The Best of 2015

Man, 2015 was an absolutely fantastic year.  Holly and I got to do some traveling, going to Portland (OR) and Salt Lake City to see concerts, doing some record shopping in Ireland and Paris, and of course attending our seventh consecutive Iceland Airwaves Music Festival.  We went to shows with friends, listened to new music, and discovered new bands.  So with all that in mind, here’s a recap of Life in the Vinyl Lane’s musical year.

Top 5 New Releases in 2015

1.  Halleluwah – Halleluwah
2.  Lífsins Þungu Spor – Dulvitund
3.  .A:A. Mix. 1 – Alexandra Atnif
4.  II – Albino Father
5.  Grey Tickles, Black Pressure – John Grant

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A lot of great music came out in 2014, and I had a hard time whittling down my initial list of a dozen albums to pick the Top 5.  In fact I thought I had my list ready to go until I played Lífsins Þungu Spor for the first time about two weeks ago, and it actually bumped another album off of the list.  I was confident in my choice of Halleluwah for the top spot because I’ve been playing their debut (not available on vinyl at this time) a ton, and it’s actually the second time they’ve made my year end best of list, with their 10″ K2R (which stylistically is miles away from Halleluwah) held down the #4 spot on my 2012 list.  Dulvitund, Alexandra Atnif, and Albino Father were all performers I encountered for the first time in 2015, and John Grant rounds it out with his second appearance on one of my Top 5 New Releases lists.

I’m particularly happy with this list because, unintentionally, all the performers fall into different genres.  Halleluwah brings a sort of old school popular music sound, something that reminds me of an updated version of Edith Piaf; Dulvitund is electro darkwave; Alexandra Atnif creates some edgy experimental industrial beats; Albin Father is the second coming of garage psych rock; and of course John Grant is John Grant in all of his loquacious brilliance.  There’s something for just about everyone on that list.

Top 5 “New to Me” Bands/Performers

1.  Alexandra Atnif (US/Romania)
2.  No Stayer (US)
3.  Captain Moonlight (Ireland)
4.  SGNLS (US)
5.  Kælan Mikla (Iceland)

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This was a super-tough list for me this year.  The first two choices were easy.  We discovered Atnif this summer when we picked up one of her split tapes at Amoeba down in Los Angeles, and acquired two more of her cassettes over the course of the year.  She’s super talented and isn’t afraid to experiment with some very severe sounds.  No Stayer also came to me via a cassette (Rogue) when my friends over at Philadelphia’s Sit & Spin Records sent it my way.  I was down with their style of hard rock/metal, but then sort of forgot about them for a bit before re-discovering them on my iPod a few weeks back, and I’ve pretty much been listening to them every day since.  Captain Moonlight’s working class, Irish-issues-themed hip hop was a refreshing return of hip hop to being social protest music.  I enjoyed SGNLs synth punk enough to pick up two of their records this year, SGNLS and II (not to be confused by the Albino Father album of the same name).  Kælan Mikla was sort of a darkwave dark horse on this list, because they don’t currently have any physical releases (though they do have a track on Iceland Whatever, Vol. 1), but I was very impressed by their live show at Airwaves and can’t stop thinking about them.

Top 5 Vinyl Purchases

1.  Philly’s Dopest Shit, Vol. 1 – Various
2.  Lengi Lifi – HAM
3.  Hype! Boxed Set – Various
4.  W.C. Monster – Bootlegs
5.  Great White Wonder – Les Rallizes Denudes

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OK, I’m cheating a bit here, because my top choice is a cassette, and my #2 pick is a CD.  But both of those were important additions for me this year.  Philly’s Dopest Shit turned me on to a ton of great bands like No Stayer, SGNLS, Ruby Buff, and Spent Flesh.  Lengi Lifi is a very difficult to find, CD-only HAM live album and was the last one I needed to complete the HAM discography.  The Hype! Boxed Set was an opportunity for me to reconnect with some great Sub Pop 7″ records and exorcise those demons that still haunt me after selling my Sub Pop singles 20 years ago.  W.C. Monster is a collectible Icelandic thrash record, while the Great White Wonder box set is just a flat-out psych noise trip from Japan’s Les Rallizes Denudes.

Top 5 Live Shows

1.  The Kills – Roseland Theatre, Portland OR
2.  Bubbi & DIMMA – NASA, Reykjavik
3.  Bo Ningen – KEX Hostel, Reykjavik
4.  The Sonics – Easy Street Records, Seattle
5.  Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Pioneer Park, Salt Lake City UT

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This is the second consecutive year that The Kills (right) have taken the top spot in my Top 5 Live Shows, and I kind of feel like any year that I see them live, they’ll probably be my number one pick – they’re quite simply that damn good.  At Airwaves the combination of Bubbi Morthens and DIMMA was a perfect blend of old school punk rock and new school technical metal, while Bo Ningen played the most insane, high energy set of crazy that I’ve ever seen.  Easy Street Records crammed 200 people into their shop for show benefitting KEXP radio, and The Sonics played along with a veritable who’s who of Seattle rockers, including Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder.  And BRMC… well, they’d been at the top of my list of bands I wanted to see for years and years, and this summer we were able to use some airline points to basically get down to Salt Lake City for free to see them live, and they were outstanding.

This was probably the toughest list for me to put together, because we saw so many great shows this year.  Agent Fresco, Hot Chip, Thievery Corporation, Steel Panther, HAM, Halleluwah… there were just so many awesome performances to choose from.  But the five that made the final cut all had something special about them that took them to that next level and made them more memorable.

Top 5 Favorite Places to Buy Records

North America
1.  Easy Street, Seattle
2.  Silver Platters, Seattle
3.  Diabolical, Salt Lake City
4.  Fingerprints, Long Beach (CA)
5.  Amoeba, Los Angeles

The Rest of the World
1.  Lucky Records, Reykjavik
2.  Reykjavik Record Shop, Reykjavik
3.  Bell, Book & Candle, Galway (Ireland)
4.  Syncrophone, Paris
5.  All City, Dublin

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Easy Street and Silver Platters are my regular local haunts, so it will be hard for them to ever get knocked out of the top spots.  The same is true for Lucky and Reykjavik Record Shop – any year that we make it to Reykjavik, these two are likely to be at the top of list.  One thing that all these places have in common is that they’re very supportive of their local scenes, and that’s important to me because when I travel I like to look for local music.  Plus they had some cool and knowledgeable people, people who are obviously passionate about music.

Top 5 Music Books

1.  Girl in a Band:  A Memoir, by Kim Gordon
2.  Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and the Germs, by Brendan Mullen
3.  For Whom the Cowbell Tolls: 25 Years of Paul’s Boutique, by Dan LeRoy
4.  The Truth of Revolution, Brother: The Philosophies of Punk, by Robin Ryde, Lisa Sofianos, and Charlie Waterhouse
5.  Crate Digger: An Obsession With Punk Records, by Bob Suren

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I probably read about 15-20 music books in 2015, and the above were easily the best of the bunch.  And of these five, Kim Gordon’s was by far the most compelling, probably more so as the story of an artist’s life and struggles than for anything specifically related to Sonic Youth.  Truth be told, I’ve never owned a Sonic Youth album, and I couldn’t name single one of their songs if I tried (I may have to give up my music blogging card for that admission, but whatever), so I wasn’t particularly predisposed to feel any particular way about Girl in a Band.  The Truth of Revolution, Brother is a pretty unique project, one that I sponsored via Kickstarter.  Part of the appeal was that a couple of OG Icelandic punks were interviewed in it, specifically Einar Örn Benediktsson and Jón Gnarr.  It was an interesting take on punk philosophy, which resonated even more so after hearing Einar Örn talk for a few minutes prior to a Ghostigital show about what being a punk means to him.

 

This year Holly asked if she could contribute a few lists of her own, and it seemed like a great idea to me since her perspective is often quite different from mine.  So with minimal commentary, here are some of her top musical picks for 2015.

Top 5 New Releases in 2015 (Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane)

1.  Dodge and Burn – The Dead Weather
2.  FFS – FFS
3.  Born Under Saturn – Django Django
4.  Adjust to the Light – Fufanu
5.  “Inside Paul’s Boutique”

We didn’t have any albums in common in our Top 5 lists, and in fact she only had one album I’ve even written about on hers!  Number five is an outlier – it’s the roughly 12 hour incredible show that KEXP radio did in which they deconstructed all of Paul’s Boutique, literally playing in full every single song sampled by the Beastie Boys on that album, in the order they appeared on it.  It’s epic.  Don’t believe us?  Check it out for yourself HERE.

Top 5 “New to Me” Bands/Performers (Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane)

1.  East India Youth (UK)
2.  Islam Chipsy (Egypt)
3.  russian.girls (Iceland)
4.  Alexandra Atnif (US/Romania)
5.  Operators (US/Canada)

Again, not much overlap between the his-and-hers lists, only Alexandra Atnif.  That being said, all four of the other bands here made it to my initial list as well, they just ultimately didn’t crack my personal Top 5.

Top 5 Live Shows (Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane)

1.  The Kills – Roseland Theatre, Portland OR
2.  Thievery Corporation – Showbox Sodo, Seattle
3.  Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Pioneer Park, Salt Lake City UT
4.  East India Youth – NASA, Reykjavik
5.  Bubbi & DIMMA – NASA, Reykjavik

We actually have quite a bit of overlap her, and both Thievery Corporation and East India Youth made to to my short list.  There were just so many good shows in 2015.

 

So there you have it, ladies and gents.  Another fantastic year is almost in the books, and I can’t wait to see what 2016 has in store for us.  And since we’ve already purchased our tickets for Iceland Airwaves 2016 and to see Devil Makes Three at Red Rocks in Colorado in May, I suspect it’s going to be pretty excellent.

Iceland Airwaves 2015 – Day 1

If body odor has a home, someplace it resides while waiting to attach itself to your body after a hard workout or just some poor decision making, that address is the basement of Reykjavik’s Bar 11.

But more on that in a bit.

Iceland Airwaves 2015 officially got underway on Wednesday, and that means my record shopping also began.  And given how much stuff I bought, it may have also ended because I have to figure out how to get all of this stuff home, which will be no easy task.

I spent a couple of hours at my favorite shop first thing this morning, flipping through the Icelandic vinyl at Lucky Records and coming away with a number of gems.  Newish releases by Pink Street Boys, Futuregrapher, Fufanu, President Bongo, and more were augmented by some OG classics like Purrkur PillnikkFræbbblarnir, and Rikshaw.  I added a handful of CDs for good measure before heading up to Reykjavik Record Store where I picked up a few more gems, including a vinyl copy of Legend’s Fearless and a personalized signed copy of the new record by Manu Delago, known for his hang playing, at his in-store event.  My record bag was so heavy by time I stumbled back to our apartment that I’m pretty sure I tore my rotator cuff.

As for the music, we showed up at Bar 11 just before 3:30, when Elín Helena we due on stage, but arrived to find a small group of people huddled outside and the front door locked.  It wasn’t until about five minutes after the scheduled start time that someone advised us that we’d have to enter through the back door and go downstairs (because Bar 11), which would have been amazing to know sooner.  Adding to the confusion, the band on stage was not Elín Helena but instead a relatively young, but pretty talented, group called Vára who played a somewhat punkish style in the stinky, stale basement.

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After a break for dinner we walked a few blocks to the 12 Tónar record store to hear Gusgus‘ President Bongo perform his newly released electronic album, Serengeti.  One of the electro geniuses behind Gusgus’ sound, Bongo didn’t disappoint with an intriguing 30+ minutes of non-stop music inside the cramped upstairs of the store.  I’m looking forward to giving the new record a more detailed listening when we return home.

 

From there we headed down to the venerable venue NASA, the first place we ever saw an Airwaves show all the way back in 2009.  NASA has not been part of Airwaves for the last three years, having been closed down with plans on demolishing it to build a hotel.  Thanks at least in part to the local community, who did not want to lose such an outstanding concert hall, NASA was saved, cleaned up, and added to the list of official venues for this years’ Airwaves.  It was so freshly remodeled we could smell the paint inside.

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The first band we heard at NASA on Wednesday was the Icelandic duo Wesen, featuring vocalist Júlía Hermannsdóttir (also of Oyama) and electronics guy/vocalist Loji Höskuldsson (also of Sudden Weather Change), who impressed me with their darker style of electro-pop.  Next up was Halleluwah (above), whose self-titled album came out earlier this year and was reviewed on the blog HERE.  Simply put, they stole the show and won the night with their blend of 1920s/1930s style updated as a more modern electronic sound.  Rakel Mjöll was absolutely and endearingly wonderful on stage, an expressive singer with an unusual voice, one perfectly suited to the music the band is currently playing.  After that was Royal, the project combining Borko (of FM Belfast fame) and Futuregrapher (of Futuregrapher fame), who played a surprising uptempo set featuring some truly quirky songs that quickly won over the audience.

Then it was time to take a move in the hip hop direction.  The feminist collective known as Reykja­vík­ur­dæt­ur burst out onto the stage all wearing what can be best described as flesh-toned undergarments.  Not lingerie – but just practical stuff to wear under your clothes.  Known for their political/feminist presence and songs, much of that was lost on us due to our inability to speak Icelandic.  There was, however, one song sung in English.  And it was about the joys of anal sex.  In detail.  So there’s that.  Next was Gísli Pálmi, who gained international cred recently for knocking out (literally) Bam Margera of Jackass fame at a festival earlier this year.  Gísli and his Glacier Mafia (their term, not mine) put on a fast paced set.  The beats were excellent, and though Pálmi at times appeared to try almost a little to hard to be truly hip hop, I have to credit him for his energy, delivery, and stage-presence – the man knows how to put on a show and he had the crowed bouncing and, after removing his shirt, a few of the ladies standing near us eyeing him like he was a steak and they had just given up being vegetarians.

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That took us to the closing act, Retro Stefson.  Now, I’m not going to be ridiculous enough to imply that Iceland somehow has the market cornered on party bands, but I do know this – two of the funnest party bands in the world are FM Belfast and Retro Stefon, and on the occasions that the two combine as one on stage it’s a total blow-out.  We first saw Retro Stefson when they were still a fairly young band back in 2010, and they’ve grown leaps and bounds since then.  It had been a few years since we’d seen them at Airwaves, though, and frankly they started off seemingly a little slow and uncertain of one another.  But the positive vibes built quickly and by the middle of the set they had the crowd in the palms of their hands, even running a dance contest on the main floor.  They still have it, and it was the perfect way to end the first night of the festival.

If this is how good the rest of the week is going to be, we’re in for some good times and not a lot of sleep.

Halleluwah – “Halleluwah”

Sorry it’s been quiet on the posting front recently.  It seems like I’ve been on the road for most of the last six weeks or so… which is not quite the case, but I’ve been to Kansas City, Ireland, and Los Angeles (which of those is not like the others…), so it has been pretty busy.  And there might be even more travel on the horizon.  But such is life.  Because most places I go have record stores.  So bring it.

So I got a package in the mail the other day from my friends at Reykjavik’s Lucky Records.  Back in 2012 Ingvar turned me on to a 10″ (“K2R” b/w “Whiplashes”) by a newly formed band called Halleluwah, a two-song sort of surf / psych / hip hop blend project by Sölvi Blöndal of Quarashi fame, who were were kind of like what the Beastie Boys would have sounded like if their influences were surf and old-timey (in other words, awesome).  It was a cool record, cool enough for one of the songs to earn a spot on a comp CD Holly and i put out for our friends the following year.

When I saw Halleluwah was doing a live set at Iceland Airwaves in 2013 I was stoked.  I was looking forward to some hippity hop and up tempo good times.  But what I got… well, it was something different.  Sölvi had done a 180 on me, with the set featuring some speakeasy-style influenced beats accompanied by a captivating female singer.  WTF is this?  It wasn’t what I was expecting, that was for sure.  But it was… amazing.

Fast forward to March 2015 and Halleluwah’s first full-length album dropped, a self-titled nine-song CD, and I knew I had to have it.  In May I asked about it at Tower Records in Dublin but with no luck, so I bit the bullet and hit up my friends at Lucky Records and ordered a copy from them.  Ingvar, of course, had it in my mailbox about a week later.

And I’ve listened to it probably 10 times in the last two weeks.

Now, normally I don’t review CDs.  Because the blog is called Life in the Vinyl Lane.  But I do make exceptions.  Halleluwah is one of those exceptions.  Because it’s that damn good.

I suppose if I had to provide a one sentence description of this album it would be:

“Halleluwah is what electronica in the Roaring 20s would have sounded like if it was fronted by an Icelandic version of Edith Piaf.”

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The above is pretty simple, but difficult to comprehend.  The beats are generally mellow, though Sölvi’s self-professed love of surf and psych comes through clearly in songs like “Spin” and, most vividly,  “Nico.”  The soundscapes are lush and dense, from the deeply rich opening track “Move Me” right into “Blue Velvet,” which makes me want to take a huge hit of nitrous just like Dennis Hopper in the movie of the same name and just melt into my couch while I listen to the incredible voice of Rakel Mjöll.

I’m not sure how I got so deep into this post without mentioning Mjöll, whose voice alternates between innocent (the previously mentioned “Blue Velvet”) and sultry (“Call Your Friends”) across Halleluwah.  This is the kind of voice that could have made Sölvi abandon his K2R style for something totally different, lounge music for the electronica age.  I believe she was the singer when we saw them live in 2013, but I’m not 100% sure… regardless, without her, this CD doesn’t exist.  Period.  The music and the voice blend perfectly, effortlessly.

“Dior” was, I believe, the first single, and I can understand why.  Mjöll’s voice is smokey and playful as it dances in and out of seemingly simple but deceptively deep soundscape.  But after repeated listenings… I feel like Pierce Brosnan in the Thomas Crown Affair who, when asked about his opinion on a Monet painting simply says, “It’s very nice.”  It’s very Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Roman Holiday… so very fancy Continental, like it’s name.  But despite how good it is, it probably falls outside of my personal “top 3” on Halleluwah.  “Nico” steals the show with it’s simple surf guitar keeping time while Mjöll’s echoey voice rides over it like a sexy wave, rounded out by “Move Me” and “Blue Velvet.”  That’s no dis on “Dior,” which would easily be a top 2 track on most albums; but Halleluwah is deep, my friends, and there’s a lot to choose from.

As near as I can tell Halleluwah isn’t available in the US or on iTunes.  I can’t point you to a free version of it anywhere, though at least one song is on YouTube – “Blue Velvet” (and check out “K2R” from the 10″ HERE by way of comparison!).  You’re going to have to work for this one.  But where there’s a will, there’s a way.  You just have to want it bad enough.  And this one is worth it.

Iceland Airwaves 2013 – Day 3

There are lots of reasons people come to Iceland Airwaves.  For some it’s a convenient “excuse” to get to Iceland and experience both the incredible natural beauty of one of the last truly unspoiled places on earth while also getting to see some cool music.  For others it’s a chance to party like it’s 1999 and soak in (and soak up) Reykjavik’s notorious evening party scene.  And some of us are here chasing the dragon.  Going to shows and secretly hoping for that next “high”, that next experience with some band you’ve never heard of who totally and completely blows your mind and makes you fall in love with them, like a junkie trying to recapture that first big hit.  That experience seems to become more and more rare over time, but if you’re willing to get out of your comfort zone you might capture it, and if you do you’ll remember what life is all about.  “…if you try sometimes, you’ll find… you get what you need…”  I got what I needed last night.

But before we get to that, was saw lots of other great bands yesterday.  First we hit a few off-venue shows at the Nordic House, which has a small room seating maybe 50-70 people and fantastic acoustics.  There we saw an impressive young band from Denmark called Shiny Darkly who channeled the long-dead spirt of Warsaw in impressive fashion.  We liked ’em enough we’re going to try to catch them again on Sunday at their Lucky Records in-store, and I can promise a full post on them sometime soon since I bought a copy of their brand new vinyl EP (the second copy ever sold apparently, since someone else got to them just before I did… doh!).  I will be keeping an eye on them.  Halleluwah followed with a nice, short four-song set that was, I believe, all new material.

From there it was off to Harpa to see an off-venue show by Singapore Sling that sort of spilled out of the 12 Tonar record store.  Unfortunately the gear didn’t seem set up too well – it was way too loud to the point of distortion, and you could barely hear the singing at all.  Turns out they sounded way better from inside the venue’s downstairs bathroom (true story); maybe they should have moved everyone down there to listen.  It doesn’t always need to be turned up to 11 to be good.  We then headed out to a bar called Dillon in hopes of catching Brain Police, but it was so packed we couldn’t even make it to the top of the stairs to reach the room… so back to Harpa for the on-venue program.

Samúel Jón Samúelsson Big Band is exactly as advertised – this band is BIG.  Like 18 performers big.  They play a fun style of Afro-funk fusion with horns and guitars and bongos and just about anything else you can imagine and are a wonderfully enjoyable live experience (we saw them a few years ago as well).  I picked up their new double album on vinyl and can only hope it captures their live energy.  Valdimar was up next with a sort of folk rock style that was pretty good, and certainly enjoyable.

That brought us to American ex-pat and now Iceland resident John Grant.  Grant was given a longer than normal time slot (a full hour) and he’s the toast of the town, so we figured it would be packed – and it was almost beyond packed, really.  Our best guess is about 1,500+ people crammed into that room to see him, and they didn’t leave disappointed.  I wasn’t familiar with his music, but was captivated by his lyrics – Grant comes across like he’s having a conversation with you more than singing to you.  His lyrics are either the most deeply honest and personal I’ve heard in a long time, or he’s totally full of it.  I’m not 100% sure which is which, but I’m thinking the former.  Lots of songs about frustration and lost loves and ego and pain.

And that, my friends, brings us to that dragon I’ve been chasing.  He came to me from an unexpected place – Syria.  Yes, that Syria.  The one that’s been in the news due to the ongoing unpleasantness.  He’s a 40-something pop singer named Omar Souleyman and within 30 seconds of hitting the stage he owned the 1,000+ person crowd at Harpa.  Souleyman’s brand of electronic dance pop is infectious – there are some typical dance beats in the background, but mixed with very Eastern sounds and instruments all capably put together by the guy running his electronics and keyboard.  And Souleyman himself… despite speaking three words of English/Icelandic the entire set (“hello” and “thank you”) he had the crowd dancing at full throttle, making him his playthings and getting them to clap or raise their hands at will.  There was dancing.  There was crowd surfing.  A bunch of coins made it out of my pants pockets and ended up on the floor because even I was dancing.  And someone puked all over a garbage can.  Afterwards the room smelled of spilled beer and body odor.  It was unquestionably one of my Top 3 all-time Airwaves shows… and may actually be in a first place tie with FM Belfast at NASA a few years back.

This is why we work.  So we can save up some money and chase these incredible life experiences, like totally losing yourself in some Syrian electro-pop with a thousand of your new friends, dancing into the night.  It’s the journey that matters.

Rave Mix

Every January Holly and I host a party for all of our friends, and tonight is, I believe, our 15th Annual Post-Holiday Holiday Party.  It’s hard to get together with your friends during the holidays – people are traveling, have family commitments, shopping like crazy, etc, so we figured we’d have our party a month or so after the holiday insanity came to an end, when every has had a chance to wind down and catch their breath.  Sometimes our parties have a theme – night at the movies, the 80s, lounge style… you get the drift.  And every year we also burn a soundtrack of some of the tunes we played  and provide copies to our guests.  They’ve become popular enough that every year at least a couple of people who couldn’t make it to the party ask us to send them one of the CDs.

This year we went with a rave theme.  Now, neither of us were ever ravers.  But we’re not going to let that stop us, and with that in mind we came up with a party CD that’s a bit electronic, a bit dance, a little industrial, and somewhat random.  Our friends Tristen, Matt, and Ken provided some suggestions and even sent us some discs, which helped out a lot.  So in case you’re interested, the songs that made the cut for this year’s CD are:

“Codename:  Rondo” – Ghostland Observatory

“Don’t Push Me” – Ghostigital

“City” – Legend

“Levels” – Avicii

“Hustler” – Simian Mobile Disco

“Time to Get Away” – LCD Soundsystem

“Backpack Rehab” – Bassnectar

“Weirdo” – Iiris

“Jesus is My Personal Trainer” – Depeche Mode vs. Goldfrapp mashup

“Relax” – Keoki

“K2R” – Halleluwah

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to put on my “Frankie Say Relax” shirt and find my glow sticks…