’Tis the season for making lists and checking them twice, and determining which album is the Old Grey Cat’s ballyhooed Album of the Year. The honor, which is celebrating its 40th year this year, came about late in 1978 due to my dream of becoming a rock critic (yeah, I know: crazy!), and continued through the decades because…well, why not? Over that span, it’s chronicled the evolution (or lack thereof) of my musical tastes.

It is a decidedly personal affair, in other words. In years past, and on the updated tally I post early each year, I explain the process thusly: “The candidates are drawn from what I’ve purchased, so the pool is decidedly limited in comparison to, say, what the writers at Rolling Stone or Allmusic.com are exposed to. Some years I buy a lot and some years not, primarily due to my listening habits – I play albums I love over and over and over until they become one with my subconscious (obsession, not variety, is my spice of life). So the more I like certain albums, the less overall I hear.”

But in the immortal words of Ron Ziegler, “that statement is no longer operative.” In the age of Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube, no one needs to actually purchase an album to enjoy it. Just about every new release can be had for the price of one CD a month (aka the subscription fee) or the willingness to put up with commercials. (Yet, although I don’t purchase as much as I once did, I own all the albums that made their way onto my list. How could I not?)

Also, as I wrote last year, “The candidates are also winnowed by my age, race, gender and idiosyncrasies. I’m a middle-aged white guy, in other words, with catholic tastes.”

Some years, I revisit all the contenders. This year? There was no need. They are albums that I’ve turned to time and again since their releases, and have never grown tired of. That said, there were a few surprises: Although I thoroughly loved First Aid Kit’s Ruins and Courtney Marie Andrews’ May Your Kindness Remain, as the year wore on I found myself listening to them less and less often. I’m sure it had more to do with me, and the headspace I found myself in, than the music. I deem them two of my three “honorable mentions” for the year. Mikaela Davis’ Delivery is my third.

And, with that… 

Juliana Hatfield’s Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John is my Album of the Year. 

I got chills when she announced the project – as Hopelessly Devoted to Liv – during her concert with Wesley Stace at the Ardmore Music Hall in October 2017, and those chills were multiplying after she sang “Have You Never Been Mellow?” and “Physical.” (Just as an aside, Stace suggested that she call the album JH Sings ONJ, as the title conjures such cover sets from yesteryear as The Hollies Sing Dylan. It obviously stuck.) 

In my review, I noted that the set is, in some ways, an extension of the moving “Wonder Why” from her 2017 Pussycat LP, “in which she sought refuge from the madness of the present via the memories of her childhood. These songs, for her and us, are a similar escape into the past. They conjure another time and place, and also pay homage to a singer (and sometime songwriter) who, in that long-ago era, created a safe room where many of us dwelled on occasion.”

FYI: It’s the sixth time that Juliana has nabbed my year-end honors.

The first runner-up: the Stone Foundation’s Everybody, Anyone. In my review, I said that the songs “feature taut rhythms and lyrics that strive for something more than the rudimentary reflections that make up much of today’s mainstream music. They’re metaphysical musings of the highest order.”

Paul Weller co-wrote that Stone Foundation track, “Next Time Around.” His own release this year, True Meanings, is the latest classic in his own oeuvre, and is my second runner-up. Due to offline events, this blog was placed into a holding pattern around the time of the album’s release, so I never reviewed it. But make no mistake: It’s one of his best. 

The third runner-up: Shelby Lynne’s Here I Am, which features her songs (and some poetic snippets of dialogue) from her movie of the same name. Originally available only on vinyl, it’s now out on CD (via Shelby’s online store). The songs are as mesmerizing as her performance in the film.  

The fourth runner-up: Erin O’Dowd, whose debut album, Old Town, took up residence in my heart and head way back in May, and provided much-needed sustenance on a long road trip Diane and I took in September. In my First Impressions piece on it, I said that the songs sent “my spirits soaring higher than the beautiful May morn.”

The fifth and final runner-up: Becky Warren’s Undesirable, which is an album-long treatise on America’s unofficial caste system. As I wrote in this piece, it’s akin to a series of short stories set to song. It’ll draw you in, make you think, and make you tap your feet.

It’s been a whirlwind few months for me and mine – we’re preparing to leap into a new life in the Raleigh-Durham area. It’s not just packing up for the move to another house, which would be a relative breeze: We’re downsizing. We just have way too many things, and it’s time others enjoyed them. (That’s my mantra, and I’m sticking to it.) We parted with the bulk of our CD and LP collection a while back and are now sorting through the hundred-plus boxes of books that have cluttered the attic for years. Most of those tomes are being given to our local library.

It’s why my posts to this page have dwindled. What free time I have has been focused on shedding the ephemera from our lives – and there’s much, much more to shed between now and the day when the movers knock on our door.

Finding the time to listen to music (as opposed to having it play in the background) has been difficult, and will be difficult until January; and finding the time to write about it has been all but impossible. That said, my ballyhooed Album of the Year honor – which I will post at some point in the next month – was locked-in long ago, as were the the runners-up.

All of which has nothing to do with today’s post on Jade Bird. She’s not in the running for any of the Old Grey Cat’s awards save one, Concert of the Year, due to not releasing an album in 2018. (Spoiler alert: She’s in the Top 3.) But, as fans can attest, Jade has released a string of strong singles over the past 11 months. “Love Has All Been Done Before,” her latest, is absolutely killer. Here she is performing it when she played Philly in September. 

She played a stripped-down version of the song for Indie88 in the Collective Arts Black Box Sessions, which was posted to YouTube just this week:

She also performed a rockin’ “Uh Huh” during the session.

And here’s her take on Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere,” posted way back in January, for Indie88.

Here she wins with “Lottery,” and plays a few other tunes, in a video posted this week by 102.1 The Edge.

And, finally, two bonuses:

“Something American,” posted last month by The Bridge 909 in Studio:

And, from last year, her spellbinding rendition of Joni’s “River.”

It’s safe to say that, when it comes to popular music, 1978 was no better or worse than most years. Disco was hot, but so was pop, rock, country and soul/R&B. I was 13, and listened to WIFI-92, a Top 40 station in the Philly market, and an oldies show that WPEN-AM featured every Saturday night. (I used to send in requests for Jan & Dean songs via postcards.) And, when flush with cash, I usually frequented the Hatboro Music Shop, which was run by the town’s future mayor, Joe Celano.

But although I knew pop music present and past, I was ignorant of much – AOR rock is one example. I remember tuning in a station recommended by a classmate – either WMMR or ‘YSP – and thinking I’d turned the dial to a country station when the deejay announced Jethro Tull was up after the commercial. The only Jethro I knew was Bodine (aka Max Baer Jr. on The Beverly Hillbillies), so I tuned away.

I’ve written about the year before, of course, although not this month, so I’d like to give a shoutout to The Hideaway’s rundown of the WLS chart for 11/4/78, which led me to deep dive into this week. (As I tweeted Herc, “that fall has stuck with me through the decades.” It may not have been the greatest year, but it was a great time to be a kid.

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: November 11, 1978 (via Weekly Top 40).

1) Donna Summer – “MacArthur Park.” Okay, so some folks absolutely, positively hate this song in any form, and absolutely, positively hate Donna’s disco-fied rendition, which topped the charts this week and would remain there for the remainder of the month. Me? I hear my first months as a teen. 

2) Anne Murray – “You Needed Me.” The No. 2 song in the land came courtesy of the Canadian snowbird, who was gliding down from the chart’s peak, which she’d perched on the previous week. 

3) Foreigner – “Double Vision.” A song inspired by a vicious hockey check? That’s what Lou Gramm claims led him and Mick Jones to craft this million-selling single, the title tune to the band’s second LP. 

4) Ambrosia – “How Much I Feel.” According the Wikipedia, this SoCal band scored five Top 40 singles with their soft-rock sound from 1975 to 1980.

5) Nick Gilder – “Hot Child in the City.” The platinum-selling smash topped the charts in October, but remains a heatseeker this week at No. 5. The inspiration for it? Gilder’s shock at seeing underage girls being trafficked on the streets of Hollywood. He wrote the song from the perspective of a lecher.

And two bonuses…

6) Al Stewart – “Time Passages.” In its seventh week on the charts, Stewart’s classic musings on the passing of time – which was produced by Alan Parsons – rises two notches to No. 17. This video, by the way, was recorded on Nov. 12, 1978…

7) Linda Ronstadt – “Ooo Baby Baby.” Debuting on the charts at No. 59 is this wondrous remake of the 1965 Miracles’ hit, the second single released from her Living in the USA album. It would peak at No. 7 on the Billboard charts.

Not long after graduating high school, Tony Joe White (1943-2018) moved from rural Louisiana, where he’d been raised on a cotton farm, to Marietta, Ga., where a sister lived, in pursuit of a better life. He played guitar and, from what I gather, had been in and out of bands back home, but it didn’t pay the bills – as it often doesn’t. He found employment as a dump-truck driver with the highway department, and it featured an odd perk: work was always called on account of rain.

Fast-forward a few years, by which point he’s kicking around the music circuit in Texas: He hears Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” on the radio, and it seems lifted from his own life, just about, inspiring him to try his hand at writing songs. Among the first out of the gate: “Polk Salad Annie,” which harkens back to his childhood, and “Rainy Night in Georgia,” which conjures the rainy nights he experienced in Marietta.

If he’d never written anything else, he would have contributed more to this world than most. “Polk Salad Annie” was covered by Elvis Presley. And “Rainy Night in Georgia”… it’s one of the greatest songs of all time. But no version – not even White’s, which sounds tentative to my ears – equals that of Brook Benton’s masterful single, which went to No. 4 on the pop charts and No. 1 on the R&B charts in 1970. The texture of the veteran R&B singer’s voice was made for White’s melancholic lyrics. 

That said, Shelby Lynne included a spellbinding rendition of it (as “Track 12”) on her 2005 Suit Yourself album. The grain of her voice echoes the rain, and I’d place it almost on a par with Benton’s rendition. (White plays on the track with her; they were neighbors for a spell, and friends – he appears in her recent film, Here I Am.)

The great Chuck Jackson released a version not long after Benton on what would be his final Motown album, Teardrops Keep Fallin’ on My Heart: 

B.J. Thomas also released a version of it in late 1970 on his Most of All album:

Johnny Rivers also recorded it that year:

Ray Charles covered it on his 1972 album The Genius Hits the Road:

Two years after Ray, Van McCoy (yes, of the “Hustle” fame) and his Soul City Symphony recorded an instrumental version of it for the Love Is the Answer LP. (It’s far more kitsch than cool.)

Otis Rush released his rendition of it in 1976, on his Right Place, Wrong Time album.

In 1981, Randy Crawford included a nice version of it on her Secret Combination album. Although released  as a single, it didn’t chart in the U.S.; it did make it to No. 18 in the U.K., however. 

Conway Twitty and Sam Moore recorded the classic tune for the 1993 Rhythm, Country and Blues compilation CD. 

In 2004, David Ruffin’s rendition – which was recorded in 1970 – was released on the David CD. 

And, finally, Aaron Neville – with an ample assist from Chris Botti – covered the song on his Bring It On Home collection of soul classics.

Those are but some of the many versions of the classic tune, of course, and I’m sure I missed some that others think of as must-listens. (About the only person who never recorded it, but should have: Gladys Knight.)