Tag Archives: No Age

Just Short…

So, for folks who’ve been following along in this blog, I submitted a proposal to Continuum’s 33 1/3 series to write a book about The Promise Ring’s Nothing Feels Good. Series editor David Barker emailed everyone who submitted a proposal today concerning those he picked to make it to the shortlist, the final compilation short of the 20 or so that Continuum will select to be turned into fully-fleshed out books (you can check out the shortlist). Unfortunately, my proposal wasn’t chosen for this list, for simple space reasons on the shortlist (I emailed David to find out specifics of why my proposal was turned down and it turns out it was one of a handful that barely missed the cut). In any case, I really enjoyed writing this proposal and speaking to those involved in creating the album about the process of writing a book on Nothing Feels Good. Rather than let it go to waste, I’ve decided to post my proposal here, below, for your enjoyment, complete with some multimedia elements that could not have been included in what was submitted to 33 1/3, but are helpful illustrators nonetheless. Enjoy it… and if anyone has any interest in further pursuing this project with me in some other forum, please feel free to contact me:

33 1/3 Book Proposal:

The Promise Ring’s Nothing Feels Good

Guilty pleasures tend to rear their heads in an interview with music’s next big thing. So when a VBS TV correspondent was chatting it up with No Age, the uber-hip and critically acclaimed experimental punk duo from L.A., singer/drummer Dean Spunt interrupted guitarist Randy Randall’s ruminations on MC Hammer with a shocking revelation:

“I used to like The Promise Ring.”
Beat.
“Yeah, so did I,” replied the stylish interviewer.
The three guys proceeded to awkwardly chuckle and talk over each other until the interviewer brought up his stunning thought:
“Is it really at the point where MC Hammer is less embarrassing than The Promise Ring?”

Great question. And not unlike one I ask myself just about every time I crank up my stereo while playing 30 Degrees Everywhere or Wood/Water. What’s so embarrassing about The Promise Ring? It could be the band’s association with emo, the now-repugnant term for a post-hardcore genre that’s all but taken over the Billboard charts. It was the release of 1997′s Nothing Feels Good that the four “averages Joes” that made up The Promise Ring were presented with the title of poster boys of a genre once thought to be six feet under. The rest of the trials and tribulations of emo remain embedded in our international conscience thanks to numerous pop-punk acts influenced by The Promise Ring. Say what you will about your Fall Out Boys, My Chemical Romances, Dashboard Confessionals, Cute Is What We Aim Fors, Thrices, Taking Back Sundays, Panic! at the Discos, Saves the Days, Coheed & Cambrias, Alexisonfires, New Found Glorys, and Underoaths; when push comes to shove, most of these bands don’t come close to the potent passion, intelligence, and vibrancy of The Promise Ring and their sophomore effort, Nothing Feels Good.

Embarrassment aside, Spunt should have nothing to be ashamed of for name-dropping The Promise Ring as a band that’s clearly influenced the critically-lauded musician. The Promise Ring’s back catalog is filled with nugget and gems of post-hardcore-meets-pop bliss, and much like when No Age’s current work combining elements of pop with hardcore, the results are fantastic. Nothing Feels Good is The Promise Ring’s best and most succinct work, an anthemic, passionate burst of homegrown pop-punk, filtered through tales of existential crises, cross-country road trips, and references to modern Americana. The hooks are sharp, the lyrics poignant, and the performance still as unbelievably urgent as the day the original tapes were mastered over a decade ago.

Part of what’s so phenomenal about The Promise Ring’s Nothing Feels Good is the impact the album had when it hit record stores in the fall of 1997. Neatly-packaged emo-pop amalgams are a dime a dozen these days, but there was nothing “neat” about Nothing Feels Good when it was released. Although the album’s music has the sugary-sweet taste of bubblegum pop that numerous artists today no doubt want to tap into, the band’s sound subverts the pretenses of slick pop on Nothing Feels Good with quick bursts of hardcore-influenced instrumentation that seem intent on spilling out of each track marking and into the life of the listener. To mis-quote The Promise Ring, it displays a sense that the band had of having no defined sense or absolute understanding of the world around them, but simply enjoying the view. Life’s peculiarities, ambiguities, and “big questions” aren’t shunned, but brought to the surface with keen observation. In frontman Davey von Bohlen’s hands and sweetly contorted lisp – a performance factor that only makes the music on Nothing Feels Good sound an umpteenth more sincere – The Promise Ring made an album of daring proportions and a musical document to the banalities, every day norms, and even celebrations of human existence not heard since Nirvana’s Nevermind.

Nothing Feels Good cover

Nothing Feels Good cover

Part of the story behind Nothing Feels Good is known, but little of it has a concentrated focus on the actual album or the band behind it. Beyond the musical content, Nothing Feels Good was a smashing success. For Jade Tree – The Promise Ring’s label – it meant financial stability, as the album surpassed their modest predictions and allowed the company to flourish, something of a miracle in the years following the alternative music buyout which had left many independent record labels for dead. For the national emo scene – a ragtag, ambiguous assemblage of independent artists around the U.S. – it legitimized their work in the face of the post-grunge milieu that ruled the radio waves and crippled mainstream creativity. For the members of The Promise Ring, it meant video premiers on MTV, critical acclamation, a position as one of the most creative bands operating in America’s underground music scene, and, much later, a place in cult-music lore for having inspired countless musicians to take emo (or whatever genre they called their own) in new and distinctly personal directions.

Although we’re still feeling the impact of Nothing Feels Good today, the known-narrative of the album’s creation is bare. What inspired the dozen songs on the album, and what transpired in their evolution from muddled creative concept into full-blown pop gold? What about the practices that hammered out the hooks, high-hats, and lo-fi hits in The Promise Ring’s oeuvre? What about the guys behind the instruments, their day-to-day existences and thoughts that no doubt burrowed their way into the band’s sophomore album? What were the moments before, during, and after 1997 that made Nothing Feels Good stand out from a mass of other bands and recordings that make up emo’s so-called second wave? What about each member’s upbringing, their lives in the Milwaukee area, relationships with friends, family, and significant-others? What made four young men band together to form The Promise Ring and create such a phenomenal release as heard in Nothing Feels Good?

These are the pivotal questions I’m seeking to answer with my book on The Promise Ring’s Nothing Feels Good for Continuum’s 33 1/3 book series. Here is an album and a band who’s impact on music today in innumerable. Part of the unknown quality of The Promise Ring’s importance is due to the fact that these deep-seated questions have never been asked – or rather, published – on such a large-scale forum. Considering the fans that the band amassed since forming in 1995, a list that no doubt has been growing with every article, band, or cultural critic name-checking the quartet as one of indie rock’s great cult bands, The Promise Ring are more than due for their proper place in the rock narrative limelight. And the 33 1/3 series is the place I would like to bring the tale of The Promise Ring’s best album.

For this project, I plan on writing the kind of book that exemplifies the credence imbued in Nothing Feels Good. My model for this manuscript isn’t confined to the band-nostalgically-reminiscing-on-a-piece-of-the-past-type writing you may see in a lot of oral histories or straightforward music books out there. Certainly my work will represent the mold that previous 33 1/3 books have upheld, but I’m also inspired by the writing styles of the great new journalists and literary non-fiction pieces. In essence, I’m looking to produce a book that lives, breathes, eats, speaks, and plays music the way that the members of The Promise Ring did when they made Nothing Feels Good. I want to make someone who’s never heard the album feel as though they’ve been following the band since Day One, that they’re back in 1997 and sprinting to the record store in order to merely touch an album by a band that has touched them. Essentially, I want to write a book about The Promise Ring in the same way the band created their music.

My main informants for this project will be the members of The Promise Ring; as I want to get into their heads and extract information about their environment, attitudes, and memories, they will be my go-to source for the book. I’ve been in touch with Promise Ring singer/guitarist Davey von Bohlen for well over a year, having recruited his current band (Maritime) for a concert and Davey himself for a previous writing project. I have been corresponding with von Bohlen about this proposal for well over a month, and he has given this project his supportive and enthusiastic seal of approval, and has gotten me in touch with the other members of The Promise Ring. At the moment that I’ve submitted this proposal, I’ve been in touch with two other Promise Ring members, Jason Gnewikow (guitar) and Dan Didier (drums), and both are quite enthusiastic about the project. I plan on having extensive interviews with these three members, as well as the two bass players who played in The Promise Ring during their Nothing Feels Good era, Scott Schoenbeck and Scott Beschta.

Although interviews with the members of The Promise Ring will constitute a large portion of my research, I plan on culling information from as many sources as possible in order to make the narrative more vibrant and colorful. I plan on soliciting interviews with not only those closely associated to the band, but also their detractors and adoring fans. Alongside a list that includes friends and family, I plan on speaking to Tim Owen and Darren Walters (Jade Tree owners), J. Robbins (Nothing Feels Good producer), Stuart Sikes (Nothing Feels Good engineer), Jessica Hopper (former publicist), Tim Edwards (former booking agent), Josh Modell (creator of Milk Magazine and close friend), along with musicians who’ve worked with, influenced, or been influenced by The Promise Ring, including Tim and Mike Kinsella (Cap’n Jazz), Jim Adkins (Jimmy Eat World), Bob Nanna (Braid), Jeremy Enigk (Sunny Day Real Estate), Matthew Pryor (The Get Up Kids), Eric Richter (Christie Front Drive), Eric Axelson (The Dismemberment Plan/Maritime), Chris Carrabba (Dashboard Confessional), Pete Wentz (Fall Out Boy), Chris Simpson (Mineral), Chris Conley (Saves the Day), Mark Kozelek (Red House Painters/Sun Kil Moon), Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat/Fugazi), and countless others for their involvement in this project. Although not everyone listed is guaranteed to be involved, with my personal connections to some of the people previously listed and with the help from the former Promise Ring members, I will have an enormous number of people contributing to the book’s dialog.

Interviews aside, I plan on digging through swaths of information to aide in the creation of the book. Included will be the usual sources of information; articles on the band, reviews of their albums, zines, blogs, and any other published work that would enhance the narrative. But, I plan to go beyond those musings as well. I will approach the band members to see if I could use personal paraphernalia to help me spin a more personal yarn. This would include anything from old photographs, letters, journal entries, lyric sheets, music sheets, and even doodles scratched into scraps of paper they’ve kept through the years. I will also approach the narrative from the direction of an informed anthropologist by researching the socio-economic background of The Promise Ring’s hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Through census information, background information on area high school and college education systems, and the resources for youth in Wisconsin that was available at the same time Nothing Feels Good was in the making, I hope to gain a better sense of The Promise Ring’s background. I’ll also dig up information on American society’s views of Wisconsin and the Mid West and how that was reflected in the actions of those who lived there. It may seem onerous, but the brief scene in Wayne’s World that takes place in Milwaukee speaks volumes about the international perception of the place where The Promise Ring was formed. Throughout all of this, I hope to get a sense of why The Promise Ring did what they did, but from an entirely different perspective than the usual interview could warrant.

What I hope to accomplish after 15 months of research and writing is a work that can live up to how I felt after first popping Nothing Feels Good on the stereo, and something that will be as powerful as each subsequent listen to that album. My work may lack the aural quality of the album, but I hope it will be able to bring an entirely new sense of being to Nothing Feels Good, and one that will only boost the listening experience of longtime Promise Ring enthusiasts and bring some new fans to the album as well.

Best Concerts of 2008

“Best of” lists for records have only become a commodity in recent decades because of technology – I’d like to see what the “best phonograph cylinder list of 1908″ was (my guess is Thomas Edison dominated the top ten). However, live music has been around since… well, I can’t quite tell you the exact date, but it’s been around for awhile. There’s just something about a live performance that’s hard to compress into an MP3 file, just like there’s something about recorded sound that cannot be duplicated to the point in a real environment. And who would want that? Some of the best shows I’ve seen this year (and any year at that) have the thrill of the “performance in the moment” – a special quality of experiencing the music literally grabbing you, those around you, and the musicians themselves – that excel beyond the normal trappings of a “rock” show. These lists are always tough, because, unlike records, not everyone was there to experience the moment when (enter your favorite artist here) played (enter your favorite song here) in a certain way in (enter specific venue/town/etc here). This particular list is quite tricky, as a large chunk of shows I’ve seen this year I’ve had some organizational role in; for the sake of this list and whatever hard-to-get-to performance I helped put on, I’ve excluded all those shows I’ve put on in the past year (despite the fact that many of those will always remain favorites of mine). But, without getting ahead of myself, here are my top ten concerts I attended as a paying gig-goer/whatever you want to call it from 2008 (I apologize for leaving off the dates for these shows):

10. TV On The Radio at the Wilbur Theater (Boston)

Six times, and each viewing was a charm, though this performance came with a price, and I’m not talking about the expensive nosebleed seats. Like any number of listeners of “independent” or “underground” music, I was attracted to TVOTR and other acts because they exemplified something entirely different than what was being peddled to the masses… and I wanted to get away from the masses. So it’s a little odd when the masses show up – I wholly enjoy all the success that this group has been getting, but it’s a little upsetting when the only song that gets the crowd moving is their single from a few years ago (“Wolf Like Me”). You’d think people who’d plunk down money for any show over $20 would at least be willing to dance to songs; I’ve never seen a crowd so dumbfounded by a performance. And some of that was the sheer power of TVOTR (the clip below doesn’t do justice to physically seeing them). Their set was surely as heartfelt as any other I’d seen, they mixed in a wealth of excellent new material and blended it in with their older songs, and they kept it fresh with the addition of a horn section, mixing up and rearranging compositions while retaining their original essence. It’s impossible to contain Tunde’s vocal prowess on the page, same as the entire band’s instrumental whirlwinds, so I’ll just leave it at that. If only everyone had their Dancing Choose on…

 

TV On The Radio – Dreams (live, Wilbur Theater):


9. Subtle/Zach Hill/Pattern Is Movement at the Middle East Upstairs (Boston)

After a period of concert-detox, this triple bill of underground oddballs was just the thing I needed to get back into the live show groove. Pattern Is Movement opened the show with a deft display of minimalist punk drumming smashed headstrong into a wave of gothic organ/keyboard work – and man did this duo enjoy their time onstage. Zach Hill kicked it in gear with his “backing band” Peer Pressure (aka a pre-recorded tableau) and for fourty or so minutes my eyes and ears were subject to some of the fastest, careening display of drumwork I’ve ever witnessed. And to cap off an excellent show were Subtle; after a summer soundtracked by this band, I was ready to see this group pull off their egnimatic sound in a live setting. They certainly didn’t dissapoint. With Doseone spitting lyrics a million miles a minute and the rest of the band covering an amalgam of instruments, they created an intricate pattern wholly unique to their presence in the moment. And it wasn’t a bad way to start a birthday either.

Zach Hill and Peer Pressure – Necromancer (live, Middle East):

8. Liars with No Age at Paradise Rock Club (Boston)

It’s great when you see a band surprise you in concert and never see it coming – so went the tale of my Liars/No Age show. I’d been having trouble getting into Liars and heard great things about their live set; I’d heard great things about No Age and enjoyed what music of their’s I’d heard; I’d had a free weekend and desperately wanted to go see a show that I wasn’t involved in planning. What a treat. No Age seemed dwarfed on the rather-lengthy stage at the Paradise, but their zeal couldn’t be contained by the space or their place as openers, as they cleanly burst from one great hardcore-pop gem to the next. It was tough to top, but Liars were up for the challenge. Frontman Angus Andrew barely left his chair in the center of the stage, but was a riveting ringleader, headbanging to the steady, pulsating music that grabbed my rib cage and wouldn’t let go. And I no longer have any problem picking up their recorded material.

Liars – Clear Island (live, Paradise Rock Club):

7. Why? at the MFA (Boston)

Sure, I complained about the conceit of close-minded hipsters at this Why? show in a previous post, but that was only a slight blight on what was a powerful performance. Simply the fact that the band forced people out of their seats and onto the stage by the end of the show is a testament to the force of this band’s live draw. Beyond that, there’s just something about the way they play live. It could be Yoni Wolf’s nasally drawl hitting every note just right; it could be the instrumental rearrangement of numerous songs, turning many an aesthetically muddy piece into fully-fledged bangers. It could be the great catharsis that came with dozens and dozens of fans passionately screaming alongside Wolf’s verbose lyrical displays. And it’s easily the combination of all of these things that really hit it all home.

Why? – Yo Yo Bye Bye (live, MFA):

6. Mission of Burma performing all of Vs. at Paradise Rock Club (Boston)

This show was a wet dream for any Mission of Burma fan – their entire first full length performed in full. Add on two encores and a venue packed with the hometown crowd and you’d be hard pressed to not be pumping your fists in the air. Even though Burma decided to do the whole “play your best/favorite/seminal album in full,” they subverted the business as usual method of performing these kind of shows and began with a handful of tracks at the end of the record (“Laugh The World Away,” “OK/No Way,” etc). And with the whole band in perfect synchronicity, it was simply an astounding show, with one great song after another. But, is that really any different from a “normal” Burma show?

Mission of Burma – The Ballad of Johnny Burma (live, Paradise):

5. Mark Kozelek at the MFA (Boston)

Mark Kozelek (aka Sun Kil Moon/Red House Painters) was completely at ease in the MFA auditorium. Outright I was happy simply to be at this show; after several years of trying, I’d made it to a live performance featuring one of the most moving voices I’ve listened to in years. And that voice didn’t let down; the minute Kozelek opened with “Trucker’s Atlas,” he on an acoustic guitar accompanied by a touring partner on another guitar, the hair on my arms stood on end when Kozelek made an impromptu humming pattern where there was none on the record. And it just got better, with Kozelek knocking out hits from the past three Sun Kil Moon records and digging deep into his Red House Painters and solo material. Even with the live version of “Duk Koo Kim” stretching into the double digit minute run time, the show was as moving and haunting as anything Kozelek has committed to record. His encore, four different songs from his long repertoire strung together in a makeshift medley left me completely elated for days on end.

Unfortunately, there is no video of this show available online at the moment. Instead, here is a brief snippet of Kozelek performing Duk Koo Kim in California from 2004:

4. Ponytail at The Talking Head (Baltimore)

Spend half a day in a tiny Baltimore club and you’d be tired as shit. But cram that place with 50 friends and put Ponytail onstage long after midnight, and it makes for one hell of a party. I’d convinced a friend to drive down to Baltimore from DC to check out the band live, and was it worth the (sometimes awkward) wait. After seeing these folks play three times this year, their hometown show was by far the best out of the lot, with the entire band putting their whole essence into one captivating half hour that sent normally stiff concert goers into a spastic, dancing frenzy. With Molly Siegel’s bemusing and careening whoops and hollers at the helm, the band took off from the first song until the seven-minute closer, “Celebrate the Body Electric.” I left Baltimore tired and ultimately triumphant.

Ponytail – Celebrate the Body Electric (live, Talking Head):

3. Parts & Labor at Siren Music Festival (New York)

Siren’s a tough gig to do. There’s the scorching heat, the terrible sound, the crowds of oft-disinterested scenesters packed into one big sweaty mess, and the whole thing takes up most of the day. Great bands have gone through mediocre and ok sets at the hands of this festival. Parts & Labor weren’t one of them. Returning from a European tour, they gave the hometown crowd all that was in them, which was quite a bit. It was my first viewing of the band as a quartet, and it certainly knocked me out, as the group delivered one of the best performances at Siren I’ve seen, period. The hits kept coming through (“The Gold We’re Digging,” “Death,” etc), and Parts & Labor were as taught as ever. And thankful to boot; it’s often rare to see a band member smile while performing, but Dan Friel grinned while tossing his head back and forth throughout the set. And if you didn’t believe that the band really cared about each and every song of their set, perhaps the moment when B.J. Warshaw launched his well-worn bass into the crowd at the end of “Changing of the Guard” sealed the deal. It certainly did for one lucky fan.

Unfortunately, there is no video of this show available online at the moment. Instead, here is a performance of Changing of the Guard in Dallas from this year:

2. Boredoms at Paradise Rock Club (Boston)

I think my mind literally melted during this show. Boredoms have put out a lot of records – many of them unlistenable and unpalatable for those with the slightest distaste for punk. But I’d be hard pressed to find someone who likes to dance who wouldn’t have freaked out at this performance. With three members on drums and frontman Eye on a combination of synths, 8-necked guitar, two strange glowing balls of light that made static noise, and random chanting, Boredoms put together a fantastic and fluid set that was more a rave than a punk show. Hip shaking syncopated beats  provided by the three drumsets gave way to techno-like synths with change ups that tugged at your ears and feet. It lasted well over and hour and a half, but ended far to quickly.

Unfortunately, there is no video of this show available online at the moment. Instead, enjoy this selection from their ATP set from 2006:

1. The Baltimore Round Robin Tour at Mass Art – Feet Night (Boston)

This is what shows should be like. Bands packed in, playing for the thrill of performance and a sense of urgency that cannot be covered by a ticketmaster fee, a big chaotic mess wherein things fall apart, but everyone is there to help pick it up, where concert goers and performers intermingle freely and lines are blurred to the point where no one really cares who is who, where one act who may not mean anything to folks outside of a certain city performs as an equal to other musicians who get more press than folks who spend lifetimes in the PR industry could dream of, where a four and a half hour show gets you twelve different bands of a diverse set of genres, all pleading with you to dance and enjoy life and take a chance because hell they just did by treking around parts of North America to show you their community. It’s about community and it’s about creating and it’s about music for the sake of music and not hype or fame. And man is it thrilling. So thrilling it’s made attending most shows afterwards seem downright complacent by design. You have to give it a hand to the Wham City crew for pulling that show together; equipment broke, set times ran long, the Pozen Center at Mass Art smelled like a middle school locker room, but it fucking worked. It was in the moment, and the moment was captivating. Although some of the acts didn’t quite perform as passionately/deftly/well as others, they tore it up just by being there. Double Dagger brought the political punk mosh pit, but not before the Deathset provided a heady mix of electronics and thrash punk, while Smartgrowth had some downright danceable mashups, Future Islands got everyone to dance even in cramped conditions, Videohippos overcame technical difficulties to bring some lo-fi dance pop, and Nuclear Power Pants were downright in-your-face hilarious. Of course props to Dan Deacon, who ended the evening with a stellar performance of “Wham City”; as most of the hype-following crowd members had abandoned the show in droves before the end of the fourth and final go-round of the Round Robin, it felt like one big communal celebration, with members of the Wham City family and the concert die-hards dancing and singing around Deacon to what has ultimately become that community’s theme song. Right then, everyone there was a member of Wham City and a performer in the traveling circus of the Baltimore Round Robin. Now that’s in the moment.

Dan Deacon at Feet Night (live, Mass Art):

(Very) Honorable Mentions:

Iron & Wine (Pearl Street, Northampton): Sam Beam’s voice can warm a thousand + person crowd while the rain outside provides ample acoustic rhythms.

Shudder to Think (Paradise Rock Club, Boston): Reuniting for the first tour after their break up in the later half of the 90s, these first-wave prog-emo rockers kicked out all the best of the best of their backcatalog.

Edie Sedgwick (Oxfam Cafe, Somerville): Minimalist twee-styled punk done by a full band – complete with a couple of chorus singers in matching dresses – and an outlandish sense of self-aware humor not unlike labelmate trailblazers Nation of Ulysses and you’ve got one hell of a fun dance party.

Videohippos (Union Square, Somerville): A great set as part of an outdoor art festival in Union Square, this duo brought a surprising amount of energy and whipped up people into something resembling a dancing frenzy.

The Hold Steady/Drive By Truckers (The Orpheum Theater, Boston): These two bands just want to have fun (as if the smile on Craig Finn’s face didn’t tell you), and the Hold Steady certainly stole the show with one guitar-fueled-Americana song after another. Their pairing may have felt a little awkward, but these two bands certainly had a great time.

After the Jump Festival at four stages in Brooklyn: Four stages of free sets by a range of Brooklyn artists, this was an excellent place to check out those artists about to burst onto the national scene. Great sets by Noveller, an acoustic two-manned version of Extra Life, a pre-iPod fame Chairlift, and finally, where would a great noise fest be without Ponytail.

Dr. Dog (Rickenbacker Park, Philadelphia): People of all ages from all across town packed into a park on a beautiful day – isn’t that what summer’s all about? And Dr. Dog was there to pull all those warm ‘n fun summer feelings together with over 2 hours of classic rock cum modern indie. If only every summer day could be so great…

Top o’ 2008

THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2008 (and other things)

So, like any music-related blog, here’s a listing of my top albums this year. Some of it may seem a bit odd and arbitrary, but there’s some backings to my orderings. But, it’s all merely numbers – I’ve enjoyed all these albums throughout the year, and completely numberless. However, for the sake of order, here’s the list…

 

35. AmpLiveRainydayz Remixes

Here’s a great album remix concept that works out all the way through. Rather than simply mashing up In Rainbows with another album, AmpLive rearranges the Radiohead tracks into completely new and downright great hip-hop songs. Del’s track (“Videotapez”) is one of the best hip-hop songs of the year.

34. High Places03/07 – 09/07

It’s a bit random, but this selection of songs recorded by High Places made from March to September of last year is, if anything, a mark at how great this band can be. “Head Spins” and “Jump In” offer up some fantastic experimental pop songs, bringing some heft to the album of mostly-studio experimentations.

33. Future IslandsWave Like Home

Comparisons are pretty easy, but in this case, it’s impossible to ignore. Baltimore’s Future Islands sound a little something like if New Order used cheap laptop technology for their electronics and were fronted by a slightly subdued Iggy Pop. “Old Friend” is perhpas one of the most endearing beginnings to any album this year.

32. Fuck Buttons - Street Horrsing

Listen to the first two tracks and just try not getting hypnotized. Experimental-art-whatever-kind-of-rock that’s quite pallatable.

31. Lil WayneTha Carter III

I’m not sure what convinced me about this record. Oh wait, it could be the brilliant minimalism of “A Milli” and Wayne dropping rhymes like “you drop em cuz we pop em like Orville Redenbacher.” Now that’s an imaginative and oddball line for you.

30. AtmosphereWhen Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold/Strictly Leakage

Sure, Slug’s fit of anger may have become… well, sluggish. But he’s surely got more to offer, as seen on When Life Gives You Lemons. Although there are some rough patches here and there, Slug melts his tales of woe and wisdom of everyday folks with Ant’s increasingly experimental neo-soul. Guest spots from TVOTR’s Tunde Adebimpe and Tom Waits sure do add to the mix. The free Strictly Leackage is a bit of a toss-away in comparison to the large amount of Atmosphere material out there, but pump those beats and you really can’t go wrong.

29. The Very BestThe Very Best Mixtape

This mixtape might be a little higher to the top if it weren’t for the fact that many of its best tracks are simply recylced instrumentals that are quite recognizable… then again, that is part of the appeal of most mixtapes. Even so, Esau Mwamwaya’s skillful flow brings a newfound musicality to the over-used Clash sample on “Paper Planes”… now, if I only new what he was saying…


28. FoalsAntidotes

When I saw Foals in a tiny club in London back in 2007, I was sold. But when Antidotes was released, I didn’t pick it up. Actually, I still haven’t. However, I’ve heard plenty of the album, and after having a sizeable amount of distance from the material and the British hype machine, I must say the things that brought me to the band are still there. There’s the quirky math-minimalist streak, combined with an ambience I originally pushed off in search of more post-punk punch but does the trick. If only some of the songs stood out a little more on their own, or rather, didn’t appear to repeate the tropes of other tracks, this album would have been in the top ten.

27. Pattern Is MovementAll Together

Punk drums and church-like organs with operatic singing, and tons of positive feedback. How can you go wrong?

26. Hercules and Love AffairHercules and Love Affair

The sound of Hercules and Love Affair breathes disco, but it seems to be missing part of the free-for-all effervescence that fills the best tracks of that era. But considering that the large majority of songs from that era get increasingly hard to listen to, consider HALA a neo-disco best of. Some of these songs are that great. Hats off to Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons, who’s trumpet-like warble makes the albums best songs.

25. Apollo Sunshine - Shall Noise Upon

Like the Beatles? Like classic rock? Anti-folk? Country? Jam? “Indie?” Well, it’d be best to run out and pick up this record immediately. It’s great to see Apollo Sunshine constantly producing great music, and their work in the studio has certainly begun to equal their live presence. What’s the worst thing about the record? The fact that it hasn’t been getting its proper due.

24. Kanye West808s and Heartbreak

Here’s what my friend had to say to me about this album while arguing about it the other day:

“He doesn’t rap!”

“It’s all electronics!”

Now, on paper/screen image, it’s impossible to register the confused disgust in my friends voice. That’s because he was just making statements, though ones marked with hatred towards the album. For a person who isn’t neccesarily looking for a formula, 808s and Heartbreaks is a solid pop record. The beats are, if anything, still fresh, “despite” the electronics of it. And the auto-tone? Well, it’s better than T-Pain. Moreover, songs like “Say You Will” and “Coldest Winter” seem to stick to the inside of your head no matter what the ratio of electronic singing to rapping may be.

23. Hot ChipMade In The Dark

It’s got some of the best dance tunes of the year, and some of the oddest slow dance songs of the year. You have to give it a hand to Hot Chip to keep on revitalizing their sound and style and interspersing it with effects from reggaeton to two-step to old school soul.

22. The Black KeysAttack & Release

Danger Mouse. Danger Mouse is like cowbell for those musicians who aren’t Blue Oyster Cult. With Attack & Release, DM revitalizes The Black Keys tired and true approach and certainly makes it less tired, working in to fill in the blanks that come with only having a guitar and drum. The funky bump of “Strange Times” and wistful ballad of “Psychotic Girl” have helped revitalize my own faith in this band.

21. Marnie SternThis Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That

Here’s a record for folks who think that the world of the guitar virtuoso is gender oriented. Marnie Stern can shred faster than most of those old phallic hair metal acts, and she does it well to boot. AC/DC-styled riffs at chipmunk paces, math-stylized song structures, and Zach Hill make for pop-fueled fun.

20. Wilderness(k)no(w)here

When the vocals on “High Nero” kick in halfway through the song, it’s as if Wilderness grabs you and goes, “where have you been?” I can’t believe it took me until this band’s 3rd album to discover them, and what a treat it is. Stormy, ambient psych-folk combined with brutally haunting vocals that don’t so much scare as orate tales of loss and redemption. Too bad it’s over far too quickly.

19. Dr. Dog - Fate

Another band that took me far too long to discover, but this was purely out of my musical filtering mechanism: the name Dr. Dog just has no appeal. Fortunately, their music is an entirely different beast, a wonderful combination of Beatles melodies, country-fried guitar rants by The Band, and who-knows-where-we’ll-go-with-this-song of good ole’ indie rock. These guys might actually turn me on to classic rock instead of the other way around.

18. Chad VanGaalenSoft Airplane

VanGaalen’s third album is also his best (so far at least), and a complete picture as well; previous records sounded like a mess of VanGaalen screwing around in his basement with random instruments he created and a few good tunes surviving. Well, here that process has paid off, with some of his most mind-gnawing work to date: death, freak-folk, and oftly odd melodies crash and collide to make a great listen all the way through.

17. AliasResurgam

It’s been a banner year for Anticon, and Resurgam is just one of many great records to come out of this Oakland collective over the last couple of years. Almost entirely composed of instrumental work, it’s an ambient take on old school hip-hop that will put you in a state of relaxation for hours on end. It even seems a bit unpleasant when the two vocal songs kick in, at least until you recognize that the same music sits at the foreground of the album.

16. Beach HouseDevotion

I was itrigued to see how Beach House, a band who’s music could easily lull one to sleep, would perform under the insurmountable pressure that comes with taking the stage at Siren Music Festival. Facing the grueling heat, packed crowds of hipsters, and set time near the end of a long, long day, Beach House performed as beautifully as their melodies. Devotion is a spellbinding, ambient mess of tunes that work under any weather or state of emotion. Victoria Legrand’s voice is as soothing as it is soulful, and it carries the entire album to its sleepy-headed end.

15. No AgeNouns

No Age’s Nouns is filled with the kind of songs you seem to know before you even hear them. They’re packed with anthemic punk-rock riffs and bursts, yet remain emotionally perplexing and experimentally arousing. And it’s loud as hell. It’s hardcore for the arty crowd, art for the little punks in us all, and something for everyone.

14. WaleMixtape About Nothing

Here’s a hip-hop artist with a good head on his shoulders and an ego that’s perfectly comfortable in a realm where folks have to defend theirs at every turn. That could be because Wale can crank out dozens of tunes about something as archaic to hip-hop as Seinfeld can be… and it’s great too. Infuse sick rhyming and lyrical foreplay with old school hip-hop meets go-go (and perhaps that genre’s ticket out of D.C.) and tons of rap’s biggest names and you wouldn’t feel the need to defend one’s ego either.

13. The BugLondon Zoo

In an odds-and-ends collection of articles, a close friend of Lester Bangs’ describes PiL’s Metal Box as a musical accompanyment to his depression. In many ways, London Zoo feels like an equally derranged equivalent; the record is so dark, intense, and angry, I’ve yet to listen to the entire album in one sitting. But its intensity displays its musical muscle, as deep-in-your-chest bass grinds with glitchy grime and head-banging dancehall to create one intensely personal meditation on the nadir of society. Not for the weak, but definitely for the musically ambitious.

12. Forest FireSurvival

Here’s a summer record for you – sprawling lo-fi folk that mixes with Velvet Underground-style proto-punk and garage rock done on spare acoustic instruments. It’s enchanting and oft-aggressive, and man does it get in your head and stay there. And to think, they gave this gem away for free…

11. SubtleExiting Arm

The impact of collaborations with members of TV on the Radio bear their mark on Subtle, who’s Exiting Arm takes their sound and turns it to the noises in between. Whereas on earlier recordings Doseone could often be heard spitting rhymes at 100 mph, here his vocals are subdued and sink into the tapestry, which taverses across an odd array of sounds and vibrations, but is a whole product throughout. The minute I heard this thing in an ice cream place over the summer I knew it was stuck to me; months later it’s yet to leave my head.

10. Food For AnimalsBelly

Noise and hip-hop? Whodathunkit? Food For Animals, that’s who. And that’s why Belly, the long-delayed first album from the DC/Baltimore group, is in the top 10. It’s hard to find an album more ambitious in its sound and execution than FFA’s, and it’s as accessible as any other hip-hop blaring on mainstream radio today. It’s glitchy, bass heavy, and dark as hell, but this trio certainly spins some sick off-beats and rhymes that are more shout-along-chorus-friendly than anything else.

9. Friendly FiresFriendly Fires

This is what the Foals record could have been, and what I originally wished it was: a great post-punk dance piece. Infusing that genre with strains of disco, salsa, and Brit pop, Friendly Fires’ debut defines irresistible. The music is taught and catchy, the sound gets in your head and shakes your hips, and the hits keep coming. Friendly Fires sounds like a singles collection, with each track as pop-friendly as the last – funny to think this is the band’s first record.

8. The Dodos - Visiter

It may be due to the fact that I had this album on repeat for most of the spring, but Visiter seems to uphold a sense of rebirth and newborn energy that’s often so hard for musicians to capture. Some folks cast the band off as acoustic Animal Collective wannabes, but the album is a beast unto its creators, filled with child-like enthusiasm and sincerity that makes them altogether unique.

7. The Mae ShiHLLLYH

2008 could be the year of concept albums, or, more correctly, the year that produced a handful of great concept albums. The Mae Shi’s tribute to the end of the world sounds positively, well, great. It’s scary, but the band’s mix of agit-punk, twee, and art pop have an endearing effect that carry through the morbid lyrics of “Run To Your Grave” (and that title to boot). It’s got energy and vigor that blasts through the entire album, one concept to the last. For such a depressing topic to tackle, these guys sure make it sound fun.

6. Neon NeonStainless Style

Nostalgia can be a killer, and it’s flogged the 80s past the state of decay, but man oh man do Neon Neon know how to make a bad thing sound great. To call it nostalgia however is making the great concept of Stainless Style seem passe, when in fact it’s a record more “with it” than countless other albums released this year. Much as Gnarls Barkley emphasized “neo” in their neo-soul mix debut two years ago, Neon Neon take the aesthetic tics of 80s pop and place it into an entirely new landscape. It makes it so that the chincy-sounding synth sounds altogether refreshing on tracks like “Dream Cars” or “I Told Her On Alderaan.” It also helps that this project came from the meeting between oddball producer Boom Bip and even-odderball Super Furry Animal Gruff Rhys, and they certainly saved their pop-tooth for this record.

5. PonytailIce Cream Spiritual

Ponytail put on one of the best shows I’ve seen this year – so good, I saw them thrice. So I was immediately drawn to the record after grabbing an early release copy after seeing them, doing nothing but playing it for weeks straight. After my mania over the album subsided, I can safely say it’s still a fantastic record. It’s a swirling mess of punk-art-rawk, one that caterwauls off of every surface and smoothly glides through the down-tempos and down singer Molly Siegel’s over-worked larynx to create a record that seethes with passion and power. Kudos to producer J. Robbins for wrestling their great live sound into a well-preserved recording.

4. Sun Kil Moon - April

April opens with a song that nearly hits the 10 minute mark, and could have sustained my rapt attention tenfold. “Lost Verses” sweeps along like any Mark Kozelek song, yet there’s something profoundly new and slightly different than the frontman’s previous efforts. It could be his meditation over the death of a former muse, who’s image is never quite literally addressed, but who’s absence hangs over the entire record. Whatever it is, Kozelek delivers every last line with undue sincerity, and it’s probably because they are his own; in retrospect, the biggest problem with Tiny Cities, the last Sun Kil Moon album made entirely of Modest Mouse covers, is that the music wasn’t created by Kozelek himself (although he does a great job of re-imagining most of the songs on the album). But here, you get the sense that Kozelek’s body struggles with every pick at his guitar, even though all you’re left is with that voice and no image behind it. But what a voice it is.

3. Parts & LaborReceivers/Escapers Two

For a band that makes a lot of noise, Parts & Labor have made music for just about everyone. Receivers is a fantastic opus of noise juxtaposed against anthemic, stadium-sized pop rock. The electronic bursts and blips are still there, but they’ve become a fixture of a larger pattern; noise doesn’t give way to bubblegum hooks and back again, but it’s all intertwined throughout the album. From “Satellites” to “Solemn Show World,” there’s a song for the punk in everyone (and every punk who submitted sound samples is in a song). For those who don’t like getting too close to accessiblity, Escapers Two offers 50+ “grind pop” songs, most of which barely hit the minute mark and have the mark of dark metal and hardcore punk bursting from the seems… at times, it’s quite beautiful to boot.

2. Why?Alopecia

What a pleasant surprise Alopecia turned out to be. Why?’s previous work always had some inadvertantly beautiful quality to it, but it’d always been battling a range of sounds and ideas passed out by Yoni Wolf. On Alopecia it comes together in a brilliant and cohesive work, with Wolf’s lyrics and stories spilling into one another, but neither clouding up the music or his often enticing nasaly rasp. And, much like most of the top albums of the year, it is a whole product instead of a combination of some good songs repackaged for consumption.

1. TV On The RadioDear Science,

Numbers or not, there was no question this would be my number one album of the year. From the opening moments of “Halfway Home,” I knew this would be a fantastic album. Unlike Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes and Return To Cookie Mountain, Dear Science, is a fully fleshed-out album from beginning to end as each track seemlessly gluides from one to the next. The band’s turn to a poppier and all together accessable sound is just as natural as their work as a band in and of itself; they’re still pushing musical boundaries, using a wide array of feedback and avant-guard noises, but it’s an altogether cohesive and beautiful mess.

Albums I wish I had more time with, because they probably would have made this list:

For those of us who can’t get our hands on every available album to come out this year, it certainly made the “best of” list process a bit more difficult because, having heard at least snipets of the following albums, I wish I’d gotten them all. But, there is always time for more new music. Anyway, here are the ones I would have liked to have on my list:

High PlacesHigh Places

Extra LifeSecular Works

Fall Out BoyFolie á Deux

BeckModern Guilt

The Notwist - The Devil, You + Me

HEALTHHEALTH/DISCO

Eddy Current Suppression RingPrimary Colours

Lykke Li - Youth Novels

Dan FrielGhost Town

Eagles of Death Metal - Heart On

Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes

Edie Sedgwick - Things Are Getting Sinister And Sinisterer

Heavy Heavy Low LowTurtle Nipple and the Toxic Shock

SpiritualizedSongs in A&E

Death VesselNothing Is Precious Enough For Us

DoomtreeDoomtree

Miloshiii

El Ten ElevenThese Promises Are Being Videotaped

School of Seven BellsAlpinisms

Fucked UpThe Chemistry of Common Life

DananananaykroydSissy Hits

Hot Club de ParisLive at Dead Lake

Best of 2008 from 2007:

The albums from last year that made a lasting impact this year.

The Dillinger Escape PlanIre Works

Bon IverFor Emma, Forever Ago

Double DaggerRagged Rubble

VideohipposUnbeast The Leash

MusclesGuns Babes Lemonade

Double Double

In one corner, weighing in at 6 members is The Mae Shi, with support from The Death Set, at Great Scott.

The Mae Shi live

The Mae Shi live

In the other, pulling together as a duo is No Age, with a little help from High Places and Abe Vigoda, at the Middle East Downstairs.

No Age

No Age

It is a challenge to behold… For music fans of Boston, tonight’s concert calendar will have a tough choice, but either event will provide a winner. This may be a match for an individual’s night, but it is no way a battle between acts. This cavalcade of musicians rolling through town represents some of the brightest acts from the three pivotal underground music communities today.

The Mae Shi, No Age, and Abe Vigoda mastered their craft and honed in on their acts out in LA. There, they (along with a multitude of other acts) formed a community dedicated to furthering the boundaries of art and punk. It’s a living, breathing unit that can be seen in the 40 Bands 80 Minutes documentary (it is what it says – 40 bands performing 2 minute songs in a sweaty LA venue) or on any regular evening at The Smell, the all ages venue that No Age placed smack dab on the cover of their 2007 album Weirdo Rippers. With the critical acclaim these three acts – alongside peers such as HEALTH and Mika Miko – have been receiving, the LA underground scene has once again been thrown into the national music limelight.

The Smell

The Smell

Although LA has received a considerable amount of attention, so has Brooklyn (home of High Places) and, more than any other area, Baltimore (home of The Death Set). Forever cast in the shadows of nearby, larger areas (Baltimore has DC, and although Brooklyn is a part of NYC, Manhattan has always dominated the other burroughs), these tiny, seemingly-culturally deprived areas have burst with creative ingenuity in all forms of the arts. Baltimore has built an insular community to match its small sized, and has since been propelled to the national level thanks in part to the Wham City collective and its unofficial head Dan Deacon; in little pockets of a city that most residents have either forgotten or never cared about, out came a sprawling arts basin that seems as communally inbred as it is creative. Venture north a number of hours and you hit Brooklyn, itself a sprawling mass of space that’s cheaper – and therefore, more attractive to aspiring artists looking to make it in the big city. Any busted-up storefront could easily be turned into an art gallery or performance space, and a good number of them art (at least in the Williamsburg area). Out of it has formed numerous art-punk acts as wide spread, yet communally linked; TV On The Radio, Battles, Parts & Labor, and a ton of others all call this place home.

Baltimores Video Hippos at Brooklyns Death by Audio

Baltimore's Video Hippos at Brooklyn's Death by Audio

Both Baltimore and Brooklyn offer scenes that are in close proximity to areas of cultural resonance, but their chance location has given both places an almost-secluded quality which has allowed these communities to prosper and trade ideas amongst one another without the eye of the mainstream music world staring down upon them. LA, though a mainstream cultural capital in its own respect, is so spread out that over the past few decades, it has allowed for numerous musically-based culture movements to spawn and spread out of little pockets in the vast city side and across the suburban sprawl. These communities are created and developed in the guise of complete creativity, without the influence and impact of commercial interest to hinder, attract, or distract anything or anyone from the ultimate goal of creation. These qualities are the typical stamp-of-approval for the development of underground art communities in the US; the resources are there in almost every location in America, but it takes a special formula of location, individuals, and atmosphere to make it work.

This is an important aspect of the development and continued thriving of emo as an underground cultural force. It’s still one that drives the many different voices of emo in its current underground status. True, emo has become a fashionable commodity, but it doesn’t mean that it hasn’t continued to thrive as an underground culture, one separate from its mainstream state. It’s the ideas of creativity and independence that the innovators of the culture imbued into its artistic essence that not only kept emo in the underground for so long (around 15-17 years, depending on when you choose to mark its beginning and entrance into the mainstream). When what became known as “emo” began in the ashes of DC’s hardcore scene, a good chunk of the punk music community scorned it as hardcore had yet to hit its dramatic fall on the national level. DC was (and in many ways, still is) ignored by the music industry as an important place, so emo transformed, unfettered by outsiders and made for the better by community members. As Fugazi became the scene’s main touring act and magnet, their sound became a beacon to anyone looking beyond the convention of punk and broadcast a vibrant and diverse aural image of emo around the world.

Fugazi

Fugazi

From there, communities outside of the insular DC scene began to form around the idea of emo. The strongest cross-state emo community to arise didn’t occur until the mid 90s. While connections formed among artists from different scenes (Sunny Day Real Estate and Shudder To Think as touring partners comes to mind), the mid 90s provided a time when scenes across the country formed their own little pockets and ideas of emo, yet would come together to share them. Outside of DC (which added Chisel and The Dismemberment Plan to their list), the East Coast had pockets of sound; NYC had Texas Is The Reason, New Jersey had Lifetime, Boston had Karate and Jejune (who later moved to California), and down in Florida (if you want to count it as the East Coast) there was Hot Water Music.

Mineral

Mineral

But the mid 90s and emo will forever be associated with the Mid-West, where the bands were as connected to their hometown scenes as they were with the rest of the middle-country-divide. Cap’n Jazz, The Promise Ring, Jimmy Eat World, Mineral, Christie Front Drive, Braid, The Get Up Kids, Boy’s Life, and dozens more upon hundreds of those which may never be heard by the masses have formed a dominant portrait of a land and time in the emo narrative. The places they came from are all different and so are their ideas, but they all came together to form a variety of sounds that continue to exist within popularized forms of emo today. Consider it the time of multiculturalism in underground American punk. While the national hardcore scene transformed local sounds into one big rule-based notion of musical defiance summarized in a minute and a half of screams and thrashing guitars, the mid 90s Mid-West emo scene allowed for individual pockets to develop their version of emo undeterred by outsiders all while coming together to form bonds and trade ideas to enhance their individual perspectives. This can be seen in everything from split singles on vinyl (such as the Jimmy Eat World/Christie Front Drive split that attracted the attention of Captiol Records) to a shared creation of lyrics (The Promise Ring’s “Picture Postcard” attributes some lyrical content to Braid’s Bob Nanna), to simple ties of friendship that extend past inter-state routes. Just as the movers and shakers of today’s underground music scenes breach state lines to form communities while continuing to build their local ones, emo became a strong presence throughout America before it became a mainstream phenomenon. Those connections kept it a living, moving center of a community, and that notion continues to drive like-minded individuals who operate under whatever label they choose to this very day.
No Age – Eraser

The Mae Shi – Vampire Beats (video):