James Ford’s Favorite Music of 2013

December 31st, 2013 · 4 Comments · By

Wow – “Wow!” (Bubca Records)

I went to Rome for a week this June, and it was probably the best thing I did all year. (If someone offers you a free plane ticket to another country, you always say “YES,” no matter what other nightmarish hoops you have to jump through in order to make that happen). In addition to all the standard, obvious, tourist-y activities like looking at beautiful 1000-year-old buildings and eating overwhelmingly great food, I also tried to make an effort to find and experience as much underground / DIY culture as I could while I was there. I was only there for 6 days so I was barely able to scrape the surface, but every little bit of what I managed to see was still wonderful, and getting to meet likeminded artists and individuals and expose myself to things that I never in a million years would have heard about by staying home in Charlottesville was a really nice thing. (Remind me to tell you about Crack! Fumetti and Forte Prenestino some time…)

Anyway, it turns out the easiest way to do locate the counterculture in an unfamiliar city is to go to a record store. It’s been true since the mid-20th-c., and it’s still true today, and worth remembering when you find yourself in a country where you only speak 50 words of the local language and the only people you know in the entire country are your parents. So, many thanks to the kind folks at Radiation Records, Soul Food, Junk Food, and Alpacha Distro for being kind to a stupid American and making me feel welcome and like I was among comrades.

Additionally, it turns out that Record Stores are also a pretty good place to buy music, although this bit of their history has been somewhat overlooked in recent years. Nevertheless, I picked up a suitcase full of Morricone CDs, original-issue Krautrock LPs, and other assorted record-dork finds during my week abroad. At one of the stores (I think it was Junk Food?) They also had a selection of cassette tapes near the front counter, so I figured it would be foolish not to grab some of those as well; as they say, “When in Rome, do as the Ramones do.” The tapes were labelled things like “Roma Girl DIY Pop 3€” and whether they were great or terrible, I would never have the opportunity to hear these particular tapes again. So I picked six of them, based on the cover art and the clerk’s recommendations. This one was the best of the batch.

Wow! are a surprisingly-google-able quartet from Rome who make super-jangly, catchy, fuzzed-out DIY garage-pop. The guitar levels are all turned up until they blow out, the boy-and-girl vocals are run through a ton of reverb – nothing exactly new, they just manage to get it perfect.  They sound perhaps a little like their countrymen J.C. Satàn, but minus the brooding aggression; instead, there is a Ramones-level lazer-focus on just buzzsaw jangling and harmonizing. There are also tons of deliberate awkward-pauses that are adorable on a level approaching the early Beat Happening material. There are eight songs here; the opener (“It Should Be Ready”) is one of the most perfect jangle-fuzz pop diamonds I’ve heard in years, and they go out on a high note with a great song called “Haircut,” and the stuff in-between fills out the tape sides perfectly. To be honest, on half of these songs, I can’t even tell if there’s a rhythm section present or not — they might very well be playing, just not getting picked up on the super-primitive recording set-up. It doesn’t matter; this thing is a half-hour of sheer teenage-hearted joy, and I couldn’t possibly love it more.

AVAILABLE THROUGH: There are 3 copies left through the band’s bandcamp page (plus, I’m sure, a terrifying shipping cost); apparently there was also a CD-R version, but it appears that’s sold out.

FURTHER READING: Eva Won, which was the second best tape of the batch, and who I later discovered has toured with Wow!. Three songs, just clean guitar and spooky girlish vocals, and the B-side is a Broadcast cover that is pretty close to perfect as well.


Yo La Tengo – “Fade” (Matador)

When this came out almost a year ago, I said that it might be my second-favorite Yo La Tengo album, and while that now sounds insane, it’s still a really wonderful record that’s help up over 11+ months of listening. “Ohm” is clearly the best single song by anybody this year, in fact the whole first half of the album is pretty unimpeachable, and “Before We Run”‘s dash of orchestral garnish makes it a perfect closer. It’s also commendable that YLT have completely scrapped the formula that’s served them so well over the past decade; it’s easily their most cohesive album since Fakebook (unless you want to count Fuckbook), and it’s also impressive that they manage to still sound wonderful and exactly like themselves even when eschewing the usual variety-show of their strengths (fuzzy love anthems, tender slow ballads, epic sprawling loveliness, etc). The fact that, 29 years into their career, they made an album which doesn’t fit anywhere on this chart, and yet also doesn’t have a single mistake on it … that’s pretty incredible. Can you name another band that’s been around since the 80’s who has done the bulk of their best work in the past seven years? Me neither.

AVAILABLE VIA: Your Mom & Pop’s Brick-and-Mortar Record Shop.

FURTHER READING: That aforementioned chart is mighty helpful, if you don’t have the complete YLT discography already. Also, there was a new Dump album this year, which was real nice (great Buzzcocks cover!)


My Bloody Valentine – “m b v” (self-released)

This one could have been really bad. Usually — and this is a rash generalization, here — the best work is done by people who work efficiently and clearly and at a regular pace, not by people so paralyzed by ambition and self-doubt that they take 22 years to crank out another album. Long-awaited follow-ups to consistently-beloved masterpieces are rarely even good, much less great, and while they did produce some good work in the years following Loveless (a fantastic Wire cover, a very good cover of that song Louis Armstrong did for a James Bond film, a great Mogwai remix, Shields joining Primal Scream for a bit), the stuff he’d had his name on this century was either forgettably bland (those interstitials for that dumb Sofia Coppala film) or excruciatingly embarrassing and bad (be glad you are not one of the three people who bought this album). Plus, reunions are pointless cash-ins more often than not.

So, with all hopes of an actual follow-up long-since forgotten amidst decades-long jokes about how it would never arrive, and with very little left to prove except another opportunity to slightly tarnish the corners of a rock-solid legacy, Kevin Shields finally put out another My Bloody Valentine album, and it’s great. And one of the greatest things about it is that it’s never “great” in the sense of GRAND, or even ambitious; it’s just “great” in the sense of being very, very good. It is clear and confident and effortlessly successful in the way that so few long-gestating works of art are; it kind of sounds like he just cranked it out a year or two after Loveless and then just sat on on it for 20 years. Which is not to say it sounds like 1993, at all, though it does share a kinship with concurrent efforts by Lilys and Swirlies, et al. It’s not as good as Loveless, but it’s better than In the Presence of Nothing or What to Do About Them, and it also sounds kind of timeless in a way that none of their followers ever were. News of this album may have broken the internet for a few days back in February, but it doesn’t sound like a big album, nor in any way disappointing. It has all the hallmarks of Loveless; dreamy shimmering guitars, coo-ing incomprehensible vocals, a very vague rave-era UK rhythm that thankfully never gets too far into car-commercial territory, and production that is both more subtly and heavy-hitting than it seems. He’s also willing to push the sound further in small ways (the maddeningly repetative satisfaction of tracks 7 and 8, the strange blown-own cohesion of track 9) while still sticking to his stengths.

This isn’t an album that gave everyone what they thought they wanted after 22 years of waiting; it’s just an album that has more of the same stuff that made everyone (well, everyone under ~40) fall in love with My Bloody Valentine in the first place.

AVAILABLE VIA: surprisingly difficult to find, to the point where it had been “released” for over two months and I still hadn’t heard it — I never buy MP3s, as a matter of both principle and unreliably slow download speeds via my (neighbor’s) internet connection, and money was tight enough that month that I didn’t want to splurge on the lavish deluxe package or whatever; basically, I just wanted to buy this on CD from a record store somewhere (since I wanted to listen to it in my car, and the entirety of my MBV collection — original Creation paper-sleeve singles of Feed Me With Your Kiss and You Made Me Realize included — was also on CD), but it proved damn near impossible, until former Nailgun contributor Zak Krone (with whom I was c0-hosting a radio show at the time) took pity on me and gifted me the CD copy that had come with his lavish deluxe edition thing.  I think I finally saw a CD copy in a brick-and-morter store something like six months later, retailing for $28 or something absurd like that.

FURTHER LISTENING: Have you heard their EPs? Not just the Ecstasy and Wine stuff and the Loveless singles, but the out-of-print stuff? Feed Me With Your Kiss and You Made Me Realize are arguably their best material, and Geek and The New Record By My Bloody Valentine (haha, they used up that title back in 1986), while early, formative works, and still quite beloved around my household. Those few scattered mid/late-90’s things I mentioned above are definitely worth a download as well.


Lonnie Holley – “Just Before Music” / “Keeping a Record of it” (Dust-to-Digital)

Lonnie Holley is a 63-year-old artist who lives in Birmingham, Alabama. He’s been making visual art — mostly sculptures, often made from “found” / scrap materials — for decades, and has apparently been making music for a while as well, although none of it had ever been widely released until very late last year. But in the past 14 months he’s now released two full-length albums, though some of the songs on them date as far back as 2006. Just Before Music, the first one, is Holley playing solo, while on the second, Keeping a Record of It, he’s often backed by Bradford from Deerhunter and the guy from Black Lips, though thankfully they mostly stay out of the way and let Holley do his thing.

What is ‘his thing’? He plays keyboard over minimal, burbling, slow electronic rhythms, and sings beautiful, spooky, ethereal songs which have clear antecedents in popular music traditions, but which definitely have a distinct and unique flavor to them. It will appeal to you if you like the more conceptual Sun Ra stuff, or the call-and-response vocal bits from early-70’s Pharoah Sanders records, but Holley’s music is way more stripped down and minimal and personal; he plays Gospel, in the same sense that Jandek plays The Blues. His thick, nasal Southern accented voice is wonderfully musical, even when he’s kind of talk-singing, to the point where it’s easy to hear it as just another instrument, before you start to consider the lyrics, but those lyrics are also really great. It may sound at first listen like stream-of-consciousness improvisational rambling, and there’s definitely a charming off-the-cuff what-comes-next appeal to his off-kilter oratory, but the songs he’s singing are also very intentionally and carefully crafted ones.

Holley at first seems to be evoking timeless and universal concepts, but careful listening reveals that his songs are often very firmly planted in the present, dealing with both subjects relating to both his own personal history (by all accounts the guy had some truly horrific early-life experiences) and in the history of the American South and contemporary culture. There are pseudo-sermons about Mother Earth and conservation and environmentalism, and there are songs which riff on various traditional gospel and blues themes (“Mama’s Little Baby,” “Here I Stand Knocking at Your Door”), but there’s also a 13-minute long nearly-spoken-word song about the Film industry’s conversion to digital (“the End of the Film Era”), and a wonderful sci-fi fantasy about Arks and Monarchy (“Six Space Shuttles and 144,000 Elephants”), and a short field recording of him hanging out with the Gee’s Bend Quilters. Like Holley’s visual art (which, it must be noted, is really, really good), he’s able to pick just a very few simple elements and extrapolate a great deal from them, extracting a rich river of meaning and associations and spinning them into wonderful and insightful artistic statements. It’s really good, really smart stuff, and it sound beautiful, too.

If you’re thinking of framing/interpreting this guy as an “eccentric outsider artist,” don’t bother. Lonnie Holley lives and breathes and walks the world like the rest of us, and though he was dealt a worse hand than most, he’s managed to come out on top and make wonderful art from the scraps and detritus of American culture. Presenting him as some sort of “outsider” is only useful for reinforcing the pre-existing power structures in the ivory-tower-institutions of art and culture, creating a narrative where the establishment can congratulate itself for “discovering” him. That said, the guy’s been around a long time and been through some tough shit, so it’s nice that he can now make some money from his work and that the world at large can finally get to hear his music.

GET ‘EM FROM: both his albumare on Dust-to-Digital, and are not hard to find, and are both great. I happen to prefer Just Before Music, but YMMV.

FURTHER LISTENING: see him play live, if you can!  He tours, sometimes with bands you have heard of. I caught his set this summer on a hot afternoon at an outdoor pavilion down in Raleigh, and it was really wonderful.


Nate Young – “Regression – Blinding Confusion” (NNA Tapes)

Nate Young is of course the dude from Wolf Eyes (of the two 70’s-punk-meets-Mad-Max rejects who are not Crazy Jim, I believe he’s the one who stands center-stage with the mic; the portlier guy on the left with the synth mounted on his belt is John Olson). He’s been doing an ongoing series for a few years called Regression, which is basically spooky short-form minimal ambient synth stuff.

I’ve really like the earlier Regression material that I’d heard, but this one is clearly the best. There are so few elements here — rarely more than 2 or 3 sounds happening on any given track — but the sounds are really rich, both reaching backwards to the history of electronic music, evoking the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s Delia Derbyshire and the 50’s/60’s IBM composers, the whole history of Library Music, early-70’s Cluster / CON material, 70’s/80’s John Carpenter  soundtracks and Brad Fiedel’s Terminator score, and the mellower /non-dancy end of the Artificial Intelligence-era WARP spectrum, while also being identifiably contemporary and singular, and occasionally as dark and menacing as the heaviest of Wolf Eyes material (though the Regression stuff never gets harsh or loud).

That’s a whole lot, for something so minimal and simple. It’s basically just pure synth tones and occasional whooshing effects or clattering minimal rhythms, but all that stuff is in there, somehow, and yet none of those past eras/efforts would have produced something that managed this particular balance cold, threatening Industrial dystopia with such simple, almost childlike tones and melodies.

Anyway, of all the Regression material, Blinding Confusion is the best of the pack because it’s the least ambient/background-y, and most suited to active, attentive listening; the earlier ones I liked, but this one i LOVE. These aren’t just anonymous ambient library-style short cues, but fully cohesive and memorable songs, as minimal, short, and instrumental as they may be. If anyone remembers that great underrated synth band Plone, these sound like the rotting, desiccated skeletons of Plone songs. Really good, basic, beautiful, spooky shit.

AVAILABLE VIA: it’s an LP-only release from NNA Tapes (who, despite their name, have been putting out a lot of vinyl this past year), and it’s still in print.

FURTHER LISTENING: the original Regression was issued on a series of lathe-cut LaserDiscs(!!!) and got reissued on CD a few years later; NNA also put out Regression Vol 2 — Stay Asleep back in 2011. Those are good, but not as great as this one. He’s also just put out an even newer Regression-related multi-volume thing which I haven’t even heard yet, but I’m eager to. If you want to hear some of what inspired this stuff, any of those antecedents I mentioned above are worth investigating. There is also an infinite amount of Wolf Eyes-related material and side-projects to consider; none of them sound anything like this, they vary widely in both aesthetics and quality, and it is physically impossible for one person to hear them all.


Daniel Menche – “Marriage of Metals” (Editions Mego)

Menche is a prolific Portland-based composer whose name I’d been aware of for years, without actually being very familiar with his work, outside of “oh yeah, another one of those post-Industrial doom/drone guys whose names you see everything;” I filed him in the same mental file cabinet as James Plotkin and Mick Harris and Bill Laswell and JK Broadrick and dudes like that. But I heard a write-up and a sound-sample of this album back in June and it piqued my interest enough to check it out (plus it’s on Mego, who have been absolutely on fire the past year or two), and it’s real fuckin’ good. Basically this is a guy recording gamelans and then digitally processing them via computer, but somehow it avoids all the pitfalls of Western dudes trying to incorporate / approximate gamelan (it has the same pitches and timbres, while belonging to a wholly different aesthetic) while also avoiding all the pitfalls of digitally-processed-self-recorded-source-material type of albums (it’s not dreadfully boring).  Two cuts on an LP, the A-side is good and buzzy and doom-y and recommended for downer dudes and dudettes who like Oren Ambarchi and Damien Romero and Kevin Drumm and shit like that, while the B-side is totally gorgeous and wonderful and is recommended for anyone with ears who is not a boring dweeb. Highly recommended.

AVAILABLE VIA: I got mine from Keith at Mimaroglu, but it should be available wherever you get your Mego editions.

FURTHER LISTENING: I’ve since picked up Body Melt, which is also great, and am eager to hear more; any readers out there got some Menche recommendations for me?


Bill Orcutt – “a History of Every One” (Editions Mego) / “Twenty-Five Songs” (Palilalia)

Bill Orcutt was the guitarist for an infamous noise-rock duo (sometimes trio) back in the 90’s called Harry Pussy, whose legend I have been told for years but whose work remains largely unheard by me (as, somewhat frustratingly, only the bizarre outliers of their discography have been in print this century). After that act split up he apparently retired from music for a decade-plus, reportedly to become a professional software engineer in San Francisco (which is kind of baffling, as the aesthetic throughout both HP and his solo work is thoroughly analog; grainy, messy, and raw, about a million miles from anything digital or crisp or austere or even clean).

A few years ago he started playing again, largely solo acoustic recordings; I was late to the table on those, but 2009’s A New Way to Pay Old Debts is a revelation, 2010’s Way Down South is quite good, and 2011’s How the Thing Sings is even better. They’re all “solo acoustic guitar” music, but while most of the folks doing that sort of thing these days (Glenn Jones, James Blackshaw, William Tyler) opt for lush, clean, focused, deliberately beautiful aesthetic, Orcutt’s recording methods are messy, raw, and fucked up, and his playing style is too.

On the early material especially, it sounds like there’s basically just a lapel-mic dropped directly inside the guitar-hole, so the sound is blown-out, harsh, and distorted; likewise, Orcutt’s playing style is the opposite of smooth; full of starts and stops, tangled trip-ups, and repetitions that sound more like tourettic tics than planned decisions or natural progressions. Even the beginnings and endings are abrupt; no fade-ins, gentle intros, or tail-outs; just hard, almost-arbitrary cuts and plenty of room tone (and incidental sounds including ringing telephones, barking dogs, etc).

Orcutt is to the acoustic guitar as Monk was to the piano, except imagine if Monk’s methods of recording bore all the same hallmarks of oddity and eccentricity as his playing did. Adding to the comparison are Orcutt’s vocal utterances; he wails, whines, and roars, and even before I’d seen him play live I had the strong suspicion that these vocal ejaculations were largely involuntary, as if the music is bursting up from some place deep inside him and the only way he can get it out is through his fumbling fingers, with his mouth acting as something of an overflow valve for the sound within (I later read some sort of interview or press release confirming as much, and when I saw him play live — at ragingly loud amplified volume — the whines grew to a full-throated, red-faced roar).

But his music is great not just because of its eccentricity and oddity (though those things are great, and a big part of the puzzle), but also because through all the raw, tangled weirdness, he’s frequently able to achieve many moments of transcendent beauty and odd grace, all done with his own methods and on his own terms. This is, after all, a guy who has for many decades been playing the same busted-up acoustic guitar he first owned, which has apparently has had to undergo structural repairs on several occasions, and which has a thick patch of duct-tape covering up the spot where he’s worn a hole through the wood. (It’s a six-string guitar, with only four strings on it). Orcutt is as fascinatingly odd and democratically unique as someone like Jandek, but with a much higher signal-to-noise ratio. He might be playing “wrong,” but he’s learned that wrongness so well that he’s built his own tools from it, and crafted his own human-scale cathedrals of sound. He’s not only re-writing his own rules but also winning the game. He’s not just a compellingly listenable oddball, but a legitimately valuable genius.

His latest full-length, released to the world through the unlikely venue of the German electronic Mego label (see? I told ya), is called A History of Every One, and it’s a “covers album,” with Orcutt offering his own unique take on 12 standards of the American Songbook, including “Black Betty,” “Zip a Dee Doo Dah” and “White Christmas.” They’re hardly the most obvious choices, even for someone in his chosen instrument/field, but while the tracklist might induce a chuckle, the interpretations are far too idiosyncratic, subjective, and compelling to even begin to register as parody (though Orcutt is not without a sly sense of humor; see, for instance, the sleeve of Thing Sings). The recording here is cleaner, and you can hear a lot more of his playing, while still remaining true to his inimitable style. Sometimes the melody of the song in question is recognizable (though I couldn’t actually whistle “Spanish is the Loving Tongue” or “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard” if called upon to do so), but more often than not the songs just serve as a sort of starting point or loose framework for Orcutt’s playing, which leads to the question of just how much of what he does is improvisational and how much is pre-planned or deliberate. (I suppose I could compare different versions for some clues, but I’m handicapped by my lack of technical musicological knowledge here). Either way, it’s clear that he’s completely taking each song apart, down to the individual notes, and re-assembling them through his own personal artistic filter. It may not be as amazing as How the Thing Sings (still my favorite), but it’s still a great album, one of the best this year, a logical next step and worthy contribution to Orcutt’s expanding canon.

Even better / more ambitious / more remarkable is the boxed set he put out this year, a collection of thirteen seven-inch 45’s entitled Twenty Five Songs (the same take of “the Star-Spangled Banner” is repeated on both sides of the final platter), which I understand were basically the demos / warm-up sessions / preliminary takes for the full-length. They’re definitely a lot more raw, messy, and loose — the version of “When You Wish Upon a Star,” for example, starts out as a rougher, more standard take than the albums’ slow, ballad-like version, but is rather wonderfully overtaken by passing ambulance sirens, while the totally unrecognizable attack upon “I Happen to Like New York” is much heavier than anything on the LP, and has nearly as much yowling utterance as guitar-playing. History is great, and a fine starting point even if you’ve never heard of this guy, but for my money the box set is the real meat of this material; a fuller, more comprehensive, and more satisfying plunge into this world, however inscrutable some aspects of it may remain. (“Are these solo recordings?,” someone asked at the merch table, when I saw him play this summer — an understandable question, as he’d just played a killer duet with Corsano. “No one has ever been more alone than I was when I recorded these,” was Orcutt’s response).

Even more revealing is the deeper insight into his methodology via the longer tracklist and wider selection of songs; “Nearer My God to Thee” and “Moon River” are on here, but so are “Danke Schoen” and “the Ballad of Davy Crockett.” One gets the strong feeling that Orcutt is not choosing songs from his own personal record collection so much as conducting a survey of 20th-century American Popular Music; the repertoire seems much more like a conceptual self-assignment, than the standard practice of selecting songs which might suit themselves to the player’s style. Still, with Orcutt’s highly unique and freeform methodology, the results are satisfying to listen to, and all the more fascinating because of the history of associations that comes with each tune. Orcutt hasn’t just picked old songs that were once popular, even if many of them are not well-known today; by choosings songs that come from an era whose canon was distinctly different from our own, he’s also dug up a lot of messy history that many of us would like to leave behind, and offered his own subjective take on it.

Most provocative are the inclusion a number of popular Minstrel songs from the era of Blackface; “My Mammy” and “Massa’s in the Cold Cold Ground” are here, at last reunited with their former contemporaries like “Ol’ Man River” and “Nearer My God to Thee,” and juxtaposed with several songs originally performed by Black artists, including Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” and Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Bring Me My Shotgun” (though the pairings are more subtle and clever than mere obvious contrasts; “Strange Fruit” is backed by “White Christmas,” for example). Rather than avoid the difficult subject of what it means to be a White artist performing in a traditionally Black vernacular, or paying patronizing lip-service to the Blues pioneers of yesteryear, Orcutt instead opens up that difficult can of worms right up front.

This is a bold move, but the breadth of his subject matter and the singularity of his playing belie (to my ear) any potential criticisms that might be lobbed his way, i.e. whether or not he is, in some sense, embodying / recreating the spirit of blackface to some degree by playing these songs, or by being a white guy playing traditional blues songs in general (not that I’ve actually heard or read any such arguments; this is basically my own internal dialogue as a self-conscious contemporary White listener from the South, that I’m recounting here). He’s not just picking outdated or socially risqué songs, either, but a deliberately contradictory mix.  Instead of just re-imagining provocative material, I’d argue that Orcutt is finding his unique take on a subjects like authorship, listenership, intention, and whom these songs belong to (and whether that ownership is desired or not); these are questions that remains far more complex and relevant that we’d all like to pretend, and rather than whitewashing and bowdlerizing the history of his chosen art form, Orcutt is bravely taking on the entirety of the subject, head-on, in his own way. The aspects of race and history aren’t some dark underside to his project, but are arguably central to the very premise which guides and organizes the whole endeavor, and it’s hard not to begin to see every song through this filter; “Zip a Dee Doo Dah” was, after all, written for Disney’s Song of the South, and “Solidarity Forever” was sung by the Union Army in the Civil War.

What I hear when I listen to these re-interpretations is a valid argument that we can’t pick and choose the parts of history and culture that we’d prefer, to suit our needs (either by negative or positive example); instead, we have to acknowledge our history as a whole, warts and all, and each find our own way with it and attempt to move forward. Orcutt is slicing open the past 150 years of popular American music, Gordon Matta-Clark-style, and attempting to read the stars by the innards that spill out. All artists should hope for a subject so broad, and results so unique, especially when they sound this good.

AVAILABLE VIA: History is in print and locate-able, as are Thing and Debts, all in both LP and CD, I believe.  The 13×7″ box set is gonna be tougher to find; Orcutt only made a handful of them, and is pretty much distributing them himself. I bought one from him directly, at a concert, and it wasn’t cheap. I believe they’re now sold out. “There’s only a few dozen of these in the world, and I know where they all are,” he told me; “the second I see one selling for a mark-up on Discogs, I’m gonna have to track somebody down and kill him.” ( So I’ll tell you what, Nailgun reader; bring some beers or BBQ over to my house and we can chill out and listen to it together.)

FURTHER LISTENING: You should also check out his LP-length live LP with Chris Corsano from earlier this year (The Raw and the Cooked); it’s heavier, louder, and more fucked up than any of his solo material, and quite good. The only Harry Pussy albums that seem to be in print are a low-quality live recording (reportedly rife with heckling; they were opening for Sonic Youth for a string of gigs, and were apparently not well-received) and a pricy edition of  a weird sort of digital re-mix/conceptual-art re-interpretation of yet more live recordings. I’ve got a used copy of an HP singles collection from the 90’s due in my mailbox any day now, I’m eager to hear how that sounds.


Body/Head – “Coming Apart” (Matador)

I’ve never understood the kind of Sonic Youth fan who wishes they would cut out all that “noise” stuff and just get back to the “songs” — clearly, the great thing about Sonic Youth is that they can do both those things at once, which is why it’s kind of a shame that over the last 10 years they kind of increasingly segregated those elements, getting more songy and traditional on their increasingly underwhelming “proper” albums, and relegating all the sprawling, interesting bits to their SYR releases, live shows, and side-projects. Still, if for some horrible reason I were forced to choose only one of those halves of that band, I’m the type of guy who’d pick the “noise” part without even having to think about it; I’d much rather listen to SYR 9 than any of the last three or four “real” Sonic Youth albums, any day of the week.

So anyway, I guess that’s less of an issue now that they’re broken up. I wasn’t holding my breath for their next full-length, but I was hoping to catch them live at least once or twice more. Anyway, they’re all still doing good and worthwhile things, some better than others. This one, as I’m sure you’ve read in publications such as Elle and Interview and Huffington Post, is a duo of Kim Gordon (duh, you know Kim Gordon) and Bill Nace, the guitarist who also plays in Vampire Belt (his duo with the ubiquitous and ever-excellent Chris Corsano) and X04 (his trio with two other guitarists, which is minimal and unrewarding enough to make B/H seem like a pop record in comparison); worth mentioning here are his two fucking superb full-LP-length duets with saxophonist Paul Flaherty, which are incredibly simple and raw and challenging and cathartically satisfying.

Anyway, this album is basically Kim Gordon doing meandering, half-melodic, “riffs” she did on the mellower SY stuff, while Nace adds an assortment of distortion, crackle, or silence (as needed), and Gordon sing-talks spoken-word vocals over top (or sometimes in-between). Formless anti-jamming and Kim Gordon’s voice were always two of my favorite things about latter-day Sonic Youth anyway (SYR5 notwithstanding), so a whole album of just that kind of thing is pure comfort food for me. It’s definitely not going to satisfy any Lollopaloozers who were only on board for the Grunge-era thrashy bits (this almost goes without saying, but if you’re the kind of aging mosh-pit knucklehead who hates Kim Gordon, you can go fuck yourself with a rolled-up copy of Mojo), but if you want the sort of drawn-out, gorgeous meandering that made Washing Machine so amazing, there’s a fair amount of that here; just weirder, and darker, and without any choruses or anything in-between. But for all that, it is a remarkably compelling listen; given how simple it is, and how basically none of the songs “go” anywhere (there’s no build, no climaxes, just art-noise-vamps that last between 1 and 13 minutes), it’s a really listenable album, full of tension, detail, and purpose (unlike, say, X04, which at times resembles listening to room tone, interrupted occasionally by a Heating/AC unit).

Still, it’s been a weird surprise to see a record like this getting such wide and big press attention, much of it from outside the usual mainstream music organs. I’ve seen more articles about this album than the past 10 years of Sonic Youth combined. I guess much of that has to do with Kim Gordon-the-recently-divorced-celebrity-and-feminist-icon than with any of the record’s actual content; if any of the “mainstream” journalists actually bothered to listen to this album, they sure didn’t mention it in any of their publications, and it’s close to impossible to imagine them taking notice of a musician like Nace under any other context. But Sonic Youth have always been a gateway drug for mainstream audiences to discover underground sensibilities, and whether or not you think that’s valuable or exploitive (I’d argue it can be either, case-by-case),  it seems that same thing is sort of happening here, in a weird sort of mirror-world inversion of the era when Nirvana had just broken the flannel ceiling. Pandering horseshit like that movie Juno might invite us to laugh at the supposed wisdom that a teenage girl would never like “weird noise” music, but if even one Rookie reader checks this out and has her life changed, maybe the 21st century thus far really has been worthwhile after all.

AVAILABLE FROM: Sam Goody, or as one of 10 free CDs when you sign up for your Columbia House subscription

FURTHER LISTENING: Sonic Youth albums 1-8 and 10-12 are of course essential (start with the 6th, Daydream Nation, if you are somehow a person who has made it this far into this website without already owning that). Body/Head also put out a 12″ EP late last year (which is like this album, but not as good), and a collaboration with Bruce Russell of Dead C called Body/Head/Gate a few years ago (which I haven’t heard). If you want more Nace, I cannot recommend his Flaherty duets more enthusiastically; the first, An Airless Field, is great enough, but the second — No, the Sun — is a fucking masterpiece. Those are both LP-only, but in-print, I believe. (Weirdly, their CD-length trio collab. with Thurston Moore is not that great).



John Zorn and Thurston Moore – “@” (Tzadik)

At the opposite end of the spectrum of contemporary critical attention is this album, a full-length studio-recorded series of duets between Gordon’s ex-bandmate/ex-husband Thurston Moore and longstanding New York composer / saxophonist John Zorn, who really is more of an elder statesman than an enfant terrible these days, but who can still summon some brimstone when it’s called for (albeit in an extremely controlled, pre-meditated, nigh-clinical way which will surprise absolutely no one who has ever heard a John Zorn record before). Not only have I not seen any reviews or solicitations of this album, not only does nobody else I’ve talked to have a strong opinion about it — I don’t think I’ve spoken to another person all year who even knew this record exists. I saw it on the Jazz shelf at that one store in my town that still sells new CDs, and I picked it up more out of a sense of dutiful obligation and residual curiosity than any enthusiastic expectation that it might be any good. Surprise: it’s great!

Let’s not misunderstand my expectations, here; Thurston Moore and John Zorn are both living legends, and fucking fantastic performers, and if you ever have a chance to see either of them play live, you should definitely do that (I’ve seen Moore four times, and Zorn twice, and they’re always always great).  But their respective recorded outputs over the past decade-plus, it must be said, kind of pale in comparison to the era when they were each at the peak of their powers (early-80’s → mid-90’s), and they’re both infamous for collaborating with pretty much fucking anybody who might conceivably ever enter their orbit, with an enthusiasm that often outpaces their quality-control. It is simply not possible to own every recording that either of these guys has played on, it’s only a matter of how deep you’re willing dig before you find yourself saying “fuck it, I already have half a shoebox-full of poorly-recorded, pointless unrewarding jamming (Moore) and/or dull, pseudo-zany chamber-navelgazing (Zorn) by each of these guys, and I don’t really need one more.”

So it’s not a surprise they eventually did an album together; what is a surprise is that it’s the best thing either of them has laid to tape in well over a decade and a half.

The whole thing — a studio-recorded full-length (mercifully, not a live gig! ) of seven songs, all un-edited takes with no overdubbing, nearing an hour in length — sticks to the format of Zorn on sax, Moore on gtr+pedals, so the template they’re working with here is more than a little reminiscent of previous efforts by Borbetomagus, or the aforementioned Flaherty-Nace duo. And while it lacks the sheer overwhelming, high-energy assault of the mighty Borbetomagus (which rarely translates well on record) and doesn’t have half of the breath-shortening, paint-peeling tension of the F/N duo, it is a great deal more listenable and presentable and accessible than anything by those acts, and is still far-out/fucked-up enough that multiple listeners called to yell at me when I aired the opening 12-minute cut on my daytime radio show.  Make no mistake: this is indeed a whole album of buzzy guitar scrambling and schreechy horn honking. But these guys have been around the same blocks enough times to know that being “weird” only gets you out of bed in the morning, and old enough to know that it doesn’t always pay to aim for terrifying fury at all times, so there’s more than a few spots on each track where they lay back and explore mellower, subtler, stranger territories, with all of the combined skills that years of work in their respective fields have provided them with.

In short: neither one of these guys half-asses anything here, they do a remarkably great job of playing against / alongside one another, and the wonderfully-done recording sounds clean and spacious and appropriate. If you only buy one thing from either of these brilliant, overgrown children this Presidential term, and you’re not a hopeless square, make it this one.

AVAILABLE VIA: it’s on Tzadik, which remains fairly well-distributed. I picked mine up at Sidetracks a few months ago, and I saw today that Cal had ordered another copy and had it on the shelf, I guess on the off-chance that my review might convince a second person to give this a listen.

FURTHER LISTENING: Borbetomagus’ Zurich, seeing Borbetomagus live, seeing Zorn live, seeing Thurston live, and again I cannot overstate how fond I am of the 2009 LP No, the Sun byPaul Flaherty and Bill Nace.



Black Sun Roof – “4 Black Suns + a Sinister Rainbow” (Handmade Birds)

If you and I have talked about music more than twice, you are probably aware of my enthusiasm for the work of Matthew Bower and his assorted collaborators. One of the cool things about being a fan of his work is that he’s been super-prolific for over 30 years, so if you have several of his albums you can sort of watch the clear progression of ideas from one phase of his work to the next… but only IF you can manage to track down a lot of the work, as he’s put things out under a variety of names on many different labels over the decades, and unfortunately much of it is totally obscure and/or out of print.

Anyway, the major eras of his projects, as I see them, are:

1) the original 80’s Skullflower records, where he had a lot of collaborators from around the UK noise/industrial scene, and they basically sounded like a screechier, more nihilistic version of Swans or Butthole Surfers (examples: Birthdeath, Form Destroyer, and Xaman, all of which got re-issued this year, along with a contemporaneous singles collection);

2) the early 90’s Skullflower albums, which got heavier and more “metal” and basically sounded like Earth, but better; fewer corny blues riffs, and much more weird textures and tones (examples: IIIrd Gatekeeper, Last Shot at Heaven, Obsidian Shaking Codex, Total’s Beyond the Rim, all of which are masterpieces, and all but IIIrd are pretty hard to find);

3) the mid-late-90’s material, where he moves past the idea of even riffs (or, for that matter, forward momentum) into a harsh, artificial, screeching plateaus of sound that are almost transcendent. (examples include: Skullflower’s Carved into Roses, Infinityland, This is Skullflower, and Transformer, as well as Total’s Glassy Warhead and the debut Sunroof! release, Delicate Autobahn Under Construction; some in print, some not);

4) the fin-de-siecle golden era, where the Sunroof! project really starts to blossom into a weird, beautiful, digital, post-Krautrock psychedelic tapestry of wonderful abstraction, which also again starts to include a lot of input from like-minded travelers like the members of Vibracathedral Orchestra. From Sunroof!’s Slipstream and Found Star Sound you can hear them start to develop these ideas and build on them (though both those releases are lovely in their own right); Bliss and Cloudz are two of my all-time favorites (in fact Cloudz might still be my favorite album of all time); the USSA live tour disc and the Wings Over America split with VCO are both stellar; Bower’s collaboration with Richard Youngs (Relayer, under the name YoungsBower) and the debut album by The Hototogisu (Bower with Marcia of Double Leopards, the epic Floating Japanese Oof! Gardens of the 21st Century) are two more contenders for the top spot in his discography;

5) the mid-00’s material, where things are still pretty and interesting and abstract, but start to get harsh and heavy again;  Silver Bear Mist, Crinkled Laminate, and Panzer Division Lou Reed, all by Sunroof! are the ones I actually regularly revisit and enjoy, while Skullflowers’ Orange Canyon Mind and the collaborations with Birchville Cat Motel (Bower is all over Seventh Ruined Hex, and the two played together as Mirag) are also admirable efforts;

6) the mid-late-00’s, in which things get so monolithic and dense that the accessibility factor does a 180°, and the albums, while very long and satisfyingly loud, become almost excruciatingly difficult to endure. It started with the TWENTY other albums by the Hototogisu, none of which (that I’ve heard, anyway) are particularly memorable or remarkable in any way (save for the collaboration with Burning Star Core, though it’s still hardly the finest moment by either band); this then leads to the late, reportedly black-metal-influenced era of Skullflower, and albums like Tribulation, Desire for a Holy War, La Noche de Walpurgis, and Strange Keys to Untune God’s Firmament, all of which are endless slogs of unrelenting, unpleasant harshness. I bought all of these albums, and can even admire them in their own way, but rarely ever actually sit down to put them on the stereo;

… so that takes us up through 2010, and until recently that was all of the late-period material I’d been able to find by Matthew Bower. I’d still pick up anything with his name on it if I came across it, but I kind of assumed that the golden years were behind us and that this was Bower’s trajectory for the time being. This year, however, I finally did a bit of catching up, and I’m pleased to report that his recent work is some of his best yet.

Skullflower’s  Fucked on a Pile of Corpses (from 2010) was the one that restored my faith, as it’s just a spectacularly-good noise record, weird and dark and harsh and incredibly compelling, and it would be on my list easily if I’d actually been able to hear it in ‘010, or if it had come out this year (I played this one for the Graves St. crew and they loved it, too). Then there’s the recent Skullflower splits with Mastery (on LP) and Utarm (on CD), both of which are good and interesting on both sides; then we have the Feral LP, his first under the name Black Sun Roof, which is just as heavy and harsh as the blackened Skullflower material from the late 000’s, but which also features subtlety and depth and texture and discrete movements and moments (and also comes with a bonus CD of “Sunroof!s greatest hits,” which — the absurdity of that idea aside — really does serve as an introduction to some of his best and most accessible work).

That brings us to 2013, and another album by Black Sun Roof, this one a 2xCD entitled 4 Black Suns + a Sinister Rainbow. It’s pretty great too. Like its immediate predecessors, it continues in the vein of being increasingly thoughtful and involving, while sacrificing none of the harshness or bleakness; it’s still the approximate experiential equivalent of sticking your face directly into a wind-tunnel in pitch-darkness, but it has all of these other qualities that might inspire one to revisit it even when not necessarily suicidally depressed. Heck, there’s even some quieter, pretty moments that almost sound like Harmonia attempting to do an interlude from a Xasthur album (except more terrifying). I’ve certainly spun it more than any other Bower offering of the past six or eight years.

All of the usual trademarks are here: a confusing, overwhelming pile of sounds and instruments in which it’s totally unclear what’s being played by a live band and what’s been artificially constructed (or even what instruments might be involved), as well as epic multi-part suites of songs that don’t even bother with”post-rock” build-ups/come-downs, much less prog theatrics, instead favoring harsh, disorienting jump-cuts from one stationary plane of reality to the next. Song titles this time around include “Truffled Abyss,” “Anal Meadows,” and “Werewolf Perversion.” It clocks in a 124 mins, so I’m not sure why it wasn’t edited down to a single disc (“Glassy Penetralia” → “Chandelier Heat” → “R U Loathsome” would have made a great medley, were that suite not split across the two discs…); but on the other hand, every time I put this record on I discover it’s over before I knew it, so maybe he should have just filled out the two full CDs. Anyway, this is the most recent essential listening from one of my all-time favorite artists.

AVAILABLE FROM: I had to order it directly from the distributor at Forced Exposure, and even then it took two tries before they had it in stock. Nonetheless, it’s worth making an effort to track down, as is Pile of Corpses, and the other recent material.

FURTHER RESEARCH: See all of the above, but especially Cloudz. Other good starting points include IIIrd Gatekeeper, Bliss, Silver Bear Mist, Panzer Division Lou Reed, the VCO split, or Fucked on a Pile of Corpses.


Cassingle of the Year:

Triptides – “Fucking on the Beach” (Auris Apothecary)

The Auris Apothecary tape label, out of Bloomington Indiana, is one of those labels that specializes in releases that are almost cartoonishly ridiculous in terms of their packaging / themes, etc; a spooky drone tape packaged in a wooden coffin with a pattern burned into it, wrapped in a ribbon with a wax seal on it; or, cut-up recordings of old Baptist preachers, recorded on ¼” tape loops and packaged in tiny little glass vials; stuff like that. What puts them ahead of other labels that do these sorts of things is a) their stuff is actually affordable, and b) most of the music is also really good. Clearly a labor of love for some Indianan, but you, the adventurous listener, get to be the beneficiary. A lot of it is doom / drone / black-metal / post-industrial / art-noise type stuff, but they also put out a really lovely little surf-rock summer-time garage-pop single this year. The band is called Triptides; “Fucking on the Beach” is an insanely catchy little snotty surf gem, like the illegitimate teenage son of Jan & Dean.  It’s less than two minutes long, and it comes on a cassette single which is packaged inside an actual Capri Sun juice box, with art glued on one side the the label logo stamped on the other. The B-side is a five minute surf instrumental, which has of course been edited down to 2:01 to fit onto the tape. The whole thing costs $6, but paying $2+ a minute is worth it when the songs are this catchy and infinitely relistenable.

AVAILABLE VIA: the label’s website, or their bandcamp page

FURTHER RESEARCH: I picked up a few other tapes and also a label sampler from AA, and everything over there seems to be good, though none of the rest of it sounds anything like Triptides. or fuck it, why not start your own Surf band, how hard could it be? just make sure to write songs that are this good.


Surprise 5-year-old Sister Album to My Favorite Album from the Past Decade:

Grouper – “the Man Who Died in His Boat” (Kranky)

I looooved Grouper’s Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill back when it came out, and I still listen to it on a pretty much weekly basis. It turns out she recorded another album’s worth of songs during those same sessions, which just got released this year. I’m a big fan of everything by Grouper, but this material is best stuff; so pleasing to hear 12 more songs cut from the same cloth.

AVAILABLE VIA: It’s on Kranky; Gwen has some LP copies, though I had already mail-ordered the CD version by that point.

FURTHER LISTENING: everything else by Grouper; start with Dead Deer, obviously, but also the early, reverb-distored stuff, the later, gentle drone stuff, and any of her dozens of collaborations, if you can find them.


Best Box Set That is Actually from 2009:

Natural Snow Buildings – “Daughter of Darkness” (Ba-Da-Bing!)

It is also no secret that I’m a big fan of the Snowbringer Cult. Everything by them is great, and there’s a huge amount of it — it’s only a shame that so much of it is hard to find! For example, this was originally released as a five-cassette boxed set back in 2009, in a limited edition of 150. I actually managed to hear a bit of it back then — I think tape #5 found it’s way onto an mp3-blog, back when mp3 blogs were allowed to exist, but I actually wasn’t that crazy about it at the time, preferring the material where they juxtapose gentle folk cuteness against epic drone landscapes to the stuff where they just go all-out epic-doom-drone-apocalyptic. This year the album got reissued as a six-CD boxed-set (they added a disc), mail-order-only, but I’m such a big NSB fan that I bit the bullet and bought the thing anyway. Guess what? I’m less of a softie as I age and these days I now prefer an endless wall of terrifying, dense, punishingly unrelenting pseudo-indigenous despair to any of that wussy folky stuff. If you want to feel like Red Sonja battling her way up each successive floor of a dark wizard’s frosty tower for 7 hours and 20 minutes, this album is for you.

WHERE TO FIND IT: There are still copies left via Ba-Da-Bing, if you don’t mind dropping $30, but let’s face it, brand new single-LPs are retailing for like $23 these days, so it’s a pretty good deal, comparatively. (Of course, the six-LP set of this fucker goes for $100. Plus shipping!) If you want to listen before you buy, or if you’re broke but have excellent taste… well, there’s a good chance both of the people reading this far into my list are probably also WTJU DJs, and we have a copy in the New Drawer over at the station. I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who’s bothered to play any of it on-air (only 3 of the songs are under 10 minutes, many of them are longer than half an hour), but it’s definitely worth a listen even if you can’t fit any of it into your show.

FURTHER RESEARCH: I once again entreat you to grab anything and everything you can by Natural Snow Buildings, Isengrind, or TwinSisterMoon, my favorites being Levels and Crossings, the Dance of the Moon and Sun, Waves of the Random Sea, Then Fell the Ashes, Night Coercion into the Company of Witches, the Centauri Agent, and the original Snowbringer Cult 3-way split.


Honorable Mentions:

Astral Social Club – “Electric Yep” (Trensmat)

Mountains – “Centralia” (Thrill Jockey)

Sean McCann – “Music for Private Ensemble” (Recital Program)

Tim Hecker – “Virgins” (WARP)


Best Book Written By a Musician:

Ian Svenonius – “Super-Natural Strategies for Making a Rock ‘n’ Roll Group” (Akashic Books)



Best Spoken Word Album By a Music Critic:

Byron Coley – “Dating Tips for Touring Bands” (Hot Cars Warp Records)



Best live performances, listed chronologically (the ones with an asterisk are acts that I heard multiple times this year)

Yo La Tengo
the Evens
Matt Northrup
Chelsea Light Moving
the Fire Tapes
David Daniell
Great Dads*
Black Twig Pickers
Daniel Bachman*
Dais Queue*
Chris Corsano*
Jason Lescalleet
Nurse Beach*
the Men
Miami Nights*
Glenn Jones*
Grand Banks*
the Swirlies
Erik the Red
Weird Mob
Andrew Cedermark
Parquet Courts
Eternal Summers
Chain and the Gang*
Hunx and His Punx
Left and Right*
Diarrhea Planet*
Wolf Eyes*
Tom Carter
Magik Markers*
Mike Gangloff + Nathan Bowles
Thurston Moore + John Moloney
Ilyas Ahmed
Charlemagne Palestine
Lonnie Holley
Richard Youngs
Gon Dola
Company Corvette*
Suicide Magnets
Hair Police
Bill Orcutt + Chris Corsano
New England Patriots
Ski Mask
Mayo Thompson
New Bums
Bill Callahan
Godspeed You Black Emperor!
Carseat Headrest
Horse Lords
Nathan Bowles + Scott Verrastro
Guardian Alien

I wrote about the concerts that happened in Charlottesville for the C-Ville Weekly (part one, part two); if you want to know how the other ones were, ask me some time!

Tags: endorsements · feature

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 davis // Jan 7, 2014 at 11:51 am

    First of all, this is a great list. So much good stuff on it, but particulary partial to James’s Body/Head and Bill Orcutt write-ups. If James’s write-up of Black Sunroof has you intrigued enough to dig into the Matthew Bower soundworld more deeply, let if be known that the wonderful VHF Records (a Virginia label!) has essentially posted their entire catalogue on Soundcloud, which means tons of Matthew Bower-related bands (Sunroof!, Skullflower, Youngsbower, etc. etc.) as well as Pelt/Spiral Joy Band/Jack Rose/Black Twig Pickers, Vibracathedral Orchestra, Richard Youngs/Ilk/etc., Flying Saucer Attack, and just so much more. Great resource for any adventurous music fan:


  • 2 T. // Jan 7, 2014 at 9:52 pm

    So, of course,


  • 3 james // Jan 8, 2014 at 2:42 pm

    thanks, Davis. (I’m glad to know at least one person read (at least part of) my insanely-long write-up).

    VHF is one of the best labels around, I had assumed they were a British label for years, due to them releasing so much stuff by Sunroof!, Vibracathedral, Richard Youngs, etc; it wasn’t until I picked up Jack Rose’s “Kensington Blues” (easily one of the best albums from the past 10 years, hands down) that I noticed the Fairfax Station PO Box. according to N. Bowles, the proprietor of VHF has a shoebox full of unreleased M. Bower tapes, which I’d give anything to hear…

    that VHF soundcloud link doesn’t seem to work for me (maybe it added some weird shit to your URL because you were logged into SC when you cut-pasted it?) but I think this one seems to work: http://soundcloud.com/vhfrecords/

  • 4 james // Jan 8, 2014 at 2:45 pm

    the “Smuggled” tape by Ventla, on Orange Milk, almost certainly would have made it onto my list, had I gotten around to listening to it before the afternoon of January 2.

    it’s just dozens and dozens of great, one-minute-or-less Library/jingle-format lo-fi bloopy J-pop gems; like Plone meets the Katamari Damacy soundtrack. my favorite of the recent Orange Milk stash, by far… http://www.orangemilkrecords.com/ventla—smuggled.html