16. American Utopia - David Byrne (Todomundo/Nonesuch Records)
When David Byrne toured his latest live show earlier this year, it was greeted with unprecedented and near hysteric amounts of praise. There was a sense of relief that, in these artistically unchallenging times there was still someone that could combine cerebral concepts with wonderful pop music. This was an artist, like that other avant-garde David (who also had a few Eno collaborations to his name), we'd probably interest in, a long time ago.
Although the 2018 live shows were Byrne's most adventurous outing since Talking Heads' 'Stop.Making Sense' in the mid 1980s, the album that he was primarily promoting had been damned with faint praise. This, and 'American Utopia's conspicuous absence from most end of year polls is, at best, rather curious.
'American Utopia' is, reassuringly, another slice of David Byrne being the fascinated observer, like a novelist whose style can be identified regardless of his surroundings. The music may bring together a diverse mixture of electro, dance, funk, afro beat and even shades of folk, but the lyrics follow a familiar path. A fascination with minutiae of life, its beauty and its ugliness.
Pondering on what heaven would be like for chickens would seem facile in other hands, but Byrne is able to conjure up engaging imagery ('Every day is a Miracle'), and then wrap it around a delirious chorus.
Sometimes the subject matter is dark. 'Bullet' ruminates on the impact of a shooting as it robs someone of their loves, hates and even their favourite foods.
On a lighter note 'Everybody's Coming To My House' evokes the spirit of LCD Soundsystem and offers up the philosophic observation that 'we're all tourists in this life, we're all tourists but the view is nice'. Yet again, Byrne is the observer, making notes, reporting back on what he sees.
If 'American Utopia' initially left some confused, then the live shows created an opportunity to join the dots between it, his recent collaborations (St. Vincent, Fat Boy Slim, Eno again), other solo projects and the funkier moments of Talking Heads ('I Zimbra', 'The Great Curve' and 'Once in a Lifetime'). It is a thoughful album that can switch from surreal to sombre to socially aware with ease. A triumphant return.
15. Boarding House Reach - Jack White (Third Man)
If Byrne's 'American Utopia' was derided by critics for being too obvious, then Jack White's 'Boarding House Reach' was berated for its wayward experimentation. Honestly, there really is no pleasing some people!
White's familiar template, the one where he earnestly channels blues and country music, had grown very tired, added to that his sonic Puritanism also rather tedious. However, there was some light as his last album ( 'Lazaretto'), saw him itching to make some basic changes. And 'Boarding House Reach' is the result, as White has purposefully thrown the book into the air to see where it lands. What emerges is the most refreshing record that he's made in years.
Deceptively, the yearning vocals and slow fuzzy keyboards of opener 'Connected by Love' are no indication of what is to follow, it's by far the conventional moment on the album. The first curve ball appears with the five and a half minute groove of 'Corporation'. The drums take centre stage, all other instruments weave around them, and we're almost halfway through before the rather cryptic lyric arrives. It's a delirious jam that was, thanks to the genius of drummer Carla Azar, one of the most exhilarating highs of his recent live show.
The experiments continue. Whilst the swaying, seesawing synths of 'Hypermisophoniac' test the listeners patience just a little too much, 'Ice Station Zebra' shows that White can actually rap and 'Over and Over and Over' smartly updates the angsty riffing of the band that made him famous.
Elsewhere, 'Respect Commander' is Prince-ly filth and 'Everything You’ve Ever Learned ' opens like a quirky Raymond Scott early synth recording from the 50s before succumbing to a manic evangelical preacher like rant.
There is nothing conventional about 'Boarding House Reach', even the gentle and loving ballad 'Humoresque' that ends the album, turns out to have been written by the notorious Al Capone whilst incarcerated in Alcatraz. It's the final twist in an album that feels that it has been built on undermining expectations and, in doing so, creating new territories for its author to explore.
Jason Lewis is a Birmingham based music, movie and arts obsessive. Jason's encyclopedic knowledge of 80s/90s Arts films is a debt to his embedded status in the Triangle Arts Centre trenches back then.