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2014 SOTO Staff Picks

December 11, 2014

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I’ve rambled on long enough about the music I liked in 2014.  Here are the staff’s picks.  Enjoy.

Turns out that aside from the crippling bodily ailments and the inability to control my bladder, getting older has made me absolutely awful at listening to music. Don’t hate haters, I’ve just gotten over the hump of 30 and all of sudden I just can’t focus enough to listen to a whole album. Blame it on the SNES I brought home for my girlfriend’s birthday, blame it on the imposition of real life, blame it on the encroaching approach of a potent mix of early onset dementia and Adult ADHD – I’ve just been really bad at music listening this year. Thus, my teensy tiny list of music is culled from a pond not nearly as large as I’d hoped it to be. That said, the music I liked, I loved and that’s the music that ended up below.

Parkay Quarts – Content Nausea
Mac DeMarco – Salad Days
Caribou – Our Love
Vince Staples – Hell Can Wait
Perfume Genius – Too Bright

Since 2010, rock music hasn’t changed all that much. There’s presently a general look back to past niche musics from the 1960′s onward. But through the nostalgia haze, there are a great deal of both old and new artists finding new latitudes. Here’s my major jams this year.

1. Thurston Moore – The Best Day (Matador)
2. David Kilgour & The Heavy Eights – End Times Undone (Merge)
3. Steve Gunn – Way out Weather (PoB)
4. Datashock – Keine Oase in Sicht (Dekorder)
5. William Tyler – Lost Colony (Merge)

I’ve been staring at my 2014 list like a student procrastinating on their end of the semester term paper.  I go back and forth on who to include, who to leave out, and recalling releases (d’oh!) I never got around to checking out. There are also the nagging doubts such as wondering if I gave an album enough listens to put it on my list. Like last year my list focuses on my local Austin favorites. Narrowing it down to the Top 5 wasn’t easy but I stand by my choices of my faves that earned multiple listens. So many good bands to choose from but oh what a problem to have, right?

In no particular order, I present to you :

The Sour Notes – Do What May
Abram Shook – Sun Marquee
Alex Napping – This Is Not A Bedroom
She Sir – Go Guitars
Shivery Shakes – Three Waves and A Shake

Honorable Mentions: The Ugly Beats – Brand New Day, Roger Sellers – Primitives, Genuine Leather – Losers

Compared to last year, 2014 left much to be desired when it comes to the sheer number of amazing releases. 2013 offered probably 15 to 20 “crap your pants while listening best record of the century” type stuff but then after that it sort of fell short in the real meat of the pack by not having a lot to deepen the core of metal. The reverse of which is true this year, I have attached to a few records as rising to the tippy top of the heap, but the real glory came in the form of the fat of the genre, so many decent albums from so many artists, many debuts, but several just continuations on great careers, but few to get all wigged out about.

My Top 5 you can see here are pretty clear choices though when you look at what they accomplished on these albums, Devn Townsend Project made two albums into one, and continued the story or Ziltoid the Omniscient, Anaal Nathrakh did what they do, but better, Job for a Cowboy somehow made bass a relevant instrument in death metal, At the Gates reunited after 900 years and proved they still have it, and Black Crown Initiate stole the show with their debut mixing death metal and melodic anthems into something technically proficient and sufficiently mind blowing. I was not let down this year, but I know I will be surprised in a few years with what I actually retained from 2014, not sure if you would agree, but that’s how I see things …

5. Devin Townsend Project – Ziltoid 2 (Century Media)
4. Anaal Nathrakh – Desideratum (Metal Blade)
3. Job For A Cowboy – Sun Eater (Metal Blade)
2. At The Gates – At War With Reality (Century Media)
1. Black Crown Initiate – The Wreckage Of Stars (eOne Entertainment)

I guess I’ll start by saying that 2014 hasn’t been an amazing year for hip hop, but it hasn’t been a completely terrible one either.  Here are my choices for the best releases this year, in no particular order:

Open Mike Eagle – Dark Comedy
Run The Jewels – RTJ2
Vince Staples – Hell Can Wait
Big K.R.I.T. – Cadillactica
Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majaesty

T’was a solid year for melancholy songs. Albums that truly destroyed the center of the cardiovascular system were aplenty. We’re living in a golden age of audio misery! There were SO MANY great releases that dehydrated our tear ducts but since you, the readers, are demanding a definitive ranking of the saddest albums of the year, so be it. I’ve done the requisite soul searching and came up with this predominantly lady-heavy list of my fav weepers of the year. They are full of gut wrenchers, soul crushers … and they are all fantastic. Way to bring the pain this year, ladies!

1: Beck – Morning Phase
2. Lykke Li – I Never Learn
3. Divorcee – Self Titled
4. Jenny Lewis – The Voyager
5. Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness

Best Reissue: American Football – Self Titled

Narrowing down my top albums is a tortuous process. I’m an old-school guy. I still listen to entire albums from start to finish and only occasionally opt for a playlist of singles. Immersing yourself in an album is the most satisfying way way to connect with the music. So I get really dialed into my favorite albums each year, which makes narrowing down the lot a difficult task.

Before we get to my top five, let’s take a minute to recognized the amazing amount of quality music released this year by 12XU. It was far and away the top Austin label in 2014. They featured not only one of my top artists (The Dead Space) and but also three others in my top 10 (Flesh Lights, Jonly Bonly, The Gotobeds).

1) Ghetto Ghouls – Self Titled
2) The Dead Space – Faker
3) Protomartyr – Under Color of Official Right
4) Ex Hex – Rips
5) OBN IIIs – Third Time To Harm

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2013 SOTO Staff Picks

December 18, 2013

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It wouldn’t be fun if only I just rambled along about what I liked this year, so I reached out to my very diverse staff for their Top 5 Albums of 2013.  I think you’ll see that the SOTO clan like a lot of different things.  Enjoy.

You know what can, sometimes, kind of blow? Getting old. Yup, watching the old life clock tick on by, the responsibilities of life pile around your ears, those precious moments when you could just wile away an hour or five listening to a handful of new records. Well kiddies, those days are dead. Nowadays I’m happy if I can listen to the new Lil’ Wayne single more than a few times when I’m driving to the gym to work my gut out with my trainer Francis. What I’m getting at here is that though I wish my list was full of a shocking selection of diverse and mind-expanding music, well, it’s not. I stand by each and all of these picks but I can’t say I did the extra work this year to blow any minds.

Forgive me, and enjoy.

5. The National – If I Stay Here, Trouble Will Find Me
4. Parquet Courts – Light Up Gold
3. Thee Oh Sees – Floating Coffin
2. Fuzz – S/T
1. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires Of The City

In keeping with my column, I fully intended to select nothing but chick-fronted albums in 2013. Laura Marling was one of my most-streamed, and my girl Neko’s latest was an insta-fave. But once I got back to looking at things, I realized my list was a little more eclectic than anticipated. Vampire Weekend never ceases to be the catchiest around, and Local Natives continue to lyrically break my heart with everything they put out. And there’s nothing like a little Washed Out to soundtrack a Sunday afternoon. Notable mention? Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds stopped by KCRW, resulting in a record store day release that I haven’t stopped listening (and crying) to since purchasing.

Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle
Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
Washed Out – Paracosm
Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires Of The City
Local Natives – Hummingbird

I see it this way … 2010 was the first date, 2011 was the good times, 2012 was the breakup, and 2013 was when music took some “me” time. That does not mean this year did not generate some great or even classic records, it does mean that there was some experimentation that may or may not have worked out so well; see Drumgasm. That being said, there was still plenty of illuminations happening all over the musical cosmos in 2013. Labels like Chapter Music and Paradise of Bachelors killed it this year, as did Bedroom Suck and Fire Records. Though some more successful than others, 2013 saw artists and bands the world over restate time honored sounds and genres.

5. Fat History Month – Bad History Month (Exploding In Sound)
4. The Stevens – A History Of Hygiene (Chapter Music)
3. Purling Hiss – Water On Mars (Drag City)
2. Dick Diver – Calendar Days (Chapter Music)
1. Steve Gunn – Time Off (Paradise of Bachelors)

When I received my assignment to pick my Top 5 albums for the year, I thought that It would be a piece of cake: “5 albums? No problem.” But then I started to recall the various new releases from this year and felt twinges of panic and regret: “Who do I choose ? Who do I leave off the list ?”. I don’t have a complicated system for deciding on favorites; it usually comes down to what I listened to the most.  The focus for my 2013 Top 5 are all Austin-based artists, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy records from bands from other places. This year was also a fantastic year for some outstanding releases from some of my favorite local bands. They all share a common love for melodies, harmonies, and top notch songwriting.

Royal Forest – Spillway
Black Books – Black Books
Wiretree – Get Up
The Zoltars – Walking Through The Dark
Yum – Take My Blue / Santiago Dietche – Waxing And Roaring (tie)

This year there have been some amazing metal releases, I am not even giving lip service about my genre, it has been incredible the caliber of albums coming out, and to narrow it down to five, I had to switch a few things around from other lists I have made. Excluding Dillinger Escape Plan, Cult of Luna, Arsis, Black Dahlia Murder and All Pigs Must Die is heart wrenching, but these five bands have created some of the best music metal has heard in two decades. From noisy extremes like Nails, to groove laden jams on the new Clutch album, and the rebirth of the dormant Carcass to win the top spot on every list I have done.  So let it be written, so let it be done, the best metal albums of the year are:

5. Nails – Abandon All Life (Southern Lord)
4. Kvelertak – Meir (Roadrunner)
3. Clutch – Earth Rocker (Weathermaker)
2. Protest The Hero – Volition (Razor And Tie)
1. Carcass – Surgical Steel (Nuclear Blast)

Hey, everybody! It may surprise you that here in my natural habitat of the music blog, I am supremely uncomfortable making lists.  Yes, I listen to a lot of music, and yes, there is stuff I like more than other stuff, but really when it comes down to taking my favorite albums from an entire year and ranking them on such a fine gradient, I just get miserable and ambivalent.  There was a lot of great hip hop produced this year and these are all great albums, and these are only in an order because John Laird forced me to do it.

5. Shad – Flying Colours
4. Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady
3. Chance The Rapper – Acid Rap
2. Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels
1. Danny Brown – Old

2013 was a big year for pop music. Miley’s tongue was inescapable, British teens ran rampant, and through it all I reveled in the weirdness. The latter half of this year found me really embracing my not-so-guilty pleasure of pure female fronted pop, so I thought I should theme my Top 5 to mainstream pop with female vocalists. Specific enough for ya? But after all, there’s so much of it, sometimes you need a spirit guide. Like Katy Perry–those of you who wrote her off for bubblegum pop need to check out Prism, where her dark side shines and emotions run rampant. And Ariana Grande–the next in line for a breakout from the Disney dynasty actually has the pipes to back it up, and I can’t stop spinning her tracks. Meanwhile, singles shine for Lady Gaga’s Artpop, where any track could be a hit–and Do What U Want is climbing charts for a reason. None of the Lana Del Rey songs on 2013′s Tropico are new–all taken from last year’s Paradise–but these three songs might be her best so far and provide an excellent primer for burgeoning Lana fans. Number one couldn’t go to anyone but Lorde–sure, brush her off as a one hit wonder, but I’d take Tennis and Ribs over Royals any day–it’s an incredible album.

5. Katy Perry – Prism
4. Lady Gaga – Artpop
3. Ariana Grande – Yours Truly
2. Lana Del Rey – Tropico
1. Lorde – Heroine

So 2013 was pretty good year for music, yes? My thirst for catchy punk rock and fuzzy garage rock was quenched throughout the year. There were a bunch of albums I loved that did not make the very top of my list. I’m looking at you Ty Segall, Bad Sports, Mind Spiders, A Giant Dog, and Thee Oh Sees. I love you all but there can only be five:

5. Radioactivity – Radioactivity
4. Vaadat Charigim – The World Is Well Lost
3. Sweet Talk – Pickup Lines
2. Mikal Cronin – MCII
1. Parquet Courts – Light Up Gold

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Raised Eyebrows: The School Of Public Language (Randy)

July 8, 2013

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Guitar music, for lack of a better term, is a seemingly daunting genre. This brand of music is not one of virtuosity as some may suspect – instead it’s about expression through original composition. This sect is not easy to categorize, which may be one of the key reasons it remains off the mainstream radar, but it remains highly approachable musically. Two figures are central to this anonymous genre: John Fahey and Jack Rose. Fahey acted as founder/explorer/developer/colonizer/architect while Rose took on the role of teacher/revivalist/promoter/preacher/friend. From these two, a new school of contemporary artists have found a place to freely drift between the tradition/legacy of American song and their own individual voice.

For decades John Fahey has loomed over the world of guitar music. He continues to be one of the most well known figures and spokesmen for the medium. His emphasis on the unconscious over technical skill and unfailing faith in expression has made big impressions on a number of musicians.

In recent years, the U.S. has unknowingly become a hotbed for music that is being informed by Fahey in both direct and indirect ways, depending on who you talk to …

“In fact, I would go so far as to say that I am playing emotions and expressing them in a coherent public language called music.” – John Fahey

With the release of Blind Joe Death in 1959 on his own Takoma Label, Fahey took a neo-classical approach to country blues, ragtime, bluegrass and classical music. The style was referred to as “American Primitive,” meaning untutored or self taught. Fahey’s influence can be found in the psychedelia of Sandy Bull, the raga of Peter Walker, the skronk of Sonny Sharrock, and the ragtime of the late Jack Rose.

Jack Rose was a guitarist who hailed from Philadelphia. Rose was a well-known proponent of the local music scene in Philly, and he has played a major role in the recent renaissance of “American Primitive” music currently going on in the US. Since his passing in 2009, his spirit continues to charge those who came to know him.

Glenn Jones, former leader of the avant/motorik band Cul De Sac and 30+ year devotee to the so-called American Primitive School, tells his favorite story of Rose:

“There’s a solo guitar record I’m especially crazy about , Six Organs of Admittance’s For Octavio Paz. As my friend Jack Rose knew Ben Chasny, I asked him if he knew whether Ben planned to make more solo guitar records. Jack, who was about to tour the West Coast, had a few dates that included Ben. He said, “I’ll tell you when I get back”.
When Jack got home I asked him how the tour went. “Great!” said Rose. I next asked whether Chasny would be making another solo guitar record. Jack said, “Yeah, I asked him about that. He said he wasn’t planning another one anytime soon.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Well, he said he doesn’t want be pigeonholed in with the whole American Primitive / John Fahey thing”.
I thought for a few seconds and said, “I guess I can appreciate that.”
Jack said, “Not me! That’s exactly where I want to be pigeonholed!”

Jones has released several albums under his own name with Chicago label Thrill Jockey, including 2013’s My Garden State. The album was written in New Jersey while Jones was caring for his mother who has Alzheimer’s disease. The collection ranges from seemingly short elemental passages to exploratory pieces composed spontaneously in the studio. When asked about “American Primitive” and the connection to his own work, Jones states:

“To my mind, ”American Primitive” is characterized by a certain emotional quality. Some people think the term means that the music is somehow technically primitive. It isn’t. It’s just that expression generally takes precedence over technical proficiency, especially technical proficiency for its own sake and not in service to anything else.”

Chris Forsyth is an otherworldly guitarist who is also from Philadelphia. His influence are closer to Television, Richard Thompson and The Grateful Dead than it is to Fahey and the Takoma label. Forsyth’s view of “American Primitive” is more difficult to characterize:

“I think anyone who’s getting up and performing solo guitar is automatically putting themselves in dialogue with the American Primitive thing, or at least with Fahey.
The downside of naming music is that categories become cemented and rules form and dogma emerge, for the artists as well as the audience.”
“That said, the two people I admire most in the “American Primitive” canon are probably Fahey and Jack Rose. Fahey’s obviously the Big Daddy and, in terms of 20th century American musical minds, he’s on par with Coltrane or Miles Davis as far as I’m concerned. He’s the fountainhead. And Jack’s fearlessness and conviction, both musically and as a human, hit me hard and helped me move my own practice forward in a real way.”

In October of this year, Paradise of Bachelors will be releasing Solar Motel. Forsyth will be touring behind the record with The Solar Motel Band featuring bassist Peter Kerlin, guitarist Paul Sukeena (Spacin’) and drummer Steven Urgo (ex-The War on Drugs). Forsyth explains:

“Solar Motel was written and developed over the course of 2011. The music just sort of comes. I catch a melody or a riff some days and follow it, sometimes it arrives whole and sometimes it takes months to settle.  We recorded the basic tracks for the Solar Motel record in a couple of days at Jeff Zeigler’s studio in Philly. Some of it had been worked out for a European tour, but the sessions were also pretty spontaneous.”

“Bachman probably represents the hopes and dreams of the American Primitives as much as anyone these days.” – Chris Forsyth

Daniel Bachman is an acoustic guitarist from Fredericksburg. He stands as a marvelous contemporary example of “American Primitive” or “Psychedelic Appalachia” as he has called it. When asked how his work connects to the past, Bachman says:

“I mean the Fahey, Basho, Rose influence is impossible to overlook. I play guitar without much accompaniment and sometimes use tricks and tunings that they used. But like everybody in this world right now I’m just trying really hard to not rip them off too bad. It’s pretty well trod ground, but I think that you can pull something new out of it … or at least try to.”

Since 2011, Bachman has released a string of recordings over a mass of small labels with limited pressings. He tours the US and UK often and has just finished a new record in Rappahannock County, VA. Bachman goes on to say about the recording process and touring:

“I just finished the newest one a couple days ago – but the writing takes about a year – especially with touring a lot. But I write these songs and kind of hone them over a year of touring then lay them out on record. There is some improvisational aspect in the recording – and usually one or two songs are written specifically for record and never really meant to be performed. I’m doing a tour in the UK in June – some gigs here and there in July – Tour east coast in August with my friend Mary Lattimore, Europe and new record in October with Ryley Walker and West coast with Chris Forsyth in November… I don’t really do well with time off.”

Speaking of time off … Steve Gunn has had little if any in the last year. The New York based guitarist has been a member of GHQ, Magik Markers, and most recently, Kurt Vile & The Violators. He has also collaborated with Hiss Golden Messenger (Golden Gunn), Michael Chapman (a personal hero of Gunn’s), and with drummer John Truscinski (Gunn-Truscinski Duo). Gunn elaborates on his relationship with Truscinski:

“I’ve developed a lot with John, who I have been playing with for about 7 years now. We’ve done collaborations with other people, duo playing, band, and we both do solo recordings. We’ve worked out a bunch of different kinds of music over the years, and a lot of it has gone onto a release in one form or another.”

Gunn’s newest record, Time Off, finds Gunn and Truscinski now in a trio with bassist Justin Tripp (Aspera). The album deftly builds upon previous Gunn efforts: the vocals of Sundowner, the raga of Ocean Parkway/Sand City, and the spiritedness of Boreum Palace. The release also pays tribute to Jack Rose with Old Strange, a song that has been with Gunn for some time. When asked about the thought process going into Time Off, Gunn says:

“I’ve been playing a few songs that are on the record for years in different styles, and they kind of took a winding path on how the ended up sounding on this new record.  A few songs on the record I wrote really fast, in pretty much one sitting. I’m trying to tap more into that mind frame as a songwriter.”

William Tyler lives in Nashville. In addition to his role as resident guitarist in the world’s foremost ‘countrypolitan’ band, Lambchop, he is also an accomplished solo player who has recently released Impossible Truth, a record he calls, “my ‘70s singer-songwriter record; it just doesn’t have any words.” Chapel Hill’s venerable Merge Records (Lambchop’s label, as well) released the album in May. Tyler says:

“I wanted to move more towards psychedelic cathedral music and lose a little of the Appalachian drone. I guess I was interested in the possibilities of a guitar record that wasn’t a folk record per se, more of a deconstructed rock record without any lyrics.”

Impossible Truth is a definite departure from previous works, Behold The Spirit and Deseret Canyon. The album has a joy throughout that relates more to Carl Nielsen than it does to John Fahey. When asked about what’s next, Tyler reports:

“I am about to do a full band lineup version of some of the ‘Impossible Truth’ material for the first time and it’s been exciting and weird to experience those tunes in a true full volume rock context. I’d like to try more of that with the next record.”

Chuck Johnson is a guitarist/composer residing in Oakland. He has been playing fingerstyle acoustic guitar since the early 90’s, but has also continually sought out new ideas with multiple projects including Shark Quest, Pykrete and Idyll Swords. After a contribution to the Beyond Berkeley Guitar Compilation released by Tompkins Square in 2010, Johnson found new life with the steel string guitar.

Going in new directions is nothing new to Johnson. When asked about unexpected happenings over the years, Johnson states:

“I never imagined I would be playing in front of 10,000 people at Siren Fest in Coney Island. Back in 2001 Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan cut his finger really badly a couple weeks before they were scheduled to play, and he called me and asked if I could learn his guitar parts.”

Released by Three Lobed Recordings in May, Crows In The Basilica is Johnson’s second solo album. The LP plays like a star map, locating all of the constellations and galaxies Johnson has collected over the years. Johnson offers more insight into the making of the record by saying:

“CITB includes a couple of traditional pieces, as well as one of the first solo fingerstyle tunes I wrote back in the mid 90’s. And these recordings represented new interpretations of those tunes that I had been playing for years, so it really is like a snapshot of where I am now as a musician and as a person.”

Though not officially connected in any way, there is a thread that binds all of these musicians not just to Fahey and Rose, but to each other. Community, for this type of music, is not only part of its rich history, but will also facilitate its future. Chuck Johnson sums it up:

“I have been making music for a long time now, and the community that I have is what keeps me going in a lot of ways.”

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