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Favorite Albums of 2019 

It looks like another year has passed where I did not write any individual album reviews.  Sorry about that.  I did listen to a lot of music and I wrote a decent amount of it too.  Often, I am discovering old music that I have not yet heard.  For instance, I listened to a lot of Cheap Trick (going beyond the hits), Whitesnake (because it's an extension of Deep Purple), Lou Reed (some of the deep cut albums) and Peter Frampton (under-rated) and many more.  I also relistened to the entire Bob Dylan official discography and the official bootleg series (and what I had of the unofficial ones).  However, as is the tradition, these are the ten NEW albums that I found myself listening to again and again.  The releases from 2019 that I enjoyed most were:

1. Jenny Lewis – On The Line 

2. Jade Bird – Jade Bird 

3. Grace Potter – Daylight 

4. Duff McKagan – Tenderness  

5. Matt Maeson – Bank on the Funeral  

6. The New Pornographers – In the Morse Code of Break Lights 

7. Sleater-Kinney – The Center Won’t Hold 

8. White Reaper – You Deserve Love 

9. The Cactus Blossom’s – Easy Way 

10. Blink-182 – NINE

Chestertons Release New Single “Heaven” 

Cleveland’s Chestertons have dropped a new jam, “Heaven,” from their forthcoming EP.  The song begins with an ambient arena rock guitar build that recalls bands like U2 and Angels & Airwaves.  However, as soon Kevin Bianchi’s beautiful vocal kicks in, you know that you’re listening to something distinctive and different.  The song shifts into a driving and memorable chorus that asks: “Do you know what it’s like to be recklessly loved?”  “Heaven” is accessible and likeable on the first the listen.  If the Chestertons keep up this kind of momentum on the rest of the EP, we’re all in for a treat.  You can hear the song by clicking here

Out of the Shadows . . . 

Meet the Shadow Division, the four-piece rock outfit based out of Cleveland, OH featuring: Max Espinosa (vocals and guitar), Michael Ridley (guitar), Joe LaGuardia (bass) and Kevin Hannah (drums).  On their self-titled debut EP, the band weaves a sonic tapestry that fuses the best elements of 80s and 90s alternative, 2000s indie and modern punk.  Think of bands like the Explosion, U2 and Midtown mixed together with a hint of Taking Back Sunday (minus the screaming).  Shadow Division’s songs have heavy hooks, pop sensibilities and well-crafted lyrics that balance between themes of angst and vulnerability.  The group worked with producer Jim Stewart, and each track cuts through with a crisp excitement and urgency.  Honestly, the EP flows from front to back without a dud in the batch.  It’s a promising debut by a band with ambition and potential for great things.  Check this record out and catch them in the clubs of Cleveland and beyond . . .

Blink-182 Go Back to the Basics 

With California, we have a rebooted Blink-182 deciding how to carry on after parting ways with co-lead-singer and guitarist Tom DeLonge.  In many ways the album is very nostalgic and plays heavily to the music of the band’s Enema of the State and Take Off Your Pants and Jacket commercial glory days.  However, do not be critical of this choice.  The band is refinding its footing by going back to the sound that first made kids love them.  California is an album made with an eye on the fans.  Mark Hoppus, Travis Barker and new member Matt Skiba (of Alkaline Trio-fame) knew that this album would be scrutinized to death, especially given the absence of DeLonge.  Teaming with producer John Feldmann, they circled the wagons and delivered the most Blinky-sounding Blink-182 album they could muster.  This concept may drive some cynicism among listeners.  Fans will miss the Mark Hoppus-Tom DeLonge back and forth vocal deliveries, but when you focus on the songs, you realize that this record sounds like the Blink-182 that made you want to fall in love with the girl at the rock show.  Also, Matt Skiba is no slouch.  He may not have been the immediate obvious choice for a replacement for DeLonge, but he’s a pretty solid “step-dad” and shares similar musical roots to Barker and Hoppus.  Skiba fills the DeLonge roll guitar-wise, but he sings like Matt Skiba.  
Kick back and enjoy the early-2000’s throwback sounds of “She’s Out of Her Mind,” “Kings of the Weekend,” “No Future” and the lead single “Bored to Death.”  The album hits a few less inspiring moments with “Rabbit Hole,” “Home Is Such a Lonely Place” and the title track.  Goofy mini-tracks like “Built This Pool” and “Brohemian Rhapsody” recall the sophomoric charm of old-school Blink-182.  Keep an open mind.   There is plenty of summer fun to be found on this record. 
Essential tracks:  “Bored to Death,” “She’s Out of Her Mind,” & “Kings of the Weekend.” 

Tegan and Sara - Love You To Death 

Having reached a new level of commercial success on 2013's Heartthrob, Tegan and Sara continue in the same indie pop vein with their latest effort, Love You To Death.  However, the follow up is not as compelling.  LYTD is certainly not bad, but when held up against its predecessor and masterpieces like So Jealous and The Con, LYTD’s limitations show.  There are solid songs like “Faint of Heart” with its big eighties pop chorus, also the anthemic "Stop Desire" as well as the harshly honest ballad “100x.”  Yet, LYTD lacks a monster single like “Closer” (from Heartthrob).  “Closer” was infectious but had an explosive emotional weight that made it great.  Further, Tegan and Sara up until this point have always been a band that always moved forward and evolved with each release.  Each album was united by similar lyrical themes, but the production style shifted.  LYTD is less ambitious and feels more like they are treading water.  Again, LYTD is not a bad album.  Tegan and Sara are still a great band.  It is just that they've been better.

Essential tracks: "Stop Desire," "100x" & "Faint of Heart."

Clapton Still Does  

At 71, Eric Clapton proves that he still has his fire.  The icon's newest record, I Still Do, is a swampy and soulful blues journey that is arguably the man's finest album since his 2004 tribute to Robert Johnson, Me and Mr. Johnson.  Although Clapton has admitted that a neurological disorder is making guitar playing more difficult for him, none of that shows as Old Slowhand gracefully feels his way through a collection of originals and covers.  I Still Do is produced by the legendary Glyn Johns who helmed Clapton’s 1970s classics Slowhand and Backless, which contain some of Clapton’s biggest hits.  
I Still Do does not have any real duds.  There are some more forgettable tracks like Clapton’s “Catch the Blues” and “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day.”  However, they do not detract from the overall listening experience.  Clapton really grooves on his covers of JJ Cale’s “Can’t Let You Do It” and “Somebody's Knocking'”.  “I Will Be There” features Ed Sheeran (credited as Angelo Mysterioso, a pseudonym first employed by George Harrison when he guested with Clapton’s band Cream in 1968).  Other standouts are his take on Dylan’s “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” Robert Johnson’s “Stones In My Passing” and the opener “Alabama Women.”  
On his original “Spiral” he sings: “You don't know how much this means to have this music in me.  I just keep playing these blues hoping that I don't lose.  I just keep playing my song hoping that I get along.  You don't know how much it means to have this music in me.”  On I Still Do, these words are especially poignant.  The bluesman sounds inspired.  Despite Clapton’s physical ailments, the guitarist says he is not done.  Let’s hope so.  

Essential tracks: "Can't Let You Do It", "Somebody Knockin'", "Spiral" and "Stones In My Passing."

Rocky Return of P!ATD 

Brendan Urie is a great vocalist and front man.  He is the sole remaining original Panic! member and has been dutifully keeping the brand alive by delivering inspired live shows and a steady flow of new music.  However, in a nutshell, the new Panic! At The Disco album, Death Of A Bachelor, is cripplingly uneven.  The greatest flaw of the album is that the albums worst songs all hit at the beginning of the album.   “Victorious,” “Don’t Threaten Me With A Good Time,” and “Emperor’s New Clothes” come off as substance-lacking Fall Out Boy throwaways.   “Hallelujah” is the exception to this on the album’s opening with its sampling of Chicago “Questions 67 and 68” and catchy chorus.  So if you wade through the garbage at the front of the album, you actually hit some good stuff.  
Urie’s love of Sinatra is a good thing.  He lets that flag fly on the album’s title track as well as on the closer “The Impossible Year.”  Then, you also get your more traditional Panic! songs with fun jams like “LA Devotee,” “Golden Days,” “House of Memories” and “The Good, The Bad And The Dirty.”  It’s in these songs that the merit of Death Of A Bachelor comes through.  This album is probably the band’s least compelling album, but there are enough redeeming moments for us to not write Urie and Co. off.  
Essential tracks: “Golden Days,” “Hallelujah,” and “House of Memories.”

Sticky Fingers Revisited – the 2015 Reissue! 

Everybody knows that Sticky Fingers is one of the all-time great rock and roll records.  This past week, the album was reissued again, but this time with extras.  So the million-dollar question is are the extras worth it?
That depends – the recent Rolling Stones reissues of Exile On Main St. and Some Girls gave you a number of unheard songs, some of them with newly completed vocals from Mick Jagger and guitar from Mick Taylor.  With Sticky Fingers, the band admits that they already raided the cookie jar pretty heavily with the Exile reissue so there wasn’t as much left when they went back for this one.  Therefore, the extras of the “Deluxe Version” hinge on five alternate takes and five live cuts.  The first is an alternate version of “Brown Sugar” with Eric Clapton on slide guitar.  It’s pretty cool for historical reasons and has a good edgy feel.  “Wild Horses” lacks the electric leads and Keith’s harmonies and feels empty.  “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” captures the band figuring out the song.  It’s pretty loose.  The alternate take of “Bitch” has a lot of fight to it and Jagger sings some alternate lyrics.  It is interesting to hear the song develop.  Eventually the track comes to an abrupt ending.  “Dead Flowers” sounds a little dirtier and is played a slightly faster than the final album version.  However, none of the alternate takes surpass the versions that are on the final official album.  They are fun, but not essential to the casual listener. 
The rest of the bonus disc features five Sticky Fingers-era live tracks from the Stones’ 1971 performance at the Roundhouse.  The five songs, “Live With Me,” “Stray Cat Blues,” “Love In Vain,” “Midnight Rambler,” and “Honky Tonk Women” are cool gritty examples of the Stones’ live power, but none of these songs are actually tracks from Sticky Fingers.  The fade-ins and outs show that these are clearly part of a longer concert.  Why not include tracks from Sticky Fingers
Lastly, if you pick up the digital version of the “Super Deluxe” Sticky Fingers or paid $152.98 for the physical box set, you get a bonus disc of a 1971 full concert at the University of Leeds.  The show features the Stones introducing the Sticky Fingers material to the crowd for the first time.  It’s pretty great and is a more rewarding listen than the five alternate takes and five live cuts on the standard “Deluxe Version.”
Sticky Fingers is an undeniable classic and rock fans of all generations should be familiar with it.  The question with the reissue is how much you want to invest in it.  If you want the bonus material and don’t want to spend $152.98 on the box set, I would recommend buying the $19.99 digital version so that you get the University of Leeds live material.  That is the way to maximize your "satisfaction." 
Essential Bonus Track: “Brown Sugar (feat. Eric Clapton)”

Another Beauty From FOB . . .  

On the band’s second post-hiatus album, American Beauty/American Psycho, Fall Out Boy prove that they are still one of the boldest pop-rock bands around.  This year marks the tenth anniversary of FOB’s commercial breakthrough From Under the Cork Tree.  It would be easy for the band to rehash the past and do anniversary tour for that album.  That is not the band’s style.  They don’t need to.  They are still a vibrant and commercially-successful musical outfit cranking out hits.  As always, they never make the same album twice – yet anchored by Patrick Stump’s distinctive and soulful vocals and Pete Wentz’s clever lyrical wordplay, the band doesn’t lose touch.  When you hear Fall Out Boy, you know it is them.
Much of FOB’s new American Beauty/American Psycho centers around up-tempo arena jams that are sure to be blasted at sporting events for the next couple years.  “Centuries” is a prime example.  It was the album’s first single and has been used heavily on ESPN.  “Irresistible” and “Immortals” play into the same themes.  However, the real standouts on this album are the title track, “Novicane” and “Uma Thurman.”  “Uma Thurman” is a lot of fun and even makes a sample of the Munster’s surfy theme song sound pretty badass.  Meanwhile, “American Beauty/American Pyscho” and “Novicane” are pure adrenaline dance parties.  With an album that fixates on high-energy stadium rockers, the quieter moments (“The Kids Aren’t Alright” and “Jet Pack Blues”) are refreshing and welcome as well. 
At this point in their career, FOB is still as brash and bold as they were when they first rose to popularity.  They are not afraid to embrace arena pop-rock and they do it well.  Haters are gonna hate, but American Beauty/American Psycho is a welcome addition to the FOB catalogue.
Essential tracks: “American Beauty/American Psycho”, “Uma Thurman” & “The Kids Aren’t Alright”.

Shawn & Shelby's Sparse & Beautiful Debut 

Sleeping In A Spell is the beautiful debut release by Cleveland-based duo Shawn & Shelby a.k.a Shawn Brewster and Shelby Lynn Sangdahl.  Many may already be familiar with the two’s work in their other band Oldboy.  What is most notably different comparing Shawn & Shelby with Oldboy is the way the songs are arranged.  Sleeping In A Spell is a much more sparse presentation of their music.  In this new setting, the poetic elements of Brewster’s lyrics becomes a greater focal point.  Meanwhile, Sangdahl’s cello playing tastefully adds dynamics and drama to each track. 
The record consists of six songs: five originals and a cover of Iron & Wine’s “Upward Over The Mountain.”  They are all warmly, yet crisply engineered by Jim “The Wizard” Stewart.  The opening track “Light” is one of Brewster’s prettiest melodies.  “The Sound of Breathing” could have fit well with Springsteen’s material on the Devils And Dust album.  Sleeping In A Spell is a consistently excellent EP.  However, the crown jewel of the collection is “Speed of Night”.  The song is both somber and exciting in its arrangement as Brewster’s guitar and voice musically converse back and forth with Sangdahl’s cello.  The song’s lyrics are rich in their imagery.  For example: “Sick of my sins.  Sick of all these cities and these sidewalks paving over hell.” And: “Bend me back and forth like a wire.  Watch me as I dance and shake like a liar."  "Speed of Night's" lyrics offers many great lines that brew with harsh, but vulnerable sincerity. 
All in all, Sleeping In A Spell is a promising and compelling debut that highlights the musical chemistry between Shawn & Shelby.  It is now being offered at a “pay what you want” price on the group’s bandcamp, so check it out.  If you’re looking for a soulful Americana record to listen to by the fire this ungodly cold February, this is it.  Put it on.  Open up that bottle of Malbec and let the winter winds howl.