Saturday, December 31, 2022

ZB's Top Songs of the Year 2022 - Part Two: From a Buck to a Cold

"The Wall of Fame" - Byfield, MA (December 27th)

As promised here is Part Two of ZB's Top Songs of the Year. To start off we come in hot during a sun-filled Buck Moon, then we round things out in a bone-chilling Cold Moon. 

Happy New Year to all, and hope y'all enjoy the conclusion.

- ZB James

"Bickenhead" by Cardi B - Invasion of Privacy (2018)

July was peak summer and I was looking for a change of pace from the contemplative stylings of Big Thief. Although I admittedly kept rocking them on the side lol. In came Cardi B and her masterpiece Invasion of Privacy. It was the perfect summer album to finally get acquainted with. I of course knew the hits, but was unfamiliar with "Bickenhead". 

What a fucking banger, it's a phat beat with extra bumpin' bass and Cardi throws down some fire verses. "I need that cheese, shorty show me where it's at. You play with me, I might pop up where you at. You make-believe, now with me it's only facts. Expensive weave, and my checks is worth some racks". Pure flames.

I definitely had a lot of respect for Cardi B prior to digging in to her record-breaking album. But the first full run through really put her on a whole other level for me. She is a true goat of the chick rap game in my book.

"Hope Springs Eternal" - Beverly, MA (July 30th)

July Honorables

"Rhododendron" by Bella White - Rhododendron (2022)

I've been a major fan of Bella White ever since I saw her open for Sierra Ferrell back in November of 2021 in Holyoke, MA. Her voice is amazing, the country drawl feels super natural, and her lyrics touch upon some serious truisms that hit deep. She just has a realness about her. A vulnerability that feels genuine. She's not forcing herself into a pop-country sound either, and instead sticks to bluegrass roots. It's the best of the old school in a new school form.

I fell in love with "Rhododendron" right when I heard it, mostly because her first album Just Like Leaving has no drums or percussion instruments, and I'd been hoping that she'd bring a slightly fuller sound to her next project. She makes you wait for about a minute-and-a-half, but once those drums hit holy hell. Talk about folk-country gold.

Plus the yodeling she delivers is absolutely beautiful. And her lyrics are very powerful. "And would a sheep run if she knew she was for the slaughter, or would she simply let her soft wool warm her daughter?" is a question she poses to herself and the listener. It helps drive home the overarching theme of motherhood and suffering for those you love. She is wise well beyond her years.

"A New England Beach" - Little Compton, RI (August 7th)

August Honorables

"WAIT FOR U" by Future ft. Drake & Tems - I NEVER LIKED YOU (2022)

This was my favorite song released in 2022. I finally started diving into Future's discography this year and it awakened the monster (on these hoes). He is the king of trap in my opinion, just an absolute beast that has been cranking out hits left and right for years now. And in a variety of ways.

"WAIT FOR U" was one of the first songs I heard by Future where I saw just how much range he has as an artist. It's super chilled-out and contemplative, in contrast to a lot of the heavy af trap bangers he puts out. And his verse is subdued yet powerful. He matches the emotional R&B foundation that Tems's remixed vocals provide, and of course Drake adds a second verse with all the feels. Producer ATL Jacob deserves massive props for the soundscape he's created here.

This has been on repeat basically since I NEVER LIKED YOU dropped back in April. But I found myself playing it a bunch in the early fall. A great song to drive to while pondering your thoughts.

"Grumpo" - South Philadelphia, PA (September 4th)

September Honorables

"Potatus et Molassus" by The Blasting Company ft. Audio Clayton - Over the Garden Wall (Original Television Soundtrack) (2016)

October was a hilarious month to look back on. I seesawed between listening to the Over the Garden Wall soundtrack and Dirty South hip-hop from the 2000s/2010s lol. It was a wild spooky season to say the least, with a heavy contrast of tunes.

"Potatus et Molassus" takes home the top prize because it always brings me back to the climactic scene in OtGW (IYKYK). It's one of my favorite scenes of all time, and listening back to this number conjures up heavy emotions. "Grow tiny seed, you are called to the trees" gets me every time (I'm not crying, you're crying).

I also love how much music can compliment visual mediums, and this song and the entire Over the Garden Wall soundtrack are prime examples of that. The OtGW music really goes beyond being complimentary. The songs are immersed within the tale and I find myself reliving the entire story whenever I listen to the album.

Oh and it just so happens that the label this soundtrack came out on is called Mondo. You gotta love it folks. And that's a rock fact!

"Indian Cherry Junction" - West Newbury, MA (October 12th)

October Honorables

"You Just Decided" by Shintaro Sakamoto - How to Live with a Phantom (2011)

I bought a house in late summer and had a housewarming party in November with some of my closest friends. To celebrate we decided to do an Asian/Cajun themed potluck, so of course we had to make a playlist that accompanied the buffet.

I had a lot of fun diving into Louisiana-based music and a wide variety of Asian genres. But my favorite discovery by far was Shintaro Sakamoto. His album How to Live with a Phantom got a hold of me big time, and he ended up on repeat all month.

He's got an intricate indie-meets-psychedelia-meets-funk fusion about him. And while I have absolutely no clue what his Japanese lyrics mean, there's a vibe about it that you can dig, despite the language barrier. 

It was a cool month of cultural fusion. A friendly and welcomed reminder that art - whether it be culinary or musical or anything in between - is one of the most powerful forms of connection, no matter where you come from.

"The Heart of the City" - Springfield, MA (November 11th)

November Honorables

"Candle" by Buck Meek - Two Saviors (2021)

Once in a blue moon a song is sent from the heavens at the exact right time and place. You may not have known you needed it, but once you cross paths in the sonic ether you grab a hold of it in amazement. This December that song for me was "Candle" by Big Thief guitarist Buck Meek.

I started this year with the loss of my father, and ended the year with the sudden and tragic loss of a childhood best friend. Another heartbreaking reminder that every day is a blessing. But I've found solace in reflective tunes like this. "When it's too much to handle, burn me a candle. If you don't have a candle, let me burn on your mind" Buck sings, which deeply touches on feelings of loss and grief and remembrance. Even though we lose loved ones in the physical realm, that candle of memories is always lit. Their soul still flickers in the caverns.

There's also a powerful chorus that is so simple and yet so profound: "Did your eyes change? I remember them blue. Or were they always hazel? Still the same face, with a line or two. The same love, I always knew." 

That barebones imagery of looking at an old friends face and being flooded with memories hits deep. It's something that's happened a lot to me this year, whether it be reconnecting with family or childhood friends. And I think the root of what Buck is saying here rings loud and true. We may fall out of touch with people over the years. We may even misremember little details about them and the times spent together. But when you truly love someone, that love is always there. And that love is what matters most.

"West" - Wenham, MA (December 30th)

December Honorables

Thanks for reading folks. I hope everyone had a great year of music in 2022 and am wishing y'all the best heading into 2023. Happy New Year and may the magic of music stay lit within us all.

Todd Bless,

-ZB James

Friday, December 30, 2022

ZB's Top Songs of the Year 2022 - Part One: From a Wolf to a Strawberry

"Views of a Pleasant Collection" - Wenham, MA (January 26th)

This was a wild year for music. Lots of new discoveries and many hours spent relistening to the classics from childhood. There was love and loss, reflection and hope, and everything in between in the last twelve months. And I think my top songs of the year are a solid representation of the rollercoaster. I'll pick one song for each month to talk about, but will include many bonus tracks as well. Links to all songs will be included of course. Here is part one, which covers the first half of the year. Part two will come out tomorrow.

God Bless and hope you enjoy,

- ZB James

"Keep Me in Your Heart" by Warren Zevon - The Wind (2003)

My father passed away on January 6th this year, and this was the song we played at his funeral. This album was always a favorite of his when I was a kid, and I think it helped him reflect on his own father's passing back then. It certainly has helped me cope. Funny how that happens. Music can be like a religion or belief system that gets passed down through generations. Truly amazing.

Zevon's final album was also eerily similar to my dad's final chapter. Both had terminal illnesses. Both stayed relatively isolated in the end. Both had words they wanted to share before they were taken from this world (my Dad wrote many books, and a few dealt with his terminal illness). The lyric "Engine driver's headed north up to Pleasant Stream" feels like it was sent from the cosmos. We grew up on Pleasant Street and my Dad named his publishing company after the stream in the woods near our house. You can't make this shit up lol.

RIP Dad and RIP Warren. A couple of all-time legends.

"Winter Contemplations" - Wenham, MA (January 29th)

January Honorables


"Kokomo, IN" by Japanese Breakfast - Jubilee (2021)

This song really hits at a nostalgic heartstring as Michelle paints a picture of a love and a childhood lost. "Passing time just popping wheelies" sparks wonderful imagery of the neighborhood block. "God I wish I could go back there, left alone in my room" transports any listener to their bedroom when they were ten years old. 

I was also in the process of cleaning out my own childhood house back in February. We were getting ready to sell in the wake of my Dad's passing. And so to hear this song while I was literally staring all my memories in the face was unforgettable. 

The song is called "Kokomo, IN" but the actual town doesn't matter. It's a placeholder for any hometown anywhere in the world.

"An Island's Light" - Sanibel, FL (February 25th)

February Honorables

"Tehachapi" by Margo Cilker - Pohorylle (2021)

I am a big fan of female Americana singers, and my discovery of Margo Cilker's debut album Pohorylle was a mondo moment for me this year. It's a homerun through and through. And I think "Tehachapi" is the best and most accessible song on the record. "Wasn't much of a warning, he disappeared one morning. Put his mattress up on the back of a pickup truck" is one hell of an opening verse. She delivers it very well. 

I also love the New Orleans style jam in the middle, filled with horns and honky tonk piano. And her shoutout to Little Feat? Sold. 

Just a very fun and enjoyable tune, and always cool to fall for an artist right at the debut. I'm excited to see where Margo's career takes her next. 

"Reds" - Hamilton, MA (March 4th)

March Honorables

"He'll Make It Right" by Willie Neal Johnson & The Gospel Keynotes - The Best of Willie Neal Johnson & The Gospel Keynotes (1995)

Me and a few friends went on a river trip Easter weekend this April, so we decided to put together a religiously-themed playlist for the occasion. Most songs were ridiculous, others deeply meaningful, and only one took the whole weekend by storm. Insert "He'll Make It Right" by Willie Neal Johnson & The Gospel Keynotes. A ten minute gospel funk jam of epic proportions.

I'm not a devout Christian by any means, but God damn I'll have what these guys are having lol. They're all just feeling it, singing and playing their hearts out. We camped out on an island on the banks of the river, and I'll never forget laughing the day away as this song blared over the speakers. You go a little crazy when your a day-in on a camping trip, and this song certainly elevated our insanity.

There were no leaves on the trees yet, a crazy rain storm on the second night, and a group of maniacal campers who invaded our campsite. But it didn't matter in the end. He made it alright.

"Passion of the Pine" - Topsfield, MA (April 16th)

April Honorables

"Coma" by Big Thief - Capacity (2017)

I went on a trip to Baton Rouge in May and rented a car to go site-seeing across the Deep South. I discovered Big Thief in the middle of the jaunt, and it was the biggest musical discovery of the year for me. No question about it. 

I love this band, they are beautiful and haunting and insanely talented. And no song has needled into the depths of my mind more than "Coma". I am mesmerized by it, and have been obsessed by Adrianne Lenker's phrase "iris of the body" and what it means. So much so that I even used it as a line in a poem that I wrote for my friends' wedding. For me I see it as a way to describe the light that is inside all of us. Our souls. The iris controls the amount of light that reaches out retina, and so the iris of the body would be the part of our being that controls the amount of light that reaches our hearts. 

Clearly I have my own interpretation, but I enjoy not knowing what Lenker actually means and am happy to hear other people's perceptions. It's a solemn song about abuse, trauma, and the hope of healing. But despite the heart-wrenching tone, it's one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard. She is a poetic and songwriting mastermind.

"Tha Block Is Hot" - Baton Rouge, LA (May 18th)

May Honorables

"Time Escaping" by Big Thief - Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You (2022)

Big Thief stayed on repeat for many weeks after I discovered them, so naturally they get top song for back-to-back months. "Time Escaping" blew me away when I first heard it, and it still gives me chills. It's the band announcing a new chapter with an explosion of sound. A huge moment within their history.

"Electric waves, a rush of energy. Silent river, pouring backward eternally. Through the phase and touch of entropy. Old age in the beginner" is the opening verse, which sets the existential mood. Lenker proceeds with a mind-bending delivery of verses until she ends, exclaiming "Everything, everything, everything for free. As it all eventually... turns to dust and petal. Molten rock and meadow. Time escaping...time escaping". 

I love everything about it. The lyrics and message, the overwhelming sonicscape, the perplexing instrumentation. A true tour-de-force.

"Yodelay" - Dover, VT (June 11th)

June Honorables

Thanks for reading, hope you discovered something or caught some sort of inspiration. That's what it's all about. Tune in tomorrow for the epic conclusion of ZB's Top Songs of the Year 2022 - Part Two: From a Buck to a Cold.

Preesh that ass,

- ZB James

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Why Not a Star?


The Angel Appearing to the Shepard's (1634) by Rembrandt

Why Not a Star

They told me that when Jesus was born a star appeared in the heavens above the place where the young child lay.

When I was very young I had no trouble believing wondrous things; I believed in the star.

It was a wonderful miracle, part of a long ago story, foretelling an uncommon life.

They told me a super nova appeared in the heavens in its dying burst of fire.

When I was older and believed in science and reason I believed the story of the star explained.

But I found that I was unwilling to give up the star, fitting symbol for the birth of one whose uncommon life has been long remembered.

The star explained became the star understood, for Jesus, for Buddha, for Zarathustra.

Why not a star? Some bright star shines somewhere in the heavens each time a child is born.

Who knows what it may foretell?

Who knows what uncommon life may yet again unfold, if we but give it a chance?

Margaret Gooding (1922–2003)

Monday, December 19, 2022

Oh Baseball Where Art Thou?


Baseball has been dead to me for a while. 

I couldn't get through an entire 9 inning game even if you paid me lol. And it's a crying shame, because for the greater part of my childhood it was my favorite sport. And the 2004 World Series will forever be one of my favorite memories. Sitting on the couch, watching with my Dad - the only two up in the house when they won. Then we went to his father's grave the next day and put The Boston Globe next to his gravestone. Unforgettable stuff.

I think one of the big reasons it's dead and dying is the lack of star power. They just don't have the personalities like they used to. Back in the day Sammy Sosa, Mark McGuire, Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds...these were larger than life figures that permeated American culture. Nowadays I'd be willing to bet most average Americans couldn't name a handful of the best players in the game. Hell I'd even have a hard time.

And I think ultimately this lack of cultural impact is due to the type of entertainment that it is. Think about where the pulse of America is these days - on apps where the videos are 30 seconds long, or on streaming services where you can watch on your own time. Baseball is the exact opposite. It literally takes 4 hours to play a game, and it's scheduled viewing that comes at you almost every single night. 

I guess going to the ballpark will always be a unique and timeless experience. But in the same way that other types of entertainment have faded away in America (vaudeville, VHS, newspapers) baseball seems to be on that same trajectory. I doubt it will ever "die" in the same way video stores did. But it will continue to fall farther and farther off of people's minds. You can still buy a newspaper, still catch a vaudeville show if you really look. And you'll always be able to go watch a ballgame. But as an in-house living-room centerpiece, it's old news. It's the fireplace of sports at this point lol.

I'm trying to think of how I could "watch" the Red Sox in 2023... I guess the most feasible way would be to consume the YouTube highlight reels in the morning? It's a weird thing to consider, because all my instincts tell me that isn't actually "watching" the team. Traditionalists will tell you that that's no better than box score watching. But to hell with tradition, especially when it comes to baseball. Tradition will be the death of the sport. They need a 20 second pitch clock yesterday.

Maybe I'll give the YouTube highlight reels a run. We'll see.

- ZB James