The Best of 2019

recordgraffitiAnd here we are, another year rapidly approaching the finish line, a half dozen days left before we close the book on the second decade of the 2000s, the 2020s anxiously awaiting their turn.  Will it be another Roaring 20s like the one that happened a decade ago?  I don’t know.  All I do know is that the older I get, the faster time seems to pass, slipping almost unnoticed until a season change makes you realize another three months slipped away, until another New Year’s moves another bead to the wrong side of the ledger.

All in all 2019 was a pretty great year in music, at least from my perspective.  We got some travel in and saw shows in four different countries.  We discovered some new favorite artists.  We made some new friends through music, and strengthened our bonds with old ones.  And I bought a lot of music.  A LOT of music.  Records, tapes, CDs, downloads… in the era of free and streaming, I’m still a bit of a luddite in preferring the physical, the tangible.

So, without further ado, here it is – the 8th annual Life in the Vinyl Lane “Best Of” post!

Top 5 New Releases in 2019

  1. I Don’t Know How To Be Happy – Deli Girls (US)
  2. Return – Foreign Monkeys (Iceland)
  3. Shlon – Omar Souleyman (Syria)
  4. OHMelectronic – OHMelectronic (Canada)
  5. Blizzard People Compilation (Iceland)

By my count I posted about 51 different 2019 releases this year, excluding re-releases.  There were also handful of things from this year I heard but didn’t write about for various reasons, including laziness.  While I posted about a few more new releases in 2018, I feel like overall my consumption of new music was about the same as last year.

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My favorite release for 2019 is Deli Girls’ I Don’t Know How To Be Happy.  This is perhaps an unusual selection for Life in the Vinyl Lane not because of the genre, which is in fact difficult to define, but instead because it never came out, to the best of my knowledge, on any kind of physical medium.  Nope.  This one was digital only.  And I’ve played the hell out of it.  A blend of techno, experimental electronica, power electronics, and punk, I Don’t Know How To Be Happy is one of the rawest things I’ve heard in a long time, like a hot spot on your arm that you can’t stop scratching even though you know you should.  The music grates on your sanity to create an emotional edginess before the vocals come in and pummel you into paste.  I couldn’t get enough of “Officer” and “I’d Rather Die” on my iPod, though that might say as much about my daily commute as it does about anything else.

Next up was the triumphant return of Iceland’s Foreign Monkeys after a decade-long hiatus, the appropriately named Return.  We loved their debut , and the follow-up put more emphasis on the garage rock side of their sound, stripping things down to the core elements.  For years we regretted that we’d never caught them at our first few Airwaves festivals, but this year we got the chance and jumped at it – and the album captured their live set well.  Omar Souleyman tried to sneak one past me late in the year, but I caught wind of Shlon in time to pre-order the vinyl (which comes out in January) and get the digital download.  I’m considering this part of 2019 since the download is available now.  Shlon definitely sounds like a Souleyman album, but it also shows more range than some of his previous works with some slower and more sonically emotional moments.  You can never go wrong with Omar Souleyman.

The Top 5 rounds out with some great EBM/industrial from Canada’s OHMelectronic and a comp out of Iceland called Blizzard People.  I debated on whether or not to include Blizzard People, since putting a comp on a list like this seems a bit lazy.  But here’s the thing, or more precisely things.  These six tracks are all relatively new.  And I’m certain I played this album more than any other in 2019.  Every song is a burner, and Logitech’s “Leather Forecast” is the best jam I heard all year.  Plus it’s my blog so I can do what I want, so there.

Top 5 “New to Me” Bands/Performers

  1. Deli Girls
  2. OHMelectronic
  3. Blóðmör
  4. Hula
  5. Hvörf

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I already mentioned the first two artists in my Top 5 New Releases list, so let’s start with Blóðmör.  I’ve been in contact with the band’s guitarist/vocalist Haukur for a number of years – we connected online due to our mutual love of the bands HAM and DIMMA.  What I didn’t know until this year, though, is that Haukur had his own metal band, and they had a huge 2019, releasing both a demo and the six-song Líkþorn.  Plus, you know, they won Iceland’s annual battle of the bands.  Pretty killer year.  We got to meet Haukur after the Blóðmör show at Gaukurinn during Airwaves, and he couldn’t have been nicer.  I’ll be keeping my eyes on these guys in the future.

Hula is a sort of industrial dub band I discovered in the used section of Seattle’s Jive Time Records and over the course of the year I picked up a half dozen of their records, each one of them all-killer-no-filler.  There are still some titles I don’t have and I’ll definitely pick them up as I come across them.  Last but not least is Hvörf, a new collaboration between two tremendous Icelandic musicians, Jóhannes Birgir Pálmason and Þórir Georg.  Their debut, Music Library 01, is an impressive collection of eight tracks in two distinct styles, a more classical-based mood-setter and one that’s a bit more spacey with dialogue sampling.  It was an unexpected surprise at the end of the year, and a welcome one.

Top 5 Purchases/Acquisitions

  1. Þagað Í Hel – Þeyr
  2. Soðin – Blóðmör
  3. Nælur Compilation
  4. Artoffact Records Sale
  5. Three Boxes of Free Stuff

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It’s a bit odd that of the top three purchases on this list, only one was vinyl.  But oh, what a huge one!  While I still try to resist describing myself as a “collector”, I do have a handful of items on my “want” list that are probably there as much due to their rarity as they are for the music.  And at the number one position for probably the last five years has been Þeyr’s 1980 debut Þagað Í Hel.  As part of the first wave of Icelandic punk most of their stuff is hard to find, having been pressed in small quantities and rarely exported.  But Þagað Í Hel takes it to a different level, as I’ve been told that much of the print run was returned due to pressing flaws (and my copy has one of these on the B side) and the masters were destroyed so the songs themselves exist only on this vinyl release.  I had an alert set on Discogs for it, and the second a copy showed up for sale from Sweden I bought it, no questions asked.  That process seemed a bit anti-climactic, but I’m still glad to have the record.

Blóðmör’s super-limited live demo tape Soðin and the Nælur compilation CD both came to me via a good friend of mine in Iceland who always hooks me up with amazing stuff, and these two have been getting a lot of play since our return from Reykjavik.  The Artoffact label online sale resulted in a huge box of vinyl and CDs arriving on our doorstep, turning me onto a bunch of new-to-me bands like OHMelectronic, Individual Totem, and Images in Vogue, as well as giving me my first exposure to Die Krupps.  The last spot on the list is held down by three massive and heavy boxes of 1960s and 70s rock I got for free from someone at work.  A lot of it was stuff I’m not interested in, and quite a few of the jackets were water damaged and moldy, but I still pulled some gems out out there, and even though I had to throw out the jackets of the firs six Sabbath albums, the records inside were pristine, so I can’t complain.

Top 5 Live Shows

  1. A-Ha – Royal Albert Hall, London
  2. Fufanu – Urban Spree, Berlin
  3. Hatari – Reykjavik Art Museum, Reykjavik
  4. Hermigerville – Lucky Records, Reykjavik
  5. Foreign Monkeys – Jörgensen Kitchen & Bar, Reykjavik

We weren’t able to attend Iceland Airwaves in 2018, an absence that broke our nine year run of consecutive visits.  And in reflecting on it I realized what I missed the most was not, believe it or not, the music, though that was still a gaping hole in my November.  No, what I missed the most was seeing all the people who have become our friends over the course of a decade’s worth of Airwaves.  We have an entire crew’s wroth of friends who live in Reykjavik – Ingvar, Mumbi, Gestur, Jóhannes, Einar, Bob, Reynir, Leana, the hilarious shit-talking guy who runs the restaurant Shalimar… plus all our friends who travel in from points all over the globe – Tristen and Andy (US), Matt and Tanya (Canada), the KEXP crew (especially Kevin and Jim), Paul (Scotland)… it takes a village.  And this year we extended our Airwaves family even further, spending time with Rob and Olie and Oscar and Sarah… that’s what makes Airwaves so special.

Anyway, now that I’ve waxed poetic about that, the best show was, hands down, A-Ha at Royal Albert Hall (below).  When I told people we were going to that show I was surprised by how many people my age did not remember A-Ha at all, and those who did generally only knew them for “Take On Me”.  I forget how much of a nerd I am sometimes, as well as how big of an A-Ha fan Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane is.  So we made a special effort to see this show, and it was worth it.  The first set saw the band playing the entire Hunting High and Low album in order, and after a break they then went into a second set of their other material.  The venue was amazing, the sound perfect, and the video work tremendous.

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Fufanu playing in Berlin while we were there was an unexpected surprise, one we made sure to take advantage of.  Seeing them in a small venue like this was great and they were on top of their game.  The other three shows on the list were all from Airwaves, and two of them were off-venue.  Hermigerville’s set at Lucky Records was, unquestionably, the most fun I had at Airwaves this year; his joy in playing the music is infectious and the crowd was happy to come along for the ride.  The Foreign Monkeys set was in a hotel and there were only a few dozen of us there, but the guys tore it up and even some friends who tend to be a bit more ambivalent about rock clearly enjoyed their energy.

Top 5 Places to Buy Records

North America

  1. Easy Street Records, Seattle
  2. Reckless Records, Chicago
  3. Daybreak Records, Seattle
  4. Ranch Records, Bend (OR)
  5. Silver Platters, Seattle

The Rest of the World

  1. Lucky Records, Reykjavik
  2. Space Hall, Berlin
  3. Sister Ray, London
  4. Rough Trade West, London
  5. Hard Wax, Berlin

The top spots on both lists are pretty much on lockdown, at least on any year we make it to Reykjavik.  Easy Street is our local Seattle area go-to, and Lucky is a home-away-from-home in Iceland.

I didn’t do much traveling in the US this year, but a January business trip to Chicago found me in a hotel just a few blocks from Reckless, and I went there every night.  We also made it down to Bend, Oregon for a wedding and got to spend some time (and money) at Ranch Records where I found a few intriguing punk titles.  Daybreak in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood continues to impress with its variety and good prices, and the massive selection at the Seattle branch of Silver Platters is always worth a visit.

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The international list was a bit tougher to narrow down because we went to some outstanding shops in the UK, Germany, Denmark, and Iceland.  Berlin’s Space Hall (listening stations – right) is an essential stop, especially if you’re into electronic music.  Hard Wax, while not nearly as large as Space Hall, was well-curated and every single thing I flipped past seemed interesting.  In London I had my best used buying experiences at Rough Trade West and Sister Ray – I’m pretty sure I could have easily blown my entire vinyl budget for the trip in either of those stores.  There were some other great stops as well – London’s Phonica Records and Potsdam’s Silverspeed Records would have probably made the list any other year, but in 2019 the competition was steep.

Top 5 Music Books

  1. Stay Fanatic!!! Vol. 1 by Henry Rollins
  2. Facing the Other Way:  The Story of 4AD by Martin Aston
  3. England’s Hidden Reverse by David Keenan
  4. The 33 1/3 B-Sides by Will Stockton and D. Gilson (eds.)
  5. Revenge of the She Punks by Vivien Goldman

stayfanatic

I think I only read six music-related books in 2019, so this list wasn’t too hard to put together.  Henry Rollins’ Stay Fanatic!!! Vol. 1 just came out in November and it’s basically a journal-format love letter to music and record collecting covering a three year period.  It looks like Henry and the team have the next two volumes already in the works, so I’m sure I’ll devour those when they come out as well.  Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD was another high point as it opened my eyes to the 4AD label and turned me on to a number of bands I hadn’t heard of before, which is a big plus.  Same with England’s Hidden Reverse, which expanded my knowledge of some of the more fringe quasi-industrail performers who later became at least a bit more well-known like Coil, Current 93, and Nurse with Wound.

 

It’s hard to believe 2019 is in the books, but here we are again my friends.  We’re already starting to talk about travel plans for 2020 and it looks like the new year may take us to some new places on the planet, which means more new music to discover.  I can’t wait.

Iceland Airwaves 2019, Day 1

After a one year absence, Holly and I and our intrepid friend Norberto made it back to Reykjavik for our 10th Iceland Airwaves together.  Joined by Tristen (4th Airwaves) and Andy (3rd) we are rolling deep this year. And while I certainly missed the bands last year as a work project kept me confined state-side, what I missed most was seeing the friends we’ve made over the years attending the festival, be they folks who live in Iceland or those who, like us, make annual or sometimes sporadic visits to this rock in the Atlantic.

But first, Holly and I spent a few days in London at the start of the trip.  We did so specifically to see A-Ha perform at Royal Albert Hall (below), a two-set performance that featured all of Hunting High and Low in order, an intermission, then another dozen or so songs from the band’s catalog.  To see such a great band perform at such a seminal venue was indeed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and we enjoyed every minute of it.  A-Ha still has it, that’s for sure.  If they ever make it stateside again, we’ll definitely consider a trip to go see them.

aharoyalalbert After seeing A-Ha on a Tuesday night, it was off to Reykjavik for the start of Airwaves the very next day.  By time we got into the city, dropped off our bags, and made our way down to get our wristbands it was getting close to 6PM.  At the media center we got to say hi to our friends Bob and Ingvar from Lucky Records before dashing into the night in search of food followed by the first band at 8PM.  It wasn’t relaxing, but it’s why we’re here. Some nights we bounce around from venue to venue, others we camp out in one spot all night.  For Day 1 we opted for the latter and headed to the Reykjavik Art Museum because we really wanted to see the opening and closing bands there, plus as an added benefit sandwiched in the middle was up-and-comer and recently signed Sub Pop artist Orville Peck.

And away we go! First up was the trio Kælan Mikla.  We first saw them live at Airwaves back in 2015 and I for one was blown away by the sheer emotion their songs were drenched in, all angst and doom and beauty wrapped into one.  Since then we’ve seen them two more times at Airwaves, and again a couple of months ago in Seattle opening for Test Dept. That Seattle show revealed a more refined and intentional band, one confident in their abilities but one that also felt like it lost a little of that raw edge, that slightly open wound that you just can’t help but pick at.  However, they brought that back at Airwaves, especially in the vocals.  They owned the big room with both their music and their presences and it was definitely the best all-around show of theirs I’ve seen.  Next up was aYia, an intriguing trio about who not a lot is known and who have not yet released any material in a physical format, though they do have some stuff on Bandcamp HERE.  This was our second time seeing them and they delivered a dreamy set comprised of fluid electronics and almost mystical vocals.

That brought us to Orville Peck (below), the country-styled masked crooner who seems to be taking the online world by storm at the moment.  And it’s easy to understand why, with his (and his band’s) unique style of dress, easy presence on stage, and songs about transvestites who work in country bars.  They played ’em fast and they played ’em hard, and while this generally isn’t my thing, Peck is a great performer and it was a fun set, one I’m glad we got to see.

orvillepeckairwaves Last, but definitely far from least, we arrived at the promised land – Une Misère (below).  With a new album, Sermon, due on the shelves any day now, they found themselves in top form, a five-man hardcore and metal attack that will tear your spine from your body.  They flat out attacked the audience, which responded with a series of mosh pits and a fair amount of head-banging.  As if that wasn’t enough, one of my all time favorite Icelandic vocalists joined them on stage for a song – Arnór Dan Arnarson of Agent Fresco fame.  Never one to shy away from screaming into the mic, Arnór and Une Misère vocalist Jón Már Ásbjörnsson battled it out to see who could shred their vocal cords first, ending in a tie as neither broke down nor gave in.  I’m very much looking forward to their new album.

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As an added bonus, we were able to connect with some of our friends as well.  “Scotland Paul” (♠) and members of his crew caught up with us earlier in the evening, followed by “Vancouver Matt” (♣) and Tanya.  Catching up with old friends and making new ones is one of the best parts of Airwaves, and we can’t wait to hook up with more of them as the festival continues.

(♠)  As we refer to him at home, as in “did you see what Scotland Paul posted on Instagram today?”

(♣)  See above

A-Ha – “Hunting High And Low – The Early Alternate Mixes” (2019)

ahahuntingrsdA-Ha was Mrs. Life In The Vinyl Lane’s first favorite band and is still probably in her Top 3 (and maybe still #1), and we all know what an impact your first favorite band has on your musical life – you never ever forget them.  So when I saw there would be a Record Store Day release of early alternate mixes of their seminal album Hunting High And Low I knew I needed to be on the lookout for a copy.  Frankly I didn’t expect it to be that hard to find, even though the edition size was fairly small (2,450 copies… not 2,500 mind you, 2,450…) for such an iconic band, but we struck out locally.  Fortunately, however, Al Gore invented the internets I and was able to secure a copy for pretty much the retail price online via Discogs.  Thanks Al!

I’m not an expert on the A-Ha catalog.  Certainly I know the mega-hits from Hunting High And Low (“Take On Me” and “The Sun Always Shines On TV”) because, well, if you watched MTV at all in 1985-86 you couldn’t miss these videos – “Take On Me” in particular seemed to be played about once an hour for six months straight.  I also don’t have nearly enough experience with this record to hear the differences between the studio version and these alternate takes, though Holly certainly could.  What I can tell you is that this thing sounds perfect – no cracking, no hissing, pure sonic clarity.  In fact I’d say it’s probably one of the 10 best sounding records I own.  So if you’re interested, have no fear – these “early” takes are fully produced and sound tremendous.

a-ha – “Hits South America” (2016)

a-hahitssouthamericaI picked this RSD release up because Holly is both a big a-ha fan and likes live recordings. We’ve got a few other live a-ha albums, and while I’m generally ambivalent about the band, I’ve got to say that their live stuff always sounds great.

These five tracks were recorded in Brazil on the band’s 1981 South America tour, and apparently are all previously unreleased.  And let me tell you, the recording quality is outstanding, and this version of “Manhattan Skyline” is making me think I need to take a deeper listen to the a-ha catalog.  “Hunting High and Low” is also excellent with its combination acoustic guitar and strings opening.  The producer hit it out of the park here, striking the perfect balance between the vocals and music, with richness and depth to the sound.

My only complaint with Hits South America is the length – it’s a five song EP, and I feel like it could have easily been extended to a full length album that would have been outstanding.  I’m not sure why they chose this shorter format, though I’m glad that these songs were able to see some type of release.  This one is well worth the purchase if you’re an a-ha fan.

a-ha – “Twelve Inch Club” (1986)

a-ha12inchclubThis was another record I picked up at The Record Museum while visiting Hong Kong a few weeks ago.  I bought it primarily because Holly is a big fan of a-ha and I knew she’d think it was pretty cool, which turned out to be correct.

The four song EP Twelve Inch Club was one of two 12″ records released in 1986 only in Japan and featuring songs from a-ha’s mega-hit LP Hunting High and Low.  It appears, though, that the mixes may be different than the originals, as “Train of Thought” and “The Sun Always Shines on TV” are both credited as “(Steve Thompson Mix),” while “And You Tell Me” is a demo version.  The fourth track is a dub version of “Train of Thought.”  Interestingly the jacket cover appears to be a near copy of the band’s 1985 12″ Train of Thought.  The OBI strip on the bottom of Twelve Inch Club advertises the dates and locations of a-ha’s Japan shows scheduled for July 1986.

The two Steve Thompson mixes are both considerably longer than the originals, with each coming in at over seven minutes and including some long music-only interludes.  The demo version of “And You Tell Me” is almost identical in length to the original, and I’m not familiar enough with the a-ha catalog to be able to tell you how it differs from the album version.  The dub version of “Train of Thought” is a straight-up dance track, and an awfully good one at that.

Twelve Inch Club probably only appeals to the hard core a-ha fan, but if that’s you then you’re going to enjoy the extended versions of these tracks.