Tuesday, September 21, 2021

The 21st of September!

Almost missed this one this year! And it's reportedly the last time he's doing this, so if that's true, he's going out in epic style. Enjoy!

Monday, September 13, 2021

Rockin' My Turntable in 2020.

I know it's a break from tradition to use album covers instead of my yearly turntable image, but...

Hey, at least this one isn't as late as my 2018 list, right? I honestly debated even doing this list since I think most of us can agree that music in 2020 was downright weird.* Indie musicians' careers halted just as they were starting to blast off, huge names in the music biz released hotly anticipated albums that were swiftly forgotten in the midst of a pandemic, and both me and the entire planet had to deal with a constantly shifting internal emotional landscape. And let me tell you, none of that is conducive to my usual approach to these lists. So this one is an oddity that I'm posting here more for posterity than as some sort of actual critical read on the year as a whole.

I did just take a spin through the albums on ye olde tankPHONE that are still in there from last year, and there are quite a few I still listen to that aren't on this list.** But when I started winnowing this down the only real mental metric I could apply was that these were albums I could reliably turn to that made me feel during a period of time when I wasn't certain I could feel at all, or ever again.

Also of note: I usually stick with 20 albums a year, but this list is a little longer since some releases are grouped together for various reasons that will make sense as you read along. I've also written this over the span of months, when I could harness the energy to do so. So I ask that you forgive me if it feels like a slightly less cohesive style of writing than I'd usually employ on something like a year-end list. But hey, slow and steady at least got this eventually finished, right?

Also also of note? I've tried to use Bandcamp over Spotify embeds whenever possible, but a bunch of these ain't on Bandcamp, and I'd rather you can easily sample the tunes, even if it's via one of my less favorite streaming services.

Let's do this!


Local H released an absolute crusher of an album that got great reviews and showcased Scott Lucas' uncanny ability to merge melody with walls of crushing noise held aloft by Ryan Harding's thunderous drumming. It also continued Lucas' string of albums that never flag in quality while still pushing against the boundaries of what is expected from Local H. Anyone writing this band off as a nostalgia act, or '90s revival is really cheating themselves out of listening to one of the most consistent songwriters of his generation. Well, any generation, actually. I don't know how Lucas keeps this up, but I'm truly glad he's a "lifer." 

Lucas also deserves bonus points for launching one of the best podcasts to debut during the pandemic. 


The High Water Marks are based in Norway, but the heart of the band is frontperson Hilarie Sidney. You may recognizer that name if you're familiar with The Apples In Stereo through her years with that band, but she takes center stage and dishes out a ton of sharp indie rock-n-pop tunes over the duration of Ecstasy Rhymes. A little burst of sunshine that helped me get through the year. 


This album is a force of nature. It knocked me on my ass. It is one of the rawest, strongest conduits to a mindset I find both awe-inspiring and incredibly bracing. In a year that threatened to crush the human condition, Fiona Apple gave us her most human album of her career and it will stand as one of the great artistic statements of this decade. Lots of other people have written about this far more intelligently than I ever could, so I'll leave it at that. But wow.


I felt so bad for Joe Wong last year. He had an excellent podcast talking to other musicians, and was clearly very excited about the release of this album. And then the pandemic crushed all that excitement and Wong withdrew from podcasting more and more as the months went by, and I can't shake the feeling this album's release to a world that wasn't exactly embracing new music is to blame. But it's a lovely collection of finely crafted songs that walk the line between orch pop and full-blown '70s Cali-coast revival. And if you grab the version with the extra disc of instrumentals you can really sink into the craftsmanship. I really hope this album gets a second chance if Wong ever tours behind it, but I also can't imagine how dispiriting it would be to have to tour an album that is already years old.


This was my go-to guitar album when I wanted to float on pillows of sound. It never failed to at least transport me to another place, even if it couldn't always cheer me up. But hell, little could be depended to cheer anyone up last year. Right?


Thank GAWD The Struts managed to cobble together a pandemic album that still sounded like The Struts. Which is to say an over-the-top joyous blast of glam-pop-and-roll. When I needed epic stadium sounds in my ears during my looooong neighborhood walks, this often put a smile on my face for the duration.

Not to get too cliché, but this album made the days feel less strange, at least for a few minutes.


Elevator pitch? Sonically, this is basically '80s Hall & Oates meets Phil Collins, with a touch of Steely Dan, but not enough Steely Dan to annoy the hell out of me. It was possibly my breakout vibez album of the year. As far as being an unexpected pleasure with vibez that seemingly sprouted from nowhere. 


These three are grouped together because they all fit particular emotional needs at particular times, and seemingly were released in perfect rhythm with those internal needs. Dua Lipa's Future Nostalgia got TONS of play, letting me disappear to a virtual club of smart pop that would spur me to dance, no matter where I was. Luckily it was during the height of lockdown, so only a few people were exposed to my bad dance moves during my walks. Then, as the juice from Future Nostalgia might have started to lose its potency, Kylie Minogue stepped in with Disco to keep the party going, as I gained hope things might be looking up. They weren't. And that's why Annie's Dark Hearts hit the spot a little later, giving me a spot of darkness to disappear into for my internal dance parties. The mood was darker, the tone was heavier, but after I let them sink in, the rhythms and melodies proved incredibly therapeutic. And by year's end I had three nigh perfect pop albums I could rely on that had lost none of their punch.


Both of these albums are brimming with life and energy and are just, quite simply, both incredibly beautiful and incredibly inspirational. They are two rather different groups, but both have the collective effect of lifting you up while making you think. Wonderful.


Call me basic, I don't care. This was fucking great. And, finally, a return to The Killers producing killer albums again instead of killer collections of a few singles with a bunch of aimless filler.


I felt like I had to wait for forEVer for a new album from my faves The Sounds, so I'm grateful they had the grace to exceed those high expectations. Pure dance rock bliss. And, of course, it came out when they couldn't promote it, because if they had, this would've been one of the albums everyone was talking about later in the year. They're touring now, so hopefully this catches fire before the end of 2021!


Speaking of waiting forever for a new album...

But it was worth the wait, and I found the sonic tapestries to be miles ahead of their earlier output, creating a fully realized vision and album whose squishy, squooshy tunes molded to fit every nook and cranny of my brain that needed occupying.


The last show I saw in 2020 was March 12. This was the bill. And both albums are tremendous, really. And act as counterparts to each other. And I have some complicated feelings about of Montreal at times, but UR Fun was one of the most, erm, fun albums Kevin Barnes and crew released in years. And of course, that night I had a feeling things were about to change, but I didn't realize quite how much they would be changing! So these two albums not only serve as standout releases, but as a very clear marker of time for me, now.


Kid Sister is connected to these cats, so there is a Chicago connection here. But I prefer the band being mostly shrouded in mystery since I'm content to focus on their unnerving blend of classic soul sounds with the sounds of today to create a living, breathing masterpiece of an album.


Whoa whoa whoa! Maybe the best back to basics super-charged rock album of the year. Still takes my breath away and makes me smile every time I put it on.


Every year needs a few out-of-the-blue indie discoveries, and these two hit that spot dead center. 2nd Grade mined the more twee side of things while Supercrush went straight for the power-pop jugular with its fuzzy attack. Both are totally great.


2020 should have also been Sabrina Ellis' breakout year. She's not new to the scene by any means, but her more traditional rock band Sweet Spirit released the catchiest and tightest album thus far, and she teamed up with Har Mar Superstar on the modern-day soul project Heart Bones. Add this to her ferocious fronting of noise-sters A Giant Dog and you have an artist who can front any genre of band without ever losing any of her particularly unique wild energy. Clearly I hold her collaborators in all these projects in high esteem as well, but heck, the through line is all Ellis, and she amplifies the efforts of everyone around her. It's stunning.


Epic. Anthemic. Full of life. And definitely filed under where did THEY come from?! I'd never heard of Fire In The Radio before last year, and even upon first listen was like, is this cheesy? But on a second listen I realized this is not cheesy, it's just broadly, earnestly ambitious, and I've gotten used to not hearing a lot of that these days.


These are all Chicago bands, many of whom I've long championed. Well, long being a relative term since a few are still early in their respective musical careers. But the thing they all have in common? All four of these albums would have broken them big on the national stage in 2020, and the fact everything ground to a halt cost all of them valuable momentum. These wold be standouts in any year, so it's particularly vexing they've mostly been forgotten as the bands have all apparently moved onto new music. Hopefully that magic moment is still right around the corner for all four.


I wanted to end this list on a really high note.

In an era where surprise album drops are the norm, it takes a lot for an unexpected album drop to actually surprise me. But Scott Masson did just that with this mammoth beast stuffed with hooks and songs that just flowed all over, submerging me in their beauty. It's not "pretty" music, but it is catchy. It's not "sad" music, but it is emotional. What it is, is epic. I honestly didn't think Masson would ever return to something this polished and grandly rock and/or roll after OFFICE disbanded and he traveled down far more esoteric musical paths. But he did and I'm shocked and it's magnificent. If you only pick up a single album from an artist you are less familiar with on this list, this is the one to get.

*Holy understatement, Batman! Right?
**I wrote this sentence months ago, but a quick glance at the music on my phone shows this still holds true.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

20 years ago today.

There are three flashes of memory with images so clear and feelings so overwhelming that they haven't faded in 20 years. 
  1. Groggily picking up the phone after its ringing woke me up to hear my roommate's boyfriend worriedly asking if she'd left for work yet. I answered yes and was clearly confused by how upset he sounded until he finally said, "Oh god. You don't know. Turn on the TV right now." 
  2. Frantically biking under a bright blue sky in perfect weather, hunched over my handlebars to make myself as small a target as possible, terrified that an airplane would drop form the sky or explosions would go off or people would be shooting in the streets as I hurried to Photogal's condo. Early on we were all still terrified there would be more attacks taking other forms in other cities throughout the day. 
  3. Sitting in a parking lot that afternoon and waiting to give blood at a donation center because we felt we had to do something.

Thursday, September 09, 2021

Pearl & The Oysters is perfect for a crisp, chilly, late-summer day, hold the pumpkin spice.

Photo by Laura Moreau

Looking for a late-week jolt / pick-me-up? Then Pearl & The Oysters might be your thing.

This collection of crisp pop with a global touch—like ye olde school pop, francophone global-stylee) and really reminds me of April March and that musical contingent that burst forth for a brief spell in the late '90s.

That's it! Give it a listen, and buy if you enjoy it, or move along and check in later for another recommendation if you don't!

Thursday, September 02, 2021

Glam rawk 'n' roll straight to your ears from Sweden—it's Velvet Insane!

Velvet Insane's Rock 'n' Roll Glitter Suit is a big ol' batch of scrappy Swedish glam rawk that I can't get enough of it. I love it! 

I kept hoping they'd put it on Bandcamp so I could share the whole thing here (and make it even easier for you to pick up), but I don't think that's gonna happen. But this should give you an excellent idea of what to expect from the band and then—it is inevitable—you can go track down the full album to enjoy.