The Best of 2017

Unlike many Life in the Vinyl Lane blogs, I’m writing this one on the same day I’m posting it.  It’s Christmas morning, and out my living room window I can see the rare Seattle white Christmas in effect as we got about three inches of snow last night, which is a nice touch (it’ll be even nicer if it’s all melted off the roads by time I have to leave for work on Wednesday morning…).  But since we don’t have kids and both of us have very small immediate families, this morning is much like any other winter-time weekend, only with different holiday-themed coffee cups.

Going into 2017 I decided to start keeping a log to help me with my year-end lists, and while I wasn’t as diligent as I’d have liked it still was a big help, especially in the area of new releases.  There was a lot of great new music this year!  In fact, there was so much that the choices weren’t all that easy to make.  Since Holly and I both have project management backgrounds, though, we were able to come up with a solution – we created a scrum board of our favorite 16 releases of 2017 and then used a random number generator to select which one we would play every night as we worked our way through them.  And I’m glad we did, because there were some albums from earlier in the year that had fallen off our radars a bit, and man they sounded great when we came back around to them.

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In preparation I also spent a few hours combing through the top albums lists of various major (and minor) publications and blogs.  Perhaps even more so in years past I was struck by two things.  The first is how few of the albums on other lists I’ve heard.  In fact, when it came to the major pubs (think Rolling Stone, SPIN, NME…) I literally had only heard ONE album on any of these lists – Songhoy Blues’ Résistance, which appeared at #31 on the Rolling Stone list, though nowhere else.  The only other one I found was in The Quietus‘ top metal albums list, having heard and reviewed Sólstafir’s Berdreyminn.    So at least there’s that.  Only Dr. Rok’s list of Top 20 Icelandic releases yielded any common ground – I’ve heard 14 of these, which probably is indicative of the real issue here, which is that I listen to a lot of Icelandic music, and that stuff doesn’t generally make the year-end lists with a few exceptions.  And that brings me to my second observation.  I’m surprised how many of the bands on these lists I have never even heard of.  In fact, on most lists I’m lucky to have heard of maybe a quarter of the artists, sometimes less.  For a guy who writes a music blog, I sure don’t seem to know much about what’s happening in music.

All that being said, the scrum board has been taken down and the votes tallied.  So without further ado…

Top 5 New Releases In 2017

  1. Neysluvara – Hatari (Iceland)
  2. Midnight Champion – Legend (Iceland)
  3. Suero – Farmacia (Argentina)
  4. Space Cadaver – Space Cadaver (US – New Orleans)
  5. Sports – Fufanu (Iceland)

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There were two albums I knew were going to be in my Top 5 even before the scrum board experiment – Neysluvara and Midnight Champion.  They were clearly head-and-shoulders above all comers in 2017.  While Legend held an edge over Hatari by virtue of the fact that they put out a full album while their island-mates only gave us a four-song EP (and one that was only on CD to boot!), we were both simply blown away by Hatari.  Neysluvara‘s brand of IDM has been pumping out of my iPod almost non-stop over the last two months and it doesn’t get old.  If I’m being honest Hatari probably gets a little extra lift by the fact that we saw them live this year and they blew us away.  I get that that shouldn’t impact a top album kind of thing, but as Holly pointed out, this is a blog and music is a personal experience, and it’s hard to separate out those personal experiences from the music itself.  So as much as I love Midnight Champion, both musically and lyrically, I’m giving the top spot by Hatari.

Suero had fallen off the radar for a while and revisiting it reminded me of just how good it is.  If there’s one thing that separates it from Space Cadaver and Sports, it’s the sonic experimentation the Argentinian’s do.  Sure, it’s all electronic music; but it’s all over the board, from pure dance numbers to crazy experiments.  And I’d be lying if the personal connection we made with the Sima brothers earlier this year on our visit to Buenos Aires didn’t have an impact on my feelings about this album.  Space Cadaver is unquestionably my favorite metal album of 2017, and while I think it’s only available on cassette you owe it to yourself to get a copy and go buy a cheap boom box at the pawn shop so you can listen to it (or, of course, simply buy a download, you know, if you’re lazy like that), and Fufanu hit it out of the post-punk park with Sports.  From a genre standpoint I’m very happy with this Top 5 list as there’s great stuff here for people of almost any musical taste.

Top 5 “New to Me” Bands/Performers

  1. Hatari (Iceland)
  2. Farmacia (Argentina)
  3. Kuldaboli (Iceland)
  4. Revenge of Calculon (UK)
  5. Egyptian Lover (US)

I’ve already touched on the top two bands on this list, so let me move on to the next three.  Kuldaboli’s Vafasamur Lífsstíll 2015-2016 came out at the very end of 2016, and if I’d heard it then instead of early this year it probably would have made my top five new releases list last year – it’s that good.  I got to see him perform live at Lucky Records during Airwaves this years as well as chat with him for a few minutes – good dude.  We caught Revenge of Calculon live in the cramped, damp confines of Dillon on the last day of Airwaves and they killed it with their brand of electro-movie-horror-funk and since then I’ve picked up all four of their 7″ records.  As for Egyptian Lover… how had I gone this long without ever having heard the Lover before??  I can thank our friend Ingvar for this one.  We were chatting about music over dinner when he visited Seattle and was dumbfounded by my lack of Egyptian experience.  The next day at Silver Platters he walked up to me with a box set, pressed it in my hands, and said “you need to buy this”.  And he was right. Takk, Ingvar!

Top 5 Vinyl Purchases

  1. “Tug of War” b/w “Give Me the Knife” – Connections
  2. Driving the Bats Thru Jerusalem – Bonemen of Barumba
  3. 20 Jazz Funk Greats – Throbbing Gristle
  4. Special Offer – Sensational
  5. Suero – Farmacia

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Four of the five items on this list have some kind of personal connection, actually resulting in me becoming connected with the artists.  The totally random pick-up of the Connections 7″ led me to former member Nolan Anderson and his lovely wife Catherine, who today perform as the Mad Andersons.  I was able to provide a ripped copy of the songs to Nolan, which he hadn’t heard in decades, and that made me feel really good.

My post on Bonemen of Barumba somehow found its way to former founding member Mark Panick, who stunned me when he posted on Facebook that he liked the fact that I obviously “got it” in terms of what the band was doing.  We later connected online, only to come to find out that we have a friend in common – the one and only Ingvar of Reykjavik’s Lucky Records.  Mark even sports a Lucky t-shirt in a video he was in earlier this year.  Ingvar struck again with Sensational, who I turned him onto during his trip to Seattle and who he then, against all logical odds, ran into randomly on the streets of NYC just days later.  That led to me Facebook messaging with Sensational a bit and buying some mail order from him.

Oddly enough Iceland also played a part in us connecting with Ariel and Diego Sima of Farmacia in Buenos Aires – their album Suero was put out on cassette by Reykjavik’s Lady Boy Records.  We thoroughly enjoyed our time with the brothers while in Argentina and picked up a bunch of their back catalog from them.  As for Throbbing Gristle… this one was purely about acquisition.  My local record haunt Vortex posted on FB that they’d just acquired a bunch of experimental stuff from a local DJ and I immediately wend down to the store where I scored a couple of great condition TG titles, a great opportunity to explore some of the early works of the pioneers of industrial music.

Top 5 Live Shows

  1. Hatari – Gamla Bíó, Reykjavik
  2. Sir Mix-A-Lot – Nectar Lounge, Seattle
  3. Metallica – CenturyLink Field, Seattle
  4. Revenge of Calculon – Dillon, Reykjavik
  5. GusGus – Reykjavik Art Museum, Reykjavik

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I thought I had this list wrapped up about a week ago.  And I did.  At least until we headed out to Nectar Lounge on Dec. 23 and caught Sir Mix-A-Lot live, which forced me into a last-minute revision.

I covered the Hatari, Revenge of Calculon, and Gusgus shows in my various posts from Iceland Airwaves this year, and actually did the same about Metallica when I wrote about the live CD of this actual show.  Each of these shows gave me something different.  Hatari was a brilliant performance, an integration of stage presence and music; Metallica was a chance to revisit my youth, the first time I’d seen the masters of thrash live since the late 1980s; Revenge of Calculon was one of those great unexpected surprises you sometimes get at live shows; and Gusgus… what more can I say about Gusgus?  They gave us a 90 minute set that had the crowd swaying and dancing the entire time and were musically brilliant as always.

As for Mix-A-Lot, he’s Seattle hip hop royalty and his 1986 debut LP Swass spent a lot of time in the cassette player of my ’84 Mustang when I was in high school.  He did shows on back-to-back nights at the intimate Nectar Lounge (max capacity 400) in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood last weekend and we had a blast at the Saturday night gig.  In addition to some new stuff, Mix gave us a ton of classics like “Testarossa”, “Beepers”, “My Hooptie”, “Swass”, and even a little “Buttermilk Biscuits”.  Of course he also played his mega-hit “Baby Got Back”, but as a Seattleite and long-time Sir Mix-A-Lot fan there was one song I HAD to hear, and he gave it to us – “Posse on Broadway”.  Rest assured Mix fans, he’s still got it.  Posse up!

Top 5 Places to Buy Records

North America
1.  Easy Street Records, Seattle
2.  Daybreak Records, Seattle
3.  Disko Obscura, New Orleans
4.  Skully’z Recordz, New Orleans
5.  Extremem Noise Records, Minneapolis

The Rest of the World
1.  Lucky Records, Reykjavik
2.  Reykjavik Record Shop, Reykjavik
3.  Smekkleysa, Reykjavik
4.  Tempo Musica, Buenos Aires
5.  Reykjavik Flea Market

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I swear, much of these lists don’t change don’t change from year to year.  It would be a weird for Easy Street not to be #1 for me in North America given how often we go there, though the relatively new Daybreak Records definitely gives Easy Street a run for its money in the area of used vinyl.  Our trip to New Orleans didn’t yield a ton of music, but Disko Obscura’s collection of great synth albums was well worth the visit and the guy over at Skully’z turned us on to Space Cadaver and some good punk and metal stuff, which was cool.  I’ve been to Minneapolis a bunch of times, but somehow never made it to Extreme Noise, an oversight I was glad to correct this year – tons of great punk and metal there.  We have a trips to Portland (OR) and Denver already on the books for the first half of 2018, so I definitely have some more good record shopping in my future.

We didn’t do as much international travel this year has we have in the recent past, only visiting two countries – Iceland and Argentina (hard to say we “only” got to take two international trips this year… we’re super-fortunate to be able to travel as much as we do). Unfortunately the one thing we found to be expensive in Argentina was vinyl, which was seemingly completely out of whack with reality.  I found some exciting early punk stuff, but at $150+ per record US I just couldn’t do it.  I broke down and picked up a couple of titles, but our best success was in the tiny Tempo Musica where we loaded up on local CDs thanks to a lot of help from the owner (and some recommendations from a couple of guys working at a food truck earlier in the day!).  The rest of the shops are all in Reykjavik and you’ve likely heard me prattle on about them endlessly in the past, but all are great places to check out should you find yourself in Iceland.

Top 5 Music Books

  1. Art Sex Music by Cosey Fanni Tutti
  2. Lou Reed:  A Life by Anthony DeCurtis
  3. Complicated Fun: The Birth of Minneapolis Punk and Indie Rock, 1974-1984 by Cyn Collins
  4. Disco’s Out…Murder’s In!: The True Story of Frank the Shank and L.A.’s Deadliest Punk Rock Gang by Heath Mattioli and David Spacone
  5. I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp by Richard Hell

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I didn’t do as much music reading this year as I have in years past – probably only 7-8 books total.  That being said, I’m comfortable in recommending all of these to you.  Art Sex Music is head and shoulders above the rest, giving us as it does a glimpse into the 1970s experimental scene in the UK by Throbbing Gristle member and artist Cosey Fanni Tutti.  Tutti isn’t afraid to let us know anything about her life and art, and her seemingly near-complete transparency makes for a powerful, if at times sad, read.  I have a tremendous amount of respect for her and her work.  DeCurtis’ book on Lou Reed was deeply researched and I was primarily drawn to the more pure biographical aspects of the narrative, not so much the minutiae of Reed’s individual releases.  Complicated Fun is an entertaining and informative oral history of the Minneapolis scene, one that in many ways is reminiscent of Seattle’s, while the last two are entertaining first person tellings of hard punk rock lives.  It also features our very own Kevin Cole from Seattle’s KEXP radio, as Kevin was a noted DJ and record store owner in Minneapolis during the era.  it’s a small, small world.

 

Well, there you have it, my faithful readers.  Thank you, as always, for your support and comments.  While at times the pure need to write overwhelms me to the point where I feel like it’s something I have to do in order to not spontaneously combust, Life in the Vinyl Lane doesn’t exist in a vacuum and it’s put me in touch with some amazing people over the years, perhaps no year more so than 2017.  And it’s these connections that make it a truly special experience.  So no matter where you’re reading this, I say “thank you”, and I’ll see you in 2018!

Bonemen of Barumba (1981-84)

No matter how big of a music fan you think you are, no matter how much time you spend scouring the internet and talking to people in record stores and reading obscure zines, inevitably there are tons of great musicians and bands that you will never hear of, let alone actually hear with your own ears.  It would be foolish to not recognize that there are a few, if not dozens (or hundreds) of performers you would absolutely fall in love with if you ever heard them… but because life is short there’s a good chance your paths will never cross.  It would be easy to feel anxious and sad and nihilistic about this.  But I prefer to see it as exciting, because you never know what might be around the next corner or in the next dollar bin.

I wasn’t looking for Bonemen of Barumba records when I ran across their 1982 EP Driving The Bats Thru Jerusalem at my local joint Vortex the other day.  That’s not because I thought Vortex was an unlikely spot to find them, but because I’d never heard of them before.  I pulled it from the rack because the cover had that early 1980s vibe to it, that sort of Crass format that screamed punk rock.  It was only a few bucks so I rolled the dice and got more than I bargained for, because it’s a four-song burner.  I was going to write about it right then and there, but I got so caught up in the music that instead I went straight to the internet, first to Discogs and then eBay, and bought both their other releases (their 1981 self-titled 10″ and sole LP, 1984s Icons) and for good measure spent seven bucks on a vintage press kit some intrepid soul had listed and probably secretly doubted they’d ever sell.  I figured I’d wait for all that stuff to arrive and then work my way through the Bonemen’s modest catalog all in one sitting.  And that is how I found myself sitting here on a Saturday with my second cup of coffee and ready to get after it.

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Looking over the press kit as well as some stuff online, the basic gist of the Bonemen story is that the first iteration of the band formed as the result of a chance meeting of Tom Jonusaitis and Mark Panick at Mardi Gras in 1981.  That led to the aforementioned five-song 10″ Bonemen of Barumba.  After receiving some positive feedback on that effort they brought together a larger group of musicians and creative types to help them perform live and also expand the group’s reach outside of music and into things like videos and floats (like as in an actual parade float).  Chicago-based but nomadic, they found some success in Europe and Japan as well as parts of the US, but unfortunately went their separate ways following the release of Icons a few years later.  They got some solid press, especially for Driving The Bats Thru Jerusalem, though I found this clip from their kit particularly telling, not so much for the review but because of the notation about Adam Ant and Bow Wow Wow:

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“Disregard”.  No one can accuse the Bonemen of not being opinionated.

Bonemen of Barumba (1981) 10″

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At five songs and under nine minutes the Bonemen’s debut was a “don’t blink or you’ll miss it” affair.  Opening with a brief tribal drumming sequence we rage right into the in-your-face “Government Money”, a song that combines tribal beats, a militaristic chorus, and some fuzzy guitars into an anti-government anthem.  That’s followed by the Purrkur Pillnikk-esque “Is It That Time Again?” that uses some grating guitar progressions and shouted/whiney vocals to create an overall sense of agitation.  The flip side (listed on the back as the “Not So Annoying Side”) kicks off with the pure goth-rock of “Walking With The Deadman”, a tune combining old-school country with early Joy Division (think Warsaw era) to give you something gloomy, bizarre, and fantastic.  The album closes with a reggae track, because why not?  “Rankers Chant” has a bit of that white reggae feel à la The Clash about it, though played a bit slower than the English punks were known for.  Five songs, five different styles.  The consistent element is the overall “rebel against The Man” theme to the lyrics.

Driving The Bats Thru Jerusalem (1982) EP

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Driving The Bats Thru Jerusalem sees the Bonemen stick with their tribal drumming style, but things take a more post-punk turn.  They also seem to become a bit less experimental and more intentional in their sound, even to the point of ensuring all four songs are of radio-friendly length, ranging from 3:30 to just a shade over five minutes.

“Pity It Ain’t” certainly has a dose of punk rock to it, and it’s one of the band’s best numbers.  “Talk Is Fat” reverts a bit back to the “Is It That Time Again?” vibe from the previous record, though a bit more funky in the rhythm section.  On the reverse “Thick Promise” is a rock-solid post-punk jam, all dark and moody and attitude (plus saxophone… because 1980s!), and the closer “Toombah For Ronnie” adds some dub elements that remind me of something that On-U would have put out around the same time.

Driving The Bats Thru Jerusalem is much more stylistically consistent than Bonemen of Barumba.  It may be an example of a band thinking to itself, “you know, we’re actually pretty good and if we stopped messing around we can probably put out some solid songs”.

Icons (1984) LP

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Icons continues the Bonemen’s move into a darker direction, and I’m finally hearing why people often refer to them as “goth rock”.  I didn’t hear anything too gothy on the first two records with the possible exception of “Walking With The Deadman,” but now the band has moved into some gloomy territory.

An interesting side note, I found another blog that wrote about this record back in 2010 and the blogger commented that while the vinyl looked pristine his copy had some sections that skipped.  The same is true of mine, which also looks super clean and got caught in a skip cycle early on the first track “Don’t Tell”.  However, because of how clean the skip was (i.e. you couldn’t tell it was skipping per se until you realized the beat had just stayed the same for a couple of minutes) I’m beginning to wonder if it isn’t a locked groove, and given the odd nature of the Bonemen I wouldn’t be surprised if this was done intentionally. (♠)  They rhythms continue to flirt heavily with funk (check out “Pain Turtle”).

Lyrically we stay on the downer side with tales of the being beaten down, broken relationships, three songs that refer to hell, and another two that use the word corpse.  It is not, to be clear, uplifting.  Perhaps the most intriguing song in this regard is “Jesus Made of Wood,” which has not one but two vocal segments that are done in Finnish, and I have no idea what that’s all about. (♣)

 

For my money Driving The Bats Thru Jerusalem is the Bonemen of Barumba at their best, showing as it does an interesting mix of musical styles.  Icons is a good record, but it doesn’t stick out in the same was as its predecessors do – by then the band had moved more towards a specific genre.

(♠)  I have no proof of this, it is purely a conspiracy theory.  But I like a good conspiracy theory.

(♣)  Both these verses use the Finnish word “helvetti”, which means “hell”, so I count this as one of the three hell songs on the album.  If you don’t like it you can go to helvetti.