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!

Rollins Band – “Life Time” (1988)

I like you – but you don’t like me
I want you – but you don’t want me
I need you – but you don’t need me
— “Burned Beyond Recognition”

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I’ve been on a bit of a Henry Rollins kick over the last year or so.  Not so much musically, but more through listening to just about any podcast involving him (♠) I can find and through his writing.  While at times he relies on some standard self-descriptions, he can be forgiven – I mean, the guy has been interviewed hundreds if not thousands of times and does world tours of spoken word, so he talks about some of these things, including himself, a lot.  Plus he comes across as being very honest and self-aware.  I find his work ethic and singularity of purpose incredibly intriguing, though I wouldn’t say I want to be like Henry – that level of intensity would have burned me to a crisp a couple of decades ago, most likely.  Singer, author, photographer, traveler, publisher, record collector, and obsessive documenter; the man runs hot.  We have tickets to see his travel photo show in Seattle next month and I can’t wait.

I’ve toyed around with some Black Flag over the years and picked up a few Rollins Band CDs, and while I’ve enjoyed the music none of it elbowed its way into regular rotation.  But after just one listen to 1988s Life Time I know I’m onto something that’s going to tug at me to put it on the turntable again and again.

Sometimes I want to take you by your shoulders and shake you
You’ve got to open your eyes, man, how long will it take you?
Running through life blind, man, what a waste
Shut down and neutralized, man, what a case
What happened, what happened to you?
— “Wreck-Age”

Lyrically Life Time is a heavy album, hard as iron and accusatory, both outward and inward.  It feels like the inner monologue of a person on the outside of society who both embraces being there but is also a bit resentful of it.  There’s clearly a current of anger running throughout and that’s something Rollins talks about in a lot of interviews, possessing a general sense of anger that shapes his being.  Musically the album carries its weight well.  The heaviness is of a slower type, more reminiscent of My War‘s B side or early Black Sabbath.  It provides a density to Rollins’ vocals, an iron core around which he can orbit and rail against the world.

(♠)  I strongly advise checking out the “Henry & Heidi” podcasts he does with his friend and day-to-day business manager Heidi.  If you want to hear something that is more of an interview format, the 2+ hour Joe Rogan podcast episode featuring Rollins is wide-ranging and excellent.

Rollins Band – “Turned On”

I was a latecomer to the Henry Rollins party.  He’s sort of that guy that I can’t remember not knowing who he was, but never really going out of my way to listen to any of his stuff, whether it was with Black Flag or solo.  I probably knew him as much as an actor from movies like Johnny Mnemonic and Heat, though I did have a solo 45 he put out on Sub Pop back in the late 80s when I was buying everything that the label put out.  I couldn’t even tell you the name of the song on side A, but side B was a spoken word piece called (I believe…) “I Think I Know You”.  The first time I played it I remember thinking, what the hell is this?  Then I listened to it again and realized that Rollins was actually a pretty deep guy, and you’ve gotta have a pair to do spoken word when you’re a punk rocker.

I have to confess I’ve still done little more than dabble into the world of Henry Rollins.  I’ve seen him on a number of documentaries, and he always comes across as very intelligent and insightful.  And serious.  Serious as hell.  I’ve read some interviews and his prose, but same deal – serious and intense, and often a major downer.  That being said, I think he’s incredibly talented, both as a musician and a writer.

One of the first records I bought when I got back into vinyl was Black Flag’s My War.  I’d read a lot about it, particularly how the band really pissed off their fan base with the slow and heavy side B, so I was intrigued.  And I have to admit, I preferred side B.  But I’m also a fan of grunge, and you don’t have to have perfect pitch or be Lester Bangs to see some of the early influence on what later became Seattle’s claim to fame and cross to bear.

Turned On is a double album recorded live in Vienna, Austria in November 1989.  Now, I had low expectations for this album for a couple of reasons.  First the cover looked like it had been run over by a truck.  The discs looked OK, but you can never be sure.  Fortunately they’re flat, and they cleaned up really well.  The second reason was because this is a live punk record, and those are notorious for atrocious quality, usually sounding like they were recorded by some dude standing in a bathroom stall in the club using a tape recorder wrapped in twenty feet of gauze.  Low, muffled, crappy.  But I should have known better, because Henry Rollins doesn’t put out crap.  From the opening of “Lonely” when I cued up side A I knew I had a winner on my hands.  Sure, there are times it sounds like he stepped back from the mic.  But my guess is that’s because he DID step away from the mic.  Probably the only criticism I could lay at the feet of Turned On is that it’s obvious these tracks were taken from different parts of the show – sometimes you hear an obvious stop to one song and start of the next that isn’t continuous, and the first song on each side almost sounds as if you’re coming in a few seconds into it.  But these are pretty small complaints to voice against this fantastic album.

As he is wont to do, Rollins goes deep in his songs, exploring alienation, hopelessness, fear, anger and frustration.  He growls like a caged animal at times, but at others he’s talking softly to the crowd, and it’s so quiet there you could hear a pin drop, like he was standing right there in a dark room with just you.  At almost an hour and fifteen minutes, Turned On gives a lot of bang for the buck.  It’s raw, both in the music and in the raw emotion Rollins puts on display in every single song.  I was most impressed with the album’s longest track, the nearly twelve minute “Out There” that opens side B, with Rollins sounding so exposed on the stage that it’s hard not to get sucked in.  Ironically one of my other favorites is the shortest cut on the record, the 1:38 “Mask” during which he describes the “mask” that he wears to keep other people from seeing the real him, and how ugly he believes he is underneath that mask.