It was an eventful year, which made it feel longer than it might have otherwise. We spent a fair amount of time adapting to our weird new political environment, where it seemed like every day was up for grabs, with very few clear sightlines. Then Hurricane Florence hit in September and metastasized quickly. We were overwhelmed. When we returned home after nine days on the road, our house was safe (only one tree down), but our neighbors were not so lucky, nor were thousands of people across the Carolinas who lost lives, limbs and homes.
We had two takeaways from the experience. First, Florence reminded us all of our place on this planet and this universe. We exist as a part of the natural order and in some instances, like Florence, we discover that our powers of innovation and industry simply cannot bend the will of nature. An experience like this may leave us angry, frustrated, and saddened, but it surely also leaves us humbled.
Second, the experience brought out the best in people. From the kindness of friends, neighbors and strangers; the heroism of first responders; the grit and determination of those inadvertently trapped in the wake of the flood; the consolation and comfort of loved ones — the bright light of humanity ultimately shone through the darkness of Florence.
So, there was that.
Before we get to the Top 10, a caveat. I was pretty much consumed this year by one band: Phish. Sorry. They ran away with me. Over the years I’ve felt an obligation to like this band because of their association with the Grateful Dead and the “jam band” genre; and, of course, guitarist Trey Anastasio’s star turn with the Dead at their Soldier Field reunion shows in 2015. And yet they never quite clicked: too busy, too artsy, too silly, too “prog.” But based on a random tip from a waiter in Charleston I listened to “A Live One” and had a Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment. Never looked back after that. Once you “get” Phish, they become a universe. They probably took up 50 percent of my listening time this year and we got a chance to see them live in San Francisco over the summer. Explaining this obsession isn’t a productive use of our time here, but if you’re curious here’s one of the better explanations of the Phish phenom. Generally, I tend to agree with a comment I picked up along the way: “C’mon, I mean really, is this not the greatest band in the history of life?”
Other than Phish, here are our offerings for 2018’s Top 10.
Grateful Dead: “Pacific Northwest ’73-’74: The Complete Recordings.” This beautiful box set, designed by First Nation artist Roy Vickers, captures six shows in Oregon and Washington when the Dead played effortlessly while building the Wall of Sound, a concert audio system that was eventually comprised of 641 speakers and took almost two days to set up and break down. Both the music and the musicianship are superb. Archivist Nick Meriwether calls out the shows for their “terroir,” their aural connection to the geography of the Pacific Northwest – that great cathedral of redwood, granite, coastline and sky, mist and mountains. It’s big, open terrain and the Dead’s sound reflected it perfectly.
Erika Wennerstrom, “Sweet Unknown.” Erika took a hiatus from her band, Heartless Bastards, to make a solo trip in 2018, resulting in this great record, full of power chords, soaring melodies, personal insight and one of the biggest, fullest, richest voices working today. We had a chance to see her play in Wilmington and she was a force of nature approaching Category 5.
Kacey Musgraves, “Golden Hour.” If Joni Mitchell and James Taylor had a baby, it might have been Kacey Musgraves. This record is pure pleasure, from the Neil Youngish “Slow Burn” to the deeply moving “Mother” and the glowing comfort of “Golden Hour.”
Beatles, 50th Anniversary Edition of the White Album. I know, I know, the Beatles’ catalog is an ATM at this point, but this production of the White Album is thoughtful, meticulous and just as startling as when I first heard it in 1968. The clean, white design must have been a major influence in the aesthetics of Steve Jobs. In addition to the brilliant remix, we are treated to a handsome hardbound book recounting the history of the album’s production, from the Beatles’ sojourn at the Maharishi’s compound in Rishikesh, India to the tumultuous and intensely collaborative period in the studio. If there was ever a doubt about pop music as an enduring art form, the White Album puts it to rest. The songs sound as fresh today as they did then.
Yo-Yo Ma, “Six Evolutions – Bach: Cello Suites.” It’s hard to hear the Cello Suites without picturing the growling visage of Pablo Casals, but Yo-Yo Ma blows away all the smoke and dust and brings a new lightness to these pieces. This record is filled with equal parts of sonic and intellectual clarity, played with a deep and tangible joy.
Saturday Night Live: Pete Davidson Apologizes to Lt. Com. Dan Crenshaw. If only all of our political dialog could be so gracious.
Gary Snyder, “No Nature: New and Selected Poems.” Like the Dead’s box set highlighted above, Snyder, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Beat poet, elegantly captures a sense of place. In the process he helps us become more grounded and centered. “Lightly, in the April mountains/Straight Creek/dry grass freed again of snow/& the chickadees are pecking/last fall’s seeds/fluffing tail in chilly wind.” When I need a break, Gary makes me instantly feel like I’m backpacking in the High Sierra.
Dennis Lehane, “Since We Fell.” What a great book! A thriller, a psychological study, a mystery and a love story. I read a lot of escapist fiction in 2018 and this was one of the best.
Free Range TV. I’m old enough to remember when we only had three networks to choose from and a couple of cable outlets. Now, we do indeed have 500 stations to choose from, plus Netflix and Amazon! The scale and scope of the quality we’re being treated to is enormous. Here are our favorites from 2018: “Barry” (hit man struggles to find his inner actor); “Homecoming” (Julia Roberts burns in this scary meditation on recovered memories and the new military-industrial complex); “The Americans” (in the final season, the chickens come home to roost and the idea of America is put to the ultimate test); “Atlanta — Robbin’ Season” (just for the “Florida Man” episode alone; Donald Glover is the master of comic understatement); “Killing Eve” (an artful pastiche of spies, feminism and thrills; Sandra Oh delivers a tour de force performance).
Late Entry Runner-up
Patriots v Dolphins, 12/9/18, “The Miracle in Miami.” Made even better by Ian Eagle’s on-the-spot call.
Hannah Gadsby, “Nanette.” This “comedy” special on Netflix is alternately hilarious, heart-breaking, challenging and, most of all, hugely entertaining. When it’s over, you’ll want to watch it all over again just to understand how she pulled off the hat trick. Andy Kaufman is smiling.