In the spirit of the season, I wanted to share some of my favorite releases of the year. Obviously not exhaustive; just some personal highlights. Quite a few of these are giant major label releases, so I’ll be taking down those download links quickly or leaving them off accordingly. Let me know if links are broken. Happy holidays!
Really gorgeous, stripped-down new wave and punk-tinged pop rock recorded between 1979 and 1983 and then self-released as a double vinyl in 1984–the trio’s only full-length. Though Dolly Mixture’s sound hits a sweet spot between punk and girl-group pop (unsurprisingly, as the story goes that the band was born from a mutual love of The Undertones and The Shangri-Las), the three actively pushed back against Chrysalis Records’s attempt to market them as a girl group, keeping their sound loose and lo-fi and their songs short and sweet.
This is more rock-centric than what we usually post around here, but that’s what I grew up listening to, and I’ll always love it. Demonstration Tapes has an immediate appeal: swooning harmonies, sophisticated top lines, and a room-tone warmth slightly ahead of The Vaselines and Beat Happening. Disarming in how dry and direct (but still irrefutably pretty) it is. Good for fans of Marine Girls. Kurt Cobain would have loved this. I’m always surprised it doesn’t get tossed around more. Ideal late summer headphones music.
We were deeply saddened to learn of Alan Vega’s passing on Saturday. The reach of Suicide’s influence is well-documented, and Vega’s work needs no introduction. Produced by the venerable Craig Leon and allegedly recorded in four hours, Suicide has a permanent slot on every reputable list of the most influential records of all time. It was post punk before punk had actually figured out what punk was, it was true rock and roll because Vega was a teenager in the 50s, and it was two steps ahead of no wave because it evoked something apocalyptic without having to try so damn hard. It’s volatile and degenerate music, both in form and content. It sounds like trying to listen to music through earmuffs. It sounds like heat waves–dirty and shimmering. It sounds like nothing else.
I was lucky enough to see Suicide at Club Europa in 2007. In his signature checker-print skullcap, Vega was so focused and furious that he might have been casting spells, while Martin Rev, slithering around in a slashed tank top and wraparound sunglasses, looked like he belonged in the opening sequence of Blade. It was simultaneously brutal and hypnotic, and with the room soaked in unrelenting red light, it felt like a reminder that the punishment for suicide is hell. It was Disneyland compared to their riot-inducing bloodbath performances of the 70s, but to this day it’s still one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.
Thank you for everything, Alan–you will be missed.
Deeply weird record. The first four tracks are straightforward enough: dusty-sweet synth pop, toy whirrs and blips, a Joy Division fan on board, pristine vocal harmonies, some half-hearted samba as the amphetamines are wearing off, sulky new wave guitar. Definitely perverse, but somewhere we’ve been before. Things start to get gnarly around track five, “Sweet Sultan,” which sounds like a dirtier Lena Platonos pirated off a broken answering machine. It gets more confusing as new wave decomposes into no wave (“Dead End”) and then into minimal wave (“Dust”), propelled along by what sounds like an 808 that’s been dropped a few times too many. “Ki-Rai-I” is Grape Iris‘s maximum euphoria, with a Sakamoto-inspired marimba loop buried underneath Robin Guthrie-esque guitar warps and more static-scratched telephone-speak, the whole thing sounding like a tape that got left out in the sun. After one last frantic guitar stab (“So That Night”), closer “Float A Bort” returns us to strung-out delirium, slowly submerging itself in water as the sun sets. Keyboards and some production by Yoichiro Yoshikawa, who’s worked with Yas-Kaz and is responsible for the gorgeous Miracle Planet soundtrack (I’ll get there soon). Wowowow.
Anyone who has heard Prefab Sprout’s music at length knows that they are a band with zero-percent middle ground. You’re either enamored by their theatricality and ebullience or you find it incredibly irritating – but that’s not to say they aren’t a taste worth acquiring. For those uninitiated, the band was at the forefront of the British “sophisti-pop” movement alongside Scritti Politti, The Blue Nile and Aztec Camera – meaning heavy use of MIDI programming and plenty of early digital production gymnastics. What set them apart from their peers was frontman Paddy McAloon’s consistently highbrow songwriting chops – which, at their best, were wittier than Stephen Sondheim and Cole Porter combined. Admired by the likes of Phil Collins, Arthur Russell, and Stevie Wonder (who would contribute harmonica on their song “Nightingales”), they are easily one of the UK’s best kept secrets.
On first listen, Jordan: The Comeback can be overwhelming – it’s deeply intricate, it covers a lot of ground sonically (gospel, samba, doo-wop and vaudeville) and plays more like a original cast album of a forgotten musical than a conventional pop record. For a songwriter who refers to himself in his own music as the “Fred Astaire of words,” McAloon dances around ambitious subject matter like nobody’s business – over the course of 19 tracks there are songs about the fall of Jesse James and the resurrection of Elvis before he assumes the character of God (!) on “One Of The Broken.” Along for the ride is the band’s longtime friend and producer, Thomas Dolby, contributing the technicolor digital synthscapes that act as the record’s constant.
This is an album full of surprises by one of my all-time favorites. Anyone who isn’t down to get cheesy might want to skip, but fair warning – you’ll fall head-over-heels for this album if you let yourself. Easily up there with Clube da Esquina or Selected Ambient Works Vol. 1 as one of the most rewarding deep listens over an hour long.
(For anyone who hasn’t dived into their work yet, I might suggest checking out their album Steve McQueen first as it’s a little easier to digest – but know that most of the Prefab die-hards I know consider Jordan to be the magnum opus, myself included.)
Last night I heard about David Bowie’s death with disbelief. I don’t think I’m alone in my longheld, subconscious idea that Bowie, if not altogether immortal, would at the very least outlive us all. I then found myself in four simultaneous 2:00 am text message exchanges of Bowie memorabilia: remember this live performance, that outfit, this song, that photoshoot, this scene in that movie, that moment with Iman, this album cover, this phase, that feeling. For Bowie, pictures are worth plenty more than a thousand words, because words could never do him justice. Instead of trying to express our loss, we just swapped images and stared in awe.
We’ve learned many things from David Bowie, whether or not we’re aware of just how much originated with him. What I’m most grateful for is that he lived out a fluid sexual identity under global scrutiny, and recognized that the public’s thirst to know exactly “what he was” was simultaneously ridiculous and a tool to be played with. That was particularly inspiring to me growing up, as was his shapeshifting sound and aesthetic. To call him a chameleon is incorrect, because he never blended in with anything. “Lightning rod” might be more apt. He’s always seemed like a particularly sensitive vessel for creative thought, and he acknowledged that divine inspiration in his lyrics: “I will sit right down / waiting for the gift of sound and vision.”
I woke up this morning agonizing over which Bowie record to share today. Low needs no introduction and defies explanation, but it feels the most emblematic of the depth of his interests and emotions. It’s a record about alienation, and that alienation rubs off on the listener: by the time we reach the saxophone outro “Subterraneans,” we feel disoriented, cut adrift and unsure what just happened. I can’t help but think of his family when I listen to it today.
Safe journey, David, and thank you for everything.
Aldebaran is a giant orange star in the Taurus constellation, and is one of the brightest stars in the nighttime sky. Farewell Aldebaran, a singularly bizarre and captivating album produced by Jerry Yester and Judy Henske over a couple weeks in the summer of 1969, is appropriately titled, existing in a musical space located far outside of its time and the trodden terrain of planet Earth. Each song sounds remarkably different, widely-ranging in style, instrumentation (with Yester playing over a dozen instruments and contributions from Ry Cooder, Zal Yanovsky, and David Lindley, among others), and the disparate contours of Judy Henske’s incredible voice.
Henske, who was known as the “Queen of the Beatniks,” had cultivated a style of powerful vocal delivery singing at clubs in Greenwich Village, and peppered her performances with wild jokes and vivid story-telling (live performance recordings from this era are hilarious and amazing). In Farewell Aldebaran, her poetics and nuanced vocal delivery are at their most transfixing. Her voice ranges from sweetly lulling to powerfully wailing, as she sings stories of a bewitched clipper ship named Charity, church fundraisers, and lands beyond the edge of death.
The musical arrangements travel just as swiftly along these outer space winds, merging folk and psychedelia in an inventive array of instrumentation (including toy zither, marxophone, Chamberlain tape organ, hammer dulcimer, bowed banjo, and heavy use of synthesizers).
My obsession with this album was immediate and very potent, and has only grown with repeat listens. I had the pleasure of recently seeing Jerry Yester play at a small venue in Northwest Arkansas, where he performed unreleased songs from the Farewell Aldebaran sessions and shared stories of his incredible musical career (he also played in The Lovin’ Spoonful, Modern Folk Quartet, and New Christy Minstrels, and produced for Tim Buckley, Tom Waits, The Turtles, and The Association, to name a few). He was even sweet enough to let me sing “Rapture” with him accompanying at the end of his set, a moment forever etched in my memory. If you’re ever driving through Northwest Arkansas, consider a visit to the Grand Central Hotel in Eureka Springs to hear Jerry Yester play, and prepare yourself for pure wonder. Until then, listen to this!
Like no other. Scuzzed out leftfield basement oddity. DJ Shadow famously called this “hairy forearm disco,” and while I’m not sure how much of that has to do with the album cover, it definitely fits the warped, wonderful, pervy weirdness that Jonny Trunk calls “walking a strange line between the asylum and the dance floor.” Ranging from the relentless, ten minute long title track of gnarly, psych-streaked lo-fi disco, to my favorite “I See Her,” which could easily pass for a forgotten Pet Sounds demo, to the closing five minutes of meandering slo-mo-funk and bird screech on “Jungle Talk,” this record has earned its cult following. Apparently this was a favorite of Doctor Demento. Big ups to the excellent Trunk Records for making this heavily sought-after record available to the masses.
The beginnings of kosmische, a term coined by Edgar Froese himself. Tangerine Dream’s second record, and their first with synthesizers (Froese on an EMS VCS 3), though organ and flute take center stage. Hints of early new age, though it seems as if Tangerine Dream wasn’t content to make pretty music, perpetually undermining their melodic moments with shrill, razor-sharp edges. Sixteen year old Chris Franke on percussion. Froese also plays the coffee machine on the title track, though I can’t quite figure out where. Rather than describe this to death, I’ll leave you with some liner notes:
The music material of this album was felt by Tangerine Dream
This album is dedicated to all people who feel obliged to space
Today we’re posting a record that matters a whole lot to both of us, and has been an ongoing reference point in our musical relationship. It’s also weirdly overlooked, possibly because there’s confusion over to whom the record is credited, and possibly because Robin Guthrie left it out of the catalog of Cocteau Twins records that he remastered in recent years. As far as we know, there haven’t been any major write-ups about it.
This is truly an uncategorizable work, one which far exceeds the sum of its parts. It’s egoless. It’s a fluid, restless record, moody and aloof–it peaks several times, ecstatically, only to retreat back into itself. Startling synergy between these masterminds means that ambient and new age fans will find a lot to love here–it’s Harold Budd, after all, and there are long stretches of huge, hulking instrumental tracks. But the record is darker than typical new age–it feels like climbing through a cavernous skeleton, and the instrumental tracks (like “Memory Gongs”) are echoing and sometimes sinister. It’s not as effusive as Cocteau Twins, and perhaps not as immediately gratifying–many tracks fade out right when you want more the most. It has its rock moments (“Eyes Are Mosaics”) but this isn’t daytime music, and it’s not background music. Clocking in at just under 40 minutes, it’s a perfect on-repeat record, folding in on itself like water.