Beer and Pavement

That Thing Where We Give Our Take on the Year in Music, AKA 2021 Top 10 (sort of)

Posted in Records, Review by SM on December 29, 2021

I didn’t do a top-10 records of 2021 list. I just wasn’t as connected as I usually am to attempt something like that. However, I will comment on the 10+ records that were significant to me. Are they the best of the year? Likely not – possibly even for me. What’s the over/under on records that also make Pitchfork’s list for the year? 2.5, I believe – possibly the lowest number in the history of my blogging “career.”

Parquet Courts – Sympathy for Life
Parquet Courts are my Pavement. They are my Clash. They are my Replacements. They fulfill these parts of me and for this, I am grateful. This record didn’t hit me like the last one (2018’s Pavement-centric Wide Awake!), but it’s getting there. It played particularly well when I saw them do it live. For this, I am also grateful.

The Courts may be my Pavement/Clash/Replacements, but this is their Talking Heads record. It’s funky and danceable the way most of my 90’s favorites couldn’t completely figure out. There were hints in Wide Awake!, but this is the record where they gave us a beat to dance to. And it translated live. Sadly, I was too nervous to dance as I watched folks remove their masks to take a sip of their drinks and wondering how much COVID was in the air when I saw the band last month. Still, if you like a cross between Talking Heads and Pavement, I found your record.

Snail Mail – Valentine
So, I addressed my issue with Snail Mail in my last post, but that’s selling Lindsey Jordan a bit short. Snail Mail makes lush, beautiful records regardless if she’s trying to channel Sonic Youth or Taylor Swift. This record is moving her in the direction of other indie pop songstresses. It’s polished and and shiny, this record with just a couple of instances of power chords (opener “Valentine” for one) and several singer-songwriter acoustic moments (most notably “Light Blue”). But there is still room for old Snail Mail (“Headlock”). The record fits well with another record on this list…

Indigo De Souza – Any Shape You Take
I found Indigo De Souza this year when her debut (I Love My Mom) was reissued by Saddle Creek – much the same way I discovered Black Belt Eagle Scout. Of course, De Souza’s debut had been out for almost three years, but I’m glad I found her. It’s actually one of the rare moments when my daughter and I have connected on a musician or band. Of course, she’s rediscovering riot grrrl and fully discovering Nirvana at the moment, so connections are easy.

In Any Shape You Take, De Souza demonstrates the songs she crafted over those three years. Some of those rock with increased muscle than previous releases (“Bad Dream”), but it’s the dabbling into pop music that is most striking. Any Shape opens with “17” which is a full-on synth pop hit lost in the 80’s. However, unlike Snail Mail who sticks to her new script throughout, De Souza bounces all over the place with the aesthetic that earned her notice from Saddle Creek coming trough (“Real Pain,” “Way Out,” and “Kill Me). All that said, the standout on this record and all over the music world is probably “Hold U” – a song that captures her depth and talent for making you want to dance through the pain and joy love brings.

Good Morning – Barnyard
I have been mildly obsessed with Australian indie rock since finding Courtney Barnett almost a decade ago. Good Morning was a case of hearing a song (“Country”) months before the album release, waiting patiently for the pre-ordered record to arrive. What I found was a smart, funny indie rock gem that is greatly underrated. Records like Barnyard make you feel not-so-alone in your silo, because these dudes feel like you about the hopelessness of it all. This is why we listen to sad songs, or bleak ones in this case.

Mess Esque – S/T
Sticking with Down Under indie gems brings us to Mess Esque, a project by Helen Franzmann and Mick Turner of Dirty Three fame. This is actually a record I don’t quite have in my possession just yet. I ordered the LP from Milk Records before I knew it would also be released on Drag City. Oh well, I digress. This record reminds me a lot of Cat Power’s Moon Pix, which Turner played on as well. The differences are a more pronounced Dirty Three vibe and vocals more resembling a pixie than a bar maid. If you like Dirty Three Dirges and early Cat Power (throw in a pinch of Life Without Buildings), then this one is up your alley.

Courtney Barnett – Things Take Time, Take Time
I told you before that this record speaks to me. There might be no better artist to express a general feeling of morose that goes all of this [violently motions to everything]. And I think this keeps her sane. It doesn’t hurt our own mental health to listen to someone who gets the dread, depression, and helplessness one feels on the daily, much less during a pandemic. Of course, what separates Barnett from the usual gloom and doom of pop/rock music is that it’s always touched with that bit of humanity that gives us hope that this too shall pass. Life generally sucks, but there must be something that keeps us going. Courtney Barnett expresses that feeling in every song she writes and this record is no different.

Horsegirl – “Ballroom Dance Scene”/”Sea Life Sandwich Boy”
The next “big” thing in indie rock is about to be a trio of teenaged women from Chicago. They signed to Matador this year on the strength of a single that makes it sound as if they are the ideal client for the label circa 1994. Their new single “Billy” coming soon on Matador is more of the same, building the anticipation of an album that will somehow be recorded, released, and toured between the band’s freshman and sophomore years of college. Dueling vocals, feedback, walls of sound and tape hiss… It’s all there. It’s doubtful Horsegirl will be household names, but they have all the makings of a Yo La Tengo or Times New Viking. Despite my age (or because of it), I can’t wait for their LP to arrive in my mailbox.

Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine – A Beginner’s Mind
So, Sufjan Stevens hangs out and watches a bunch of movies with a buddy (De Augustine), and they make a bunch of songs. For whatever it’s worth, Stevens needs a theme or topic to focus his music; this time it happens to be film. De Augustine is a perfect partner as this record rivals much of Stevens’ best work over the last decade plus. This record isn’t the revelation Age of Ads was or nearly as beautifully sad as Carry and Lowell, but it’s pretty great on its own.

Kiwi jr. – Cooler Returns
Kiwi jr. grabbed me when I read they ripped off Pavement (who ripped off The Fall) in a review for 2020’s Football Money. This new LP is a little less Pavement, but the formula off off-kilter lyrics and guitar tunings works every single time. The songs on this record are much more pop-influenced, but that just makes them easier to sing along with. The album is loaded with ear worms, too many to name, really. I hope these Canucks continue to make funny, easy-to-enjoy indie rock, taking the Pavement torch until their inevitable demise due to creative differences.

Will Oldham – Superwolves / Blind Date Party
What was Will Oldham doing during the first year of the pandemic? Apparently he was recording two double-LPs with his friends, most notably Matt Sweeney and Bill Callahan. In Superwolves, Oldham and Sweeney return to one of the hidden gems of the Bonnie “Prince” Billy discography: 2005’s Superwolf. That first incarnation pulled Sweeney from the depths of couch-surfing and anonymity. I wonder if this past year’s output partially did the same for Oldham. Who knows? What I do know is that the Superwolf/Superwolves combo is gold. These dudes could trade farts over four-track and I’d probably listen to it and cry from the sheer humanity it contains.

Blind Date Party is a bit different in that it’s Oldham, Callahan, and a bunch of Drag City label mates playing covers. It feels like a party – one where a bunch of accomplished musicians just jam all night, until the sun comes up. The only difference is that they did this jam sesh over Zoom. This double-LP is overloaded with material and every track is nearly as chock full of ideas. No holds barred and musical gluttony rules!

Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime
Mdou Moctar is the Tuareg guitar rock band that has taken American indie by storm. Or something like that. It’s on nearly every list for the year and I’ve seen noise fans as well as indie pop fans picking it up. I suspect in the halcyon days of MTV, Mdou Moctar would have been a major breakthrough – maybe not on the level of Nirvana, but maybe a Better than Ezra. I’m admittedly not all that familiar with African music, but this record is produced in a way that appeals to my ears and the forward guitar play is unlike anything I listen to. It’s reminiscent of Stephen Malkmus’ folk record he put out last year. If you’re looking for some “world music” (i.e. not western or even American) to round out your collection, start here.

Sleater-Kinney – Path of Wellness
After 2019’s The Center Won’t Hold and the unfortunate departure of Janet Weiss, I thought Sleater-Kinney as I knew was done. Path of Wellness alleviated those fears. Sure, the force that is Janet Weiss is missing and likely won’t return, but Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker put together a record more reminiscent of their triumphant return, No Cities to Love. I am admittedly not a St. Vincent fan. I respect Annie Clark and what she has built, but the results of her production on The Center just didn’t sound like Sleater-Kinney. This new record returns to form, in my opinion, and it’s a welcome return.

(On a personal note, I received maybe the best teacher gift of my 24-year career in education when Carrie and Corine – through a familial connection between Corine and a student’s family – graciously gave me signed copies of this record and two t shirts. What amazing people they are! I am eternally grateful and a fan for the rest of my years on this planet, even if I didn’t love The Center Won’t Hold.)

Wednesday – Twin Plagues
Have I mentioned that I love music from the 90’s? Wednesday touches on a lot of points for me. They connect the dots between My Bloody Valentine and Dinosaur Jr. There is a twang and some innocence in quieter songs as sung by frontwoman Karly Hartzman. It just sounds like 1992-1995 indie and alternative rock – all of it.

Dinosaur Jr. – Sweep it into Space
I saw Dinosaur twice this year, which doubles the number of times I’ve seen them in my life and is two more than I’ve seen them since moving to their hometown 6.5 years ago. I won’t lie that these facts have something to do with this record getting regular play in my car these days. It’s not my favorite Dino record, but it hits all the feels. It rounds out a Dino live set with solos upon solos. Lou’s contributions are as solid as ever and J snuck in a few gems as well.

Kevin Morby – A Night at the Little Los Angeles (Sundowner 4-Track Demos)
It seems unfair to put this record on this year’s list as last year’s Sundowner was one of my three favorite records of last year. (I’m now realizing that my last hiatus included best of season on the blogosphere. So, there’s little-to-no proof of this assertion. Just trust me.) People either love or hate Kevin Morby. Those folks are cynics and crabs. Kevin Morby makes me smile and Katie Crutchfield likes him, so how bad could he be? Morby is a writer who says a lot with few words. What is left or even suggested is a Dylanesque take on the human condition. Like Dylan, he’s a midwestern storyteller. Morby just doesn’t feel the need to overwhelm you with lengthy description or wordy diatribe.

I included this record as it is basically a completely new thing from the original. The lofi sound echos Nebraska and Morby channels Dylan’s voice, even if not as verbose, as previously mentioned. Of course, different aesthetics aren’t really enough to make a new album. Waxahatchee (Crutchfield) included the demos in an expanded version of her 2017 masterpiece breakup record Out in the Storm and it’s just two versions of the same thing. I appreciate hearing the songs in the rawest form, but what Morby does with this record is a whole new piece. The album has been resequenced (or possibly reverted back to his original vision) and it provides a different take on the stories he tells. The album in this version stands on its own and I may just have to listen to it again (as it plays “Provisions” near the end of side 2).

I guess that was like 15 LP’s and a 7″. I’m not ranking them as I think ranking art is just silly. These 16 releases were significant to me this year. Some will fade; some will hold strong for years; and others will disappear only to return with some experience and context down the road. Whatever the future holds for these records, they are 2021 to me. My silo grows taller and the walls become thicker, but the music plays on. Let’s hope we’re not listening to more records through a pandemic haze again next year.


Posted in Records by SM on March 19, 2010

I have four records to tell you about1. They’ve been out long enough for you to shape your own opinions, but I’m here to give you mine. They range from the instantly great to the three listen minimum and a little something in between. This isn’t a March Madness themed review2. These are not the “final four” records by any means. They’re just the four about which I have to tell you.

Titus Andronicus recorded a concept album that’s either about a guy who leaves New Jersey for Boston as told through a metaphor of a Civil War battle or vice versa. It’s really good and rocks your socks off, but throughout I wondered how we got here.

Like TA, a guy named Springsteen rose from the polluted land and water of New Jersey to give his side of the story. This guy – I’ll call him “Bruce” – wrote a record called Nebraska about some kids on a killing spree. It’s really a good record. That and it’s a concept record of the highest order. Bruce tells a story or string of stories that are expertly-pieced together in a way that 99¢ spent at iTunes could never do for you.

From that same state of Nebraska is a Omahan named Conor Oberst3 who has been called the “next, next Dylan” by some. Bruce, of course, was the “next Dylan,” one “next.” Conor has recorded under several monikers and with a couple of bands. One of those bands was Desaparecidos4. In that band, Conor screamed over feedback-excessive guitars about all the injustices of suburban sprawl surrounding his beloved-Omaha. Where Bruce succeeded in telling a narrative about Nebraska from his Jersey perspective, Conor told a global story from his Nebraskan vantage point. Both recordings5 are prime examples of concept albums done right and done with real emotion.

So, when you have a band that sounds like Desaparecidos playing Bruce Springsteen songs, you figure it should work no matter the concept. And it does, sound-wise. The bombastic blue-collar anthems of Springsteen work when screamed over a punk rawk onslaught hard to deny. There are horns, guest speakers6, bagpipes, and a kitchen sink7 for good measure. The Monitor delivers a punch to the gut like few albums have for me over the last several years.

However, as a concept album, the record is a stretch. How a guy moving to Boston from Jersey relates to the most famous naval battle of the Civil War8 is beyond my comprehension. Of course, the band believes in the concept and makes it convincing enough for the listener to play along9. One cannot ignore such conviction, especially when it sounds this good.

To make it simple, go buy this record now. You can buy the other three records mentioned below, but buy this one first.

Quasi used to be be quirky and sad. Somehow, the bitterness in Sam Coomes10 has grown into an anger, nearly to the point of capitulation11. Of course, he hasn’t totally let go of his failures and the resulting anger, but the loss of the roxichord12 alone makes one question God’s existence all together. The anger suits Quasi. So, does a bass player.

I like Quasi’s new direction more with each recording. They’ve eased into a more traditional rock sound, leaving behind the whim and whimsy disguised as despair in their mid-nineties work. As they rock more, the strength of Janet Weiss‘ drumming comes to the forefront. Not since her final Sleater-Kinney album13 have I heard a kit endure more punishment. It’s good to hear, as is Coomes’ underrated songwriting. The roxichorded Quasi allowed Coomes the room to play with cliche and rhyme, crafting fine pop songs, but his adoption of a guitar turned to 11 has expanded their sound beyond the novelty of an organ and birds tweeting14. Even new bass player Joanna Bolme brings some wieght to the songs, making me think for a second that “Little White Horse” is a Mike Watt song15.

This album might just be a case of a must-have for a long-term fan, but I doubt it. Quasi rocks a ton and writes some good hooks. It’s not exactly what the kids are listening to these days with its nod to the Beatles and familiar culprits in the Blues and Punk eras. However, it contains just enough punch to surprise you. Totally worth a listen and absolutely worth a peek when they travel to your town.

The Morning Bender‘s sophomore effort, Big Echo, lost me from the beginning. Their influences are all over the place. It’s hard to pinpoint what they’re doing and whether it’s them or Chris Taylor’s (Grizzly Bear) production work16. So, I did what any self-respecting music fan would do: I listened to it again.

Sometimes the best albums are not fully understood right away. I didn’t get The Soft Bulletin or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot the first time around. Those albums are growers. They take time and effort to get, but when you figure it out, it’s worth it. The Soft Bulletin was such a departure from the Lips’ hardcore and grunge-esque days that I felt I had been duped. Then, I saw them support the album live. In the early incarnations of what is now an extravaganza of sorts, the visuals paired with Soft Bulletin material made it rather clear. Coyne’s dramatic, bloody performance and calculated explanations didn’t hurt either17. The Wilco record was just not as alt.country18 as I expected. They built an album out of conceptual tracks and dysfunction, not middle-class cow punk. It took a few listens to get past the limitations of their genre, but I did and was glad. Neither album was easy to hear the first time around. However, the pay-off for giving them additional listens was worth the time.

Now, I don’t think Big Echo is so good that the fourth or tenth listen will blow my mind, but I think it has room to grow. For certain are the lush arrangements and detailed textures within. As mentioned before, the influences are many, but they include Beach Boys, Shins, Lips, etc. So, it generally works. The album has components and complexity that makes the listener want to return in order to give it a fair chance. You should too.

No one gets more out of a few songs and forty-three different pseudonyms than Will Oldham19. Sure, you probably have all these songs in some form or another, but you don’t have this record of a live performance just outside of his hometown Louisville. Oldham, who always seems to have a record out, released this LP under cover of darkness, almost causing me to miss it completely. The record is a grand document of a little gig that inspires reviewers to throw around terms such as “hoot-nanny,” “ramshackle,” and “ramblin’.”20 And it’s lovely. No one croons or writes a tune to croon to like Bonny ‘Prince’ Billy. The band he assembles to pull off the task isn’t too shabby either. When I first played it, I was afraid that I was actually enjoying a Prairie Home Companion. Luckily, there was no mumbling, rambling semi-jokes by Garrison Keillor21 or faceless men frantically trying to make sound effects with kazoos and hallow coconut shells. It was just Billy and his merry band of minstrels.

It’s not ground-breaking22. It won’t make you want everything Will Oldham has ever done. But it will comfort you when snow falls in mid-March or wake you when the sun shines in November.

1We’re up to six now, but those others will wait for another post.
2For two reasons: 1) I hate themed reviews. And 2) I’m avoiding sports as long as possible on this blog.
3I realize some folks have their issues with Oberst, but they really need to review his oeuvre objectively. He’s a hell of a songwriter, lyricist. The hype surrounding him has made this impossible to fairly assess, though. I don’t know that he’s the next Dylan or Springsteen, but he’s a talented wordsmith.
4Originally, this band was supposed to be a hip hop project, but it somehow evolved into hyper-political emo band.
5I’m really not trying to equate Conor Oberst’s side-project to maybe Bruce Springsteen’s greatest achievement on record, but thematically and aesthetically these are good connections in understanding Titus Andronicus.
6That one guy who talks over Hold Steady records about beat poetry and Springsteen utopias lends inside voice to a Whitman poem.
7Not really, but it could have worked.
8Typically, the Battle of Hampton Roads earns this honor. One of the ships involved in this battles was the Monitor. And now you know.
9It’s sort of like when you repeat a lie over and over, so much that it becomes the truth. You know who did that really well? Our last white president was a master at the repeated-lie-becomes-truth-trick.
10Primarily attributed to his divorce from Quasi drummer Janet Weiss, maritally-speaking.
11Judging from Quasi’s recent output and the state of the union, I blame this on our last white president.
12Arguably the best rock instrument that is not a guitar (including bass) or guitar. Sorry, keytar and Hammond B3.
13The Woods is as good a farewell album as there has ever been. Of course, they’ll be back soon enough.
14However, there is a track featuring a howling wolf.
15I mention this only because I have been listening to Ball-Hog or Tugboat? a lot lately.
16Which, by the way, is pretty fantastic. Orchestral, layered, textured, you name it. This guy should do this more often.
17I contend that the early portion of the Lips is by far their best live work. Finally, they were ripping off the Butthole Surfers without being so obvious. The three of them crowded in front of a relatively small projector as it displayed some of the same fractured footage they show today only without all the tomfoolery of bunny costumes and giant, inflatable balls. At that time, it was all about the music and imagery, not the shenanigans.
18This is a term I’ve had a love/hate relationship with for a long time now. Sure, I love me some cow punk/post-punk country music, but I just can’t place my finger on why this is an actual genre. What really constitutes these days? Magnolia Electric Co? Will Oldham? The reincarnation of Son Volt?
19Will Oldham, Bonny ‘Prince’ Billy, Palace Brothers, Palace Songs, Palace, Bonny Billy, Bill, etc.
20None of which I will use here.
21Garrison Keillor is fine, I guess. I just know that when I hear his baritone delivery of a corny joke, half of my Saturday is gone.
22But it’s certainly better than that load of crap Old Joy Oldham starred in as an actor hiking through the woods with his buddy. Gawd! That thing was awful. And he didn’t sing.