This album is a lot to absorb and definitely rewards multiple listens. My favorite songs tend to shift from listen to listen, but “Not in Kansas” seems like a centerpiece for the album. The song’s protagonist returns home to the midwest, presumably from one of the coasts, and is dismayed with what has happened in the place where they grew up. The song ends with a chorus (of angels?) offering a suggestion, or perhaps passing judgement:

Time has come now to stop being human
Time to find a new creature to be
Be a fish or a weed or a sparrow
For the Earth has grown tired and all of your time has expired
Oh, the gardens are sprouting with flowers
All the tree-tops are bursting with birds
And the people all know that it’s over
They lay down their airs and they hang up their tiresome words

Honestly, in a world where Brent Kavanaugh becomes a Supreme Court Justice, that doesn’t sound like bad advice. I wouldn’t mind being a sparrow.

The National, Live Performance, Santa Fe, NM, 8-Sep-2019

Having seen The National in concert multiple times, the architecture of the band has becomes clear. Bassist Scott Devendorf and his brother, drummer supreme Bryan Devendorf are the Cincinnati rock ‘n’ roll heart of the band. Twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner on guitars and keyboards weave chamber music patterns over the foundation provided by the Devendorfs. Singer Matt Berninger is the band’s trickster, an agent of chaos bringing a sense of unpredictability to their performances. At one moment, he’s handing out bottles of wine to the front row of the audience. In the next, he’s telling a story about a conversation with a lizard while hiking outside of Santa Fe. Then, he’s taking a mid-song excursion through the audience at the end of what must be the world’s longest microphone cable. All the diverse elements of the band make for a consistently exciting performance.

The performances on this tour had another element, the inclusion of a rotating cast of female vocalists. In Santa Fe, Kate Stables was onstage for more than half the songs. Her calm presence was like the eye in a hurricane of masculine energy.


Someone came into possession of bootlegged digital copies of 18 MiniDiscs that were created during the production of Radiohead’s 1997 OK Computer album. Altogether, the MiniDiscs included 381 tracks and more than 16 hours of music, including preliminary sketches of songs, demos, rehearsals, live performances, alternate versions, near-final mixes, and goofy studio hijinks. There are, for example, 19 different version of “Paranoid Android” spread across the discs. There are also multiple versions of songs that weren’t included on OK Computer that became holy grails for Radiohead fans, like “Lift” and “True Love Waits” (a studio version of which was finally released on 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool).

The bootlegger was, apparently, attempting to sell tracks from this collection. In addition, at some point the entire collection was leaked on the internet. When Radiohead heard about what was going on they responded by making the entire collection available on Bandcamp for a limited amount of time, with all proceeds from sales going to the environmentalist group Extinction Rebellion. During the 18 days the collection was available on Bandcamp, more than 31,000 copies were sold.

Obviously, this is something that only diehard Radiohead fans will be interested in. For those of us who are big fans, this collection is like being set loose in the candy factory. It is full of previously unearthed gems and provides a fascinating glimpse into the band’s creative process.

Thom Yorke – ANIMA

ANIMA is Radiohead vocalist Thom Yorke’s third solo album. This is dark, densely layered electronic dance music. Standout tracks include “Traffic”, “Not the News”, and the haunting “Dawn Chorus.” The album was accompanied on release by a short film directed by Paul Thomas Anderson on Netflix (well worth watching, if you’re a Netflix subscriber). Anxious music for anxious times.

The Who – WHO

The Who are my all-time favorite band. When I heard that they were recording a new album, I had mixed feelings. Endless Wire, the last Who album, was released in 2006 and had some interesting moments, but was only a pale shadow of the band’s best work. Could a pair of septuagenarians really pull off a respectable Who album?

Well, the old bastards pulled it off. Townshend’s writing is full of piss & vinegar and his guitar playing is good as ever. Daltrey’s voice sounds better than it has in years (decades?). Moon and Entwistle are of course irreplaceable, but the backing musicians on WHO, including Pino Palladino, Zak Starkey, Joey Waronker, and Benmont Tench serve the songs well.

All this Music Must Fade” is a straight-up classic Who single. There are a couple of weak tracks, but overall this is an album that can stand proudly alongside the rest of The Who’s legendary catalog.

The Hoot

For years now, two of my best friends in Minnesota have hosted a hootenanny in their living room on the first Friday of even-numbered months. It works like this: ten or so people bring their instruments and/or voices to the house. The evening starts with snacks, adult beverages, and conversation. Then a circle is formed in the living room. Going around the circle, everyone gets a chance to either share a new song (handing out printed copies of lyrics and guitar chords), pick a song from the “Hoot Book” (which includes just under 300 songs), or pick a song at random from a hat. Then everyone sings/plays that song. This goes on into the early morning hours.

I started attending The Hoot occasionally, when it happened to coincide with one of my visits to Minnesota. Then I started planning my visits to Minnesota around the schedule for Hoots when possible. In 2019 I decided that attending every Hoot, even the ones during the Minnesota winter, was a priority for me, and I was able to be part of 5 of the 6 Hoots in 2019.

Why do I like The Hoot so much that I’m willing to travel 1,000+ miles six times a year to participate? For one thing, The Hoot has motivated me to pick up the bass guitar again after putting it aside for decades. I spend a little time every day practicing and preparing songs to bring to the next Hoot. Most importantly, though, the other people who attend The Hoot are smart, funny, talented, generous, and just plain nice. Musical mistakes are ignored, and good performances are always recognized. Just wonderful people to play music and spend time with.

Posted by Paul in Music