Tuesday, December 26, 2023

2023 in Review

Well, it’s been another year without a lot of activity here. Seeing live music and writing about music have continued to be low on my list of priorities. I had to travel quite a bit for medical reasons and then spent a month in the hospital. I saw a few friends’ shows in addition to the two I reviewed here, but the real musical highlight for me was performing with my choir and with my band (Soltero/Anfängerfehler). Both shows were a lot of fun and quite successful, and I’m looking forward to more shows next year. Soltero also put out two new singles, both excellent. I didn’t contribute directly to the studio versions, but I have played the latter live with Tim.

I haven’t quite kept up with new releases as much as I’d like, but I still of course found plenty to enjoy. Here are my favorites of 2023:
  • Big Thief - “Vampire Empire” / “Born for Loving You” - This double single is as good as the best parts of last year’s Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You. The first song is strong and angry, the second sweet and rolling. Some people were mad that “Vampire Empire” wasn’t as good as the version first heard on Colbert’s Late Show, and while the studio version did cut the line “I’m the fish and she’s my gills”, it flows better, has bigger dynamic range, is much tighter, and stays in tune.
  • boygenius - the record and the rest [EP] - Three talented singer-songwriters team up for a collaborative album and another EP? I’m in. They remind me of case/lang/viers or, yes, obligatorily, CSN. Honestly about half the album drags a bit, but the other half is so good I don’t mind it. The EP appears to be leftovers, but “Afraid of Heights” is one of their best. The harmonies are outstanding, the production good but predictable.
  • The Church - The Hypnogogue - Album #26 is the concept album? Why not. It’s not really as proggy as sole remaining founding member Steve Kilbey claims, but it is as good as his and the band’s mysteriously psychedelic best. It isn’t a pop album like Of Skins and Heart (1981) or Starfish (1988), but nor were any of their albums in the last 15 years or more. The concept is farcical and vaguely sci-fi, yet if you didn’t know what it is, you could easily mistake it for prescient social commentary, which is exactly what Kilbey claims it’s not. I don’t believe him. In any case, it’s great.
  • Cup Collector - assorted releases - This has been Cup Collector’s busiest year so far, and the six releases (totalling 11 tracks at just under two hours) reveal a wide reach of experimental instrumental music. He’s either started using synthesizers or he’s perfected the technique of simulating a synthesizer via guitar effects, layers, and reverb. The Hourglass, “Life Form”, “The Fourth”, and Your Shining Heart are calming, warm, and pleasant. “A Shephard’s Howl” starts off like the extended acoustic improvisations released under his birth name (James David Fitzpatrick), but then switches to his classic electric guitar tones. “‘Love’ Spray Painted on a Tree Trunk” (from The Fourth) is a blend of synth exploration and field recording, which also recalls his “solo” work, albeit more abrasively. The Elder EP is the real surprise, featuring three pieces ranging from (what sounds like) noisy sequencers to melodic layers of arpeggiated guitars.
  • Low Forest - Entrovert and Ambivector - Old friends Josh King and Brad Schumacher (with drummer Halston Rossi) have made a high-concept space rock double-album, in which one album is the rock and the other is the space, and of course they’re synchronized such that they’ve created an interactive listening experience in which you can try mixing the two parts together yourself. Separately, both albums stand on their own, but their combination is spine-tingling. I hear a lot of Hum’s Inlet, creative use of synthesizers, and concern for political, social, and environmental catastrophe.
  • Pale Blue Eyes - This House - This trio have mastered the art of turning grief and sadness into propulsive, upbeat synthpop. There are bits of goth rock and shoegaze in the mix, but the genuine lyrics of working through loss and difficult emotions to embrace community and make the most of what’s available are what seal the deal. It’s even better than last year’s Souvenirs.
  • Perlee - Speaking from Other Rooms - I enjoyed the Slow Creature EP (2020) and they’ve grown considerably since then. Now they really sound like early-era Beach House or even Slowdive at times. They’re not just a derivative of dream pop masters, though; they bring their own folky touch, Saramai Leech has a great voice, and instead of just melancholy, I hear optimism in their belief that love is more powerful than whatever divisions the pandemic created within us. Cormac O’Keeffe’s voice ain’t bad either, and it’s especially lovely when they sing together.
  • Slowdive - Everything Is Alive - We can now celebrate that their reunion was not just a fling with one new album (too bad about Lush) – it’s for real, and this album is just a hair behind 2017’s self-titled album. It seems they’re starting to acknowledge Pygmalion (1995) again in that there are more electronic elements. They shifted the balance more towards atmospherics over crafting pop appeal, and it gels beautifully.
Here are a few honorable mentions:
  • Beach House - Become EP - These five songs are outtakes from last year’s Once Twice Melody, and while I often joke/admit that their songs tend to sound the same, I agree that they didn’t fit the album. They’re all fairly good, but they’re a step back in the direction of Thank Your Lucky Stars (2015). As with Once Twice Melody, though, I really miss the full power of Victoria Legrand’s voice. She can still bring it on stage, but why is it absent from the records?
  • Elk City - Undertow - Some parts feel dry and formal, but on half the songs they cut loose and build up some great jams. The weird synth parts and the bits that remind me of Stereolab (often occuring simultaneously) are the highlights. Is it just me or do I see a lot of commentary on social media in the lyrics?
  • Ian Fisher - Ghost Father - A collection of songs written for a production of Hamlet at the Tiroler Landestheater in Innsbruck, mostly featuring just electric guitar and voice. The songs are weighty and reflect a suitable obsession with death. The instrumentation is stark, but the vocals are strong and nuanced. This isn’t a standard album, so to speak, and it was only released via Fanklub.
  • Mitski - The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We - An abrupt change of pace wherein Mitski goes orchestral and to Nashville. There’s less power and drama but more directness and emotional clarity.
  • Sufjan Stevens - Javelin - Sufjan has a knack for delivering emotional wrecking balls without hitting you over the head with them. Without context, these songs sound like his typical wistful acoustic-synthetic fare, but the resemblance to Carrie & Lowell (2015) is more than just superficial. On the day of the album release, Sufjan dedicated the album to his partner, Evans Richardson, who died in April. Musically, the album doesn’t cover new ground, but the lyrics are personal and piercing. It’s certainly better than The Ascension (2020), which I didn’t get at all. I wish he would sing again with more dynamics instead of this breathy, hushed voice, but he somehow managed to get Pleasure Activism author adrienne maree brown to sing on most of the album, which certainly adds texture and novelty.
  • The Veldt - Illuminated 1989 - This is their original debut album, produced by Robin Guthrie of Cocteau Twins. How was this shelved!? It’s not quite as heavy as Afrodisiac (1994), and maybe the guitars are a little too indebted to the Cocteaus, but is that really a complaint? This would’ve been a shoegaze classic, and maybe it will be yet.
And here a few other 2023 releases that I have opinions about:
  • Belle & Sebastian - Late Developers - I know that these songs are supposedly more than just outtakes from A Bit of Previous (2022), but that’s what they sound like. That album was fine, but this album has all the same faults and just about nothing else. Their steady march into clichéd dance-pop is completely boring. Even Murdoch’s lyrics are getting stale.
  • John Cale - Mercy - As weird as ever, but this time with notable collaborators on almost every track. It kind of works, but also sounds really formless and directionless. It’s too similar to his other latter-day work and I’m finding myself less and less excited by his bizarre stylistic mashups.
  • Love & Rockets - My Dark Twin - This double-disc companion piece to Sweet F.A. (1996) is broadly split into three sources: early and alternate versions of album tracks (all inferior and superfluous), extended jams (good vibes but absurdly overlong; I’m amazed that two of them were actually released back in the day on the Glittering Darkness EP (1995)), and actual outtakes (mildly enjoyable). Ash’s outtake songs could’ve easily fit on the album, but J’s are an entirely different style, much more similar to his solo album Urban Urbane (1992). I get why they didn’t make the cut – they don’t fit the mid-90s alternative guitar groove – but I like most of his usual socio-political commentary anyway. And hearing the band jam with Genesis P-Orridge is honestly pretty cool.
  • Wilco - Cousin - Mostly notable for being coproduced by Cate Le Bon. (A woman! Gasp!) She did seem to bring out an exploratory, experimental approach to sound design, but the songs themselves are a bit too drab and plodding, much like the run of albums before last year’s Cruel Country. “Evicted” is the only song with enough of a melody and pop sensibility to stand out above the crowd.

Saturday, July 15, 2023

Soltero, Again

Heads up: it's time for a new Soltero show, and this time with drums!

We're playing on August 17th at the 8mm Bar in Prenzlauer Berg. I'll be on bass and will even sing a few words here and there. We've got a full set lined up for you and I'm looking forward to see you there!

For some previews of what we've been up to, check out https://www.instagram.com/soltero_musik/.

[Edit 2023.08.06:] Doors at 7pm, show at 8:30pm. Please be aware that this venue unfortunately allows indoor smoking.

Saturday, April 29, 2023

Yo La Tengo - Live 2023.04.25 Huxleys Neue Welt, Berlin, Germany

Yo La Tengo have always on my periphery, but I never took the time to dig deep. I mostly just knew the dream poppy, shoegaze-adjacent albums, which are still my favorites. When a friend suggested joining him for this show, it was an easy choice, despite my relative ignorance.

They’re touring without an opener and just playing two long sets. The first set started loud, but they immediately took it down several notches and played chill and quiet songs. It was almost too quiet, but they managed to command the audience effectively. Some songs were acoustic, and some were more jam-oriented, and a few were both acoustic and jammy. Ira Kaplan’s acoustic guitarwork was right on par with his electric skills, so it was a welcome variation to the vibe.

The second set also started loud, but mostly stayed loud, often very loud. Most songs were exploratory and relatively heavy, which was a slightly more compelling mood. Sometimes the songs meandered a stretch too far, but the subtle strength, energy, and confidence of the trio was captivating. It also helped that they played more songs that I recognized. The last song of the set, “Blue Line Swinger”, was drawn out for what felt like ages, which again was on line of going too far, but the payoff of the buildup was a delight.

The encore was just three covers, with each member singing lead on one. They were all fairly quiet, sparse, and brief, which was pleasant but simple. Of course I loved “Who Loves the Sun”, but the other two were a bit tame. It was something of a reprieve after the louder songs, but not particularly exciting.

With only three members and no backing musicians or guests, there’s a lot of condensed pressure to make the show interesting. I loved how frequently all three traded instruments. James McNew played everything: bass, guitar, keyboards, and drums, and he sang lead and harmony with such a warm, mellow voice. Georgia Hubley, nominally the drummer, played several songs on keyboards and sang several from both behind the kit and in front. Her voice was perhaps just hint too timid and restrained, but so pure and direct. Ira sang more than the other two and was louder, rougher, and rawer. I was surprised at how loose and wild his guitar soloing was. He hit plenty of bum notes, tried some misguided runs, and produced a lot of noise. It kinda worked, though. I find raw emotion more interesting than cold precision, and yet I suppose I expected a higher standard.

While the first set was slow and underexpressed, the second was loud and substantially more intense. The choice of splitting the material in two sections like that made some sense, but it was also a bit wearying to have so much of one approach in series. The individual songs varied enough to keep it interesting, but considering that it was a three-hour show without any real hits, not much pop, and limited melody, I’m not too surprised some members of my party didn’t make it to the end. I was also fairly exhausted, but I found it rewarding. I loved the musicianship, even with my complaints, and the arrangements were consistently compelling. It was an enjoyable show even with its flaws.

Set 1:
01. Sinatra Drive Breakdown
02. Tonight’s Episode
03. Fog Over Frisco
04. Aselestine
05. Until It Happens
06. I’ll Be Around
07. Nowhere Near
08. My Heart’s Reflection
09. Miles Away

Set 2:
10. This Stupid World
11. Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House
12. From a Motel 6
13. Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad [Grateful Dead cover]
14. Stockholm Syndrome
15. Fallout
16. Big Day Coming
17. Artificial Heart
18. Sugarcube
19. Blue Line Swinger

20. Who Loves the Sun [The Velvet Underground cover]
21. This Diamond Ring [Gary Lewis & the Playboys cover]
22. You Can Have It All [George McCrae cover]

Score: B

P.S. Thanks to Tim, Brooke, and Luisa!

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Schorsch Kamerun: Der diskrete Charme der Reduktion - 2023.02.17 Vollgutlager, Berlin, Germany

I went to this “concert installation” on a whim when a friend invited me. It was part of the Schall & Rausch Festival für Brandneues Musiktheater organized by the Komische Oper, but at a different venue while their usual home is undergoing renovation. I had no idea what to expect. I unfortunately knew relatively little about Schorsch Kamerun’s longstanding band Die Goldenen Zitronen, but based on that and the name of the event (“The Discreet Charm of Reduction”), I had a good feeling. I wasn’t let down.

The evening started with the crowd assembled on a roped-off side of a large venue filled with platforms, tables, large yellow balls, and green structures resembling small houses. After a brief introduction, classical singer Ivan Turšić sweetened the air, and we were invited to follow him up a set of stairs to a rampart and then into the rest of the space. Meanwhile, the ropes were taken down and actors, many of whom also sang as part of the Richardchor Neukölln, started scattering across the venue to take up an odd assortment of tasks. Throughout the night, they pushed boxes around the houses laboriously, sat at a table and ate, projected psychedelic patterns with oils on the wall, sang, demonstrated products to each other, analyzed a mess of papers, crawled on the floor, mined clay for some sort of pellets, and at one point became ants that seemed to be preparing for battle. There was a lot going on.

Meanwhile, the primary attention shifted between Turšić, narrator/lead actress Annemaaike Bakker, and Schorsch, who occasionally spoke but mostly sang songs accompanied by keyboardist PC Nackt and a classically-trained ensemble from the Komische Oper. Some of the material was based on previously released songs and some parts were renditions of classical works, but most was newly composed for the performance. The themes, unsurprisingly, were socio-economic critiques of contemporary Western society, particularly capitalism, but also political corruption, war profiteering, globalization, marketing, interpersonal relationships, coping with trauma, and urban versus rural life. I didn’t hear anything that I found disagreeable, but plenty that made me think or laugh. Schorsch didn’t have all the answers to solve our problems, but he did have a few specific suggestions: stop driving private cars and commit to a reduction in productivity to counter the myth of infinitely increasing growth in a closed system.

The experience was immersive and engaging. I’ve never experienced something quite like it. It wasn’t quite interactive, but there were always multiple things going on at the same time, so it was impossible to be bored. The music was diverse and consistently of a high caliber, both in composition and performance. I left in a great mood. It turns out that the venue is part of Schwuz, the longest-standing queer club in Berlin, and at the end, Schorsch welcomed us to have a drink and say hello at the bar. I did, and sure enough, he and some of the performers and crew were to be found on the dancefloor well into the night. I didn’t even have to wait in line to get in, so that was quite an unexpected bonus!

Score: A

P.S. Thanks to Lutz and Anton!

[Update 2023.02.28:] P.P.S. The taz also wrote up a review. Theirs is much more detailed, but it's in German.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

Nico - (The) Drama of Exile reissue (1981/1983/2021)

Nico is a curious and frustrating artist. She was a model and actress turned musician, despite limited musical training and an unusual voice that she was generally uninterested in adapting to mainstream taste. She guested on the first Velvet Underground album to great success and then made an album of folk songs largely written by VU members and former male lovers, which she promptly dismissed after the producer sweetened the mixes with extra instruments without her knowledge. And from then on, she never made another attempt to cater to mainstream tastes. Most of her subsequent albums were produced by John Cale and were grounded in her droning harmonium. The arrangements are typically dark, minimalist, and unsettling. Unsurprisingly, the gothic rock and industrial scenes adored her. Bauhaus brought her on stage twice, Throbbing Gristle attempted a full-album cover of Desertshore, and she duetted with Marc Almond. Her spiteful attitude to the press included constant autobiographical reinvention and provocative political statements that further alienated her from mainstream attention.

While Nico’s music fascinates me, I have to be honest that I don’t actually enjoy most of it very much. The VU album and Chelsea Girl are classics, of course, but of the rest, most of it is just too dark to want to put on very often. But there is one major exception: Drama of Exile, first released in 1981, and re-released with different tracks and mixes in 1983 as The Drama of Exile. It was her only album after Chelsea Girl without Cale or her harmonium. Instead, it features French and Middle Eastern musicians blending instruments, rhythms, and styles from a variety of sources. It may be her most “rock” album, but it doesn’t sound like any other rock album I know. The result is her best album by a wide margin.

[The Drama of Exile (1983).]

However, this album has been long marred by a confusing release history. There are conflicting stories about what happened (which Wikipedia explains in fair detail), but the short version is that the originally released version by Aura in 1981 was unfinished and prematurely released against Nico’s and producer Philippe Quilichini’s wishes. The re-release on Invisible Records in 1983 is supposedly the authorized version. Quilichini claimed it was entirely re-recorded, but it sounds more like a remix with overdubs. Due to a mess of legal circumstances, both versions have been reissued in various formats and in various countries. Some of these tracks also appeared on other releases, such as Icon (1996). Sorting out what is what and what really happened is difficult.

[Drama of Exile (1981). Seriously, who authorized this cover?]

However, thanks to a new reissue on Modern Harmonic from 2021, it’s finally easy to sort out the differences. It features the original 1981 version as well as the 1983 remixes, although for some reason the “Saēta”/“Vegas” single isn’t included, despite that both songs were on the 1983 version. That’s a shame, because they’re both great tracks (although thankfully available on compilations elsewhere), but at least you can compare the rest of the two versions side-by-side. (The Martin Hannett-produced “Procession”/“All Tomorrow’s Parties” single from 1982 is also overlooked, but the Femme Fatale compilation from 2002 has both tracks, although they sound like they were mastered from vinyl.)

[“Saēta”/“Vegas” single (1981).]

So what’s the difference? Well, first off, the 1983 version dropped “Purple Lips” and added “Saēta” and “Vegas”. “Purple Lips” is probably the weakest track of the whole bunch, so that was no great loss. The next most obvious difference is the track lengths: all of the 1983 versions are shorter, except for “The Sphinx”. A few (“Henry Hudson”, “Sixty/Forty”) were sped up, but most are just slightly tighter mixes. “One More Chance” and “Orly Flight” both lost over a minute, including a few lines at the end, but neither is a great loss.

Otherwise, the differences are in the instrumentation and mix. The basic tracks are the same. Generally, the 1981 version is sparser, simpler, starker, and less well-defined. The instruments are generally not very clear and the mixes are a bit thin and muddy. The 1983 version has more instruments, in particular more synths, electric violin, bouzouki, and backing vocals. The mixes are much fuller and more detailed. For example, the 1981 version of “One More Chance” has piercing lead guitar, while the 1983 version has more synth, violin, and vocals. “Henry Hudson” lost the needling violin and gained blaring sax throughout. The original “Orly Flight” has a weirdly compressed sax, synth, or violin part, while the remake has bouzouki and more percussion.

In most cases, the 1983 version is undoubtedly superior. “Sixty/Forty” is a bit hard to call, as the stark austerity of the 1981 version is quite good and almost rivals the more atmospheric 1983 version. (I think I still prefer the latter.) The strangest matter is the two covers. The 1981 version of “Waiting for the Man” is rawer, punkier, and closer to the spirit of the original VU version. The 1983 version trades the prominence of the guitar in favor of the piano, which turns it into something more like the later lackadaisical versions sometimes played by Lou Reed solo. The 1983 mix is also strangely murky. It’s decidedly inferior to the 1981 version. “Heroes” is also complicated. The 1983 version some extra backing vocals and other minor details, but the mix is again rather murky, especially in the vocals. The 1981 version has sax solos, more prominent violin, and a slightly better mix. It’s a hard call, but the 1981 version is slightly superior. I’m not quite sure what happened with those two; how or why did they get worse?

In the end, neither version is perfect, but both are good. I’m glad to finally have ready access to both, as well as the other tracks from the same era. I’ve satisfied myself by making a playlist of my preferred version, using the ordering of the 1983 version and most of its tracks, but substituting the two covers from the 1981 version. I’ve added “Purple Lips” and the “Procession”/“All Tomorrow’s Parties” single as bonus tracks. Now I have the best of both worlds!

1981 version: B
1983 version: B+
2021 reissue: A-
“Saēta”/“Vegas” single: A
“Procession”/“All Tomorrow’s Parties” single: B

[“Procession”/“All Tomorrow’s Parties” single (1982).]

Sunday, January 1, 2023

2022 in Review

Yet another strange year. For one, I shared some news about why live music and this blog haven’t exactly been my priority lately. I definitely saw more shows than either of the last two years, but with mixed results. Apparently, I’m not the only person who’s noticed that live concerts are kind of weird right now. I doubt that I will be much more active next year, but I may surprise myself yet.

Well, at least I bought music in greater quantities again, both old and new. It seems the wave of pandemic albums might be finally over. That’s not to imply the pandemic is over, just that the unique circumstances of altered recording and performances habits seem to have faded back into something we pretend is normal, and the music itself reflects that. Anyway, here are my favorite releases of 2022:
  • Anfängerfehler - s/t EP - Obviously my bias as a member of the live band is hard to ignore, but I really love the work that Tim (and Matt Johnson – no, not the one from The The) did with the production. It sounds lovely. You should probably listen to it.
  • Beach House - Once Twice Melody - Beach House continue to effortlessly create the best vibes, but I wish there were just a bit more drama. Victoria Legrand’s voice is soft and hushed throughout, never reaching its past transcendent peaks. The double album is an impressive achievement: there isn’t a bad song, although it does feel a touch overlong. I love the returning shoegaze vibes seen in full on 7 (2018), but I also love the “experimentation” with acoustic guitar. It leaves me feeling a bit sad for Victoria, though, who seems to have had profoundly rough times with online dating. She’s probably not alone in that.
  • Big Thief - Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You - Another expansive double album. Big Thief have been on the periphery of my awarness for a while but this one finally won me over. “Red Moon” is infectious, “Wake Me Up to Drive” is charmingly lofi, “Change” is plaintively poignant, and “Sparrow” is an excellent study of gender dynamics. The country affectations work fine for me, and I love the subtly psychedelic and occasionally outright bizarre lyrics.
  • Andrew Bird - Inside Problems - Sonically, this is something of a retread of My Finest Work Yet (2019), which I thoroughly enjoyed, so I’m not complaining. I always admire Bird’s carefully constructed folk-pop and his understatedly virtuosic touches. The lyrics are less overtly political, but several are easy to read as socio-political commentary despite his claims in interviews that these songs were intended to be more personal and internal affairs. Bird also recently released “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” with Phoebe Bridgers, a well-crafted adaptation of a delightful Emily Dickinson poem.
  • Kikagaku Moyo - Kumoyo Island - I’m so sad that this is their last album before breaking up. It’s wildly creative, beautifully psychedelic, and playfully hard to pin down. It’s all over the place, yet always pleasurable.
  • Mogwai - “Boltfor” - Pretty par for the course for them, but since not everything they touch turns to gold, it’s still notable when they can drop such an uplifting and ebullient single.
  • The Smile - A Light for Attracting Attention - The exact midpoint between a Thom Yorke solo album and a full Radiohead album. It’s Yorke’s best non-Radiohead album, and if it were marketed as a Radiohead album, I might not even notice the difference. It’s not as good as A Moon Shaped Pool but it lives in that space perhaps more than anything else Yorke and Jonny Greenwood have done. I don’t know anything about Tom Skinner but his drumming is good. I can’t tell if the two dreamy older songs (“Skirting on the Surface” was even played by Radiohead once upon a time!) are simply just great songs, or if I’m biased because I’ve been listening to bootleg versions for ten years.
  • Stereolab - Pulse of the Early Brain: Switched On Volume 5 - I’m clearly just a sucker for this band. Be that as at may, this compilation does include the 1992 EP Low Fi, which is one of their finest releases and the first appearance of Mary Hansen and Andy Ramsay. It’s been out of print since the early 90s as far as I know, and the licensing is still complicated enough that it doesn’t appear on digital versions of the compilation. Intriguingly, two of the tracks appear to be previously unreleased extended versions, despite not being labeled as such. Much like the rest of the Switched On series, it features a wide mix of songs, but this set covers material that was too experimental or obscure even for those. Despite the name, four songs come from the sessions from their last album during their original career, Chemical Chords (2008), and those aren’t the only ones that I wouldn’t say came from their “early brain”. One wonders why they didn’t swap those for the incongruously early-era tracks on Electrically Possessed, or why they still left a couple songs to the sands of time, like the version of “Cadriopo” from the split single with Fugu or the demo of “The Eclipse” from the same split single that produced “Yes Sir! I Can Moogie!”. Admittedly, this is reaching quite close to the bottom of the barrel, so some of the tracks here are second-rate. Still, the gems still make it worth it.
  • The Subtanks - Prime Numbers EP - Okay, again we’ve got to talk about bias, but old friends Josh King of Joshua and the Ruins and Asher Mendel have finally reunited for a “proper” album, and it rocks. (I haven’t forgotten about Riff City Demons (2010), but this is a wide step ahead in terms of production and composition. I mean, just compare the versions of “Ambitions Renewed”!) The EP lives up to the bold claims of their own description. It keeps turning and changing, and there’s all sorts of sounds, ideas, and references in it. It never gets boring, not for a second.
  • The Veldt - Entropy Is the Mainline to God - The first new full album in 15 years since White Music for Black People (credited to Apollo Heights) is thick and a bit noisy, and the lyrics are frequently indecipherable, just as you’d expect from classic shoegazers. What I can discern is frequently quite explicitly political, which isn’t difficult for them to channel their energy and anger into. They also released the Electric Revolution (Rhythm and Drone) EP earlier in the year, but it only has two unique tracks, and neither is as good as anything on the album or the 2017 EPs.
  • Wilco - Cruel Country - I almost skipped this album after the last three were such mixed bags. This is their most compelling album since A Ghost Is Born (2004), and the most satisfyingly cohesive since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2001). The country affections are almost entirely tasteful and well-integrated into their sound. I was worried it’d be a caricature, but it isn’t just a genre exercise. Jeff Tweedy’s voice is occasionally shaky, and there are (very) minor imperfections in the performances, but the project is an opportunity for Tweedy to wield some of his best lyrics, and the arrangements are generally quite good. It is maybe a bit overlong, and it can feel a bit tedious by the time you get to side four, but the sum total is impressive.
  • Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot [Super Deluxe Reissue] - Okay, an eight-disc version of any album is probably too much even for a masterpiece, but still, I can’t resist this sort of thing sometimes. The radio session interview is a bit cringe, but the live versions with weird intermediate lineups of the band with Tweedy on lead guitar are somewhat special. The real treasure, though, is all the alternate studio versions, even if there isn’t a single one that bests the originally released versions. It’s also great to have these in such high fidelity instead of the incomplete, glitchy mess that has long circulated on bootlegs. But much to my surprise, not even everything from the bootlegs is on this release! Then again, I don’t know if anyone really needs a seventh version of “Kamera”. I saw another review criticize the duplicated transition from “Ashes of American Flags” to “Heavy Metal Drummer” on the Unified Theory of Everything disc, as if that exact moment wasn’t the subject of one of the most pivotal scenes from the I Am Trying to Break Your Heart film (2002). Obviously this is only relevant for superfans, and I think I’ve just given away where I stand.
Actually, there was a lot of good music this year. So here are some extra honorable mentions:
  • Belle & Sebastian - A Bit of Previous - This album has moments that feel like conscious throwbacks to their glory days, but most of it continues the threads of their last few albums, which is to say the music is a bit too precious and overproduced. Nonetheless, their blend of maturity and ageless playfulness is as rewarding as ever. There are few standout moments and some well-intentioned but awkward political statements (what’s the deal with “Do It for Your Country”?), but I appreciate that they are trying to push themselves and expand their horizons.
  • Cremant Ding Dong - assorted singles - They’re still going, although they haven’t really shown any signs of changing the formula. Well, Eva (the cute cat) sadly passed, but Rosa (the new cat, also cute) looks uncannily similar. Somehow every song is still a banger.
  • Cup Collector - The Interior Key - Is this an EP? A maxi-single? A mini-album? It doesn’t matter, of course. This is almost like a best-of compilation of CC’s styles. Each track is a different method of reaching a similar vibe: warm, cozy guitar drones. These songs make me feel settled in and at peace. Jim also released a track under his full name (James David Fitzpatrick) that’s in a somewhat related vibe, but more spontaneous: it’s just him freestyling on an acoustic guitar with the windows open. The heavy reverb suits it well.
  • The Cure - Wish [Deluxe Reissue] - The Cure’s reissue series continues it’s lackadaisical pace and half-hearted repackaging. The much-hyped remaster (or is it a remix? Some fans are really missing the slap sound from “High”, and honestly it is weird that it was removed, especially since it’s still in the 12" mix!) is not really much different than the original, and the only bonus tracks of note are the lovely instrumentals from the fan club-only Lost Wishes EP (1994) and one extra instrumental outtake (“A Wendy Band”). The rest are forgettable remixes and another slew of at best marginally interesting demos. And seriously, what is the point of the Partscheckruf Mix of “From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea”? And why is the mastering of the 12" mix of “Doing the Unstuck” so much obviously worse than what was already released on Join the Dots (2004) 18 years ago? At least this time I don’t think there are any re-recorded vocals on this one.
  • Ian Fisher - Burnt Tongue - This album is a bit softer than what came before, probably in large part due to the influence of producer Jonas David. It works for the more sentimental songs like “A Mother’s Love” and “I’ll Be There”, but the darker and moodier songs like “I’m Burning” and “How Far” are missing a bit of heft. The lyrics and performances are still great, though. Ian also released the pseudo-album Marcella & Peggy Go Driving via Fanklub. It’s just sparse arrangements of his favorite country tunes, many of which he’s been playing for years on stage. There are no real surprises, but it’s nice to have recordings of his mellifluous melancholy voice on these songs.
  • Lutzilla - First We Tape Manhattan - Punkier than I was expecting, meaning that I hear some traces of Fehlfarben. The lyrics are as incisive as ever, particularly the critiques of consumer culture and social media. Uli’s bass steals the show, and Carola’s drumming gives these songs the solid rhythm they deserve. “Was bleibt!?”, rerecorded from Lutz’s solo 2019 album Selbstportraits, is a marked improvement with the help of his compatriots.
  • Mitski - Laurel Hell - I didn’t like Be the Cowboy (2018) as much as everyone else, so I told myself I should keep my expectations low, but this album is a step up again. Mitski tries on a load of retro sounds and commands them with ease. Her lyrics grappling with fame and career choices feel strangely relatable; certainly “Working for the Knife” applies to more than just indie rock stardom. The glide guitar touches are great, too.
  • Sharon van Etten - We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong - Great album title, great music, incredible voice, and good themes, but I still don’t actually connect with the lyrics much.
  • Vieux Farka Touré & Khruangbin - Ali - The Malian guitarist teamed up with everyone’s favorite vibe-setting Texans to cover the former’s father’s songs. The result is a good blend of both artists’ strengths, and yet it has a way of blending together a bit too much.