Monday, December 21, 2009

New to me: My favorite (non-2009) albums of the year

I finally made space in my spare music-listening time to explore some of indie rock's seminal figures this year, bands that I had put off for far too long in place of new stuff.

Wire - Pink Flag (1977)
This was Spoon's favorite band during its early years, singer Brit Daniel has said in past interviews. Wire is one of the less known but (as it often is) more influential punk acts to emerge out of Britain in '77. The band forged an intellectual devotion to minimalism — paired-down drums and thickly-distorted yet precise and purposeful electric guitars. Every hi-hat tap is intended to mean more than the showers of cymbals and fills found in the popular rock of the day. Pink Flag is pure, boiled-down snarl and rejection, 21 two-minute songs that grow better and more nuanced with every listen. As mentioned above, it set the precedent for Spoon's approach to tearing songs into the most essential bits, discarding anything superfluous, the key word used by most critics being "economical." Beyond all the deconstructionism and strict internal-rule-following, there are moments in Pink Flag that make even a Yankee like myself want to yell "oi" before instigating a soccer riot.

Pavement - Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994)
This was the year I finally ( belatedly, predictably) got into Pavement. I had owned a copy of "Slanted and Enchanted" for a few years, but besides from a few key tracks, I was more in the "I understand its importance and respect it, even if I'm not totally blown away by it" it camp. I had enjoyed Steven Malkmus and the Jicks last record Real Emotional Trash, but again wasn't one of the worshipful legions dotting college towns and American cities.

Then I happened to pick up a used copy of "Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain," and, paired with a Malkmus/Pavement mix made by my sister, I was hooked. I listened to "Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain," nearly daily for about 8 weeks, unraveling the lyrical knots, trying to make sense of arrangements and Malkmus totally unpredictable sense of melody. All that, and the records is so fun and off-the-cuff that even while trying to over-think it, the tunes are irresistible. I've since bought "Brighten the Corners," and will eventually consume the entire catalog.

The Replacements - Let It Be (1984), Tim (1985)
Is it a cardinal sin to prefer Tim over Let It Be? Maybe I'm turning into a softy, but I found the 'Mats major label debut Tim to be the better introduction to the band, though it's occasionally mared by the much hyped at the time "digital recording" method employed by the record's producer and former Ramone Tommy Erdelyi. The drums sound distinctly '80s, the guitars occasionally veer towards over-processed, but the song writing is, as always, impeccable. As with Pavement, I had a small collection of Replacements songs, some of which downloaded via Napster (ignore that please, RIAA), and transferred computer to computer to this day. But as with many of the initial MP3's traded at the beginning of the century, the most popular ones available existed more for novelty than actual appreciation, meaning that the first Replacements song I ever heard was "Gary's Got a Boner," not exactly a defining moment for a group that wrote THE college rock anthem of the '80s "Bastards of Young" (I made that up. I was born in '85 and therefor have no idea what THE anthem of '80s college rock was). Any who, the Replacements of Let It Be were still barely holding onto their punk roots, but still mostly defined as a bunch of underachieving drunks that would rather fuck up the party than play at it.

That attitude never changed, even as the sound became more slick on Tim. According to All Music Guide (I know, I know not the most punk source on the planet), "The Replacements landed a spot on SNL, but were roaring drunk throughout the performances and Westerberg said "fuck" on the air. Their concerts had became notorious for such drunken, sloppy behavior ... The Replacements also refused to make accessible videos. The video for "Bastards of Young" featured nothing but a stereo system, playing the song — thereby cutting themselves off from the mass exposure MTV could have granted them."

Of course the self-destructive, fame-spurring behavior only enhances their appeal and legend, and I will continue to work my way through the Replacements' cannon.

The Thermals - The Body the Blood the Machine (2006)
I wish I would have had this CD when it came out in 2006, to provide catharsis for those of us who didn't vote twice for a right-wing evangelical man-child president.

Teenage Fanclub - Bandwagonesque (1991)
Not one of indie rock's building blocks, but a great CD nonetheless. Teenage Fanclub came out of Scotland in the early nineties, and after signing with a major label, they were, with Nirvana, expected to be one the "alternative" bands to take over the mainstream (not that they sounded at all like Nirvana). But while Nirvana found stratospheric levels of success and then self-destruction, Teenage Fanclub just sort of fizzled before eventually disappearing from any sort of cultural relevance what-so-ever. Bandwagonesque preempts the perfect power-pop of Weezer, but with added bite in the lyrics. "Says she don't do drugs / but she does the pill," is the defining line in lead-off track and album standout "The Concept." Bandwagonesque's intelligent lyrics, catchy choruses and sharp yet melancholy guitars should have been a bigger hit than "Fred's Got Slacks," but it was not meant to be. The band's solid '93 follow up, Thirteen, curiously opens like a grunge-also ran — the thundering drums and metal-ish guitars sound plucked from Nevermind (now like true bandwagon jumpers!!) before Teenage Fanclub seem to say "Who the fuck are we kidding?" and settle into a groove that would have felt comfortably anywhere on Bandwagonesque.

"Although somewhat hard to believe in retrospect, Bandwagonesque topped Spin magazine's best-of-1991 year-end list in the face of staggering competition including Nirvana's Nevermind, My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, and R.E.M.'s Out of Time; a few months later, they were tapped as Rolling Stone's Hot Band for 1992, and at the peak of their success, the Fannies even performed on Saturday Night Live, that same year also opening for Nirvana." - All Music Guide

The National - Alligator (2005)
Gotta gives props to my sister again for this one. I got Boxer almost two years ago, and she got me a copy of Alligator several months, but only until recently have I had the time to really delve in. It's great.

Patti Smith - Horses (1975)
Here's another punk cornerstone that I just never had the time for in the past. Worth buying if not just for her devastating reinterpretation of "Gloria."

Built to Spill - Keep it Like a Secret (1999)
Another shout out to the sis. Thanks for getting me into this one, too, with the inclusion of one o the album's best tracks, "Time Trap" on one of your mixes.

1 comment:

bahleresque said...


Bought Pink Flag this year as well (in NYC of all places, kinda felt appropriate given the sound), if only to hear the original version of "Strange" that REM covered so perversely on their album Document.

Woodridge, IL must have some rad philanthropists, because Patti Smith's "Horses" and Pavement's "Slanted and Enchanted" and "Crooked Rain" make up the music selection at the public library. Recently nabbed The Minutemen, Neil Young, early Replacements ("Stink EP"), Dennis Wilson, "Horses" and some band called Deerhoof who I used to confuse with Deerhunter but now cannot keep any more separate in my mind after hearing their musical style on the excellent "Offend Maggie."

This was the year of post-Husker Du Bob Mould for me, whether solo or with underrated Husker Two band Sugar. Such a great songwriter.

But back on track, Pink Flag is awesome and makes me want more. We'll see if the library carries Wire. Next time I'm snatching more Neil, plus MURS, De La Soul, and Big Star. Mucho iTunes ripping in the future.