I used to do a year-end round-up that was strictly music focused but as 2018 made exceedingly clear, where my attention turns is more than just music so, for this year, I decided to just talk about all my favorite things from the year, including but hardly limited to 🎶.
The one thing that jumps out to me, instantly, is how little hip-hop I had in the heaviest of rotations. If I were to expand things to “songs I like,” there’d be much more, including, for example, Lil Wayne’s “Dope N____z” or maybe Swizz Beatz and Nas’s “Echo” but for songs that were my favorite, then yeah, for whatever reason, new hip-hop just wasn’t pinging my radar as much. On the other hand, for someone who’s spent years primarily listening to old soul, 2018 was a banner year for new R&B. Oh god, is this a sign of middle age? Oh well, I’m ok with that.
Macy Gray: Buddha (From Ruby)
Morgan and I had Macy on our Heat Rocks podcast earlier this fall and that gave me a reason to listen to her latest LP, Ruby, which begins with “Buddha.” I don’t know to what extent Macy was channeling anxieties about current events, but when she sings “Hurry, hurry up, my days are numbered”, I feel that. I’m assuming the title of the song, “Buddha” is meant to evoke a sense of how we make peace with things as they are and at a time where everything else can feel out of control, it’s a useful reminder to just ground yourself. As her and her backup singers make clear: “I’m alright now.” And some days, that’s enough.
Also, I love songs that use voice as part of the melodic background. See also:
Janelle Monae: I Like That (From Dirty Computer)
I too like the minor notes you find in major songs.
Junglepussy: Trader Joe (From JP3)
I’m just here for songs about Trader Joe’s (my local one is the second one the chain ever opened). My 13yo likes this song too but I haven’t dared asked if she understands what the line “I’ll swallow kids” means.
Pusha T: When You Know You Know (From Daytona)
Daytona may be the only rap album of 2018 I listened to, the whole way through, more than once. It helps it was only seven songs long I suppose but Pusha, so deep into his career, has proven himself remarkably consistent in his coked-out bravado. You don’t want it with Push. Not even if you’re…
Drake: Nice For What (From Scorpion)
The Six God may have taken an L over his secret son but otherwise, Drake had, you know, a pretty good year. “In My Feelings” will likely enjoy a longer lifespan but “Nice For What” is a bounce track based around a Lauryn Hill ballad sample. Put a W on that.
The Internet: Wanna Be (From Hive Mind)
File this under “endless summer” jams (see below) but the moment I heard it, as the lead track from Hive Mind, I already assumed it’d end up being my favorite cut off the album and maybe that was a self-fulfilling prophecy but yeah, it was. The guitars! The bass! Syd’s voice! The coy and seductive theme! I’m here for all of it.
Cuco: Summer Time High Time (From Chiquito EP)
Even if it’s the dead of winter, Cuco can still make it sound like it’s hotter than July. What I love about this young Chicano singer/songwriter out of Hawthorne – original home of the Beach Boys lest we forget – is that he too makes music for endless summers: dreamy, drifting and ever so slightly melancholy.
My BFF Hua Hsu deserves credit for putting me up on Cuco, along with:
G Yamazawa: Rap Money (From Money Is Time)
I first got turned onto his “North Cack” jam from last year and that made me hyped to peep his latest Money Is Time album. There’s actually any number of jams from that LP I could have put here but something about the koto strings and mid-tempo bop of “Rap Money” really does it for me. 20 years ago and I’d be saying “G Yamazawa is the best Asian American rapper out there!” but in 2018 I think we can just say he’s great without needing an ethnic qualifier.
Marcos G: single (on the weekend) (From single)
I could be off here but in general, I feel like the overall quality of music supervision, especially in TV, is so much better now than, say, 15 years ago. Kier Lehman, who’s been the music supe on Insecure since the first season, has done a great job with the selections and this Marcos G single, which first appeared this past season, is one of those “so short I keep wanting more” tunes that I have to keep on repeat.
Teyana Taylor: Issues/Hold On (From K.T.S.E.)
I’ll step away from my general avoidance of all things ‘Ye to at least allow for this gem, where he sampled an unreleased Bodie 45 of “I Do Love You,” released a few years back by Numero Group (and, from my understanding, not licensed, doh!) to create this track for Teyana. Chop Up The Soul Kanye still got it.
The Imports: I’m Not Ashamed of Loving You (From 7″)
If I have this right, I believe this was originally recorded for Golden State Recorders in the 1960s but was never released. Ace put it on their Golden State Soul comp from a few years back but I didn’t hear it until Colemine released it on 45 this past year. I didn’t even realize it was a Bay Area recording until after I had fallen in love with it so that’s backstory is just icing on the cake.
Pratt and Moody: Words Words Words (From 7″)
Alongside the aforementioned Colemine, as well as Daptone and Big Crown, Timmion has been part of a bigger wave of labels putting out excellent new soul tracks (that sound, you know, old) that have diversified the landscape beyond the handful of stars who had been dominating (especially Lee Fields plus the late Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley). Pratt and Moody first made an impression on me in 2017 with “Lost Lost Lost” and they’ve come back with another single-word-repeated-thrice-title for ’18. This is an immaculate track, from Cold Diamond and Mink’s deep soul production to the vocal interplay of Pratt and Moody. All those above labels put out great stuff this year but in terms of new compositions, “Words Words Words” rose to the top like Keni Burke.
Bobby Oroza: Should I Take You Home (From 7″)
For covers though, I got a lot of love for Bobby Oroza taking on Sunny and the Sunliners’ classic firme rola, “Should I Take You Home.” This isn’t better than the original but it’s still damn good and I just like the fact that someone thought to cover it at all.
Joey Dosik: Game Winner (From Game Winner EP)
Vulfpeck: Baby I Don’t Know Oh Oh (From Mr. Finish Line)
These two are both relatively recent (I think Game Winner came out in 2016 and Mr. Finish Line was 2017) but I didn’t discover either until this past year until I heard “Game Winner” used in a scene from the film, Hearts Beat Loud. I immediately looked it up and became infatuated with it; I dare say, it’s my #1 favorite song I listened to in 2018, this despite the fact that the lyrics are kind of corny (I mean, I love basketball too but I’m not sure I need NBA metaphors as ballad source material) but the arrangement and performance of the song are unassailable.
The Donny vibes are deep here as on Vulpeck’s “Baby I Don’t Know Oh Oh” which is the L.A.-based band that Dosik is a part of. That’s Charles Jones on the vocals for this one and he too does a masterful job, especially with all the scatting towards the end.
Pharaoh Sanders: Love Is Everywhere (From Love In Us All, 1974)
This one also gets credited to Hua. I’ve never listened to a ton of Pharaoh Sanders (outside of Thembi because samples) and when Hua mentioned he was listening to the long version of “Love Is Everywhere” practically every day, I was intrigued and once I sat with it, I understood the appeal. For one, the opening is incredible; very proto-house in all the very best ways, especially the way the piano comes in. And just the overall spiritual feel of the tune is sublime, especially now, when many of us could use the boost.
Slim Smith: I Am Lost (From 7″, 1971)
Previously, my favorite Slim Smith song was “My Conversation” but after stumbling across this one during a late night rocksteady binge, I may need to switch over. Something in how he croons, “I am looooooost” gets me everytime.”
Marie Adams And The Three Tons Of Joy: Whispers (7″, 1972)
I’ve been scoring some of my choicest records directly from JazzRecordRoom from his Long Beach spot and this awesome cheapie came from a mid-autumn buy. It’s got a perfect crossover vibe that’s got just the right touch of funk to add into its overall soulfulness.
Millikin University Jazz Lab Band: Light Up the Sky (From Klub Studehata Tehnike Vam Predstavla, 1973)
Byron Daugherty: Golden Lady (7″, 1973)
I wrote about both of these earlier in the year but yeah, they’re both awesome.
Willie Dixon: Our Nation (7″, 1975)
Willie Dixon recorded this in 1975 but so much of it could directly speak to our current moment. You can think of it as either “things change, things stay the same” and/or “we’ve survived the past, we know we can survive the present.”
It’s surprising to realize that Maya Rudolph has never really played a leading character. She’s been an ace reliever out the bullpen on more shows than I can but it’s nice to see her as a starter and, for the most part, bring this short series home. I liked much of Forever, especially that marvelous standalone episode (“Andre and Sarah”) though I thought Catherine Keener was surprisingly underused and I’m still not sure what to make of the final two episodes. That said, I’d love for there to be a second season but if not, I’m quite satisfied with just the one.
I never heard the podcast this was based off of but I guess we’re making t.v. shows from podcasts now. Ok, that’s cool. Mostly, what I liked about Homecoming, besides the great chemistry between Julia Roberts and Stephan James, is that the “half hour drama” isn’t a format you typically see but I’m am all for it. It helps get around one of the problems I have with streaming networks: the pressure that you have to all-or-nothing bingewatch an entire series rather than being able to digest it in smaller doses.
The Good Place (NBC) + Brooklyn Nine-Nine (FOX/NBC)
In my household, Michael Schur sit-coms are the Golden Ratio for engaging me, my wife and my 13yo. We ride for his entire catalog, least of all a pair of multiracial ensemble masterpieces like these two shows. BORTLES and/or NINE NINE!!!
Killing Eve (BBC America)
I went into this only knowing 1) it has Sandra Oh and 2) it was very good but pretty much nothing else. I was expecting more of a formal procedural but as the show quickly asserts…it’s far funnier and more off-kilter than I ever had cause to expect. Loved this one and can’t wait for Season 2.
Even if the character development feels like it’s happening at a snail’s pace — for real, watching supposedly smart people make dumb ass decisions gets a little tiring at a certain point — I think Insecure is one of the best series ever set in Los Angeles that really reps the city in a way that few other productions do. As noted above, killer soundtrack too, week in, week out. #TeamLawrence
I haven’t even finished this latest season yet but on GP, I expect it’s incredible, just because.
You can write an entire book about the flaws in this series and its various plot holes but alas, at this point, much like Lost, I’m hooked and now I have to see it through. Besides, if I hadn’t watched Season 2, I would never have realized that my new Turntable Goals involve a Pro-Ject RPM.
Stranger Things (Netflix)
I used to resist ’80s nostalgia but f— it. Let’s just do this, big hair, acid washed jeans and all. It’ll be fascinating to see what happens as the primary adolescent cast ages into the awkward teen years and someone please get Charlie Heaton a decent haircut for Season 3 but otherwise, I’m way in.
This was a show that my wife was interested in and so, for the first couple of episodes, I was only catching it peripherally but eventually, I found myself fully invested. I mean, this show made me find a Michael Rappaport character sympathetic. That should be worth an Emmy by itself.
PODCAST EPISODES (non-Heat Rocks)
Lost Notes: A Million Dollars Worth of Plastic
Lost Notes is produced out of KCRW and it’s ostensibly focused on obscure music topics but that’s broadly interpreted here. This episode is about the McDonald’s million dollar flexi-disc contest from the 1980s. It’s fascinating (if not also a little depressing).
Criminal: Ten Thousand Feet in the Air + The Fox
This Is Love: One In a Million
These are both produced by Phoebe Judge and I love them both, dearly. Criminal is “true crime” in a very loose sense of the term. This pair of episodes helped mark the show’s 100th ep milestone and I have to assume they purposefully waited to drop these gems for the occasion. I don’t even want to ruin the surprise awaiting but let’s just say that they focus on two of the most unbelievable criminals you’ve never heard of. Truth > fiction.
With This Is Love, “love” is also interpreted generously, least of all in this episode, which focuses on the mating habits of gastropods, specifically, left turning snails. Trust me, it’s delightful.
Dissect: “Nights” by Frank Ocean
If Heat Rocks is a “deep dive” then Dissect is like bathyscaphe-deep. Cole Cuchna, uh, dissects every part of the songs he discusses, mixing in musicology, journalism, and literary analysis. I especially found this episode, devoted to “Nights” off of Blonde, to be insightful and I came away with even more affection for the song. (Be sure to catch our Heat Rocks episode with Cuchna, about Yeezus.)
30 for 30: The Loophole
As a scholar/journalist, I love any opportunity to learn something more about a topic that I already had a passing interest in. I’m a very casual baseball fan and I knew nothing, prior, about the history of Japanese players in the MLB and this was an incredible crash course lesson.
The Rewatchables: All the President’s Men
I joke that The Rewatchables is “Heat Rocks but for movies” but as their premier beat us out by a few weeks, I guess we’re more like The Relistenables. Either way, if you like one, you’re likely to enjoy the other. This one, which is about one of my favorite movies about journalism, is especially entertaining.
Hit Parade: The Oh. My. God. Becky Edition
Chris Molanphy does an incredible job of music journalism for each and every of his monthly episodes which explains broad trends in pop music via detailed micro-analysis of how certain songs came to become smash hits. This one, about how “Baby Got Back” represented a sea-change in how the pop charts were calculated, taught me something about about just how important hip-hop has been in reshaping the notion of the “hit” in American music. (Be sure to catch our Heat Rocks episode with Molanphy, about George Michael’s Faith.)
The Watch: ‘Westworld’ Season Finale, and the Search for the Next ‘Game of Thrones’
Hosted by the dynamic duo of Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald, The Watch is my go-to source for TV, film and general pop culture analysis. They’re both whip-smart and have an enviable ability to think on their feet and crack wise. (Be sure to catch our Heat Rocks episode with Ryan about the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. If you’re noticing a trend here, it’s that we seek out other podcast hosts whose work we admire).
99% Invisible: Oñate’s Foot
Articles of Interest: Hawaiian Shirts
This is a minor cheat since, technically, the Articles of Interest series was part of 99% Invisible but whatever, I’m doubling up because I can. The “Oñate’s Foot” episode covered colonialism, Hispanics vs. Chicanx, indigenous histories and the role that public art can play in engaging all of the above.
Articles of Interest, which was a six episode mini-series looking at the specific histories behind articles of clothing, was 99%I at its journalistic finding and this episode, about the history behind Aloha shirts was nothing short of revelatory. I hope they bring it back in 2019.
Permanent Honorary Mention: Savage Lovecast
It’s been around since the primordial days of podcasting and it is still one of the best around. If you know, you know.
HEAT ROCKS EPISODES
These are not meant to represent “the best episodes” we’ve put out (because they’re allllll the best!) but rather, the ones that, when I look back on the year, I have the most fondest feelings towards for various reasons.
Aretha Franklin Retrospective with Lynnee Denise (#55)
In memorializing the passing of The Queen there was so much intense joy in the room with the three of us talking about Aretha, especially every time we listened to her clips. It’s just another reminder of what made Aretha so special.
Phil Yu on Boyz II Men’s II’ (#44)
It’s always a great sign when Morgan, I and the guest continually laugh throughout a taping and with this episode, featuring Angry Asian Man himself, we all kept one another cracking up the whole way through. Shout out to all my dudes rocking the “eyes peering over thin sunglasses” look.
Meshell Ndegeocello on Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’ (#42)
Sometimes, you try to guide a conversation along the path. Other times, you just let the guest guide you.
Vernon Reid on Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Band of Gypsys’ (#17)
Not only was this like getting a complete master class in Hendrix Studies from one of the greatest rock guitarists alive but I also cut/edited this episode myself and at risk of patting myself on the back, I’m really proud of the job I did with it.