As I try to somehow compile my Top 40 music releases of 2013, I find myself struggling. It is beginning to dawn on me that I really shouldn’t rank these. There is so little difference in quality in my mind between #1 and #40 – making the idea of ranking pretty silly. The reason I post these little album breakdowns is in hope of encouraging others to discover, as I have, and enjoy. But I am stuck in a world where we have to rank everything. One day I hope to break free, but in the meantime I will begin posting this mostly arbitrary countdown over the next few days in installments, but first, I’d like to post a write up of one of my favorites of 2013 that was actually released in 2012, along with a few other really great records that somehow didn’t make the Top 40 today, or this week. On a different day, many of these may have reached the Top 20. If any of this makes any sense, than you are way ahead of me.
(Too Small To Fail)
Last April I posted Ache - a sort of piece about Jawbreaker. It was an effort to show my appreciation of their music from the early to mid 90s, without having to delve too deeply into the many reasons why. It was during my “research” for that piece that I found myself irritated and angered by the weird backlash against that band’s songwriter Blake Schwarzenbach for a big variety of “sellout” reasons. What is the reason behind this? Punk rock scenesters were always the worst, and the reason why, though I love much of the music historically, I could never fully indentify as a “punk” – especially within the narrow-minded realm of those who are so immersed in their little worlds that they cannot see past their noses. I also learned that Blake Schwarzenbach had formed a fourth band: the forgetters (prior bands were the seminal Jawbreaker, Jets to Brazil - whose 1998 debut was my #1 pick for that year, and the short-lived mostly undocumented Thorns of Life). Where have I been? This new three piece first released a double 7” EP back in 2010, which turns out to be a rough and ready group of songs that were reminiscent of old Jawbreaker, but in November of last year the now two piece (with original Against Me! drummer Kevin Mahon) quietly self-released their debut album. This pleasant surprise was recorded by Schwarzenbach’s punk contemporary J. Robbins (from the also much-maligned, but amazing Jawbox) and it is epic in scope and takes many listens to unfold. Sound wise, simply this probably lands somewhere between Jawbreaker and the cleaner Jets to Brazil. This is the first album Schwarzenbach has released in 10 years, after the JTB trailed off with, frankly, a really boring album, so it is nice to hear some spark and vigor put back into his music. These 11 songs begin with the lo-fi “Strike,” which makes for a quiet and modest introduction into what will unfold. It turns out Robbins’ recording is actually quite bold, clear and deep. This is a varied collection and despite their two piece status, these songs are adorned with all kinds of subtle flourishes, including strings, piano, and vibraphone. Many of these songs start quiet and simple and build to amazing crescendos. Blake is, as always, excellent, at twisting around phrases to evoke the power of strained personal relationships (“Hoop and Swan” and the ballad “Turn Away”), but there is a stronger political slant to these words, then his past work. “In America” is powerful song taking on our country’s loss of innocence post 9/11, but also our collective loss of perspective. Plus their really choice cover of the Human League’s excellent “Seconds” pairs well and really captures another time when we, as a country, lost our heads. The foot stomping builder, “Lie Artist,” at face value could be about a troubled relationship, but I tend to believe it’s about our failed banking system and the government’s reluctance to actually enact change. The other rocker is the buzzing “O Deadly Death,” which reminds of Jets to Brazil’s Orange Rhyming Dictionary. Like all of his prior work, this album is full of incredible lyrics and though the album is heavy, there are definitely enough straightforward songs and hooks to make this something to return to again and again. “I’m Not Immune” is probably the “single” of the bunch. It’s the song that could capture most of the fans of Blake’s varied past, but also grab onto a whole new crop. He starts with the lyrical refrain: “If you could see for once / one inch beyond the nose / that cuts the air before your face / you would not sing, my dear, with such high zest / about the wonders of this modern world” and continues to spout an angry tale atop layers of guitars and a fist-pumping chorus. There’s also the heartbreaking “Die by Your Own Hand,” which is immediately thrust into his huge pantheon of deeply personal songs that are so identifiable and painful and so cathartic. It’s this personal connection that I have with so much of Schwarzenbach’s music that has always made writing about it so difficult and this is no different. He is such a talented lyricist and with Mahon’s tasteful percussion and precise drumming, these two have carved out an album that needs to be heard.
“Now the Fall” 7”
January brought us these two surprise previously unreleased songs from indie veterans/pioneers Dinosaur Jr. These two songs were recorded during the I Bet On Sky sessions (their 2012 10th LP, my #22 pick seen here) and they really should’ve made the album – though it was pretty epic on its own. Both of these songs are highlight singles in themselves! The J Mascis led “Now the Fall” is simply one of his numerous catchy three plus minute catchy yet fried out sounding pop songs. The slow, meandering verse blossoms into a very tasty, foot stomping chorus and bridge combination and what sounds like a guitar/keyboard mesh that opens a new door to their sound. The Lou Barlow led “Ricochet” is, much like his two contributions for I Bet On Sky, excellent. Some of his best work fronting Dinosaur Jr. as is this. Barlow’s lyrics are always a little more open and heartfelt sounding, and this one is aggressive and memorable like his best work with Sebadoh, but with the bonus of Mascis’ shredding guitars. This is a must have single for fans and even a good starting point for the curious. What can possibly be next for these guys?
Rose Elinor Dougall
Future Vanishes 7” EP
Last spring Rose Elinor Dougall (who began her career as one third of the lovable Pipettes) issued a free three song download with her then backing band The Distractions and it was simply magnificent (my #18 pick of 2012 seen here). Those songs built upon her dreamy 2010 debut album Without Why and infused it with some added boost and band energy. This is the first new material she has released since then and she’s still showing off some serious songwriting talent and yet another mild stylistic change. The opening title track starts off sounding almost exactly like OMD’s “Shame” from their 1986 The Pacific Age, with its light keyboard twinkles and airy flow before upping the ante with her soaring vocals during the chorus. Next up is “Poison Ivy” with its horror movie piano backdrop, rolling drums and what turns into a highlight of this group. The B-side opener, “Strange Warnings” is the big standout, as it comes closest to the songs from last year’s release. There is melancholia present, as with much of her solo work so far, but with the repetitive mysterious guitar riff, some excellent drumming and her vocals steeped in reverb, this hints at everything from 80s Cocteau Twins to Strawberry Switchblade. The closer, “Sink Back into Blue,” is a dub style experiment with spoken word story underneath some sound effects and a heavy beat. This is another nice entry to her slowly building catalog. My only complaint is the hugely dated 80s sounding production. It is fine to draw inspiration from music of that time, but this has an odd, not-so-timeless sound to it. I hope it ages better than it seems like it will.
The New Life
The second album from this Belfast foursome is my introduction. The New Life is an album that would’ve been a highlight of my teenage years, when I was just discovering and absorbing music like this. Wow. This is post punk perfection – all the way down to the black and white simplicity of the album sleeve. The bass as lead instrument, tastefully and artfully provided by Claire Miskimmon, the reverb drenched guitar work, the spare drumming and the washes of creepy organs and atmospheric keyboards make for a sound that always tugs at my ears. The album evokes those early years of the Cure (17 Seconds and Faith), The Sound, or the Comsat Angels, or early New Order. After all of these years, it actually sounds pretty fresh again, especially done so damn skillfully. They employ the extended instrumental openings to songs, which has become a lost art in pop music. “Hypnotic Regression,” is the place to start with its streamlined rhythm and catchy spiraling chorus, while still steeped in reverb, vocalist’s Cathal Cully’s vocals are a little clearer and not so distant. One can’t miss the heavy pounding drums and spooky keyboards of “Occultation” or the dramatic “The Olympia,” both of which recall the efforts of the otherworldly and mysterious early Independent Project label bands. Everything is in place and appropriately dark and menacing. The only aspect missing is that Cully’s vocals are a bit flat and very unemotional and having them buried so deep in the echo chamber laden mix that some of the songs lack a strikingly memorable hook. This album is very well done, however, and definitely worth a listen if you are interested with any of the previously mentioned artists. And oh, that bass is relentless and beautiful. The band has also issued and 12” single featuring a cover of Brian Eno’s “Third Uncle” (famously covered by Bauhaus), along with a couple of remixes of album tracks.
Kids on a Crime Spree
“Creep the Creeps” 7”
The last two to three years has seen me buying Slumberland Records at a similar rate to my old days of mail ordering from them when they started out on the east coast and were teaching us of the sounds of Black Tambourine, Lilys and Velocity Girl. This little 7” single would’ve been one I would’ve bought back then, if it had been available. “Creep the Creeps” is a reverb heavy classic pop song along the lines of some of those early Black Tambourine singles, or like the Amy Linton fronted Aislers’ Set filling our heads with handclaps, a simple guitar hook and a need to bounce one’s head along throughout these two and a half minutes. The b-side “New Ex-Boyfriend,” takes the same elements, but adds on some serious urgency and speed. This song is strums along nicely, but it’s in the tempo changing chorus where this song really shines. This is the band’s second release, so maybe their first album will be along soon?
“Lose the Reason” 7”
After a surprising return in 2011 when the Primitives graced us with four new songs (#30 pick seen here) after over a decade apart, and then graced us with an album of obscure 60s covers last year (#39 pick seen here), they have once again treated us to some new material in February of this year with this limited edition 45. If you have been hesitant to return to the Primitives fold, might I recommend this one as the place to begin? The A-side, “Lose the Reason” contains their signature woosh that the Primitives first burst onto the scene with back in the mid to late 80s! There are handclaps and ‘la-la-las’ atop washes of organs and guitars and a fresh sing-along chorus, but the highlight is with the verses where Tracy Tracy asks questions about the state of a relationship and Paul provides discouraging responses (“Sift the ashes find a glimmer / Nothing glowing here at all”). It’s a fantastic piece of pure infectious pop. “Always Coming Back” on the flipside, is much more in line with the 60s vibe the band has been mining since their return. It’s a good bouncy song, but lacks the more modern urgency that I prefer. However, knowing that they still have songs like “Lose the Reason” in their repertoire is a welcome sign!
“Wishful” (download single)
Too many limited edition vinyl singles to track down anymore. Canada’s Stars released a 7” last September as a lead in for a quick US tour featuring two songs that apparently did not make the cut for 2012’s The North (my #21 pick seen here), but out of fatigue alone, I opted for the digital download. At any rate, these two outtakes are far more than that. Amy Milan’s “Wishful” would’ve easily been one of the best songs on that collection - fitting right in with “Backlines.” It includes a nice mid-range bass lead during each verse before leading into a frantic, splashing and soaring chorus. It has all of the drama and verve that the best of Stars always contains. The imaginary B-side is the Torquil Campbell fronted “The Light,” which is also very solid. This one is more electronic and has a sparse opening verse before blooming into an easy disco beat and tumbling electronic rhythm. This is a tasty treat.