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

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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 2

We weren’t out too late on Wednesday night, so we hit the streets relatively early by Airwaves standards – probably about 10:30AM.  I headed straight over to Lucky Records to spend a few hours digging and building large stack of music to pick up later in the trip (see the Day 3 post…), before meeting up with the gang for lunch at one of our all time favorite joints, Noodle Station.  From there we popped over to Waldorfskólinn Sólstafir to see the hip hop duo Cryptochrome.  What was particularly notable about this show is that Waldorfskólinn Sólstafir is, well, a school.  So we were in a room that was about half adults and half little kids watching a performance, which is about as surreal as it sounds. (♠)  After that we popped over to Jörgensen Kitchen & Bar to catch one of our favorite Icelandic bands, and one we’ve never seen live, Foreign Monkeys.  And despite playing inside a bar nestled within a hotel, the Monkeys (below) absolutely crushed it with a blistering 40 minute set that included songs from their original album, 2009s , as well as the recently released Return.  Even the folks in our group who don’t generally gravitate to hard rock loved this set, with the strongest compliments being given to the drumming.  I know we’re only half way through the festival, but so far this has been my favorite show.

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After another record shopping detour, this time at Reykjavik Record Shop, it was time for dinner and the official on-venue portion of the day.  We started at Gaukurinn (formerly Sódóma) because we wanted to check out our friend Haukur and his metal band Blóðmör (below), and the young men did not disappoint, rocking our faces off with a blend of metal and punk, replete with long hair, head banging, and a Flying V guitar.  They destroyed all comers.  If these guys represent the future of heavy metal, then the future looks bright my friends.

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Blóðmör were followed by the always solid Kontinuum.  After that we bounced over to Gamla Bíó for Glass Museum (below), an intriguing Belgian duo who play instrumental songs using keyboards and drums.  The house was nearly full for their set the crowd responded with approval to everything the pair performed – clearly most folks in the room knew of them already.  Their style is hard to describe, the vibe more electronica than traditional popular music, with definite jazz and contemporary influences.  I know that may not sound like it should work, but trust me, it does.

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We wrapped up the night early as I’m still battling a cold I picked up during our flight from Seattle to London, but given how strong all five bands were today I don’t feel like I got shortchanged.  Plus we still have the festival’s two biggest nights ahead of us.

(♠)  When we arrived we agreed that if four guys, unaccompanied by children, showed up at a grade school to watch a musical performance, someone probably would have called a SWAT team.

Foreign Monkeys – “Return” (2019)

There are plenty of bands that only put out one album.  Foreign Monkeys appeared to be one of those bands.  After releasing π (aka ) in 2009 they played some shows here and there, but for all intents and purposes disappeared.  Their Facebook page went radio silent in late 2012 after the release of the single “Zoology” and it was another four-and-a-half years until we heard from them there again, when the band revealed a new banner that showed a brand new album… and then promptly disappeared for another 13 months.  But eventually we got the long-awaited follow-up to , the nine-song Return.

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We picked up  at Iceland Airwaves in 2009 and I fell in love with it right away, especially “Los”.  There was a lo-fi-ness to the vocals but a strong structure to the music that appealed to me.  The album had a certain familiarity; while elements reminded me of other bands, taken as a whole Foreign Monkeys were doing something entirely their own.  Mostly rock with just a touch of hip hop for flavor, the songs were built around a straight-forward rhythm section with guitars and vocals combining to provide nuance.  For years I was bummed that we’d never seen them live, and as more and more Airwaves went by I’d pretty much given up hope that we’d ever get the chance again, let alone hear any new music from them.

But earlier this year Return came out in a limited edition vinyl pressing of 300 copies, so I immediately reached to to my vinyl pushers friends at Reykjavik’s Lucky Records and asked them to put aside a copy when it became available.  Because postage from Iceland has become insane I had to wait a few months until I had enough other items on hold to make it worth sending a box across the Atlantic. (♠)  But it was well worth the wait.

I caught up with guitarist and singer Gísli Stefánsson and had the opportunity to ask him some questions about Foreign Monkeys and their new album.

When  came out in 2009 it felt like the perfect sonic mix for the time – a hard rock base, lo-fi vocals, and maybe just a hint of hip hop for good measure.  How did that album come about?

We need to go all the way back to early 2005 when we were starting out. We wrote the first numbers “Bibi Song” and “Love Song” to be eligible for the Music Experiments (the young people’s Battle of the Bands in Iceland). Me and Víðir Heiðdal the drummer had taken part in the competition in early 2005 in another band and we had taken it pretty seriously. We didn’t make it to the final and got kind of a bad critique: “Great band but very boring”. We where devastated so it was really an escape when we got the offer to play in Foreign Monkeys. We then went to the Music Experiments in 2006 with Foreign Monkeys with no hopes of getting anything out of the competition. We only wanted to have fun.

Then we won the competition, quite unexpectedly, and were really forced into writing new music together, which hadn’t been on the agenda. We had no plan after the Music Experiments.  We wrote the rest of the drums, bass and guitars of in 2006 and early 2007 but then everything went sideways for a while. Our singer back then, Bjarki, parted with the band. When we think back we could have handled that differently. There where some things we could have done better and others we thought we had control over but really didn’t, but anyway we made a decision and decided to stick with it. At one point we almost quit but in the end we hired another guitarist, Leifur Björnsson, and me and Bogi Ágúst the bass player took up the singing. Bjarki ended up singing one song on Pí, “Los”. The lyrics in the title track, Return, on the new album tells that story in a way.

The main influences on that album were Queens of the Stone Age, The Eighties Matchbox B-line Disaster, Deftones, and Faith No More.

Ten years is a long time between the band’s first and second albums.  What were you guys doing in the years between and Return? What got you back together to record again?

We actually started writing and laying down the Return tracks in 2011 and then released “Zoology” which was supposed to be the first single of the new album. It worked pretty good. It got some attention on the radio and when we put on a show we had a good feeling about the new stuff. Then Leifur decided to quit the band and focus on other music he was working on. He felt he wasn’t able to contribute enough as he didn’t live in the same town as the rest of us and it was understandable. Then life took over a little bit and the spark we had faded away. I had few kids and all of us finished education and started our working carriers. We met a few times and “rehersed” to try to get it rolling again but the spark wasn’t there, not yet at least.

Then in early 2018 we decided to give it another try. We went straight into the studio this time and finished the album. We did not set any other goal other then to finish it. When it was done we found the spark again, played few shows where we saw lots of familiar faces as well as some new ones, and that felt really good.

Return is certainly recognizable as a Foreign Monkeys album, but it’s far from just being Part 2.  Musically it rocks harder, moving into metal territory at times, and the vocals, while still lo-fi, are much cleaner. What were the factors that helped shape the band’s current sound?

On  we had a producer, Magnús Øder of Benny Crespo’s Gang. Then we actually had some money to do the album as it was easier to raise funds when you had just won the Music Experiments. The new album we recorded ourselves in various locations, mostly with my studio gear. Then I mixed the album so it is as much of a Foreign Monkeys sounding album as possible.  We also made some changes regarding how we had produced the vocals. I skipped the screaming I had done a lot of on the first album and sang more melodies while Bogi carried out more of the main vocals, which forced him to sing more melodies as well.

was only available on CD, but this time around for Return you put out a limited edition vinyl release. Does the rapidly increasing popularity in vinyl offer opportunities for independent bands to generate more interest in their music?

In a market as small as Iceland that has moved away from the traditional CD releases to internet streaming of music it helps. Generally people like not only to listen to but also to “handle” the music, so to speak. There is always some information included in the artwork that hasn’t really found any good place in the streaming side of the industry in my opinion. It also becomes a process to listen to the vinyl. You might make a good cup of coffee or pour a flavorful IPA in a glass, put the album on and read through the artwork while you listen to the A side. Then you stand up to flip the record and listen to the rest. This is somehow nostalgic and you are treating the music with more respect. This is fashionable as-well. At least that is how I feel and seemingly so do many others as we have almost sold out the release. Our buyers and fans find it cool. Some of them didn’t even own a vinyl player when they bought the album, but have one now.

Any chance we’ll be seeing the Monkeys perform at Airwaves this year?

We have put in an application but most of the local bands won’t be announced until August. Hopefully we will be there. It’s been a long time since we played the festival. We have our fingers crossed.

Any up-and-coming Icelandic bands you’d like to recommend to our readers?

One of my favorites at the moment are Blóðmör. A classic powerful rock n’ roll trio who won the last Music Experiments. They just released an EP and are bringing around the hope that Icelandic rock isn’t only played by dinosaurs like us. Then our friends in Ottoman have released few singles and videos for an upcoming album. Fresh rock n’ roll. Then we like to mention Eldrún. The are bit heavier and darker. The have just released a promising album as well.


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Return is not simply a continuation of , though there are clear similarities in some of the riff structures and, to an extent, the vocals.  It certainly isn’t a stretch to recognize this as being the same band.  Stylistically it’s contemporary, just as  was a decade ago.  Right from the opening fuzz of “Won’t Confess”, I’m hooked, a song that changes directions multiple times, announcing that this isn’t 2009s Foreign Monkeys.  While the vocals remain filtered through layers of sandpaper and cheap booze, the slower lyrical pace of tracks like “Overrun” make it easier to understand the words and follow the thread.  These are more mature Monkeys, more real, more honest in their sound.

“Omene” is probably the most familiar sounding track, one that would have been perfectly at home on , but that’s mostly due to the chorus – the rest of the song is a bit gloomier and heavier than its predecessors.  There are blues rock elements creeping into songs like “Hurricanes and Twisters”, while the fast tempo of “No Mistakes” borders on metal – there’s something on Return for just about everyone’s tastes.  The guys definitely still know how to rock.

You can still order vinyl copies of Return from the band on their website HERE.  It’s limited to 300 copies, and I don’t believe it’s available on CD – so if you want a physical copy, you’d better get on it.  You can also stream it on Spotify HERE.  As for me, I’m hoping the guys will get selected for Airwaves, because if they’ do you’ll probably find me right up front and center.

(♠)  Normally my packages from Lucky make it here to Seattle in about 7-8 days.  This time it was more like two weeks.  Why?  Well, it got routed through New York.  Queens to be precise.  Why?  There are direct flights from Reykjavik to Seattle daily.  I feel like that’s how prior shipments got here.  C’mon USPS, let’s not make this more difficult than it needs to be.