This summer, I spent a lot of time driving my daughter and her friends to summer camp. The trip took about thirty minutes.
On day one, I had a CD in the player. I know I picked something simple and bouncy and upbeat to appeal to the kids, but I can’t remember what it was. It might have been the Cars or the Dandy Warhols.
And, oh good lord, you’d have thought I had passed out frosty refreshing bottles of vinegar laced with ant poison. The kids were absolutely stricken with loathing. I think my daughter apologized for my very existence. It was like everyone’s puppy died.
Needless to say, we switched right on over to 92.3 hot hit radio and those kids were just pleased as punch. All of them (two twelve-year-olds, a ten-year-old and an eight-year-old) sang right along with every song. They were little divas and knew every line, especially the ones with lewd content. They expressed great interest in the half-hourly “Dirty on the 30” scandal-sheet gossip update and knew every celebrity referenced therein. (I had to switch away from that feature about twice a week when the content would cross the PG-13 threshold.)
As the summer progressed, I came to enjoy my 30-minute daily exposure to pure, unadulterated pop-hit, Top-10 radio. I grew to enjoy that song about the girl giving her number to a guy in a club (even though it might be crazy) and that other song about the guy hoping to get his whistle blown. Yes, the songs are fairly simple and assembled from a limited toolbox of melodic effects and beats. But they’re catchy anyway and derive much of their energy from the sheer over-the-top enthusiasm the vocal performers bring to the songs. I guess I enjoyed more than anything else the kids’ uninhibited joy in hearing them.
Those songs aren’t here (with one exception) because I didn’t buy them and put them on my iPod. I didn’t need to; I heard them every morning in the car. But the experience served as a handy reminder of how narrow and regimented my supposedly eclectic listening habits are. Music doesn’t necessarily have to be comprised of one dour recluse pushing a piano off a ledge and boom-miking the result. When it comes to music, the kids are usually right. That’s what I remembered this year.
Anyway, here’s the list. Most of the songs have YouTube links. The Spotify playlist is at the bottom (minus the Windy and Carl song, which isn’t on Spotify. Click the YouTube link for that one.). As in previous years, placement on the list is governed strictly by the number of plays it got on my iPod. If it got a lot, it’s here; if it didn’t, it’s not.
Kill For Love / Chromatics
The last time I bought sunglasses, a few years ago, I was in a Sunglass Hut in the Monmouth Mall, looking at Ray-Bans. Most sunglasses look stupid on my head, so I had to search awhile before I finally found a pair of aviators that I liked. I turned to the clerk in the store, put the sunglasses on, and said, “What do you think?” She was probably eighteen years old. She smirked at me and said, “They’re very ’80s.” “Honey,” I replied, “That was my decade.”
First Contact / PS I Love You
I have this thing about the last song on a record. Sometimes otherwise terrific artists just put too much thought into songs. You’re listening to that second track on a record and you can tell you’re listening to the 12th take of a song that sounded much better on the first take. And there’s some weird production touches on it, too. And then along comes the tenth song on a ten-track record and all that mannered preciousness drops out. The last song on the record is often the longest track and it’s sometimes a shambolic mess. That one’s the keeper. PS I Love You is Paul Saulnier. He seems to have been around a long time without putting much out. I’ve had a song of his from a Rocket Girl Records comp, “I Want You,” on various iPods for a decade. And now there’s this one.
Doom 84 / Screaming Females
So there’s this band that hails from my old college town. New Brunswick, New Jersey. It’s a straight-up power trio in the mold of Husker Du or Dinosaur Jr and it’s led by Marissa Paternoster. And the caterwauling noise she makes with both guitar and voice is, well … Hendrixian. “Doom 84” starts off like Jimi at Monterey, breaks down at the three-minute mark, coheres into a colossal Black Sabbath stomper, and then it really takes off. For eight minutes. It’s an amazing thing. Screaming Females are already the best thing to ever come out of New Brunswick and soon they may be the best band anywhere.
Hey Jane / Spiritualized
I once donated $330 to a free-form radio station during a fund drive on the condition that they play the full 17-minute version of Spacemen 3’s “Rollercoaster.” So I have always had an affinity for J Spaceman’s druggy, draggy, fuzzy, untethered, psychedelic space epics. This one, clocking in at a mere 10-minutes plus, sounded different, though. It had an almost poppy, bouncy, uplifting feel. It sounded clean. Released in March, it was a bona fide spring anthem. The link above is the amazing video for it, directed by AG Rojas, which is flagged for mature content. You should definitely sign in to see it if you haven’t already.
This Summer / Superchunk
A lot of people blame Superchunk for emo, but they’ve got it all wrong. Superchunk (like their contemporaries Dinosaur Jr, also featured here) were indie-label guitar heroes at a time (late 80s, early 90s) when that kind of noise was hard to find. Their lyrics (when you could decipher them) were intimate and introspective without ever being maudlin or self-pitying. Dinosaur Jr is back now, issuing epic after epic like they never went away, and Superchunk too, peeks its head out every once in a while, even if they’re only releasing the occasional one-off EP or single these days, like this one. Anyway, here’s the only entry on the list from the CEO of a highly influential and successful record label. And an instant-classic, punk-pop summer anthem, at that.
Elephant / Tame Impala
I’ve noticed that Jeff Mangum has resurfaced, appearing here and there to play some songs. There may even be a new Neutral Milk Hotel record out in 2013 or thereabouts. I suspect he came back because he heard footsteps. Tame Impala is a band that could easily have fit on the Elephant 6 label, back in the early 90s. Shaggy, loose, sprawling, psychedelic in that Olivia Tremor Control way. This song is a straight-up pop gem, trippy and hooky in the best sense of both words.
Fainting In The Presence Of The Lord / Windy and Carl
I seem to have stacked all the really long songs up here near the top. And this one’s the longest of them all at almost 19 minutes. On my nightly runs, this one provided the soundtrack for a good two miles. “Fainting” is the apotheosis of everything Windy and Carl. It’s the zenith of their atmospheric, ambient, shoegaze ethos. It’s the sound the heavens will make when our sun goes supernova, its corona expanding outward to engulf our little earth in a healing maelstrom of fire. I don’t know where Windy and Carl could go from here. So, anyway, go ahead. Give it a listen. There’s a YouTube clip in the link above. See Also: Mladic by Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
I Know It Oh So Well / Dinosaur Jr
Last winter, I was at Yankee Stadium, watching some of the Rutgers – Iowa State Pinstripe Bowl. I left at the half and took the train back to Penn Station. Instead of getting off at Penn Station, though, I stayed on until 14th Street and got off there. I knew that the music venues (The Ritz, CBGBs, Brownie’s, the Mercury Lounge) and the music stores (Tower Records uptown and downtown, Sights and Sounds, Kim’s Video) I’d haunted for years were all long gone. But I figured I’d at least see some things I remembered from the late ’80s through the ’90s. But … nothing. The hole-in-the-wall bars, the humble stores, the bodegas, everything was gone, replaced by high-end boutiques, restaurants, and big-chain suburban-style establishments of every sort. Everything was so bright and well lit, it was disorienting. At several junctures, I found myself walking west when I thought I was going east, or north instead of south. Eventually I blundered far enough south to find St. Marks Place and one bar, the Grassroots Tavern, an old NYU watering hole, that still existed. Inside, it was all changed around, too. I sat at the bar amongst a coterie of bewildering hipsters, had a beer, and got the hell out of there.
Loner / Burial
Burial is one of those acts I listen to all the time, but they never quite make the iPod-play, year-end cut-off, so I was surprised this one is the first to appear here. Burial is an anonymous British dubstep artist putting out eerie, noirish, echoey dirges about as far from dance as you could imagine. (He has since been identified as William Bevan.) This song, the second track on the Kindred EP released in February, starts out like many Burial tracks, with someone who sounds like John Cusack whispering “I think there’s something out there,” amidst Enoesque synth churn. But then it takes off with an almost poplike momentum and closes out on a gospel note. Surprising!
Shadow / Wild Nothing
It’s amazing how much neo-shoegaze nostalgia is out there right now. Most of it doesn’t rise above the level of cover-band noodling (I won’t name any names), but Wild Nothing nails the aesthetic pretty accurately, while bringing something original to the endeavor. Sometimes, instead of putting a Ride or Slowdive CD in the player, I’ll put Wild Nothing’s Nocturne in instead. That’s a compliment. See Also: Drift Away by Bleeding Rainbow.
Youth Without Youth / Metric
Ha! Here’s a banger. It’s not all pensive, introverted noodling by pale, undernourished sensitive types, here at the EZED Top 15. Does anybody remember Kasey Chambers? I never know anymore; I’m getting pretty old, and a clip for “Crossfire” doesn’t even exist on YouTube. Anyway, this chick sounds like her, backed with, like, the Knack, or something. I like the Jeff Lynne-styled robo-voice that sings harmony on the chorus, too. See Also: To Touch You by the Young Prisms
Gangnam Style / PSY
Oh, there’s always a ringer here in the yearly EZED Top 15, and here it is. I played the ass off this one from late summer through the fall, and the rules are the rules, iPod-plays-wise. When I first heard it on the radio, I was reminded of the first time I heard Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome To The Jungle.” I remember wondering, Is this a hard rock song or a parody of a hard rock song? Like “Welcome,” “Gangnam Style” is so goofily exuberant, so blissfully unaware of its own silliness, that it crashes right through the back wall of parody and into a new room called genius. When I finally saw the YouTube video (which is about to garner 1 billion views) and realized that the singer was a chubby Korean guy with his own doggy-style dance, I was hooked. See Also: Kick Out The Epic, Motherfucker by Dada Life.
It’s You / Lust for Youth
I was driving around this summer, returning from the beach with my family, and searching for a song on the radio. (Hot Hit 92.3 FM plays a LOT of ads.) Anyway, I wandered up the dial and suddenly New Order’s “Blue Monday” blared out of the radio from what had been a commercial place on the dial. I almost drove off the road. Here in America (and especially here in the NJ/NY/CT tri-state area) we simply don’t have alternative-rock radio. The last major radio station of that sort was WLIR/WDRE out of Garden City, Long Island in the 1980s and early ’90s. This odd, new station played something considerably less impressive afterwards (Pearl Jam?), but for a moment, hearing New Order coming out of my radio, I was transported back to my music-listening heyday, driving aimlessly around suburban streets listening to Graham Parker and the Feelies. (It turned out that this perplexing new station was only playing old alternative hits for a week or two, until it changed over to sports-call-in radio WFAN.) Lust For Youth sounds exactly like my out-of-body New Order experience. Fuzzy, crackly new-wave music four times removed and placed in an unfamiliar context.
The House That Heaven Built / Japandroids
I didn’t know there was anyone left out there who had the chutzpah to put out a genuine, arena-sized love song with enormous fist-pumping choruses in the style of … I don’t know … The Alarm or Love and Rockets. If someone can put out “The House That Heaven Built,” can unironic Van Halen revivalists be far behind? What about REO Speedwagon? Aren’t they due for another look?
Letters To The Metro (Zombi Remix) / Mogwai
I don’t know about you, but I stopped buying Mogwai records years ago. I mean, I like Mogwai, but if all Mogwai records are alike (muted, keening strumming, punctuated with occasional startling outbursts of corrupted noise), then you might as well stick with Young Team. But Mogwai is a canny outfit and this terrific set of remixes of originals from the Mogwai record Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will, released under the title A Wrenched Virile Lore, reveals that the members of Mogwai understand their repetition problem as well as we do. This Zombi Remix (no, I haven’t Googled Zombi, I’m assuming he’s some producer somewhere) re-imagines the Hardcore track “Letters To The Metro” as something Tangerine Dream could have released on one of their surpassingly excellent early ’80s soundtrack records (Thief, Sorcerer, Risky Business).
When Moe Tucker sings “I’m going to work, baby baby, to make a dollar, to buy some Spam for me and you. I can’t stay home with you today,” or “It would be nice, after working all week, if I could buy a little something for me. I can’t go to a movie or buy a book, I can’t even buy a bottle of Coke,” she’s not setting up some allegorical figure she can use to dramatize the plight of America’s downtrodden masses. She’s describing her day as a single mother, trying to scrape by on a Walmart job. Tucker is an anomaly, the former drummer for a world-renowned band (the Velvet Underground) who lives a hand-to-mouth existence when she’s not keeping time for Lou Reed or sitting in with the Raveonettes. This compilation isn’t a reissue necessarily, though most of the songs it collects were released on labels consisting of little more than a PO Box and have long been unavailable. The music itself veers all over the place, from Buddy Holly-style rave-ups to folk songs to propulsive blues workouts, all carried by Tucker’s distinctive, hectoring voice. Well worth looking into.
When I first heard of this one, my Smirk Radar started pinging like crazy. You see this kind of thing all the time. Some hipster “discovers” an unschooled outsider act and decides they’re the best thing ever, despite the fact they can barely play their instruments. Think Frank Zappa and the Shaggs. Or WFMU huckster Irwin Chusid. This one is different, though. Donnie and Joe Emerson made Dreamin’ Wild in 1979 in a home studio built for them by their father. They were teenagers in rural Washington state, hundreds of miles from anyone even tangentially related to the music biz. The record itself has a sensibility far removed from the punk rock and disco that ruled 1979. It’s a kind of blue-eyed soul classic made by two young farmer boys who taught themselves guitar, drums, and production techniques mostly by listening to the radio. So they pressed a few hundred copies of Dreamin’ Wild, slapped a Sears Photo Studio shot on the jacket, and moved on with their lives. Thirty years later, some blogger found a copy of it on a mantelpiece in a junk shop. And now it’s here.
The My Bloody Valentine reissues arrived this year, finally, and they were a bit of a disappointment. They offered virtually no new material and didn’t sound any different than the original CDs released from 1988 through 1991. This 2-CD set compiles all of the original EPs, two of which had been long out of print, plus two previously unreleased and unexceptional tracks. I already owned all of this material in one form or another, but I still enjoyed driving around this summer, reliving a time when each of these EPs was a crackly, fuzzy, soaring, secret communication from an obscure realm far away.