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FAR AWAY TRUTHS: THE YEAR IN ROCK, ETC.

“Far Away Truths”—a serrated rocker from Strokes sonic architect Albert Hammond Jr.—gave me the no-brainer title for my 2018 retrospective playlist, because those words so pithily capture the state of the nation and the planet—how it feels to be alive right now. And although I didn’t premeditate it, the songs that form my subjective soundtrack of the last 12 months seem to cohere into a theme, reflecting the anxious times we’re living in in relatably personal ways. So many of the titles themselves allude to the polarities of despair and hope that define modern-day existence: “The Fear,” “The Storm Won’t Come,” “Shelter,” “You Worry Me,” “Near/Far,” “Where We Stand,” “Lost,” “Bad Bad News,” “Bassackwards,” “Set a Course,” “Wide Awake.”

During a year in which mainstays Wilco, Spoon and The War on Drugs were off-cycle, in trade lingo, rock & roll felt more marginalized than ever, even as Kurt Vile, Beach House and Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats cranked out career-peak albums. Jack White followed his mad-scientist’s experiment Boarding House Reach (still trying to unlock the code of this wildly inventive but in-your-face challenging album) with an unexpected Christmas present—the primo Jack riff-rocker “Sunday Driver,” his first outing with The Raconteurs in a decade. Greta Van Fleet emerged from the widescale savaging of social-media haters loud and proud. Leon Bridges made an uneven second album, but its best moments are transportive. Female artists including Beach House’s Victoria LeGrand, Kacey Musgraves, Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, Courtney Barnett, Jade Bird, 1990s throwback Soccer Mommy and neo-soulster Natalie Prass elbowed their way into the fray, boldly and masterfully. Meanwhile, along with the artists mentioned by my colleague Phil Gallo in his “Old Folks’ Boogie” Top 10, I’d add the names of septuagenarians Boz Scaggs and Richard Thompson, along with 64-year-old Elvis Costello, all still at the peak of their considerable powers, based on the evidence of the strongest tracks on their latest longplayers. So are Los Lobos, whose Record Store Day one-off “The Fear” captured the zeitgeist as powerfully as anything released in 2018, though it appears that hardly anyone is aware of the song’s existence.      

The shadow of Tom Petty loomed over the American rock landscape in a profound way, and the couple-dozen previously unreleased tracks unearthed from the vaults for An American Treasure include a bunch of “What were they thinking?” outtakes, including the lost classic “Surrender,” the swampy “Walking From the Fire,” with its wicked-clever plot twist, and the brilliantly tossed-off burner “Lonesome Dave.” During the five weeks I spent writing the track-by-track notes for the box set, I listened to nothing but these 60 songs, along with assorted candidates that didn’t make the final cut, and the consistent quality of the writing, arrangements and performances kept me totally in the thrall of this unique artist and his amazingly adept band. The time I spent with the music of The Band, Bryan Ferry/Roxy Music, Ray Charles, Jackson Browne and George Harrison while working on archival critiques further deepened my sense of why great records are so enduring; most of all, they get at the truth in ways that are at once particular and universal.

Album-wise (the album remains a crucial measuring stick in rock & roll), nothing released this year cleared the bar set by Petty and The Heartbreakers and the other abovementioned artists—an unfair comparison, obviously—but the 47 non-Petty cuts on this playlist hit me musically, emotionally and intellectually in a satisfying way, so much so that I can imagine listening to the best of this stuff for the rest of my life.          

REVENUE CHART:
FAST FORWARD
The Sony side of the street (8/5a)
NEW & DEVELOPING ARTISTS: Q3 EDITION
The lifeblood of the biz is pumping. (8/5a)
OLIVIA INKS WITH SONY PUB
Big score (8/5a)
THE HAPPIEST TOP 20
Billie's back...on her own terms. (8/5a)
NEAR TRUTHS:
CAVEAT EMPTOR
Vaxx mandate gains steam. (8/5a)
NEW & DEVELOPING ARTISTS
From tender shoots to mighty oaks.
MARKETSHARE MANIA
Let's do the numbers.
DELTA VARIANT
It is not the name of a Henry Miller novel.
IS IT TIME FOR ANOTHER ROCK STORY?
Could be. Dunno.
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