The Best of 2020

Like almost everyone else on the planet, I’m glad to see the end of 2020 rapidly approaching. All things considered I certainly can’t complain – we’ve stayed healthy and safe and are both still working. Sure, it’s been stressful. We’re getting a little stir crazy since we’ve both been working from home since March, and we had a number of events and trips cancelled, but with a COVID vaccine coming out maybe, just maybe, we can get back to some semblance of normal in 2021.

If you follow the blog at all, I’m sure you noticed a lot less activity in 2020. I’d have thought lockdown would have made me more prolific, but after something like seven years I sort of lost focus a bit – I just wasn’t sure I had much interesting left to say. I also started playing Dungeons & Dragons again (via Zoom), and that resulted in an entirely new blog that is basically a novelization of our weekly game. It’s called Defenders of Phandalin, so check it out if you’re interested in RPGs or just fantasy-style fiction.

So here’s to hoping your 2020 was safe and as sane as could be, and that maybe I’ll run into you at a record store or concert somewhere in the world in 2021.

Top 5 New Releases In 2020

1. The Ghost Choir – The Ghost Choir (Iceland)
2. Farmacia – Farmacia (Argentina)
3. The Rise of India (Deluxe Edition) – IndiaBoy & Pési-B (Iceland)
4. So When You Gonna… – Dream Wife (UK / Iceland)
5. Neyslutrans – Hatari (Iceland)

Most years selecting my favorite release of the year isn’t hard. Sorting out the rest of the Top 5 can be a bit tricky, but generally there’s one album that hits my like a lightning bolt and rockets right to the top of the list.

That didn’t happen this year. In fact, I didn’t decide on the order of the first three spots until I sat down on Christmas morning and listened to the three albums one more time, and even then it was still tough. What it came down to, ultimately, was this – not only have I played The Ghost Choir a ton, but it’s also the album I recommended to people the most often, and all those folks told me they liked it. Stylistically it reaches across categories – electronic, classical, jazz, soundtracks… there’s something there for almost everyone. It truly is an outstanding record.

Farmacia dropped on December 23, so I have only had a few days with it, but man is it killer. As always, brothers Ariel and Diego Sima stretch the boundaries and expand my mind with their electro compositions. Had this been around for a few months would it have taken the top spot? We’ll never know. My understanding is that this will be coming out in a limited vinyl release soon, so be on the lookout for that, and I’ll likely do a blog about it soon. The Rise of India was probably my biggest surprise Top 5 entrant being that I’d never heard of anyone involved in the album prior to playing it for the first time. It’s a ton of trap fun.

Top 5 “New to Me” Bands/Performers

1. Disciplinatha
2. King Ani Mal
3. Captain Syrup
4. Latimore
5. Idris Elba

This is a bit of a mix of old school and more contemporary stuff, and it covers a wide range of genres. I feel like i didn’t listen to as much new-to-me stuff in 2020, or at least not as albums. Working from home certainly allowed me to listen to more music than ever before, but much if not most of the time I found myself playing Spotify playlists, in which case I knew almost all the music (80s metal and pop) or I didn’t know any of it (Techno Bunker). I guess the difference between 2019 and 2020 was that I was less intentional about what I played. Plus not traveling meant not exploring new record stores, and new scenes which was a major bummer. All that being said, the above are all excellent and recommended.

Top 5 Purchases/Acquisitions

1. Collection of funk/soul/jazz
2. Live at Red Rocks – Devil Makes Three
3. First Demo 12/29/80 – S.O.A. (signed by Henry Rollins)
4. Music for the Other People Place Part 1 box set
5. Is Anybody Listening? – Cell7

I was lucky enough to be gifted four huge moving boxes of 1960s to 1980s soul, funk, and R&B from a friend’s dad. There was some great stuff in here – James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Brass Construction, etc. Probably 75% of it is still in the garage, but the others were cleaned, played and moved inside. Live at Red Rocks was a fun pick-up since we were at the show a few years back. The S.O.A. demo was something I totally lucked into – Rollins posted about these on his Facebook page and on a whim I just ordered one right then and there. It tuns out they sold out in minutes, so for once an impulse buy paid off. The Music for the Other People Place box set was an interesting project in which electronic artists were given free rein… and we as the purchasers are not told who contributed albums to the collection. The Cell7 record was one I supported via crowd-funding, and not only is the album super cool, so is the amazing poster, which i framed.

Top 5 Live Shows

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Yeah, we didn’t see any live shows in 2020. Because COVID and all that. Which is too bad, because we had tickets to see KMFDM and Ministry, and also had our early bird passes for Iceland Airwaves. Here’s hoping 2021 doesn’t suck as hard.

Top 5 Most Played Songs On Spotify

1. “Balls To The Wall” – Accept
2. “Beepers” – Sir Mix-A-Lot
3. “World Eater” – Bolt Thrower
4. “Speed of Light” – Alex Stein
5. “Realm of Chaos” – Bolt Thrower

We decided to get a Spotify subscription early in the year. Rest assured, I’m still addicted to physical formats and will buy them whenever possible. But there’s a lot of new stuff I’d like to just check out, plus it dawned on me that there are still a lot of classic albums that I’ve never heard in their entirety. I think it was the Music Exists podcast that got me thinking about this when Chuck Klosterman and Chris Ryan were talking about Exile On Main St. and I realized I’d never listened to it.

My list is interesting. I mean, a metal song from 1983 tops it, and perhaps even stranger, I’ve never owned an Accept album in my life. Go figure. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Seattle’s own Sir Mix-A-Lot made the list, though the fact that the track is “Beepers” and not something from Swass is interesting. That being said, “Beepers” was often requested by Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane during backyard evening listening sessions, so it made it to the Top 5. Bolt Thrower’s Realm of Chaos is exactly the kind of reason I got Spotify, and I played the hell out of it for a few months (still looking for a reasonably priced copy on vinyl with the original cover, though). As for Alex Stein’s “Speed of Light”… I was shocked when I saw this because I have no idea who Alex Stein is. I think this track is on the Techno Bunker playlist, which would explain it because we play that one a lot.

Top 5 Places to Buy Records

1. Bandcamp
2. Discogs
3. Karolina Fund
4. Direct from Artists
5. Lucky Records – Reykjavik

We didn’t get to do any travel in 2020, which sucked. We did make some visits to local area shops and have tried to do our part to help them survive all these lock-downs. But 2020 was really the year of mail order music. Bandcamp served up a number of days where all the money went to the artists, and I certainly spent a lot of time there. I also ordered a decent amount from Discogs, particularly from two sellers (who shall remain my little secret) who have some great stuff at reasonable prices and do an amazing job with their packaging and shipping. Karolina Fund is a project-funding site from Iceland, and a lot of Icelandic musicians have used it to do vinyl versions of their releases. I’ve had great success contributing to projects on the site. I also bought stuff direct from artists through their Facebook or Instagram pages. And of course I did three (or was it four?) mail order boxes from my favorite shop in the world, Reykjavik’s Lucky Records. I was bummed I couldn’t shop there in person in November, but if all goes well we’ll be there in 2021.

Top 5 Music Books

1. Burning Down the Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall by Tim Mohr
2. Sing Backwards and Weep by Mark Lanegan
3. Stay Fanatic!!! Vol. 2 by Henry Rollins
4. Rusted Metal: A Guide To Heavy Metal And Hard Rock Music In The Pacific Northwest (1970 – 1995) by James R. Beach, Brian L. Naron, James D. Sutton, and James Tolin
5. Total F*cking Godhead by Corbin Reiff

I think I read seven or eight music books this year, and Burning Down the Haus was the clear winner, a well-written and well-researched history of the punk movement in East Germany. Highly recommended. I also particularly enjoyed vinyl-nerding-out alongside Henry Rollins with Stay Fanatic!!! Vol. 2.

So there you have it kids, 2020 in a nutshell. Thanks for reading and I hope to see you in 2021!

Book Review – “Rusted Metal – A Guide to Heavy Metal and Hard Rock Music in the Pacific Northwest (1970 – 1995)”

How long have I been waiting for Rusted Metal to come out? I pre-ordered a copy as soon as I learned about it, and that was close to two years ago. But truth be told I’ve been waiting for a book like Rusted Metal for my entire life. If something like it had existed back when I was a teenager I probably would have spent even more time in my room than I already did, reading, re-reading, and digesting it, only stepping out into the daylight to foray out to used record stores in search of Iron Cross demo tapes.

In the 1980s it was the norm as a teen to define yourself by some kind of label. Jock. Prep. Stoner. Skater. If you were unfortunate you had such a label forced upon you against your will, like Dweeb or Nerd back when Nerd was not a badge of honor. I strove to apply one of these labels to myself back in those days. Rocker.

I wasn’t a rocker though. Not really. Yes, I loved the music – hard rock and heavy metal were the soundtrack to my high school years in the second half of the 80s, with grunge sneaking its way into the mix as Sub Pop 7″ singles started popping up at places like Bellevue’s Cellophane Square Records. And sure, I had a leather jacket, though one with faux sheepskin lining, which hardly screamed rock let alone metal. I had the mullet, but hadn’t truly embraced the full-on rocker long hair look. The bottom line is I aspired to be a rocker, but I wasn’t one.

So what does all this have to do with Rusted Metal? Well, this was the scene I wanted to be part of, and indeed some of the music I listened to is here. And I’m not talking about the obvious stuff like Soundgarden or Mudhoney or Nirvana, though certainly they’re included. I’m talking about bands like Fifth Angel and TKO and Wild Dogs. Bands like Wehrmacht, who were often blasting out of my buddy’s brother’s bedroom window when I pulled up, a speaker perched on the sill and pointing out at the neighborhood and blasting “Suck My Dick”.

James Beach and friends have created the ultimate Northwest rock and metal guide with Rusted Metal, the definitive textbook on those genres in the region, a 902-page slab that’s as heavy as the music it covers. The interviews alone would make the book worth the price, somewhere around a hundred of them spread throughout the tome. Musicians, promoters, studio engineers and producers all share their stories and memories, both of the music and about the characters who were part of the scene (“This is the guy who went to prison for putting a bomb in his girlfriend’s mailbox.”). And have no fear, friends, this isn’t just text. We’re treated to hundreds of photos, flyers, album covers, and other visual treats to help tell the stories.

The cornerstone of Rusted Metal is the section devoted to bands and musicians, over 600 pages of entries in an encyclopedia-like format providing basic info like location, years active, and members, followed by as much narrative as the guys could uncover. For a band like Portland’s High Flight the bio may only run a few sentence, but Beach still manages to connect its members to at least four other bands while also touching on their management and the venues they played. Well-known local acts like the previously mentioned Wehrmacht, on the other hand, earn a page or more, often with an accompanying interview such as the eight-pager with frontman Tito Matos, who later went on to become a very successful club DJ (a fact I definitely did not know).

The final third of the book is broken down into sections devoted to concert dates, venues, record labels, studios, and of course a discography, which given the obscurity of many of these bands is probably the most comprehensive you’ll find anywhere, particularly when it comes to documenting demos. You’ll also find some of the guys’ own releases listed, because they’re partners in the NW Metalworx Music label that has been re-release some NW classics from bands like TKO, Heir Apparent, and Whiskey Stik, as well as a couple of great comps, most notably NW Metalworx Volume 2: Lake Hills Revisited. I’ve actually run into them a few times set up at record shows where they not only sell NW Metalworx releases but also tons of great NW classics. It’s an all-encompassing passion for this crew.

I’ve been reading an advance copy of Rusted Metal on my iPad and can’t wait for the print version to finally arrive in my mailbox in a few weeks. James and the guys did a terrific job on what is obviously a labor of love, and I applaud them for it because I know how taxing and all-consuming projects like this are. Rusted Metal will hold a place of honor on any music fan’s bookshelf, and I know I’ll be referencing it constantly. You can order your copy direct from NW Metalworx HERE, with a format and price for every music fan from the $9.95 e-book to the $34.95 trade paperback to the $125 limited edition and signed hardcover edition, so get your copy today.

Book Review – “Sing Backwards And Weep – A Memoir” by Mark Lanegan

I kind of went back-and-forth when considering writing about Mark Lanegan’s new memoir, Sing Backwards And Weep. I’m not entirely sure why, but I think it was trying to find some balance between the book’s stark and direct portrayal of addiction and generally bad behavior (by a whole lot of of people) and, well, the fact that Lanegan comes across as a pretty unlikeable human being. There are points in Sing Backwards And Weep when you pretty much stop rooting for Lanegan, finding yourself hoping he gets what he has coming to him for the way he treated someone. And to be fair, sometimes he does, whether it’s getting ripped off by Amsterdam drug dealers twice in the same night while desperately fighting heroin withdrawal or the perceived betrayal this friend Slayer “steal” one of Lanegan’s best customers when the singer was dealing to support his habit (something Lanegan does to someone else in an example of role reversal later in the book). Ultimately Lanegan’s seeming honesty wins out. I say “seeming” because we only get Mark’s side of the story, though more often than not he comes away looking much worse than anyone else involved so it feels like at the very least we’re getting his honest recollections and perceptions of events, even if others might have different takes. Plus at times he’s brutally self-aware, clearly recognizing not only his role in events but also that, to be blunt, often he was the asshole.

Those moments of acknowledgement, while sprinkled throughout the book, are often not in the places you’d expect, sometimes leaving the reader wondering, “so if he doesn’t acknowledge how bad this particular thing is, but he does acknowledge how bad other things are, how does he really feel about this event?” And that was certainly part of my struggle in coming to grips with how I felt about the Mark Lanegan described in Sing Backwards. But to be fair, if Lanegan deeply regretted even half the things he tells us he did the book would be unreadable, nothing more than a repetitive mea culpa mantra that would have been both annoying and come across as ingenuine. Sometimes, though, you’re left unsure. Does Lanegan have any regrets about being part of the scheme to steal some of Sub Pop co-founder Jon Poneman’s record collection, which was sold to buy drugs? At the time Lanegan saw it as payback for Poneman going back on a promise made regarding the photo to be used on the cover of Lanegan’s solo debut, 1990s The Winding Sheet. I also wonder if former Poison Idea drummer Steve Hanford (♠) knew he was going to be named as the guy who physically stole Poneman’s records while Hanford was, ironically, helping the former record label exec organize his record collection. A lot of people are named in Sing Backwards, many of them in unflattering situations, and at least a few of them aren’t happy about it, such has Lanegan’s former Screaming Trees bandmate Gary Lee Conner and Oasis member Liam Gallagher, both who have gone online (Facebook and Twitter respectively) with responses.

The two most interesting threads were those around Lanegan’s relationships with a pair of fellow vocalists, Gun Club’s Jeffrey Lee Pierce and Alice In Chains’ Layne Staley, both who also suffered under and eventually passed in part due to their addictions. Lanegan heaped praise on both, referring to Pierce as his favorite vocalist, though was also frank when relating some of the more frightening and sobering interactions he had with each, such as the incomprehensible message Pierce left on his answering machine shortly before he died and Staley being convinced that spiders exited an abscess in his arm and were hiding in his bathroom wall. Lanegan never shies away, his storytelling almost brutal in its directness.

If I’m being completely honest, I couldn’t put down Sing Backwards And Weep. Lanegan’s matter-of-fact, conversational writing style and knack for storytelling make it an effortless read. Sure the subject matter was often dark, and more than once I found myself shaking my head as the singer sank to a new low, but the tale is powerful and harrowing even if you do become a bit numb to the squalor after so many tales of depravity. The one thing missing is the rest of the story, as it were, the book ending abruptly with Lanegan receiving a phone call in 2002 informing him of Staley’s death. I was left wondering how Mark would describe his life after kicking dope; we didn’t get the redemption part of the story. Hopefully he’ll share it with us someday.

() I wrote the first draft of this post on May 17, and planned on posting it today. So imagine my surprise when I woke up this morning to learn that Steve Handford died yesterday morning. RIP Steve.

Book Review – “What Is Punk?” (2016)

Can Play-Doh be punk rock?  Based on what I see in the book What Is Punk? the answer is a resounding yes.

whatispunkcover

Released in 2015, What Is Punk? is a cool little kid-style book (suitable for little kids and big ones too) that explores the history of punk rock using the clay creations of Anny Yi and the couplets of Eric Morse.  Over the course of 30 pages or so we’re treated to some imaginative dioramas of punk fashions and icons.  The early influential bands and individuals are all here from Iggy Pop to the Sex Pistols to the Ramones to Bad Brains.  And while the stage set-ups are cool, it’s the attention to detail that caught my eye.  Safety pins?  Check.  Zines?  Check.  Henry Rollins’ tattoos?  Check.  Plus there’s a two page spread dedicated to the ladies of punk featuring The Slits, Poly Styrene, and Siouxsie Sioux.  It’s impressive how broad of a reach Yi and Morse were able to have in such a short book.

whatispunkinside

Not only are Yi’s figures and backgrounds impressive, but so too is the photography, all of which is in color and impeccably lit and shot.  While the book is certainly directed a young audience, even as a not-so-young-anymore punk there’s a lot here to like, and I think it’ll put a smile on your face.

You can learn more about the project at the book’s website HERE.

Book Review – “X-Ray Audio: The Strange Story of Soviet Music on the Bone” Edited by Stephen Coates (2015)

xraybookI’m not much of a crazy format guy when it comes to vinyl, though I’ll confess to a certain weakness for both colored vinyl and 10″ records.  I’d seen something online a while back that caught my eye, though – a record that looked like a flexi disc, but that was in fact cut into a piece of x-ray film.  It turns out this was a method of underground bootleg recording in the Soviet Union back in the late unpleasantness that was the 1950s and 1960s, and there was a new book in the works on the subject.  Since I’ve been into books longer than I’ve been into records, I shot the niche publisher some money for a pre-order, and a couple of weeks ago I got a pleasant surprise when my copy of X-Ray Audio arrived in the mail.

xrayrecord

I’m not going to tell you a lot about the story behind these discs as I am about the book itself.  It’s a well-produced piece of art in its own right – hardbound, 160 pages, and heavily illustrated, roughly half of which is given over to full page images of various old school Soviet picture and x-ray records.  Plus if you order the special edition (£5 more than the “regular” price) you get your own flexi disc made to look like an old x-ray record, with the added bonus that it actually plays (I just played mine).  £30 isn’t cheap, but it also isn’t a lot to pay for a nice hardback like this, so if you’re interested you can order HERE.

Editor Stephen Coates does a nice job of bringing in some Soviet x-ray record experts to tell the story behind these intriguing recordings.  Long story short, x-rays of the era were soft enough to “cut” onto using a recording lathe, but sturdy enough to hold up to at least a handful of plays.  Stories of clandestine recording sessions, raids by the secret police, and the thrill of buying an illicit record (and the agony of taking it home and realizing it was a piece of crap) form the framework of the narrative.  it’s a relatively quick read, but it covers the necessary bases quite well.

If you want to learn more about tX-Ray Audio: The Strange Story of Soviet Music on the Bone, you can check out the x-rayaudio website HERE.