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Volume #111 December 2016 to January 2017
Here we are, 2017. A common theme throughout last year was the feeling that this year had to be better than 2016, but with an unstable 5-year old in the White House we’ll just have to see how this plays out. As usual, the first mix of the year is a collection of my favourite releases of the previous 12 months, so let’s get to it.
01) The Men – Dreamer: The Men’s sixth album, Devil Music, was self-released via their own “We Are The Men” label, rather than their typical home of Sacred Bones. The record is raw and unrelenting, which is a nice change of pace from the band’s last couple of albums which focused more on sounding like Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen.
02) Big Ups - Contain Myself: A staple on the local Brooklyn scene of the last few years, Big Ups were always a high energy shot in the arm when they played live and 2014’s Eighteen Hours of Static was a post-hardcore triumph. However, Before a Million Verses sees the band go up a couple of gears in terms of songwriting and craft, the Slint comparisons are unavoidable but they do it brilliantly.
03) Jesu & Sun Kil Moon – Carondelet: Kozelek’s output rate doesn’t seem like dropping anytime soon, and there is even a second collaborative album set for release this year called 30 Seconds to the Decline of Planet Earth. Let’s stay on track though, with 2016’s self-titled release, which was a sprawling, diverse record, although Kozelek’s stream-of-consciousness vocals shows no sign of slowing down. It was nice to hear him backed by some chugging guitars.
04) Nothing - The Dead Are Dumb: Nothing made our 2014 list with Guilty of Everything, and while the chunky guitars are still common two years later, it’s when the band tackle a more classic shoegaze sound on Tired of Tomorrow where they really excel; tracks like The Dead Are Dumb, Everyone is Happy and Our Plague have all the floating qualities of Slowdive (with whom they had a brief run-in then make-up over twitter). It’s hard not to get caught up in guitarist/singer Domenic Palermo’s life in the music and lyrics, he was attacked and left with a fractured skull, his father died and then found out the label they were on was being bankrolled by Martin Shkreli. This all makes for a rather downbeat record, but Vertigo Flowers, A.C.D and Curse of the Sun pack enough hooks and punch across the album to stop you falling too far down. “Isn’t it quite the same, And isn’t it such a shame, Too heavy for the lightness, But weightless in the rain, All our words are wasted”
05) Radiohead – Identikit: I got a little nostalgic for this one - The closest I can imagine to living through Beatle-mania was being in Oxford just before OK Computer was released, there was a local build-up that I have never experienced at any time or place since (even though in reality they’ve always been left well alone when I’ve seen them walking the streets of Oxford). Who knows what we would have done if it was terrible. Radiohead’s legacy these days would remain untarnished if they released a 45-minute fart over Thom Yorke beat-boxing, though even after the somewhat tepid King of Limbs, the fervour of 1998 seemed as distant as it should, did the world even need another Radiohead album? For a band with nothing to prove to anyone, they certainly did anyway. A Moon Shaped Pool may be their darkest release yet. Jonny Greenwood’s string arrangements add an extra dimension and the band know when to drench songs in layers or let the arrangements breathe, leaving you hanging on every note. For a record that dips into the archives of unreleased tracks multiple times, it has a more natural flow than any album since Kid A and while some bands benefit from honing their skills on staying on track (more on that later), no band benefits more from pushing themselves into new territory, even after all this time.
06) Holy Fuck – Shivering: The Toronto group’s first album in 5 years, Congrats takes their signature sound and makes you feel as if you’re in the room watching them play. Speaking of which, if you get the chance to see them live, don’t pass it up.
07) A Tribe Called Quest - We the People: Their first album in 18 years, We Got It From Here…Thanks You 4 Your Service, was released shortly after Phife Dawg’s death. My only criticism is that it feels a little long, but the material is among their best and as you can imagine, they have plenty to say about current events.
08) David Bowie – Lazarus: There’s pretty much nothing that can be said about the loss of David Bowie, and what a swansong. Hard to think it’s over a year since he died. “This way or no way, You know I'll be free, Just like that bluebird, Now, ain't that just like me?”
09) La Sera - Too Little Too Late: Yet another of my Free Williamsburg reviews - Few musicians step out from the shadows of a band to produce better work on their own, but when Katy Goodman formed La Sera in 2010 while Vivian Girls (2007-2014) were still active, she has managed just that. Music for Listening to Music to is the band’s fourth album, and the first with with guitarist (and husband) Todd Wisenbaker officially on-board (though he was a major player on 2014’s Hour of the Dawn). Produced by Ryan Adams, the record bops between country twang and Johnny Marr/Peter Buck-influenced arpeggios, while Adams has also coaxed a much more confident vocal performance out of Goodman which you always felt was bubbling under the surface on previous records. Wisenbaker produces an understated guitar masterclass throughout which is worthy of celebration alone. “When it's too little too late, That's when it starts to make the most sense, sense to me, When I look back on my life, That's when I start to cry, my failures come to be, It kills me “
10) The Jigsaw Seen - Let There Be Reverb: I’d honestly just assumed that The Jigsaw Seen had broken up years ago, having fallen in love with My Name Is Tom years ago on the Children of Nuggets boxset, but they never went away. Old Man Reverb is a lovely collection of songs and now I’m playing catchup on the band’s discography.
11) The Posies - Squirrel vs Snake: One of my favourite songwriting duos returned this year with Solid States, their first album in six years. Off the back of drummer Darius Minwalla’s tragic death, some of the subject matters are understandably morose, but there is a lot of positivity too.
12) Fly Ashtray – Mulligan: Fly Ashtray may be New York’s most underappreciated band, and new album We Buy Everything You Have is another stellar set of jangle-infused tunes that frequently stray from songwriting templates.
13) Teenage Fanclub - Thin Air: Teenage Fanclub albums aren’t terribly frequent but you can always bet on them to deliver a gorgeous collection of power-pop tunes a couple of times a decade. I might have cooled on Here from the initial euphoria of a new fannies album, but it’s still another great addition to one of the best discographies around. “And I've been meaning to take a chance on something, I'm a greenfield site for sore eyes, and sore eyes,
Are just needing the light, the shapes and the shadows, Of the space we share, Before it slips into thin air”
14) Robbie Fulks - Aunt Peg's New Old Man: A couple of years ago a friend told me “you’re in America now, you’re going to a country show!” and took me to see Robbie Fulks, I now try and see him every time he plays. Last album, Upland Stories is a bit more downbeat than normal but he does still sneak in some humourous tracks like this one. “She liked just fiddeling, No doubt, Liked his help on the railroad route, And the rest I don't want to think about, Aunt Peg's new old man”
15) Preoccupations – Stimulation: The band formerly known as Viet Cong, Pre-Occupations changed their name this year after catching flack for some time. I think it’s a bit silly for bands to change names, and the list of groups who would have to change their name due to possibly “offending” anyone would be quite long. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the band’s sound.
16) Fear of Men – Sane: I’m just going to copy what I wrote for Free Williamsburg… After the band’s wonderful 2014 debut, Loom, it would have been easy for the Brighton trio to simply rehash the formula of bright guitars and swaying harmonies backing Jessica Weiss’ longing vocals. Rather than accentuate their poppy tendencies, Fall Forever takes a daring step back, focusing on mood and texture, with barely a conventional guitar chord in sight. Fall Forever doesn’t get out of second gear and all the better for it, with sparse drumming and more emphasis on Weiss’ lyrics, who has skipped the metaphors and isn’t afraid to tell us what a terrible year she has had. Everything is laid bare and would fall completely flat in lesser hands, but Fear of Men have made depression sound beautiful, and that is worth clinging to.
17) Springtime Carnivore - Rough Magic: Another of my Free Williamsburg picks… If there is a more vivid break-up album in 2016 then I didn’t hear it, though despite the sometimes bleak lyrics, there is plenty of optimism to be found in the cracks. I was a big fan of the self-titled debut from 2014 and as with that record, Greta Morgan recorded most of the instruments herself, but Midnight Room benefits greatly from pushing her voice way up in the mix. Providing my favourite vocal performance on record this year, her range is astounding as well as choosing when to deliver a restrained croon or belting it out. The record is mostly front-loaded with the upbeat tracks before sending you off on a lullaby, something we discussed in an interview when the album was released (“I only realized recently that the reason I love closing records with a slow song is because of “Goodnight” by The Beatles, which is the perfect closer to on The White Album. I’ve always been a fan of a lullaby goodbye.”). “I couldn't wait, I took the bait, Of a broken fantasy, For a while I was walking tall, Now I'm falling to my knees”
18) Katy Goodman & Greta Morgan - Pay to Cum: Cover albums are hard to pull off, you really have to make the songs your own and both Katy Goodman and Greta Morgan manage that perfectly on Take It It’s Yours, it’s a collection of punk and new wave classics but the tracks are slowed down and the vocals bring out a hidden quality of the lyrics. This is a Bad Brains tune of course.
19) Nada Surf - Victory's Yours: Probably my favourite album of the year, and one I also picked for Free Williamsburg’s round-up Nada Surf should be considered one of New York’s greatest bands, which is a claim only strengthened with the release of You Know Who You Are, their seventh original studio album. Twenty years after their debut High/Low and subsequent surprise hit, Popular, the band have only improved over time (can you say that about any other band who are ever considered a one-hit-wonder early on?). With the addition of cult-guitar hero Doug Gillard as an official member, the now four-piece effortlessly crafted a power-pop record of love, loss, and trying to get by in bleak times; something pertinent in 2016. Matthew Caws has clearly listened to himself, as the chorus in Believe You’re Mine consist of the lines “one day, I’ll love somebody else, one day, I’ll be good to myself”, and as reported in the New York Times, he recently re-married. To hear these songs and see Caws come through the other side gives hope in what seems like a broken year, it has certainly been one of my most listened-to records in some time and I don’t know where I’d be without it. Musically the band don’t veer too far from a template they have near perfected over the course of their career, but sometimes you need that reassuring embrace of an old friend, or a favourite band… Nada Surf have almost single-handedly saved 2016. “Some days just won't start, I wake up and it falls apart, Spend my time trying to figure you out but, I never get very far, I think I'm walking out of this fight, There's a spark and it's just within my sight”
I hope you enjoyed the mix as usual, and I hope your 2016 wasn’t terrible either. Regardless of how it was, here’s to a better 2017. The picture is of me trying to ignore people making out at a concert for when Other Music sadly closed, and for some reason I felt like it sort of summed the whole sad year up.
Peace and love