2018: My Year of Musical Self-Care

“Tell them they can take that bullshit elsewhere,
Self care,
I’m treating me right.”
—Mac Miller

As I write this on Christmas Eve, the Dow Jones just closed over 600 points down, hundreds of thousands of government workers are out of a job and going without pay, and the folks in California who lost everything in the fires are spending the holidays anywhere other than their homes.

Let’s face it, by just about any score 2018 was a shit year. Not even counting politics and the exhausting election: where I live in North Carolina got whacked by back to back hurricanes; and the aforementioned California fires; and a tanking stock market and economic uncertainty; and people who left us too soon: Anthony Bourdain, Mac Miller, Roy Hargrove, Kate Spade; and on, and on, and on.

Usually, I listen to a majority of pretty weird stuff, and my annual year-end favorites lists are fairly obscure and way outside the mainstream. But something changed this year. Instead of abstract saxophone skronks or masses of sound that are allergic to groove, I went for music that made me feel good – not intellectually enjoyable, but that was viscerally and affectively enjoyable. Weird shit didn’t do much for me this year. I didn’t even really have a good time playing the free improvisation/free jazz stuff. My favorite playing I’ve done this year is with an Afrobeat band I’m in. It wasn’t until November when I realized why my taste had shifted a bit: enjoyable music became my primary coping mechanism for a really stressful year.

In lieu of a Top 10, or generic best of the year list, or my ballot from the annual NPR jazz critics poll – which I declined participating in this year – I give you 9 albums/groups that made me feel good and that I connected with in some manner.

It Don’t Mean a Thing . . .
Most of the jazz I listen to doesn’t swing. Not this year. All my favorite albums swing and groove like mad. Among my favorites:

Keith Jarrett – After the Fall
Does the world need any more Keith Jarrett albums? Given that he’s continuously cranking out a couple a year, I’d probably say no. But that’s just me being cynical. After the Fall is his latest offering from his standards trio, which has going strong for 35 of my 38 years on this planet. Offering eminently enjoyable takes on jazz classics, Jarrett and company swing their asses off. The world can never have enough swing.

Terence Blanchard – Live
I wasn’t crazy about Blanchard and the E Collective’s last album, but this one is slamming. Tight as hell jazz-funk-fusion outfit. Listening to this makes me I question why I ever loved screeching saxophonists. Now I want to see them in concert.

Sons of Kemet – Your Queen is a Reptile
Just about everybody I know—regardless of their individual tastes—who has heard this album loves it. Unusual instrumentation: Shabaka Hutchings, tenor; Theon Cross, tuba; Tom Skinner and Eddie Hick, drums. Kind of a mix between jazz, Afrobeat, dub, and really any genre of music from the Black Atlantic you can think of. Not to mention their explicitly anti-colonialist critique of the British Monarchy. Queen Elizabeth = Reptile.

Can’t Stop Won’t Stop . . .
As newer rock music does less and less for me (yeah yeah, I’m a bit of a 90s kid), I find myself listening to more hip hop and branching out in my tastes and knowledge. One of the highlights of my year was catching Oddisee and his band Good Company here in Durham. They put on a great show. Here’s three albums that expanded my hip hop universe.

Mac Miller – Swimming
I came to Mac Miller’s music late. Like way late. Like three days before he died late. After first hearing his NPR Tiny Desk Concert I checked out his final album, Swimming. Deep deep deep shit. As someone who has had to deal with mental illness since I was a teenager, Swimming hit me hard, and really close to home. Sure, I don’t have to deal with addiction and the trappings of becoming rich and famous at such a young age. But depression is depression (or in my case, bipolar 2), and I guarantee that Mac Miller’s take on “swimming” will resonate in some way with anyone who has been severely depressed, or struggling to catch a hold while tumbling through a bipolar crash. And while his early frat rap stuff does nothing for me, some of his lyrics on Swimming are brilliant: “I’m kinda sorta out the door but, she puts me back together when I’m out of order, perfect”—he could tell a whole story in less than 20 words.

Freddie Gibbs – Freddie
A friend of mine is my go-to person when it comes to hip hop recommendations. This year he sent me down the Freddie Gibbs rabbit hole. I rarely listen to gangsta rap. Almost never. But Gibbs is such a good rapper, it doesn’t matter. So good that he makes MF Doom look almost pedestrian on the pair’s single “Death Wish.” Freddie is a tidy 25-minute EP, and it’s as good as starting point into Gibbs as any, although his album with Madlib, Piñata, is really good too. As Harley Geffner of Passion of the Weiss writes: “If you don’t want to hear Gangsta Gibbs rapping about girls pee-peeing in the poop chute over some G-funk keys, I’ve lost all hope for you.”

Knife Knights – 1 Time Mirage
Side project from Shabazz Palaces’ Ishmael Butler. If you think Shabazz Palaces is mercurial and hard to pin down, then get ready. I’ve got no idea what’s going on with 1 Time Mirage. Sometimes I don’t even think I like it. Other times I think it’s brilliant and that it’s what I’ve been waiting to hear my entire life. If you can figure it out, you’re a better person than I.

1999 Calling . . .
I channeled some of my indie rock/college radio days this year, actively searching out bands that have brought the 90s back and given the decade their own twist. I’m a sucker for catchy guitar rock, even if it’s being made by people who were in their diapers in 1999. I don’t care. So sue me.

Moaning – S/T
Debut album from a tight three piece rock group from L.A. Songs about the angst that a whole lot of people deal with at one time or another while suffering through their 20s: breakups, not knowing what the hell is going one, etc, etc. I think I’ve listened to the album’s opening cut “Don’t Go” about 147 times this year. Nothing profound here, just really good rock music.

Soccer Mommy – Clean
Indie guitar pop – more on the 20s angsty trip. Dreamy girl pop hooks? Yes please. Also check out their haunting cover of Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” (which happens to be my favorite of the Boss’s).

Forth Wanderers – S/T
Another indie band with catchy female vocals. If this came out in ’96 it would have blown people away and sounded ahead of its time. But that doesn’t mean it sounds old or dated. “Nevermine” was on high rotation for quite a while.

&&&

So there it is, a little bit of my year of musical self care, which reminded me that listening to music is supposed to be fun and enjoyable, which I had maybe forgotten about. Maybe in 2019 I’ll launch back in to interstellar space. But considering how the last days of 2018 are looking, I bet I’m gonna need more music I can shake my ass to, sing loud in the car, and relive good memories by. The weird might be taking another back seat for the next 12 months.

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