I’ve never successfully written about a year’s choices in any kind of meaningful fashion, and the last time I tried, I got through about #10-#7 (and then I hit Carcass’s Surgical Steel, and writing about metal in the way I write about music is not an easy thing to do, for some reason). However, some kind soul happened to “like” the comment in the one place I had my 20 albums for the year, bringing it right back up and out of the fog of a billion comments out there—and one of my friends took the trouble to rate concerts he went to, so I thought, perhaps I’d give it a go here.
It’s not that I have the best Top 20, or the weirdest, or the most eccentric, obscure, or elite—no, it’s more that I have “my” Top 20, and that makes it whatever peculiar thing it is. Probably not the most (or even least) of any adjective, other than “mine”. You can see what I drew from here.
So, without further ado:
20) Dean Wareham – Dean Wareham
Dean Wareham is most “famous” (it’s often surprising to me the blank looks I get, but, then, I guess I don’t really run in “indie rock” circles much, even when I run in circles that deal in independent music) for Galaxie 500 and Luna, and Luna’s Rendezvous is probably in my all-time top 10 somewhere, but after Luna was “pared back” to Dean and his wife Britta Phillips (as Dean and Britta, of course), he cut back even further.
Well, on the name. Britta still plays on the record (and sings a bit), and tours and plays with him, too (as I saw at the beginning of the year, with people who mostly had ten plus years on me). If you know Galaxie 500 or Luna, the style won’t be too surprising, though of course it leans toward the latter–and even moreso toward, of course, the Dean and Britta stuff. It’s laidback as all get-out, and lush. It’s delicate and fragile with Dean’s notoriously Lou Reed-esque vocals (think VU, not solo, but even then it’s influence more than imitation or duplicate).
The two covers above represent the two media it was released on–the left is the CD cover, and the right is the (transparent yellow) vinyl cover. My favourite track is easily “Holding Pattern”. A bit more uptempo for the record, but has a nice feel for his unusual lyrics and wonderfully tasty guitar.
Get it here (on Vinyl, CD, or Digital).
19) Die Nerven – Fun
Almost completely randomly discovered (blame Amphetamine Reptile), Die Nerven are a dark, hardcore-tinged post-punk in the vein that leans toward the sharp corners and points of Joy Division, with an overall sound a bit closer to lesser-known talents like Josef K (do yourself a favour and check those guys out).
The relentless pounding thump of “Eine Minute Schweben” (yes, they’re a German band that sings in German, if that wasn’t clear) that comes out in bass and drums simple and straightforward is just a brilliant move. Guitars that hit that pinched keen that post-punk bands of this spartan style are so fond of turn it around a slightly unexpected corner if this is your first time with the band, without losing the ridiculous power that intro gives it. Vocals that careen between near-spoken and near-shouted complete the image.
Yeah, still my key track. Sure, it’s lazy. What of it?
[The LP is out of print again, so is the CD. Stream it on Bandcamp, and you can buy it digitally or in import-priced physical formats from the usual suspects]
18) Hew Time – Hew Time
I suppose you might instead credit this to Crover/Plummer/Willis–justifiably–but I hate dealing with three names (not aligned into a band name, a la CSNY) in terms of alphabetization, so, they’re stuck with this from me.
My distaste for drum solos is not a secret–in spite of the fact that I’ve developed a pretty strong love of drums and rhythm sections in recent years, used properly–so, on the surface, an all-drums, all-the-time record sounds like a terrible idea. But the pedigree here isn’t toward the kind of wankery that leaves me cold in classic and prog rock drummers (I still hate you, section of In the Court of the Crimson King), it’s that of Dale Crover (Melvins, Slayer, Fantômas, pre-Grohl Nirvana), Joe Plummer (Modest Mouse, The Black Heart Procession, The Shins, Cold War Kids), and Coady Willis (The Murder City Devils, Dead Low Tide, Big Business).
What does that mean? Well, Plummer said he started from Max Roach’s M’Boom as an influence, so we’re sort of off near jazz drumming. Kind of. But it’s jazz drumming as filtered through backgrounds in indie rock, punk, and metal. That isn’t to say it gets really metal-y (it’s hardly laden with double-kick), or that it eschews non-kit percussion (there’s a fair bit of stuff hiding in here, in fact), but it keeps the thing interesting, which is the cardinal sin of percussion-only stuff I distaste–being boring as hell.
The guys managed to make an all-percussion album really interesting to me, and that takes something. Key track: “Bell Window”.
Get it here (on Vinyl or Digital).
17) Tobacco – Ultima II Massage
Bit of a leap here, genre-wise. Tobacco was one of the driving forces behind Black Moth Super Rainbow, but kept his grimiest, dirtiest sounds for his solo work as Tobacco. Maniac Meat was my entry point, so I was in time to be one of the hundred people who has a completely unique copy of this sucker on vinyl.
Tom Fec’s approach to synth-y beats is grungy and weird, but this was a pretty great realization of it all. It builds more on his (yeah, BMSR is kinda solo now) last BMSR record than it does on Maniac Meat, but the differentiation that kept BMSR from being “Isn’t this a Tobacco record in all senses, even how it sounds?” keeps these two apart. The first video released (for opener “Streaker”) is filthy enough to get an NSFW marker in most places (even if, admittedly, it’s casual frontal nudity, not anything realistically troublesome–it’s not really even all that sexual).
It might be lazy again, but the former split track (with Black Bananas) “Lipstick Destroyer” is my selection. Complete with another bizarre fan-made video that features weird found footate. Plenty recognizable, if the name “Booji Boy” means anything to you…
Get it here (on CD, Vinyl, Digital, or Cassette–no shit).
16) John Howie, Jr. and the Rosewood Bluff – Everything Except Goodbye
I’ve been following Mr. Howie since I saw him perform in the Borders I worked in a lifetime ago with his previous band, the Two Dollar Pistols. At this point, I think the fact that I listen to an explicitly, unquestionably country band is the one that most surprises people, even those who’ve known me for a long time. I can’t tell you what it is exactly–the cutting, clever but direct lyrics that aren’t exactly a surprising tone for country music (quite a bit of heartache spoken here¹) have often struck a nerve with me (I know thing or two about heartbreak and tears). The music is not “borderline” or anything–the first few bars and anyone even remotely familiar with the genre can call it out, but it’s more old school country with turns from modern music in general than it is modern pop country.
Maybe it’s that–the disaffection for what is most oft-called country in this day and age (and for the past 20 years or so) without some willful leap away from it or into another genre. Whatever the case, his stuff never fails to impress, and the latest record was no exception.
“Nobody Moves, Nobody Gets Hurt” is my selection–turning that expression into what he does is clever enough, that it fits with the tropes of country as a phrase even before that just makes it all the more delicious.
15) Solids – Blame Confusion
I used to get a lot more direct record recommendations via overhead playing when I lived in the Triangle, but my periodic conversations with Chris out at Dead Wax in Lenoir do go into “Check this one out!” territory sometimes, and this was one of those (another will show later, actually).
I waited a long time to listen to it for stupid reasons (mostly amounting to wanting to have time to just sit with the turntable that just were not coming around), but pretty much regretted that fact instantly when I got around to it.
They’re only a duo (they even “cheat” at bass–it’s a pedal effect) and come out with a noisy wash of sound that sounds like it fell out of the 90s or early 00s (think My Bloody Valentine and descendants), but feels fresh despite that. They remind me, overall, of the less weird, less electronic bits of Parts & Labor (fine company to find yourself in!)–leaning toward BJ’s solo stuff as “Shooting Spires”, but a bit more organic than his usually was. They sound a lot more like a full band than you might expect, and they’re actually quite creative as the songs go. By “Off White”, it becomes clear that the goal is not just noisy, sweet little punk tracks, but something taking a more unique shape out of the noise.
Which makes the album cover choice kind of brilliant–I’ve been good at those since I was a kid, mind, and it’s actually not that unique an image.²
14) Sims – Field Notes
My love of all things Doomtree, despite my distance from Minnesota, could only inspire hysterical laughter, if anything, if termed a “secret”. Every release is pre-ordered, every show in the state is attended (or close to it, at least?).
Things have a been a bit odd since their crew album, No Kings, in 2011. Dessa’s spun off into less rap and more singing for her solo work (which made for her Parts of Speech being my unquestionable top album last year), P.O.S. started the trend of moving away from Beak and Paper Tiger as producers (or Cecil, or Stef himself), and no one’s really been breaking the trend.
Sims’s last record was co-credited to Lazerbeak, so, the fact that this one contains zero tracks produced by him (most are by Cecil) is a huge turn of its own, but the first track alone makes clear that this release is not the Sims of old. His flow has shifted, and it’s most present on opener “L’Audace” (which, at the Blowout at the end of the year he called “the hardest part of his night”, before starting up the most unusual of verses). By the second track–“Sims Jong Il”–we’re off in wildly unexpected, almost unrecognizable territory.
13) Survival Knife – Loose Power
I mentioned that Dead Wax brought me to a few records this year? Well, here’s that other big one.
Easy in: Justin Trosper fronted Unwound, and Brandt Sandeno played drums for ’em. That ought to be enough, but maybe it isn’t for you. Fair enough.
Muscle-y post-hardcore that sounds like a new band and not a revival or continuation–though I love that stuff, it’s good to keep fresh strains, too. Does that thing post-hardcore does so well: the instruments are layered and doing their own things to create a sum-of-parts styled whole that coalesces only at the right moments. They ooze exactly what they titled their own album: a loose power–a kind of threat, but an ease in it, the feeling that they could utterly destroy you (musically, of course) but are keeping it loose in service of the songs.
Indeed, the title track exemplifies this.
Get it here (CD, Vinyl, or Digital).
12) Mogwai – Rave Tapes
Ah, Mogwai. They’ve become relative stalwarts, in their way–not quite AC/DC or Bolt Thrower-type stalwarts (ie, reliably good’n’familiar), but consistently around, releasing and making it count. I probably shouldn’t take it for granted, admittedly.
They’ve been leaning into electronic sounds for over a decade, but they’ve only gotten further and further into it. You won’t find a “Glasgow Mega-Snake” or a “Batcat” on this record–the closest thing is the heavily electronic track that marks my favourite for the record: “Remurdered”. It’s all about the keys and Martin Bulloch on that one–a big shift away for a band known in the past for their absurdly loud guitars (yes, they are absurdly loud live, it’s not an exaggeration).
Interestingly, otherwise, they feel a lot more like the band I grew to love them as than the sounds they’d wandered into in the mid 00s or so, which is nothing sad at all, though the bizarrely funny vocal they sampled for “Repelish” is almost Negativland-like, though the backing they give it is just a great time.
Buy it here (on CD, Vinyl, or Digital).
11) Sylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso
When I went to see Dessa early last year, her listed opener was frequent collaborator Aby Wolf, but since I was in Chapel Hill, local Durham-ites got in via their relatively new group Sylvan Esso. They made quite an impression on me and the friend I saw the show with. Composed of Mountain Man-er Amelia Meath and Megafaun-er Nick Sanborn, it’s an indie-fied mix of pop vocals and unusually produced beats. It was a good match for the show, and I was not surprised to see them catch on rapidly–even if I was surprised at the speed with which they dropped a record and hit a bunch of end of year lists like my own.
Still, the strength of a track like “Play It Right” (re-created from an a cappella Mountain Man track of the same name)–in terms of catchiness and unique qualities–is pretty undeniable. Amelia’s vocal was already written perfectly and beautifully, but Nick gives just the right counterpoint to really cut it into the pieces that highlight it so excellently.
(It’s something to see them perform, too, and just clearly feel that track!)
Buy it here (on CD or Vinyl).
Stay tuned for the next ten. Sorry if you think any of these should’ve been up there, too! It was not an easy list to whittle down or position. I was tweaking it even as I wrote each, for all that I’ve had the list written for a while.
¹Bonus points if you follow that sort-of country reference, incidentally. Though
²It’s a raised hand, if you’re wondering. If it were “off-white” itself (instead of the weird “static” of 3d image-thing), it might be mistaken for a Spiritualized cover, really.
Honourable mention to J. Robbins for his Abandoned Mansions acoustic EP.