The Best of 2018

Where did the year go?  In my case, most of it seemingly went to work.  It was a busy year professionally, with a major work project consuming most of it and even keeping us from attending Iceland Airwaves, our first absence from that festival in a decade.  But the good news is that the product launch was pretty successful, so things should return to normal next year.  And to make sure we already bought our tickets for Iceland Airwaves 2019, so hopefully we’ll see you in Reykjavik in November.

It wasn’t all work in 2018, even though sometimes it felt that way.  We took a great trip to Japan and Korea in the Spring and enjoyed long weekends in Portland, Denver, and New York City, all of which involved record shopping.  The blog suffered a bit, however.  This was my lightest year of posting since Life in the Vinyl Lane started back in 2012.  I’ll finish the year somewhere just north of 180 posts, which is a lot, though not even close to the 222 I wrote the year before (and that’s even less than the years before).  Trust me – the reason had nothing to do with not having enough great music to write about.  It was just a matter of time.

Whether you’re a regular reader of Life in the Vinyl Lane or just pop by from time to time, I’d like to thank you.  Feel free to drop me a note any time and let me know what you think, or what I need to listen to, because I love hearing from you.

So with all that being said, here’s Life in the Vinyl Lane’s Best of 2018!  Keep it punk.

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Top 5 New Releases In 2018

  1. Lies Are More Flexible – Gusgus (Iceland)
  2. Electrostatic – Individual Totem (Germany)
  3. Death Is A True Prophet – ERZH (Iceland)
  4. Bring Down The House Lights – Dirty Sidewalks (US)
  5. Digital Garbage – Mudhoney (US)

2018 was a truly outstanding year for music, both generally and for me personally – quite a few of my favorite artists put out releases.  In fact, of the 24 different performers who have graced my Top 5 New Releases lists since 2012, 10 of them put out new albums this year, including three who held down the #1 spot on a previous list.  To get to the Top 5 this year we started with about 60 albums, whittled that down to the final 20. and then listened to those again over the last few weeks.  Arriving at the final seven was easy, but trimming that down to five… man, it was tough.

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The top spot, however, was a pretty easy choice for me.  I’m a huge fan of Gusgus and have been through their various iterations and changing styles.  Their latest release, Lies Are More Flexible, found the group down to just two core members and moving in a more heavily musical direction with outstanding results.  I know not everyone is sold – most of my friends who are also Gusgus fans lean towards either the instrumental or the vocal tracks on the album, loving half of it and not caring as much for the other.  But to my ears it’s all outstanding.

The next two albums weren’t released on vinyl, but that wasn’t going to keep them off the list.  I was a latecomer to the world of Individual Totem, but their new CD creates a dark electro buzz in my brain that has me wanting to explore their back catalog. ERZH’s Death Is A True Prophet is the third heavily electronic album on the list, one physically released only via cassette from Iceland’s FALK label, which continues to pump out infatuating albums by little-known hyper-talented artists.  The Top 5 rounds out with a pair of Seattle-based bands, newcomer psych-stars Dirty Sidewalks and grunge/punk veterans Mudhoney.  Mudhoney edged out a few other challengers (most notably Fufanu) for the #5 spot primarily on the strength of Digital Garbage‘s lyrics, a combination of snark and venom aimed at the direction things are taking in American society these days, which I found to be poignant.

Top 5 “New to Me” Bands/Performers

  1. Rammstein (Germany)
  2. Executive Slacks (US)
  3. Chinas Comidas (US)
  4. GRÓA (Iceland)
  5. Holz (US)

Oddly enough the top artist on this list is one I’ve never written about, nor do I have any of their albums on vinyl, even though they’ve been around forever.  I decided to finally check out Rammstein after, believe it or not, seeing the opening scene to the original xXx movie which featured the Germans playing the song “Feuer Frei!” in a club.  Within a few weeks we had about half a dozen Rammstein CDs and were playing them constantly on our iPods.

Top 5 Vinyl Purchases

  1. Medical Records Catalog
  2. Unholy Death – N.M.E.
  3. Ork Records: New York, New York
  4. Korean Metal
  5. Ravno Do Dna – Azra

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Over one of the holiday weekends earlier this year, Seattle’s Medical Records label posted on their Facebook page that everything on their Bandcamp page was something like 30% off.  I shot them a quick note asking if that included the package deal they offer whereby you can order one copy of every single release they still have in stock, figuring there was no way they’d say yes.  And they said yes.  I did the mental math, factoring in how many duplicates this would mean for me based on stuff I already had, and pulled the trigger.  In just a few days two massive boxes showed up on my front porch.  The final count was just over 50 assorted LPs and 12″ vinyl, plus a few 7″ records and even a cassette.  I still haven’t managed to get through all of this synthy goodness, but everything I’ve pulled off the shelf so far has been awesome.

Unholy Death has a local tie and led to Holly and I taking a field trip, which you can read about if you click the link above.  I got a screaming deal on a used copy of the Ork Records: New York, New York box set, and was excited to find that the unused download card were still inside.  Buying 1980s Korean metal in an (literally) underground market area that included a half dozen stores made for a fun afternoon in Seoul, and the copy of Ravno Do Dna had a surprise inside, three old postcards from Yugoslavia, which was kind of cool.

None of this stuff was particularly valuable or ultra-rare, but instead things that resonated with me.  The money is just a means to get more music!

Top 5 Live Shows

  1. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Roseland Theater, Portland
  2. Henry Rollins – Neptune Theater, Seattle
  3. Dream Wife – Barboza, Seattle
  4. Mudhoney – Neptune Theater, Seattle
  5. Devil Makes Three – Red Rocks Ampitheater, Colorado

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We only saw five shows in 2018.  Given that we didn’t make it to Airwaves, that’s probably about typical, though.  This year’s clear winner was Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (right).  We first saw them a few years back at an outdoor show in Salt Lake City, which was fun, but BRMC are a band that feels like it belongs in a dark club somewhere.  And while the Rosalind isn’t a club, it’s pretty intimate and plenty dark inside, and the band sounded incredible.

I wasn’t sure if Henry Rollins qualified for the list, since we saw his spoken word travel photography show.  But he’s a musician, and it’s my blog, so I guess I can do what I want.  Henry talked at 100 mph for 2.5 hours straight, never once stopping for a break, sitting down, or even taking a single sip of water.  And I’m not exaggerating.  Henry has more energy than should be humanly possible.

It was exciting to see Dream Wife outside of Reykjavik, even more so since I’d just done a 30 minute phone interview with lead singer Rakel a few weeks prior for the newly released issue of Reykjavik On Stage.  For Mudhoney, this was our second time seeing them do a record release show, having gone to the one for Vanishing Point as well, and the mosh pit was off the charts.  The list rounds out with our second time seeing Devil Makes Three at Red Rocks.  They’re alway outstanding – this was either my 6th or 7th time experiencing them live and they never disappoint.

Top 5 Places to Buy Records

North America (excluding the greater Seattle area)

  1. 1709 Records, Vancouver (WA)
  2. Green Noise Records, Portland
  3. Twist & Shout Records, Denver
  4. Academy Records Annex, Brooklyn
  5. Mississippi Records, Portland

The Rest of the World

  1. Time Bomb Records, Osaka
  2. Stereo Records, Hiroshima
  3. Seoul Record Mall, Seoul
  4. Compufunk Records, Osaka
  5. Jet Set Records, Kyoto

I decided to not include any Seattle-area shops this year.  After all, Easy Street Records, which just got named to Rolling Stone‘s top 10 record stores in the US, will probably be #1 on my North America list from now until forever, and there are a number of other local shops I love too.  Plus we traveled enough in the US this year to easily come up with a list of five stores that I want to get back to again someday.

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1709 Records was a very pleasant surprise when I found myself with a few hours to kill on a business trip to Vancouver, Washington, and I came away with some cool Green River and Scratch Acid vinyl.  Portland’s Green Noise has been around for a while, though this was the first time we’d ever stopped by.  It just moved to a location a few blocks from another perennial Top 5 favorite, Mississippi Records (#5 this year, and remember kids – always bring cash, because they don’t take plastic!), so I’m sure it’ll be a regular stop on future visits to Rip City.

timebombosaka1As for the rest of the world, this is the first time no stores in Reykjavik made the list, which gave me more space for other stuff.  Osaka’s Time Bomb was perfectly laid out and organized, and every single record accurately graded.  I could have spent hours there.  Stereo Records wasn’t even on our list of shops to visit in Hiroshima – we found it because it was across the street from a shop we were actually looking for, and it offered a deep selection of excellent condition titles.  I almost included the Osaka branch of Tower Records, and not just for nostalgia reasons – the CD selection was of course filled with Japanese releases, both artists as well as special editions, plus I got a cool old-school Tower t-shirt that always elicits comments when I wear it.  Bonus points to Compufunk for also being a club, a fully stocked bar, and an amazing view of the river in Osaka.

Top 5 Music Books

  1. Beastie Boys Book, by Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz
  2. Sticky Fingers:  The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine, by Joe Hagan
  3. The Mudd Club, by Richard Boch
  4. Zounds Demystified, by Steve Lake
  5. Factory, by Mick Middles

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I should confess that I only managed to read six music-related books in 2018, so this wasn’t too tough to put together.  The Beastie Boys Book is a great journey through the lives of Mike and the two Adams, with tons of pictures and commentary from assorted friends and fellow artists.  I also enjoyed Sticky Fingers, an in depth biography of Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner.  Wenner is extraordinarily driven, and while at times Hagan’s portrait of him is less than flattering there is no denying Wenner’s ambition and confidence (and the one-time magnitude of his cocaine habit). Richard Boch’s memoir of his time as the doorman of NYC’s infamous Mudd Club is a seemingly honest portrayal of the grittiness of the city in the late 1970s, a city populated by young people who were simply surviving day by day in a dystopian urban environment that offered little in the way of a future and plenty of drugs.  Zounds Demystified is a stream-of-consciousness  history of the post-punk band Zounds written by a former member, and Factory tells the story of the infamous and influential Factory Records label.

 

It’s hard to believe 2018 is already in the books.  Mind you, I think I say that every year – the older I get, the shorter the years seem to be.  I’m excited for a fresh start in 2019 and can’t wait to see what it has in store for us!

Dirty Sidewalks – “Bring Down The House Lights” (2018)

In the interest of full disclosure I feel like I should tell you from the outset that I know Dirty Sidewalks guitarist Evan Foster.  I don’t even remotely consider myself to be a journalist or anything, but I do try to have a certain amount of integrity in my blogging (♠) so let’s just get this out there.  Evan and I went to high school together and got along well enough, though I don’t ever remember us hanging out outside of school and I’m guessing that we saw each other no more than two times during the two-plus decades between graduating and last November (♣).  We re-connected via Facebook and eventually in person at Airwaves when Evan was in Reykjavik performing with The Sonics, where we shared (and spilled) beers and generally had a good time catching up.  So there you have it.

ANYWAY… prior to his recent work with The Sonics, Evan spent over a decade recording with the surf/garage outfit Boss Martians and now he’s paired up with brother Erik and bassist Evan O’Neil to put out a full-length under the name Dirty Sidewalks.  Bring Down The House Lights dropped last month and it’s been on near constant rotation on my iPod and turntable, because, well, it’s the most exciting new release of 2018 so far bar none.  Sure, we’re only a month-and-a-half into the year.  I get it.  And I’m sure I’ll drop more hyperbole on you over the next few months.  But I can promise you this puppy will be getting consideration for my year-end lists in December.  It’s that good.

I caught up with Erik a few weeks ago and got the chance to ask him a few questions about the new record.

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Dirty Sidewalks isn’t exactly a new project – you put out a few singles under that name over the last few years.  Why was now the right time to go into the studio for a full-length album?

ERIK FOSTER:  Technically, we started Dirty Sidewalks in 2010. Being that we were recording Bring Down the House Lights on our own time, in our own home studio, we wanted to make sure we weren’t rushing to get the album done for the sake of getting it done. We tried to really spend time arranging the songs, dialing tones and developing the overall production. The album had gone through a couple different revisions and a few rounds of mixes, but it was the kind of situation where we knew that we would know when it was done. Once we knew it was done, we knew it was the right time to release it.

One of the surprising things about Dirty Sidewalks is that, based on the credits, all the “drumming” is programmed.  But what’s even more intriguing to me is the role that bassist Evan O’Neil plays in the band.  Not only is he a “rhythm section” without a human partner, but to my ears his bass is given a lot of room to contribute on Bring Down The House Lights.  It feels like the bass is given a prominent, expressive role in the Dirty Sidewalks.  Is there a band philosophy as to how you want the bass to contribute to the overall sound?

ERIK:  As far as the “drumming” on the album, it’s kind of a “sum of all the parts” scenario. Yes, a lot of the drums are sequenced, however, there are a lot of live drums and percussion happening as well. Then amidst all of that, there are also loops and samples happening too. It’s definitely a pastiche. The bass is definitely a key part of what we do. Originally, O’Neil and I started the band as a duo (us + drum machine). Bass is always important, but I feel like when you’re in a 2-piece situation it’s extra important, so we were always striving to make sure the bass was booming, yet chugged like a ghost train, and had really had it’s own voice. Once my brother officially started playing with us it gave us a unique opportunity to take what we’d developed and open it up, making room for O’Neil to get a little more wild with his bass parts.

This album opens crazy strong with “Rock & Roll (Save My Soul)”, which is unquestionably one of its best jams.  This might be an odd question… but what is it that makes rock ’n’ roll so self-reverential?  There are so many great rock songs about rock and rocking… what is it about rock music that drives you as musicians to celebrate it?  It’s not something we hear in other genres.

ERIK:  True. I’ve never heard anyone talk about “jazzing” or how hard they “Jazz”. For me, rock music, in it’s various forms, has always made sense to me. It’s always been there for me, and I’ve generally found it to be relatable. That said, I definitely feel like the act of rocking should be celebrated. It’s my way of giving back to a genre that given me so much.

Lyrically “Bring Down The House Lights” has a bit of an outsider feel, sort of James Dean-ish… the cool guy with his hands in his pockets and sort of hunched up shoulders who knows he doesn’t quite fit into what everyone else seems to be about.  It’s a feeling best expressed in what might be my favorite song on the album, “Heard You Want To Kill Me” with it’s “I heard / you wanna kill me / that’s OK / I don’t blame you / I heard / You wanna call me / I don’t care / If you do.  Is that part of the perspective of the album, or just maybe something I’m internalizing from it (which is not to even remotely imply that I’m “cool”!)?

ERIK:  The album definitely has an outsider perspective at times, with vague optimism sprinkled in for good measure. I’ve heard other people say this before, but its totally true (for me at least) – sometimes the lyrics will come straight from the subconscious mind, and you wont realize what they mean or it’s about until later. It’s a trip. That said, I’m a big fan of lyrics meaning different things to different people.

Things take a bit of a darker turn in the middle of the album with “Euphoria” and “Black Holes”.  The latter in particular is a bit experimental… I think all the lyrics are samples from Stephen Hawking?  

 ERIK:  Yes, the vocals in that are an excerpt from a Stephen Hawking piece. Legend.

What are you guys listening to and into right now?  Any new bands we should be checking out?

ERIK:  I’ve been listening to the new Jupe Jupe album Lonely Creatures, Joe Waine’s most recent album Pantomime, lots of Glen Campbell, Bo Diddley, and Jim Sullivan’s album that Light in the Attic re-issued.

 

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If Bring Down The House Lights has one defining characteristic, it’s sonic density.  The Dirty Sidewalks Bandcamp page categorizes them as garage rock and shoegaze, and there are certainly elements of both in their music.  But there’s also a heavy dose of modern psych, especially in the way they use the space provided by those four or so minutes each song lasts.  One of my personal criticisms of psych is that after a half dozen or so songs my ears simply get tired and I need a break from it, but Dirty Sidewalks avoid that trap; instead they combine the best facets of psych and shoegaze without getting caught up in the pretentious excesses that those genres have a tendency to devolve into.  The instrumentation is rich and full while maintaining subtleness and the vocals are self-depricating without becoming morose.

I like a rock album that opens strong with a catchy rocker.  Sure, there are exceptions (♥), but I want to kick things off right and get into the mood to sneer and drink beer and rail against The Man.  So fortunately for me Bring Down The House Lights opens with a power-jam, and one that even specifically emphasizes the power of rock, “Rock & Roll (Save My Soul)”.  Rockers love to make songs about rocking (♦) and this is no exception, setting the table and letting us know that this record is going to rock our faces off.  Erik’s vocal delivery is all smooth cool ambivalence, the quintessential white-t-shirt-and-black-leather-jacket brand of rock that has pissed off the jocks and made the girls swoon for decades.  From there “Never Wanted to be Loved” takes in a more indie rock direction, maintaining that overall attitude of lyrical indifference with a dose of punk rock sneering.  By the time we get to “Always” Holly looked up from her phone to declare, “damn this is a good album”.  I know, right?  The guitar work is taking on a bit of an 80s feel but the vocals have a bit of that Black Rebel Motorcycle Club vibe.  And the tambourine… the goddamn tambourine!  It shouldn’t work.  Intellectually I want to hate it.  But I don’t.  I love it in spite of myself.

During my initial listens I was primarily smitten with “Rock & Roll (Save My Soul)”, but as I spent more time with Bring Down The House Lights during my dark and often rainy hour-long commute I found myself falling in love with “the other woman”, specifically with “Heard You Wanna Kill Me” – I used to hate you back / Now you hang around.  There’s a whiskey-soaked lethargy to the guitar that fits the vocals perfectly, before ending with the slightest guitar flourish, a hit of hope that maybe, just maybe, this time it will work out.  That’s followed by the ironically gloomy “Euphoria” and then the aforementioned Stephen-Hawking-inspired “Black Holes”, a trio of tunes that take the whole album to a more melancholy and introspective place, my favorite part of the record.

The second half of the album is more vocal expansive, both at its core and with the harmonies, particularly on “Where’s the Love” and “Never Be Alone”.  “Either Way” is the perfect little alt-indie number, a jangly 90s-style ditty that would have easily climbed into the College Radio Top 10 back when I was in college.

While the above may make you wonder if this is in fact three distinct mini-albums, in fact Dirty Sidewalks never stray too far from their core sound, so even when there’s a bit of a stylistic shift things there’s still an overall coherence to their core sound.  And that’s the beauty of Bring Down The House Lights – it’s an album in the truest sense of the word, the true sum of its parts.  It knows exactly what it wants to be and it executes on that plan perfectly.

Even after all this you may be thinking to yourself, “Yeah, sure Jeff, you’re just saying all this because you know Evan”.  And I get that you might be skeptical.  But don’t take my two-thousand-plus words for it, go listen for yourself HERE.  And if you like it as much as I know you will, pick yourself up a copy on the format of your choice.

(♠)  No, seriously.

(♣)  Those would potentially be our 10- and 20-year high school reunions, and then only maybe.

(♥)  Including two of my Desert-Island-Top-5 records, Arabian Horse and Paul’s Boutique.  So maybe I really don’t like this but just think I do.

(♦)  AC/DC seemingly made an entire career out of this with songs like “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Want to Rock ‘N’ Roll)”, “Rocker”, “There’s Gonna Be Some Rockin'”, “Let There Be Rock”, “Rock ‘N’ Roll Damnation”, “Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution”, “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)”, “Rock Your Heart Out”, and lyrics like “I’m gonna rock all over you”, which I think might be some kind of sexual innuendo, though it’s hard to tell be cause it almost seems like AC/DC’s entire career was based on the idea of substituting “rock” for any verb in the English language.