“Doesn’t life seem nasty, brutish, and short?”
Tom Waits asked this question in his classic 1999 junkyard-gospel opus “Come on Up to The House”, and in 2018, Waits’ song became a consistent go-to for me. Because, yeah, life did seem exactly like that.
In tough times, we tend to feel cut adrift, as if we’ve somehow wandered into the wrong party, and it’s a raging kegger presided over by people we don’t recognize and whose motives we are unsure of. And music, more so than during comparatively carefree days, feels increasingly like a life-raft, rather than mere lifestyle wallpaper. It’s no longer “just entertainment,” really.
For me, much of 2018 felt like a weird fever-dream, in which so many signposts and semaphores had been moved, rearranged, hidden. I counted on music to steer me away from the rocks and back toward home. Fortuitous, then, that I live in Buffalo, where 2018 was a musical high-point in the quarter century I’ve called our region home.
Here’s some of the events, recordings and trends that gave me hope this year, and a handful of things I’ll be happy to say “Later!” to on their way out the door.
Best arena show: Metal
Metallica. KeyBank Center, Oct. 27 – A veteran band enjoying an artistic renaissance in the latter half of its career. This sold-out gig was a face-melter from start to finish.
Best arena show: Hip-hop
Kendrick Lamar’s The Championship Tour, Darien Lake Amphitheater, June 3 – Lamar embraced the mainstream this year without selling out the complex, challenging heart of his art. This Darien Lake show felt like a hard-earned victory lap.
Best arena show: Rock
Elton John, The Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour, KeyBank Center, Sept. 15 – Based on the past few times I’ve caught him in concert, I half-expected Elton to phone it in on the Buffalo stop of his “Farewell …” tour. Instead, he gave us a show we’ll not likely forget, one that fully lived up to his sparkling legacy.
Best club show
Steven Wilson, Town Ballroom, Nov. 27 – Imagine seeing “Dark Side of the Moon”-era Pink Floyd at an intimate concert venue holding roughly 1,000 people. I never had that honor, but Steven Wilson and his stellar band suggested what it might have been like. Breathtaking.
Best outdoor show
Father John Misty, Canalside, July 26 – At times, I’ve felt a disconnect between artist and audience at well-attended Canalside gigs. This time, I felt the opposite. This was a deeply moving performance that somehow felt intimate and personal.
Tie: Cobblestone Live, Cobblestone District, July 27-29; Music is Art, Buffalo Riverworks, Sept. 8 – Two homegrown festivals served to underscore the depth and diversity of our music scene in revived settings that looked like a wasteland less than a decade ago. Viva Buffalo.
Best pre-show beer
Matinee, 698 Main St. - An inviting bolt-hole in the Theatre District with an impressive beer list makes it the perfect spot for a pre-gig stop.
Best post-show beer
The Old Pink Flamingo, 223 Allen St. - Always. Some traditions don’t need to be updated.
Albums of the year
No one album stood so far above all others to earn such a sobriquet this year, in my view, but here are a few I absolutely loved: A Perfect Circle, “Eat the Elephant”; David Byrne, “American Utopia”; Janelle Monae, “Dirty Computer”; Donny McCaslin, “Blow”; Father John Misty, “God’s Favorite Customer”.
Local albums of the year
This was a great year for local music. I can’t pick just one. Here are five significant releases from Buffalo artists that remain in my steady rotation.
Westside Gunn, Supreme “Blientele” – Wildly inventive homegrown hip-hop.
Night Slaves, “Night Slaves II” – The minimalist brilliance of keyboardist David Kane meets the dark, brooding intensity of singer John Toohill, with guest vocalist Lucy Bell adding sensuality to the stew.
Aqueous, “Color Wheel” – Song-centric, virtuoso, groove-laden rock.
Padmanabha/Strongmen Duo, “Americana Raga” – Indian classical music meets rustic Americana. I’ve honestly never heard anything like it before.
Red Heat, “Dark Days” – This is absolutely riveting stuff, a stirring mix of garagey post-punk and lyrics that cut deep into socio-political tissue with surgical precision.
Reissues of the year
Kate Bush, “Kate Bush Remastered” – All 10 of Bush’s gorgeously idiosyncratic studio albums have been astutely remastered by the artist herself. Pure brilliance.
The Beatles, “The Beatles (The White Album)” – I didn’t think it was possible for “The White Album” to sound better than it already did. I was wrong.
Rush, “Hemispheres 40th Anniversary Edition” – The first Rush album I ever purchased gets its deluxe due. The 5.1 surround-sound mix included in this ornate box set makes it sound like the band is performing in your living room. Stunning.
Jimi Hendrix, “Electric Ladyland 50th Anniversary Edition” – 50 years later, this album still sounds ahead of its time.
Paul McCartney & Wings, “Wild Life” and “Red Rose Speedway” Deluxe Editions – These oft-overlooked entries in the McCartney post-Beatles canon reveal their true depth in these reimagined forms, replete with worthwhile bonus tracks.
Buffalo bust-out of the year
Griselda Records – The Buffalo label, home to Westside Gunn & Conway, Benny the Butcher, and others, made international waves in 2018, after signing a distribution deal with Eminem’s Shady Records in late 2017. Expect an even bigger 2019 for the label.
Positive trend of the year
A jazz resurgence – “It’s been a lousy year for most things, a very good year for jazz,” whoever runs the late, legendary bassist Charlie Haden's Twitter opined last week. I concur. From genre-defying efforts by the likes of Donnie McCaslin, Cecile McLorin-Salvant and Ambrose Akinmusire, to essential archive releases from Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Errol Garner, jazz sounded more vibrant in 2018 than it has in a good while. This was reflected locally, where venues like Pausa Art House, the Historic Colored Musicians Club, Stamps the Bar, and Lockport’s Kenan Center presented vibrant regional jazz on most night of the week.
Negative trend of the year
Streaming – It continues to serve only one side of the music industry. Musicians – the content-providers in this equation – continue to be reduced to accepting offensively draconian royalty calculations, or opting out of the world of digital streaming, which virtually ensures that few people will hear their music. Spotify claimed $1.37 billion in revenue in 2018, while paying an average per-stream royalty of $0.0037. This is not a sustainable model.
Dumbest thing said by a musician
“Trump is one of rap’s favorite people.” – Kanye West on live TMZ interview.
Actually, though Trump was revered by some hip-hop artists in the '90s as an icon of aggressive wealth-gathering, since becoming president, he has been heavily criticized by everyone from Kendrick Lamar and Chuck D to Jay Z and Eminem. Unfortunately, the above erroneous claim is not the dumbest thing Kanye said this year.
Smartest thing said by a musician
“If you watch a whole concert through your phone when you’re 10 feet in front of us, you might as well be checking emails. We get nothing back when we’re giving absolutely everything we have. Of course, take pics, savor a moment, but give the phone a break and let’s have fun together.” – Craig Blundell, drummer, Steven Wilson Band, via Twitter.
This year, we started to see a backlash against excessive cell phone use at live concerts, with artists like Jack White going to extremes to ensure a “be here, in the moment, now” atmosphere at their gigs. This is a good thing.
Best gig I almost blew off because I was tired
Chris Daddy Dave & the Drumhedz, Imagine Event Center – Good lord, am I glad I forced myself out of the house. This was as good as modern R&B gets, in my view.
Trap – The short, sharp and shocking syncopations of the hi-hat in Trap music made it impossible to miss when forward-looking artists like Afrika Bambaatta started employing it a quarter-century back. In 2018, it became so overused and all-consuming in pop music that it turned into a lazily employed, cliché ridden parlor trick. Enough is enough. Try harder.
Local heroes of the year
Dwane Hall of the Sportsmen’s Tavern and Chuck Anderson of Imagine Event Center have both invested significantly – not just in their own Black Rock neighborhood, but in the broader Buffalo and surrounding environs’ music scene. I tip my hat to both.
Greatest hope for 2019
That music continues to break down walls, aid us in celebrating our shared humanity, and inspire us to dig deep for our beautiful, best selves, both here in Buffalo and around the world.