[You can hear Tierney’s music here.]
Eels, Shootenanny!: I am, as they say, a “big fan” of this band. One of the books that I was excited to finally read this summer was Mark Everett Oliver’s devastatingly deep autobiography Things the Grandchildren Should Know. Coincidentally, I had also watched a series that was suggested to me called Love, and was pleasantly surprised to see that “E” was acting in it as (what I can only assume after learning about his life) a version of himself. Needless to say, these events took me down a path to dig deeper into the albums that I had not fully immersed myself in yet, and for whatever reason (probably the intimidating catalog), I never really got around to this one. But, as any admirer would know, the two main ingredients that make up a strikingly good Eels song are genuine, dry wit mixed with a simple melody that you wish you came up with… and this delightful concoction happens all throughout Shootenanny!.
Amiina, The Lighthouse Project: When touring was still a thing, there were a few albums that I would rotate whenever I needed a relaxed or meditative escape from being in a car or on a plane for hours at a time. Or just touring in general. The Lighthouse Project by the Icelandic group, Amiina, was one that was on automatic repeat. Aside from almost knocking me out (I’m cursed with not being able to sleep in moving vehicles), on a musicality level, I think that they’re absolute masters of simplicity and negative space. They’re able to create these beautiful, perfectly sparse instrumentals using only a minimal amount of instruments like glockenspiels, saws, atmospheric synths, and my favorite, a Rhodes. While I’ve mourned the idea of touring for the foreseeable future, I’ve luckily been able to transfer the calming effect of this music to my quarantime with great results.
Dave Hill, The Pride of Cleveland: Pride! That’s what I feel knowing that I am associated with one of the funniest and most hardworking people on the planet. Dave’s new live comedy album is out now and I would be a terrible friend if I didn’t mention it. All you need is an hour and the slightest knowledge of NYC to enjoy it (which should qualify pretty much everyone)… and maybe a sense of humor. That would help.
Built To Spill, Untethered Moon: I suppose that I should thank the Spotify robot that had the incredible but creepy intuition to include “Another Day” on a playlist that was made, apparently, for me… which again, is kinda creepy. Otherwise, I may not have ever heard my most-played album of 2020. One of the aspects that I love about this band is the use of layering. Doug Martsch has a way of tastefully blending organs, synths, and other textures with his unique brand of guitar playing, that transforms into something bigger than the sum of its parts. I got the same feeling of excitement when this song came over my little pink kitchen radio as I did when I heard Keep It Like a Secret for the first time. Dare I say that this may be my favorite album of theirs, if it’s even possible to pick a favorite…
Matmos, Plastic Anniversary: I’ve admired this experimental electronic duo-couple from Baltimore for a while now, ever since I learned that they were enlisted to work on Bjork’s Vespertine. Apart from deeply focusing on my own demo playbacks, I couldn’t tell you when I last sat down and solely listened to music without any other distractions. But what I can say is that I haven’t heard anything this exciting in a while. Plastic Anniversary‘s sounds were made entirely with recycled plastics, and the record is anything but sterile or synthetic. Utilizing everything from dominoes to PVC pipe, implants, and bubble wrap, it’s best enjoyed when the listener can be fully submerged in the ASMR-like effects via headphones. One of my favorite tracks, “Breaking Bread”, was built from sampled fragments of broken vinyl by the 70’s rock band, Bread. Crazy! There are also contributions from real-life Animal-drummer, Greg Saunier, and members of a high school drumline playing garbage cans. And on top of all of that, the album’s other overarching theme is meant to be an environmental statement on the world’s intense relationship with the pervasive material, with a hopeful call for change.
Mobb Deep, The Infamous: I’m sort of embarrassed to say that as many times as this album has passed through my fingertips during my almost 20-something years as a record store clerk, the only time I ever took the CD out of the jewel case was to check the condition for resale. But thanks to a recent episode of Song Exploder, I was instantly drawn to the haunting “Shook Ones, Pt. II” and it’s backstory, and needed to find out more. I’ve always loved an eerie piano line, and The Infamous is chock full of similar, dark musical bits ingeniously sampled and detuned from the likes of Herbie Hancock and Quincy Jones, who were contemporaries of Prodigy’s musically successful relatives. The album feels more like a tragic documentary with a cinematic score more than anything, and the raw lyrical content forces you to step outside of yourself to try and imagine what it might be like to live in impoverished Queens in the mid 90’s. It’s a life that most of us will never know or be able to relate to, and is unfortunately, still relevant in black communities today, making this an even more important listen.
[You can hear Joe’s work here and here.]
Sneaky Feelings, Send You: This album was recently loaned to me by the great Sharon Van Etten. I love rock bands wherein all members write and sing, and Sneaky Feelings is a prime example.
Airto [Moreira], Fingers: Master percussionist Airto Moreira first came to my attention as a collaborator of Miles Davis and band member of Chick Corea. Airto told me he began his career as a child in Brazil, building his own instruments, riding to gigs on horseback, and performing for the wealthy owners of massive plantations. Fingers is my favorite among a series of stunningly soulful, ultra-groovy albums he made with his wife, vocalist Flora Purim.
Lungfish, Pass & Stow: To me, Lungfish was always somewhat of an outlier on the Dischord label. For one thing, they were the only non-DC-based group on the label; and their music— while somewhat rooted in punk— has a singular mystical quality. Pass & Stow represents the band at the height if its powers: massive guitar hooks; Dan Higgs as cosmic cantor; and— one of my favorite drummers — Mitchell Feldstein’s hypnotic, melodic drumming.
Brigitte Fontaine with Areski and The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Comme à la radio: In high school, I was an enormous fan of The Art Ensemble of Chicago; later, I fell in love with Fontaine’s electronic experiments such as Vous et Nous. This 1969 album seamlessly combines those two worlds with perfect arrangements, melodic perfection, and an infectious sense of adventure.
Wendy & Bonnie, Genesis: Psychedelic singing sisters showcasing a sublime sense of harmony, backed by studio legends Jim Keltner, Larry Carlton, and Mike Melvoin (father of Wendy of The Revolution).
Sunn O)))) Life Metal: Meditative drone galaxies populated by visceral yet mellifluous tone planets.
[You can hear Blake’s music here, here, and here.]
Van Halen, s/t: Like so many, the global pandemic has left me with enormous pools and pockets of unaddressed rage and sadness. Rather than post hateful memes or celebrate America’s racist achievements, I have been finding aggressive music to be a pretty vital antidote. Thus, Van Halen’s freshman entry into the hard rock canon. What strikes me at this time is how much Dave carried the band — his wry persona and volcanic charisma really leave the listener with no choice but to laugh or get steamrolled. Also, Alex Van Halen: never gave him much thought other than that he was the scary guy in the band, with those reptilian sunglasses and Freeway Killer aura. Now I’m thinking that the ride cymbal is really his signature — he does a lot of solid work over there, in a place where showier drummers might not waste screen time. And his snare drum is pretty fucking iconic — that hollow, airplane hangar thwap that still retains some mysterious bottom end. Finally, Michael Anthony. Totally under-appreciated. The bass on this record is so dry it sounds like it was just put directly into the board. There are moments where it punches through the mix in a really nasty way, like a garage band, and it delivers the savagery of a Pasadena basement band pummeling their way to momentary freedom.
Nine Inch Nails, With Teeth: I’ve seen hardcore fans trash talk this record as being soft or not experimental enough, but that fails to take the record on its own terms. For my money, this is Trent and his associates delivering a really high quality hard rock album, a little more focused on songwriting than on deep noise tangents. This is an album in the classic sense: beginning, middle, end — an emotional journey with a series of crescendos and denouements. Two songs that were never singles rank among NIN’s finest: “You Know What You Are?” and “Right Where It Belongs.” These are representative of the width of this album’s vision: the first just feral and ecstatically hateful, the second distant and morally wary. Trent, despite his earlier heyday in 90s despair, is a pretty formidable thinker and wan reflector of social and civilizational decay. There is a deep moral compass that often gets overlooked in the broader commercial assessment of his catalog.
Powderfinger, Odyssey Number Five: Look, I love a big rock and roll record — a Superunknown, a Vitalogy, a Powerage — and I’d put this album in that category. It’s also got a beautiful psychedelic through-line that hearkens to The Posies Frosting on the Beater and the like. This is the kind of album where you welcome the lush production, the massive compressions and thoughtful reverbs sprinkled throughout. But mainly, it’s a showcase for Bernard Fanning’s beautiful voice and often surprising lyrics. Surprising for being smarter than you would expect on a big record like this, but also totally basic in the way that radio lyrics can be in a good way. The other thing is the drums. The drums! These are meat and potato, I’m-gonna-give-you-every-inch-of-my-love drums. Not afraid of the big power fills and wet cymbals. I love it and you will too.
Comsat Angels, Sleep No More (YouTube): Lest we forget that everyone is needlessly dying and the industrial giants are profiting from the charnel house of the poor and disenfranchised, Sheffield’s finest, Comsat Angels, bring the urban estrangement and bleak English skies. This album is on a par with Unknown Pleasures as a wholly consummated vision of despair and civic failure. This is a mood as much as it is an album — kind of one long meditation on existing outside of myriad failed systems, looking in glumly from the dole line or beside a poisoned river. It sounds like they ran a final master through another hall reverb, but in the best possible way, evoking a vast wasteland pinned down by leaden skies. In the early days of the pandemic I would walk beside the cemetery in Kensington and find my mortal equanimity with this album. A life saver!
Bob Marley and The Wailers, Exodus: The title track alone makes this record immortal. Its a faster song than you realize at first, with the rhythm section really laying down the urgency of the exodus, of displacement and return, a truly righteous track of a dispossessed people trekking with unity and purpose. There’s something deeply confident about putting all the politically committed tracks on Side A and holding the hits for Side B. “The Heathen” is another standout track for me — a harsh and pithy rumination on survival. The breadth of Marley’s vision really comes together on this record with every member playing at the top of their game. If Sleep No More is about undead perseverance, Exodus is about armed hope and the triumph of revolutionary love.
Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, Chasing Yesterday: This album unexpectedly became my MVLP of the summer. Like most good records it wasn’t until the fifth or sixth spin that I began to respond to the music, at which point it became my reflexive choice for soundtrack to walking through the COVID ruins of NYC. The playing is above and beyond, particularly the drum and bass arrangements, which always serve the overall jam with restraint but tons of nuance and english (by which I mean, attitude or spin on the ball). You know a record is good when it holds it’s most obvious single (“You Know We Can’t Go Back”) until second to last, after the listener has done the heavy lifting of wading through the deep pyschedelic bog of the album’s main body. To me this feels like the band that Noel Gallagher has always dreamed of being in, probably closer to “Standing On The Shoulders of Giants” in spirit and musicality, more about a band playing as one than a hit-machine churning out pub bangers
[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!