The Best of 2016

It was another fine year for music and we tried to embrace as much of it as possible.  Besides lots of shopping at the stores in the greater Seattle area, I also bought vinyl in Los Angeles, Denver, and Oklahoma City, as well as on trips abroad in Hong Kong, Sweden, and Iceland.  We saw some great live shows, made some new friends, and discovered new bands.  It was a lot of fun, and we can’t wait to do more of it again next year.

So, without further ado, here’s the Life in the Vinyl Lane “Best of 2016” edition!

Top 5 New Releases in 2016

  1. Ash & Ice – The Kills
  2. EP01 – Dream Wife
  3. Hope – Iiris
  4. Kælan Mikla – Kælan Mikla
  5. Redemption & Ruin – The Devil Makes Three

thekillsashice

Sometimes I find myself thinking about how I’m going to write on certain topics, and that happened to me recently with respect to my Top 5 New Releases list.  I was super excited about Dream Wife and their EP01, enough so that I felt like it was deserving of the top spot on the list, which would also conveniently supply me with a narrative arc since lead singer Rakel was also the vocalist on my pick of the best album of 2015 as part of Halleluwah.  Man, this was going to be so easy to write!

But then I remembered Ash & Ice.  I’ve played the hell out of this album over the course of the year, and I love it more with each and every spin.  So while I certainly root for the little guy (and girl) and Dream Wife in the top position would have made for a great story, it simply wasn’t authentic.  The Kills killed it, and that’s that, putting out an album that is, to my years, light years ahead of everything else I heard in 2016.

There is another thread in this list, however, as all of the top four performers have female vocalists, and the fifth, The Devil Makes Three, has a female bassist who does backing vocals.  So every band/performer on the list has at least one woman involved.  I think we’re seeing more and more opportunity for women in rock and outside of the traditional singer/performer format, especially in rock and metal, which is outstanding.  We saw lots of women performing great music this year at Airwaves as part of outfits like Hórmónar, Singapore Sling, Samaris, aYia, Thunderpussy, and Let’s Eat Grandma, and I for one couldn’t be happier about it.

Top 5 “New to Me” Bands/Performers

  1. Prayers (US)
  2. Dream Wife (UK/Iceland)
  3. Andi (Iceland)
  4. Scorpion Violente (France)
  5. The Lyman Woodard Organization (US)

prayerssdkillwave

All of these “New to Me” bands came to me in different ways.  I saw Prayers on an episode of Huang’s World and literally ordered some of their music as soon as the commercial break came on after their appearance; I’d never heard of Dream Wife until I saw them perform live at Airwaves this year; I picked up Andi’s self-titled release because it was on Lady Boy Records and I pretty much buy everything they put out; Scorpion Violente was a random purchase from the New Arrivals bin at Amoeba; and I read about They Lyman Woodard Organization in an online article.

Stylistically the five band have nothing in common, ranging from cholo goth to pop-punk to electronic to industrial to jazz-funk.  They varied in genres just as they did in the ways they came to my attention.  This makes me feel good – the wider the net I can cast in the search for the new and interesting, the more likely I am to have my horizons expanded and mind blown.

I can’t recommend Prayers enough.  If you’re into hip hop or even somewhat darker electronic music you need to give these guys a listen.  But really I could say the same about all five of these selections.  Even if you’re not into their style, you may very well find something you like and have your musical base broadened just a little.  But be careful – if you open that door, even just a crack, there’s a whole flood of awesome music on the other side that will blow it down and rush over you like a tidal wave.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Top 5 Vinyl Purchases

  1. U-Men – U-Men
  2. No New York Compilation
  3. Revolver – The Beatles
  4. The Decline of Western Civilization Parts I & II Soundtracks
  5. The Icelandic Punk Museum Cassettes

u-men

I think I felt a little less passionate about acquiring specific things in 2016 than I have in past years.  That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed playing tons and tons of new vinyl (and tapes, and CDs), but there hasn’t been a lot of the thrill of picking up a rarity or even new releases that I looked forward to with great anticipation (though there are a few items due in 2017 that I am excited about).

That being said, I did get my grubby paws on a few rarities and cool titles this year.  U-Men is a legitimately scarce pre-grunge Seattle punk record, and the original pressing of No New York was an exciting find in Oklahoma City.  Getting red vinyl Japanese first pressing of The Beatles’ Revolver in Hong Kong was my first foray into that collecting rabbit hole, and the record will always carry with it the great memory of listening to James Tang play us different versions of Beatles songs and break them down for us by their differences.  The two Decline records are soundtracks to a pair of great documentaries which also finally got released on DVD.  While the last item(s) on my list are actually tapes not vinyl, I was probably most excited to get my hands on those from a purely musical standpoint – there’s some great stuff on those comps, and they hold a proud spot on my tape rack.

I’ll be excited to see what 2017 brings!

Top 5 Live Shows

  1. Macklemore – Neumos, Seattle
  2. The Devil Makes Three – Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Colorado
  3. Dr. Spock – Húrra, Reykjavik
  4. Dream Wife – Harpa, Reykjavik
  5. The Ills – Húrra, Reykjavik

macklemorestagedive

When a good friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, called and said, “psst, I’ve got two spots on the guest list for the Macklemore album release party at Neumos, do you want to go?”, I couldn’t say yes fast enough.  The chance to see Seattle’s best known hip hop artist (sorry Mix-A-Lot, but he has the belt now) playing in an intimate venue like Neumos in front of the home town crowd was way to good to miss.  And it was great.  Including the part shown here when he climbed up onto the ledge of the balcony level (right) and then dove backwards into the awaiting crowd below.  I doubt I would have tried that, especially given that there seemed like a lot of 14-year-old girls down below waiting to catch him.  But catch him they did, and it was a hell of a show.

The Devil Makes Three are always great live, and getting to see them at Red Rocks was just icing on the cake.  An amazing venue, and once the show started I hardly noticed the wind and the cold.  The other three shows rounding out my Top 5 were all at Airwaves.  I’m going to skip past Dr. Spock and Dream Wife as I’ve written pretty extensively about both bands recently, and go straight to The Ills.  When these crazy Slovakians hit the stage at Húrra, all five of us in our Airwaves posse basically groaned – “ugh, instrumental rock…”.  But by time the second song was done The Ills had won the entire crowd over, including us, with their sheer enthusiasm and joy of playing, plus of course they had some pretty sweet licks.  By the end of their set we were all bummed they couldn’t play just one more song.  We ran into a couple of the guys the next night and they seemed genuinely appreciative of the praise we heaped on them.  Bands like The Ills are why you go to Airwaves.  Look for a review of one of their albums in the upcoming weeks.

Top 5 Places to Buy Records

North America
1. Easy Street Records, Seattle
2. Daybreak Records, Seattle
3. Guestroom Records, Oklahoma City
4. Amoeba Music, Los Angeles
5. Hi-Voltage Records, Tacoma

The Rest of the World
1. Lucky Records, Reykjavik
2. Trash Palace, Stockholm (Sweden)
3. Shun Choeng Record Company, Hong Kong
4. Reykjavik Record Shop, Reykjavik
5. The Record Museum / Sam the Record Man, Hong Kong

p1070702

I feel like I should just retire Easy Street and Lucky, since they are my two go-to shops and will likely remain so for years to come.  Hell, I could easily populate a Top 5 in North America with just Seattle area shops that I visit semi-regularly.  But such is life in the vinyl lane.  Seattle’s Daybreak Records is new on the scene this year and has an impressive amount of quality wax in a relatively small space.  Guestroom was a very pleasant surprise that I came across during a business trip to Oklahoma, and I came away with an armload of great titles there.  And if there’s one upside to all the business trips I had to take to Los Angeles in 2016 it was the opportunity to pay some visits to Amoeba, which has so much vinyl that I literally run out of energy looking well before I’ve had a chance to look at everything.  Hi-Voltage rounds out the North America Top 5 – they moved into a new location down in Tacoma and I love the new layout.

We got to visit record stores in three other countries on two continents in 2016.  Reykjavik of course gave us the always amazing Lucky Records and Reykjavik Record Shop, places where the folks working there are more like friends and family than employees.  A pre-Airwaves trip to Stockholm gave me a chance to visit Trash Palace for a second time, one of the best punk/metal speciality shops around.  And Hong Kong… ah, Hong Kong.  Shun Choeng Record Company was hard to find – it’s actually in a regular looking office building on one of the middle floors, and there’s no sign for it on the street.  It was impeccably laid out and organized, and I swear every single used record in there was immaculate.  While we didn’t buy much there, it was a fun shop to explore.  And we can’t forget our visits to James Tang, aka Sam the Record Man (above), as he literally gave us a masters-level course in the different sound qualities of various versions of the exact same songs.  It was fun and educational, a visit I’d highly recommend even if you don’t end up buying anything (though I recommend treating yourself to a Japanese red vinyl first pressing of something you enjoy… you won’t regret it).  It’s probably the only record store that also has a chandelier and will serve you coffee or tea in fine china.

The best record shopping experiences are those that come when you can build rapport with the folks at the stores.  Record shopping is fun in and of itself, but that takes it to a new level and makes the whole thing special.

Top 5 Music Books

  1. Miles:  The Autobiography, by Miles Davis
  2. Hardcore:  Life of My Own, by Harley Flanagan
  3. Porcelain, by Moby
  4. I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, by Grace Jones and Paul Morley
  5. X-Ray Audio:  The Strange Story of Soviet Music on the Bone, ed. Stephen Coates

milesauto

I’ve always been a pretty voracious reader.  I’m probably good for 30+ books in a typical year, and once when I decided to keep track I finished a year at 51… almost a book a week.  Traditionally I’ve spent almost all of my reading hours on non-fiction, but over the last few years I re-discovered my love for sci-fi and I’ve been consuming novels at a rapid rate, aided no doubt by the amount of time I’ve spent on airplanes in 2016 (best guess is I’ve been on somewhere around 60-70 flights this year).  However, I did find some time to squeeze in some music related reading, and these are the best of those books I read in 2016.

Most of these are autobiographies, which can at times be a mixed bag, perhaps nowhere as much so as with my top pick, Miles:  The Autobiography.  I applaud Miles for penning his own book, using his own voice and not relying on the co-author to turn his words into something different.  You feel like you’re listening to the man himself speak, though that can be good and bad.  What was refreshing in the first hundred pages could at times get grating as the book progressed.  Miles gives movies like Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction a run for their money with the sheer volume of “fucks” he writes, and there are entire sections that seem to devolve into “then I played here with these guys, then I played over here with these other guys…”  But man, there are some moments of brilliance here where you get a glimpse into how deeply Miles understood music, and I have to give the man credit for exposing himself completely, warts and all, including drug addiction and domestic violence.  An important work in understanding the nature of genius.

The other three autobiographies each had lot to offer as well, and I found them generally honest and forthcoming, not simply providing an idealized version of the individual.  Grace Jones probably has more of her pure ego come through than the others, but she’s a powerful and confident woman, and that shows on the page.  X-Ray Audio is a killer book about a very unique topic, old bootleg records from the Soviet Union that were cut on used x-ray file.  A definite passion project, and one beautifully packaged.  All of these were enjoyable and brisk reads.

 

So there you have it, my 2016 recap.  It’s had to believe this is the fifth one of these I’ve written… the years are going by so fast any more.  Keep on playin’ those tunes and hunting for new music, my friends!

U-Men – “U-Men” (1984)

Before there was grunge there was the U-Men.

Formed in Seattle back in 1981, back when there was no Seattle music scene to speak of other than memories of Jimi Hendrix, and maybe Heart, the U-Men were part of a small punk rock movement.  Their 1984 four-song 12″ self-titled debut was put out by a Seattle record store called Bomb Shelter, and I was intrigued to see a pre-Sub Pop label Bruce Pavitt listed in the “THNX TO” section on the jacket reverse.  Pavitt had already produced a few comp cassettes as part of his Subterranean Pop / Sub Pop zine but hadn’t yet started the label that would later help put Seattle on the music map.

u-men

Musically this early U-Men material is more post-punk than either punk or proto-grunge.  It’s a bit gloomy, but also has the tendency to rock out a bit during parts of “Flowers D.G.I.H.” and even goes a bit psychobilly and jazzy on “Shoot ‘Em Down.”

The bands that lay the groundwork for a scene often fail to achieve the success and fame of those that follow, and that was no different for the U-Men.  They remained a popular touring act, but their following was relatively small and in the end they only put out one full length album, 1988s Step on a Bug, a  collection of songs heavier and harder than their earlier material, and they disbanded a year later.

This was another gem unearthed at Seattle’s Daybreak Records the other day.  With the quality of the material they have in that little shop I’m going to need to make a point of going back there often to see what other nuggets they have hidden away in that back room, waiting to make it to the floor.

“Hype! Boxed Set”

I’ve bemoaned the selling off of my precious Sub Pop singles many a time on Life in the Vinyl Lane.  I’m not entirely sure how many I had, but it was maybe around 20 or so, probably a few more, most of which came to me via the great indie record store Cellophane Squire (RIP).  I had some great stuff – Nirvana, Mudhoney, Dwarves…. tons of if on colored vinyl.  <sigh>  I promised myself I’d stay away from the nostalgia train and wouldn’t spend a bunch of money trying to reacquire that group, and so far I’ve been pretty successful in sticking to that.  The only one I have is a newer release, the 2013 Mudhoney 7″ “New World Charm” / “Swimming in Beer.”  But then I went to Easy Street the other day with too much time on my hands and not enough common sense in my back pocket, and walked out of there with the 1997 Sub Pop 7″ box set called Hype! Boxed Set.

But how could I resist?  Mudhoney, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Gas Huffer, U-Men… all in one box set!?  Eleven songs on four different color 7″ records.  Nestled all snug in a nice little box, with a poster inside.  It’s like the warm embrace of flannel and a mullet to keep the back of my neck warm on a cold fall day circa 1989.

subpophypeboxset

Hype! was a documentary about the grunge scene that came out in 1996, and this box set is a shortened version of the full length soundtrack.  As such most of the material dates from between 1987 and 1992, with only Girl Trouble’s “My Hometown” (1993) and “Return of the Rat” by Portland’s The Wipers (1979) falling outside that range.  “Return of the Rat” may seem like an odd choice, but the song is widely cited by Seattle musicians from the late 1980s as an influential track, perhaps most notably by Kurt Cobain, so it definitely fits.

One of the cool aspects of this set is that four of the songs are live recordings – Mudhoney’s “Touch Me I’m Sick,” Gas Huffer’s “Hotcakes,” Mono Men’s “Watch Outside,” and Fastbacks’ “K Street.”

TANGENT:  Holly says The Wipers’ “Return of the Rat” reminds her a lot of the Ramone’s “Beat on the Brat” (1976).  I want to disagree, but she might be onto something here in a weird way.

The Mudhoney track is a bit trebly, but otherwise captures all the angst and sneering power of “Touch Me I’m Sick.”  The Wipers may have been the “Lucy” of grunge, but Mudhoney wiped out the Neanderthals and established its supremacy with this song.  The fact that that song is on a 7″ alongside “Negative Creep” and “Return of the Rat” may make this the coolest 7″ record ever.  Ever.  To me it’s 1980s punk rock in one little 7″ vinyl package.

I have to give some props to the Mono Men and Gas Huffer, both of who kill it with their selections (both live) in this set.  I have a Gas Huffer record, but I don’t think I’ve ever owned anything by the Mono Men before.  Bravo too to Fastbacks for their brand of lo-fi pop punk.

TANGENT:  Note to self.  Don’t try to eat a cup cake with gooey frosting while playing 7″ records.

This set of singles definitely took my way back, and while I’m still not a huge fan of the 7″ format (too much work!), it was a great way to recapture my Sub Pop glory days.  It’ll get spun again for sure, especially that Wipers/Nirvana/Mudhoney record.

“Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking In The Streets, Volume 1-3” Compilation

Amphetamine Reptile Records is right up there with Sub Pop in terms of bad ass grunge and punk labels.  And it has unassailable punk cred, having been founded by former U-Men member Tom Hazelmyer.  They put out some killer comps, LPs, and singles over the years, and Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking In The Streets, Volume 1-3 is one of the best.  The compilation of the first three 7″ers in the series  sports 12 different bands each contributing a track, including heavy hitters U-Men, Tad, and Mudhoney, along with some more obscure groups like Lonely Moans, Halo of Flies, and The Thrown Ups.  It’s a great mix of bands that are all over the grunge and punk scene, but have just enough in common to hold the whole thing together.

I found this nugget from 1989 at Cheapo Records in Minneapolis, the home of Amphetamine Reptile, for what I thought was a very reasonable price.  I was initially struck by the cover, which stylistically reminded me a lot of something by Scraping Foetus Off the Wheel (which may say more about my brain than it does about the art itself…). The combination of the label’s rep along with the presence of some great Seattle bands made the purchase an easy decision.

Side A opens with a totally bad-ass tune by the U-Men, “Bad Little Woman”, a song that alternates between muddy, slow grunge and fast punk.  Helios Creed gives us the most way out there track with “The Last Laugh”, which is pretty much impossible to describe… maybe psychedelic punk?  I don’t know, but I’m probably way too sober to truly appreciate it in all its glory.  “Action Candy” by Surgery is a surprise grunge juggernaut with that driving, relentless, tuned down sound that I love.

Side B starts off intense and aggressive with “Insecticide Stomp” by Halo of Flies before kicking in with the killer Mudhoney track “Twenty Four”.  The rest is solid as well, particularly God Bullies’ “Tell Me” and, of course, my main man Tad who can’t help but be huge and awesome.  No one lays it down like Tad.  No one.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m having a late 1980s flashback and seriously craving a tallboy.

U-Men – “Step On A Bug”

The U-Men were an important transitional band in the process of grunge developing as an offshoot of punk.  They’re only known to die-hards, but their influence on the musicians and bands that later made it big is undeniable. Stephen Tow, author of The Strangest Tribe:  How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge, had this to say about them:  “…the U-Men influenced their peers more than any other band… and that includes Nirvana, Soundgarden, and even the Blackouts, Seattle’s seminal underground band of the late ’70s/early ’80s.”

With that in mind, I was surprised to unearth this in the “Miscellaneous U” section at M-Theory Records in San Diego recently, maybe even more so since it’s the 1990 UK re-release (records move in funny ways… that’s a whole separate blog post in and of itself).  But I was glad to have it since I’d probably have a harder time finding it in Seattle, and would have almost certainly had to pay a lot more.

Formed in Seattle in 1981, the U-Men had a strong but small core following, but their recorded output was relatively small – 1988s Step On A Bug is their only full-length LP, though they did have some EPs and singles, and also contributed a track to the early grunge compilation album Deep Six.  Various websites and books can give you some more background on the band, so I won’t rehash a lot of that here.  It’s unfortunate that such an influential band never had its own major success, but I’m not sure that bothered the guys.  Tom Price later played with Gas Huffer, Jim Tillman spent some time with Love Battery, and Tom Hazelmyer founded Amphetamine Reptile Records, so it’s not like they just sort of disappeared.

What about the music?  Well, I hear elements of a number of other bands in Step On A Bug, but obviously it’s impossible to say who influenced who.  But John Bigley’s vocals remind me A LOT of one of my favorite grunge artists, Tad Doyle, especially on “2 X 4” (the best song on the album, IMO) and “Flea Circus”.  It’s raspy, loud, and with an intensity that borders on desperation.  I also get some Soundgarden-esque sounding guitars from say around their Badmotorfinger period. As for the lyrics… well… they’re sort of all over the place.

I could have killed her,
She let the dogs loose,
Benedict Arnold,
Day glow caboose.
— “2 X 4”

Needle,
Ice pick,
Lizard,
Punk.
Alert the king the ship has been sunk.
— “A Three Year Old Could Do That” 

See what I mean?  Though I have to admit I like the Benedict Arnold reference.

Step On A Bug is some good stuff.  This is the kind of sound that originally turned me on to grunge in high school, though honestly I don’t remember anything about the U-Men from that time.  If you’re trying to get a sense of the genre’s roots, the U-Men are an essential stopping off point, and one that I think still holds up pretty well.