[You can learn more about Peter here.]
Víkingur Ólafsson, Johan Sebastian Bach (Deutsche Grammaphon, 2018): When Ólafsson released his extraordinary versions of Philip Glass’s piano pieces in 2017, I became a committed fan. So much poise. His Bach double LP is so forceful, so good, such a refreshing tonic. It’s accompanied by Bach Reworks, full of appealing electronic versions and remixes by a host of mostly Icelandic artists. Ólafsson just released another double LP putting Rameau, the late-Baroque French composer, in conversation with Debussy. Also: So photogenic!
Susan Howe/Nathaniel Mackey, Stray: A Graphic Tone (Fonograf/ROMA, 2018): Neither Howe nor Mackey, two of the greatest living American poets, is a stranger to recording and performing their poetry. For years, Howe has ingeniously collaborated with David Grubbs to create soundscapes of language and pattern repetition. Likewise, Mackey, who has issued a CD of readings from “Song of the Andoumboulou,” one of his two ongoing serial poems (the other is called “Mu,” named after Don Cherry’s series), has taken to performing his poetry readings with improvisers. “Stray: A Graphic Tone” makes use of archival and more recent recordings to give a sense of these poets’ excellence. In an age of poets’ recordings proliferating on the internet (which is very much a good thing), I gotta say, nevertheless, it’s nice to have poetry on vinyl.
Laurie Spiegel, The Expanding Universe (Unseen Worlds, 2018): I prefer to listen to repetitive, minimalist, and ambient music when I work – by which I mean, when I am grading student essays, which pins me to my computer. I discovered Spiegel’s groundbreaking work from 1980 thanks to an algorithm on Spotify. My gratitude for that artificial semi-intelligence is immense. These grooves are hypnotic. In a lucid self-interview printed on the cover this vast triple LP, Spiegel, who worked at Bell Labs, describes, “This music is for listening.” This prompts her to ask herself, “When I asked that, I meant what instrument is it for?” To which she replies to herself, “It’s composed specially for record players, and I made it on a computer.” “Patchwork,” the opening track, “consists of relationships among four short melodic motives and four rhythmic patterns.” It’s deep – and hard to stop listening to. Here’s an interview with Spiegel from 1984. “A synergistic oscillation.”
Kamasi Washington, The Epic (Brainfeeder, 2015): I love this album, which Zach encouraged me to buy when I met him at Dusty Groove a few years ago. Of epic, Georg Lúkacs wrote that epic creates distances and that epic distance “means happiness and lightness, a loosening of the bonds that tie men and objects to the ground, a lifting of the heaviness, the dullness, which are integral to life and which are dispersed only in scattered happy moments. The created distances of epic verse transform such moments into the true level of life.” Washington’s “Epic” contains everything I want in an art of grand distances and minute perceptions. I had the good fortune to see Washington and his band perform at the Riviera in Chicago on November 3, 2018, one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. I was especially struck by how attentively Washington listened to his bandmates – he was so focused on their solos and collaborations. He was the consummate visionary bandleader, and reflecting on that concert, he offered a model of how to proceed during these tumultuous times: leading with imagination, performing when called on, and listening always.
Rush, various singles (1970s/1980s): Rick Wojcik, Dusty Groove’s proprietor, gave these singles to me as a Christmas gift. They came from a juke box collection. Rick knows – and shares – my deep love of Rush. You don’t necessarily get to choose what encounter at which time in your most formative and impressionable period is going to alchemize your elements and transmute them into art, but for most artists this happens rarely. Awkward kid alienated from his suburban surroundings with a love of fantasy and sci-fi turns into an artist (a poet in my case) is not in itself so unusual. But how fortunate to have had Neil Peart to initiate that transformation! When he died back in January, I felt a pang of loss which compelled me to listen repeatedly to the music and to watch all the documentaries one more time. (“Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage” is so good.) One song that’s been running through my head repeatedly in the past month is “Natural Science,” the track that concludes Permanent Waves. Specifically, these lyrics (and forgive the long quotation), “Art as expression, / Not as market campaigns / Will still capture our imaginations / Given the same / State of integrity / It will surely help us along // The most endangered species / The honest man / Will still survive annihilation / Forming a world / State of integrity / Sensitive, open and strong.” Okay, very proggy, but can you think of another rock song that uses “sensitive” as an adjective of praise?
Knapsack, “Twelve Degrees,” (2020): Knapsack plays all of the instruments on this song, except the drums, which are played by underscores. Note the glockenspiel in the opening. This choice is extremely prejudiced. Knapsack is Gabriel O’Leary, my son. In his own words, he’s studying how to be a pop musician at the Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music at NYU. It’s okay!
[You can hear Roman’s work here.]
Coriky, S/T: I just got this, so I’m still figuring it out. Every time a new Fugazi album would come out I’d think, “Not digging this one!” and a month later I’d declare it a masterpiece that leaves the rest in the dust. This one feels so comfortable right away that I’m suspicious of it! I don’t trust my middle-aged self completely, but man oh man, it is making me so happy. Have a fucking cup of tea and just let it happen, Mars.
Linqua Franqa, Model Minority: I was in Athens, GA for the first time in nearly 20 years and I asked the clerk at Wuxtry what LP I needed from the current Athens music scene and he sold me this one. The record is both urgent and chill and Linqua Franqa has charisma to burn. She is one of those artists that you can’t understand why they haven’t conquered the world.
William Tyler, Modern Country: This is my reading music. It has drama and melody that keeps my brain buzzing and then it combines with the text I’m reading to create these aleatoric compositions that bring out new meaning. I listen to it and Impossible Truth over and over.
Beauty Pill, Please Advise: I’m so in the tank for Chad Clark it’s just embarrassing. I heard an early cut of Pardon Our Dust and it basically built a second home inside my brain. When the EP came out, the new revelation that bowled me over was the cover of the Pretenders’ “Tattooed Love Boys.” It has such an immediate, grab-you-by-the-collar clarity in the middle of a kaleidoscopic maelstrom of stereo panned beats and bleeps. I don’t know how he does it.
The Shutups, Every Day I’m Less Zen: This could be the greatest pop punk rock debut record of all time. I’m not being hyperbolic and I’m not using “pop” as a pejorative. They are not wasting your time. They are not resting on style. You can feel their confidence and competence. This is another one where I’m like, why aren’t you playing in stadiums to 20,000 screaming teens? I listen to it straight through when I’m boxing and it never lets me down.
The Feelies, Only Life: Here’s the deal with this one: it’s not on Spotify or Bandcamp or anything.1I have the LP and that’s my only way to access it, so it’s on my record player more than any other piece of vinyl. It’s a candidate for one of the greatest records of all time. There’s not a single bad track, but it really excels as an album. There’s an art to creating the flow of an album and this one nails it. It’s best when listened to all together.
The link in the title of this entry is to a YouTube upload of the album.↩
Anand Giridharadas: The danger of side salads – The.Ink
[You can hear Nicky’s music here.]
TV on the Radio, Return to Cookie Mountain: When the opening track of Return to Cookie Mountain kicked in on a recent drive to the woods I was overcome by a startling whoosh of emotion and longing for the time before. This album came out in 2006 and felt futuristic with its kaleidoscopic soundscapes and pulsating rhythms that build tension and release. Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone’s vocals are filled with so much hope and pathos that I dare you to not cry when you hear David Bowie’s guest vocals in the mix on “Province”. What a pleasant surprise to discover that this album has held up to the test of time and risen to the challenge of now.
Linton Kwesi Johnson, Dread Beat an’ Blood: Linton Kwesi Johnson was recently honored with the PEN Pinter Prize which reminded me to revisit his music. While it’s easy to get lulled by the heavy bass and cooler than cool vocals there is so much more to this album and really all of LKJ’s work than just an easy breezy flow. This record is a timeless mirror on race dynamics, imperialism and violence. Just fill in “Margaret Thatcher’s on the go with the racist show” with you know who and the line is as true as ever today. LKJ once said that his poetry is just his way of seeing things. His lyrics speak as clearly to this moment in the United States as they did to 1978 England. Madness, madness, madness indeed.
Sunn O))), Life Metal: I’ll admit Sunn O))) is an acquired taste but Life Metal might just be their most accessible album. I feel instant calm when the guitars on the first track “Between Sleipner’s Breath” start. This record requires that you slow down and give it time. Greg Anderson, Stephen O’Malley and company’s wall of sound are in deft hands with Steve Albini’s meticulous recording ethic. This album is about listening for the subtle tonal dynamics and melodic shifts. It’s a collection of songs that remind me to pay attention to the subtle changes in life. Luckily, I got to see them live in the fall of 2019 and the power of that performance is still percolating in my core.
Savages, Adore Life: This record is the right mix of angst and edge. Adore Life, Savages second album was met with glowing critical acclaim and I would add that it too has stood the test of time — well, the four years since it was released which of course feels like 100,000 years ago. Simply put, this is music for screaming and crying into your pillow and don’t we all need a soundtrack for that right now.
The Ruts, Peel Session (1979): The Ruts are so loveable that I’ve nearly worn out their full length album so I reach for the Peel Session like a cozy comfort blanket. Starting with the snarl of “S.U.S.”1 and ending less than 15 minutes later with a breathless “Something That I Said,” the performance and production on the Peel Session are lively and intimate. They recorded two sessions, as The Ruts in 1979 and one as Ruts DC in 1980. All of them are fantastic. The late John Peel loved The Ruts and for that we should all be grateful.
Alice Coltrane, Journey in Satchidananda: For obvious reasons I’ve been thinking about escape a lot these days. I head to the coast as often as possible to be reminded that at least the waves and the endless expanse of the ocean is certain. This record gives me that same feeling. Alice Coltrane with Pharoah Sanders, Cecil McBee, Charlie Haden, and Rashied Ali have been taking me on journeys of the astral plane for decades now. Each listen offers a new understanding of how this record is begging the listener to move into an Afro-futuristic world where the imagination is revered and there is room to breathe. It gives me hope that someday we will get out of this mess and move into the beyond.
This is the studio version, not the Peel Session version of “S.U.S.”↩
[You can hear Sohrab’s music here, here, or here.]
At one point I’d pulled out recent records that various friends have made, as I thought it’d be nice to give a nod to fellow travelers (Contractions, FACS, Grey Hairs, Green/Blue, Mint Mile, Paramount Styles) still at it in this eternally rewarding and thoroughly absurd pursuit of making music. Then I considered it might be more representative of what I listen to if I picked out albums from different genres of music. As I flipped past the Bangles effervescent self-titled EP from ’82 to get to Jorge Ben’s A Tábua De Esmeralda, my favorite if not gentlest Ben, though you really can’t go wrong with any of the first 16 or 17 of his LPs (an insane feat even by, I dunno, Duke Ellington standards?), my eye caught the stack of records I’d listened to most recently and had yet to put back. Truth being valued at an all-time low these days, I figured I’d bet the odds and just go with what was already in front of me. So here are the 6 records 1 I’m about to tuck back into their alphabetized bunkbeds . . .
J.J. Cale, Really (1972): Do you like J.J. Cale? I feel like he gets unfairly lumped in with some unflattering company due to his elbow rubbing with Slowhand. As if it’s music for dudes whose domestic lager bellies carve out a ketchup-catching crease in their Lou Gramm/Asia/The Guess Who/Foghat monster jam tour tees. And, sure, there’s some guitar wangling that could be accompanied by the classic, dyspeptic, fret-tickler face. But it’s J.J. Cale’s voice that sets the tone. And often his songs are just single riffs that percolate for a few minutes in a state that’s simultaneously woozy and articulate. There are few things I enjoy listening to after, yes, midnight more than a tune like “Right Down Here.”
Neu!, Neu! (1972) : For rockers of a certain age it seems like there’s music made before having heard Neu and then everything that follows. The perfect 10 minutes that is “Hallogallo,” which opens this album, sets a pulse for floating into the astral plane. It’s as if you’re suspended at the horizon line while the sun slowly sets over some distant ocean. But what I love about Neu is that the gearshift is not only set for motorik monotony. For every cruise-control “Hallogallo” there’s a happily-lost-in-the-weeds “Sonderangebot” that wiggles and swells and bzzznrrrffs for 5 minutes. It’s a transporting soundtrack to familiar stories that never repeat themselves.
Richard Hell & The Voidoids, Blank Generation (1977): Late to the party on this one. I got caught up in the hallway chatting with Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, not realizing that just over the threshold, causing a real ruckus in the kitchen, were Ivan Julian and Robert Quine. The electric guitar is a curious instrument. Often misused as either a brutality-dispensing cudgel or in very corny displays of masculine gallantry in 20th century suburban mating rituals, it turns out this apparatus can be exquisitely expressive in the hands of the right reject or urchin. Julian and Quine take familiar vocabulary from 1950s rhythm and blues narratives and literally strangulate the last bit of life out of them. It’s exhilarating. And the songs are catchy as heck, with Mr. Hell alternately snarling in the corner or strutting past with his chest bare and heaving with syllables.
That Petrol Emotion, Manic Pop Thrill (1986): Sometimes album titles are poetic in their abstract relationship to the albums they adorn. Not the case here. As advertised, these 12 songs are delightfully crammed with hooks. The two guitar patterns intertwine over a throbbing rhythm section. And even when things slow down there’s a piercing urgency present. This record would be the perfect flip side to Echo And The Bunnymen’s Crocodiles on that C-90 you’re getting ready to mail to your cousin in Denver. Searing, capacious and endlessly melodic. While each of their later records have great songs on them, the production often falls into the trap of drums-and-vocals-BIG-n-LOUD, which maybe satisfied 90s alt-radio music director fantasies, but is the audio equivalent of what Pepperidge Farm does to baked goods.
Träd, Gräs Och Stenar, Djungelns Lag (2016): Be forewarned: a bunch of stinking hippies occupy four full sides of why-nils here. All recorded live in Sweden and Norway in 1971/1972—no doubt the shows were herbal healing experiences for Scandinavian söner och döttrar exhausted by decades of sleek, minimalist design. They let it all hang out here. Mouth harps, fiddles, tambourines, a choogle of riffage riding wild into the North Sea on a Crazy Horse. I’m not into hippies, though. I’ll gladly gorge myself on food coop tabouleh while I shake my fist at the man, but the Grateful Dead overcook their bulgur wheat into a soggy mess and all the baggage that’s nestled into the matted fur of those rainbow dancing bears on the bumpers of Tesla Model 3 luxury sedans is just too much. So why is Träd, Gräs Och Stenar exceptional? I’m not sure how, but they manage to sidestep the cliches. Like Dead Moon or Fugazi or Can or late-period Talk Talk, they have created their own inner language and listening in feels voyeuristically exciting. Then before you know it you’re lost on a tangent and twenty-odd minutes have passed. I got to see them play last year and it was affirming in the way that seeing The Ex live is affirming. Zero affectation, zero rock’n’roll silliness, zero ego. Pure, universal id.
X, Aspirations (1980): I think the first Australian punk bands I heard were The Celibate Rifles and Lime Spiders. Or maybe the Hard-Ons? Then The Birthday Party, for sure. It wasn’t til later that I devoured The Saints, The Scientists, Radio Birdman, let alone Feedtime or The Victims. For some dumb reason X, like the first Sunnyboys album, totally escaped me until maybe 10 years ago. I’ve tried to make up for lost listening time by playing this record as often as possible. It lurches, it cracks, it ducks and jabs. The rhythm section impressively predates what I could easily mistake for being an early 90s band on Touch and Go. But the guitar has that unmistakable, period-perfect rock’n’roll, chugging downstroke and slightly out-of-tune Chuck Berry note buckling. Meanwhile the vocal has a growl that sticks out like the arm on a Heisman Trophy, sweetly countered by the occasional deadpan backing vocal. This is the record you might find me jumping on my parents’ couch in my underwear to.
[You can have a look at Kenichi’s work here.]
Palace Music, Viva Last Blues: I love all of Will Oldham’s various projects/monikers/identities, but this album is one of the stand outs in that it’s a solid listen from beginning to end. It’s one of those rare albums that you don’t skip any songs and you can just listen to it from beginning to end. The lineup of his backing band on this album is wonderful as well.
Rex, Waltz: This was a great EP released by the band Rex. It’s a slow, swell of emotions and has the feel of a smouldering fire. I found out about this band because the drummer, Doug Scharin, also played for Codeine and June of 44.
Drive Like Jehu, Yank Crime: A legendary band from the San Diego scene. I believe I found out about them after I heard Rocket From The Crypt. High energy, screaming vocals, and well-structured songs. You can’t go wrong. I can never understand what Rick Froberg is singing about, but that’s part of the charm.
John Fahey, Death Chants, Break Downs and Military Waltzes: Not much to say about John Fahey. Legendary super talented guitarist and musician. He can make a single guitar sound like a full band. So brooding and so good.
Joel R.L. Phelps, Warm Springs Night: Joel was a member of the band, Silkworm. His solo project with the backing band, The Downer Trio, is very moody and is a gut punch of emotions without coming off as too saccharine. All of their albums are incredible, but I chose this one because I believe it was the first one I purchased by them.
Rodan, Rusty: An incredible band from the Louisville, KY scene. One of my all-time favorites. They released this one incredible album and they were gone. Rodan produced a lot of wonderful off-shoot bands like Rachel’s, June of 44, and Shipping News. The songs are complex and incredibly layered. I wished that they had released many more records.