This week’s entry in the “GET PSYCHED” series is the first of a two-parter focusing on UK bands playing the Coachella Festival in 2012. Not sure if you noticed, but there’s a sort of mini British Invasion taking place in the desert this spring. And it’s not just reflective of some new trend exploding in England; it’s more like a lesson in the history of modern British pop, starting with the punk era (and its roots) and plowing straight through to the country’s “newest hit makers.”

In this first part of our look at these bands, I’m going eschew lumping bands together by era or style, and instead whip-saw from past to present to give you some sense of the breadth of coverage that the festival will attempt this year. We’ll hit the ’70s, we’ll hit the ’90s, we’ll hit the ’00s, traveling by way of Manchester, West London, and Sheffield. We’ll have our hackles raised as we keep our pinkies up. And, as alternatively inclined Anglophiles, we’ll find a lot to love in this year’s Coachella lineup.

Buzzcocks: Orgasm Addict

It’s so hard for me to pick just ONE Buzzcocks song to represent the Manchester band’s thoroughly awesome, totally essential catalog. I went with “Orgasm Addict” because it was the first song I ever heard by the group (courtesy of legendary Los Angeles DJ Rodney Bigenheimer‘s weekend radio show on KROQ … Jesus, remember when KROQ was worth listening to? What the hell happened there?), and because it so perfectly encapsulates everything that’s great about punk rock.

I was probably 13 or 14 when I first heard this song come blasting out of my boom box speakers, stuck in my bedroom on a Sunday night doing homework to the sounds of whatever Rodney had chosen for his show that week. And by that point — ’88 or ’89 — “Orgasm Addict,” which the Buzzcocks released as its first US single in 1977, was already a “flashback” track. You’d never have known it to listen to it though, then or now. Even by the late ’80s, brash, bratty talk about self-abuse and sex addiction was NOT the stuff of mainstream pop lyricism. And that was the point: confrontation, delivered like a bitch slap via subversive lyrics whose sting was amplified by slashing Telecaster guitar tones and stop-start rhythms cranked way past what was acceptable for rock music in the mid-70s. All of this made the song sound immediate and current a full 12 years after its release. I’ll argue that’s true today as well; “Orgasm Addict” could have been cut last week without sounding anachronistic.

You can look up the band’s history elsewhere online — but it’s worthwhile to note here that the Buzzcocks’ appearance at Coachella seems like it will feature the full, “classic” lineup of the group (including co-founders Steve Shelley and Howard Devoto) that recorded singles like this and other seminal tracks (check out “Ever Fallen in Love,” “What Do I Get?,” “Harmony In My Head” and “Why Can’t I Touch It” for starters).

Arctic Monkeys: Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair

I’m not really sure that Arctic Monkeys have sustained the justification for the hype surrounding its first album (or their second … both of which hit #1 in the UK pretty much the minute they were released), but I am sure that front man Alex Turner has evolved into one of the finest lyricists in all of rock. His wordplay has been at the center of each of the band’s four albums, and it just gets better — more intricate, more epic — with each turn.

What makes the Monkeys appealing as an act to see at Coachella, however, is just how effing good the band is live. It played the main stage during the mid-afternoon in 2007, right as its second album was being released, and absolutely floored me (and everyone else, if I remember correctly). It doesn’t quite come through on record, but the band more than matches Turner’s dextrous lyrics with its playing. This clip offers a more recent taste of what it brings to the stage, something a bit more muscular that what fans of the group bouncier early work might expect. Recent albums have been inconsistent but listenable; I still expect the live show to be incendiary.

The Vaccines: Post Break-Up Sex

The Vaccines debuted last year with just about as much buzz as Arctic Monkeys, all of it justified. Heck, I even put one of its songs (“Wetsuit”) on my “Favorite Songs of 2011” list, and slapped its album, What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?, on my “Best Albums of 2011” list. So, I’m clearly impressed. I really just love everything about this band, and I can’t wait to see them play live.

The Vaccines have sort of inherited the “hot new thing” torch from the Arctic Monkeys, for whom they once opened — so, if the Monkeys are Coachella’s representatives of British rock in the ’00s, The Vaccines represent where it’s at in the ’10s. It seems like every decade, a new band makes a grand unifying statement that rolls up everything that’s great about independent British rock, aand waves the flag for a new batch of bands to rally around. This decade, that batch of bands is led by The Vaccines. You’ve got front man Justin Young’s smart, sensitive, smirking lyrics (see: the clip above), the driving guitar rock aimed at the cheap seats (check “Wolf Pack”), and the soaring, sing-along choruses (“If You Wanna”) — all of it wrapped up in a package that’s undeniably influenced by punk and post-punk.

If you want to witness this year’s “State of the Union” for this particular genre of music, don’t miss The Vaccines’s set.

Pulp: Common People

You know what’s really awesome about this clip? That Richard Hawley — who played guitar for Pulp back in the 90s, without much fanfare, before going on to become on of Britain’s most acclaimed songwriters / performers — is right there with the band, ripping out power chords for this 2011 reunion appearance. Slim chance he’ll show up at Pulp’s Coachella gigs (despite also having ties to Arctic Monkeys) … but damn. I’m a HUGE Richard Hawley fan, so I’ll hold out a music nerd’s outsized hope for a surprise appearance.

ANYHOW … I’m going to go out on a limb and label “Common People” the “How Soon Is Now?” of the mid-90s. Every BritPop fan I knew (and I include myself in there) regarded this song as an anthem and unanimously went ape shit on dance floors and at living room parties whenever it hit the decks. In England, I totally get its massive, enduring popularity (listen to the lyrics; though deftly written, it’s not hard to score big by taking a swing at the posh class). In the US, however, where we live in perpetual denial of our own entrenched class system and regularly invite the wealthy to piss all over the middle and lower classes, its popularity seems … less likely.

What you quickly figure out when you just let go and listen, however, is that “Common People’s” success — both in the US and the UK — came down to its strengths as a song, pure and simple. The mounting tempo (which builds to a furor by song’s end), the built-for-dance floor rhythms, and the not-so-vague sense that it was an angry underdog’s anthem (albeit, written for the slightly twee set) comprise the DNA of a classic. There’s actually something Springsteen-esque about it, when you really listen.

So yeah … I’m looking forward to going completely mad when the band rips into this in Indio, and re-living all those sleepless Thursday nights dancing with my friends at PopScene in San Francisco.

Radiohead: Good Morning Mr. Magpie

Does anyone still think of Radiohead as a “British band” anymore? While its first two albums sat strong alongside mid-90s releases from Pulp, Blur, Oasis, etc. as solid representatives of a nation’s popular musical output at that time, each album it’s put out since then has been a more singular statement’s of the band’s own evolving aesthetics. Radiohead have become, as QuestLove of The Roots recently commented to Spin Magazine, the Remain In Light era Talking Heads of the 21st Century.

I’ll confess that my affection for Radiohead tracks inversely alongside its core fanbase’s; The King of Limbs, the group’s most recent, is my favorite album of its catalog. I like the band better and better as its sound drifts further and further away from the pre-millennial angst of its biggest hit, OK Computer. I especially like that Thom Yorke seems to have stopped crawling up his own asshole, lyrically (there’s something about his tone now that reminds me of documentary filmmaker Errol Morris; it’s more journalistic than accusatory, despite the fact that he hasn’t stopped confronting the great bogeymen of modernity). And I really dig the band’s exploration of poly-rhythms, glitchy electronic music, and ambient beauty. Radiohead is a much strong band — maybe the most interesting band working in popular music, at present — now that it’s learned to stop worrying and love the dystopia.

How all of this will translate to a headlining spot on the main stage at Coachella, I have no idea. The last time Radiohead played this spot, several years ago, it totally let me down by failing to bring sufficient enough rock to really drop the festival to its knees. It’s an even quieter, weirder band now — but also, one whose members’ musicianship has increased severalfold. I’ll be watching not just because I love the new material, but also to see what happens. Radiohead have made it impossible not to be curious.

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This week’s “GET PSYCHED” post spotlights some of the unconventional but brilliant songwriters performing at the Coachella Festival in 2012. All five of them hail from a long tradition of great North American singer-songwriters (your Bob Dylans, your Leonard Cohens, your Victoria Williamses) — but all have put a distinctively modern twist on the craft. These aren’t your mama’s folkies. Instead, they’re just as likely to provoke discomfort, catharsis, and rage alongside the standard songwriter emotional palate of lovelorn longing, nostalgia, and wry observation. Starry-eyed innocents hitting the local coffee shop with acoustic guitars and big dreams, these artists are not. What they are, however, are five artists who will absolutely stand the test of time, destined to join the American songwriting canon even as their unconventional approaches to performance and subject matter aggressively redefine what that canon stands for. Think of them more as the progeny of Tom Waits and Neil Young than of Joni Mitchell or James Taylor.

Don’t miss any of them.

M. Ward: The First Time I Ran Away

Secret shredder Alert #1: M. Ward’s record do not at all reflect his skills as a guitar player. Forget about the mellow ballads that pepper his records, or his time served in cutesy alterna-pop duo She & Him. M. Ward can and will absolutely melt your face during his live shows. I’ve seen it happen, whether playing with a full band, playing solo (and using a delay pedal to loop his riffs, providing his own accompaniment), or as part of alternative songwriting supergroup, Monsters of Folk. I half expected him to start riffing with his teeth.

Of course, this absolutely gorgeous video — which accompanies and equally gorgeous song — shows off none of that. No shame, though. “The First Time I Ran Away” is the lead-off single from Ward’s forthcoming solo album, and if it doesn’t just melt your heart, well, perhaps you didn’t have a heart to begin with.

I should note too that M. Ward plays a special role in my life — my wife and I danced our traditional “first dance” together at our wedding to his excellent cover of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” which — when he performs it live with a full band, assumes a Lynchian dimension (all Duane Eddy-esque guitars and a slow, waltzy tempo) that Bowie probably never saw coming.

Girls: Vomit

Yep, this song starts off with a bit of hipster whining — but there’s a good reason for that. Front man Christopher Owens’s heavily autobiographical lyrics describe exactly what was going on his life at the time he wrote the song: he was literally wandering around San Francisco looking for his girlfriend, who was cheating on him. Pathetic? Absolutely. The payoff? The 1:12 mark, when the full band comes crashing in on a wave of pure gospel-influenced rock power.

The rest of the band’s catalog is, despite its brevity (it has two albums and an EP under its belt so far), unfairly and unflinchingly great, and ranges from feedback drenched post-punk ragers to ’50s inspired rockers, with a few sweet ballads thrown in for good measure. Everything the group has done in its short career has met with near-universal critical acclaim, and it’s managed to live up to that hype with devastatingly sharp live shows.

The mythology here is also important — Owens grew up in the Children of God religious cult, the restrictiveness of which he credits with informing the expressive explosion you hear on Girls’ records.

Jeff Mangum: In The Aeroplane Over The Sea

Let’s be honest with ourselves for a moment and admit that Jeff Mangum’s adenoidal voice and sing-songy cadence take more than a little getting used to. But then, so did Dylan’s. And Mangum will probably be remembered as his generation’s Dylan, despite only having (really, now) two albums that anyone has bought in earnest, both of which came out 15+ years ago. Once that voice DOES hook you, and you can start paying attention to the words, you realize very quickly that Mangum has a direct line to some part of your psyche.

The front man behind storied indie rock band Neutral Milk Hotel and the co-founder of the Elephant 6 collective of bands (all of which shared a similar aesthetic sensibility, equal parts Sonic Youth, The Zombies, and Captain Beefheart), Mangum is one of those rare artists who knew how to stoke the fire of his reputation by simply letting it burn out of control. Reportedly troubled by the level of fame and success that NMH achieved in the wake of its instant classic albums, In the Aeroplane Over The Sea and On Avery Island, Mangum simply walked away from his career. He spent the next several years largely avoiding the public eye, only turning up sporadically to play solo acoustic shows at small venues like Jittery Joe’s Coffee in Athens, GA (you can find video of those on YouTube as well). The lack of availability only magnified his popularity; take a good thing, make it artificially scarce, and sometimes demand goes through the roof.

He’s been turning up more frequently of late, most infamously playing a spontaneous unannounced set in Zuccotti Park in NYC for Occupy Wall Street. No idea what he’s going to play at Coachella, but you can bet the crowd will know every word.

Feist: The Bad In Each Other

Leslie Feist is a Canadian, but I probably won’t hold that against her — so far she’s kept her in-born politeness in check enough to still be pretty rock ‘n’ roll. I’m also willing to forgive the over-saturation we all endured as the result of her song, “1,2,3,4” getting used in one of the original commercials for Apple’s iPod. The reason for that forgiveness being songs like this, which show her to not be something other than what the Apple marketing machine would have you believe. That is to say: she has some quiet power, a relentless, building thing that you can watch overtake her as her performances unfold. She also has some serious sharp edges, and she (like fellow Canadian songwriter Neil Young) makes them cut hard by throwing some fuzz behind those guitar lines. Unlike Young, and more like Tom Waits, she propels her songs forward on big, lurching rhythm parts. And that horn section? That’s big brassy muscle right there. And we haven’t even started talking about her voice yet. Like Neko Case’s, that voice is a 12-cylinder engine in a 4-cylinder body; when she floors it, hold on.

Did I mention she cut a split 7″ with Mastodon? That’s right. MASTODON. It gave the title of her new, thoroughly excellent album, Metals, a whole new context.

Anyhow, I figured Feist would end up consigned to one of the texts at Coachella, where she could play quietly and politely to an audience seeking refuge from all the bang-bang-bang in the Sahara and the stadium rock reaching on the main stage. Watching this performance from “Later … with Jools Holland,” I’m beginning to re-think that. It’s totally conceivable that she could command a bigger stage. And so the Canadian invasion begins in earnest.

St. Vincent: Cruel

Secret Shredder Alert #2: Annie Clark cut her musical teeth playing guitar in one-hot weirdos The Polyphonic Spree, and then in Sufjan Stevens‘s touring band, long before she broke off to lead her own band. Like M. Ward, it’s not obvious when you listen to her records, but all that experience gave her some serious axe chops, which she purportedly busts out during her live sets. She doesn’t go too crazy with it in this clip of her performing “Cruel,” a standout cut from her much-fawned over new album, Strange Mercy, but look at the way she holds the instrument … there’s an absolute sense of comfort and ease with it that speaks to her complete mastery over it.

Speaking of said critical fawning … Strange Mercy scores a “universally acclaimed” rating of 85 over on Metacritic and picked up a very rare “9 / 10” from the infamously tough-to-please folks at Pitchfork. That said, the album title has the “Strange” part correct — it’s one of the weirdest records to ever break the Billboard Top 20 — not so strange, though, if you go back and listen to some more recent Sufjan Stevens records and understand a bit where she’s coming from. Records like this are awesome, not just because of the music they contain and the talent that produces them, but because they’re such great stereotype busters. “Female singer-songwriter” used to signify a very specific type of sound and demeanor to me; not pejorative, but definitely a type. Think Beth Orton or Leona Naess for modern examples. That St. Vincent sounds nothing like them, and made this big, angular, oft-times experimental rock / pop record probably means the “female” modifier is finally, as it should be, an anachronism. Her music is the sound of preconceptions being shattered, hopefully for good.

Personally, I’m really hoping she busts out her wicked cover of Big Black’s “Kerosene,” which she performed late last year at NYC’s Bowery Ballroom as part of a tribute to that seminal band. Every time I listen to it, I want to march out my front door and set shit on fire. I absolutely love that I never would have expected an artist like St. Vincent to inspire that in me. I expect she’ll have a few surprises like that up her sleeve for Coachella.

I’m kicking off this year’s edition of “Coachella: GET PSYCHED” with an audio rebuttal to DJ / producer Diplo — who you may know as the beats / music guy behind early work from artists like MIA and Santigold. According to Pitchfork, upon seeing this year’s lineup, Diplo remarked via Twitter, “maybe im just throwing shade but coachsmella looks pretty lame this year.. u used to be a place to check out new bands/music”, and then, “besides snoop and dre thats boss shit right there” and “its like bootleg ultra w a few bands that are ‘safe'”.

Now, I could give two shits what Diplo thinks about anything, but I do take issue with the notion that the lineup is somehow “safe.” Coachella actually impressed me this year by staying true to its annual commitment to bring in a few really left-field acts. Admittedly, none of these folks are on par with Throbbing Gristle, who played in 2009. Many of them are widely known. But that has more to do with tastes shifting — and really with alternative tastes finding wider outlets as technology democratizes both the distribution of music and the distribution of opinions about music.

So, I thought I’d take this first post of the GET PSYCHED series to shout out a few acts who, while they have drawn almost mainstream attention, still fly the freak flag a bit in their respective genres.

Amon Tobin: Get Your Snack On

It’s a little tough for me to wrap my head around the fact that Amon Tobin has been making music since the mid-90s, even before he began recording albums for the legendary Ninja Tune label. Almost twenty years. Really? Good luck catching up to where he was back then, much less where’s he’s at now.

Always experimental to a certain degree, Tobin started making heavily jazz-influenced downtempo and big beat tracks, veered dangerously close to ambient territory for a while, and now (alarmingly) generates what one might term “Skrillex-bait.” (Seriously, if you look at the comment threads for some of his tracks on YouTube, the less initiated have the gall to suggest he’s making something akin to dubstep.)

The reality is: the guy has taken sampling in electronic music to a whole other galaxy. It’s beyond sampling at this point really; earlier tracks ransacked crates and pillaged rhythm tracks with reckless abandon. Now, Tobin is working almost exclusively with found sounds, recording everything from wild animals to his own crying baby. Here’s the rub: it all still grooves. You can dance to it. Even better, he’s now added a widely acclaimed visual component to his “ISAM” live show — and he’s apparently bringing that to Coachella’s Sahara tent this year.

“Get Your Snack On” is one of my favorite Tobin tracks, dating back to 2000. Also be sure to check out the official ISAM trailer to get a sense of what he’s going to drop on folks in the desert.

Flying Lotus: MmmHmm

You may know Flying Lotus from his work producing “bumpers” for Cartoon Networks “Adult Swim” programming (see an example of sorts here) — but he also creates his own stuff, semi-glitchy downtempo released mainly on Warp Records (home to Aphex Twin, Battles, Squarepusher, and many other mind-bending experimental / electronic acts). His stuff is out there in a deeply funky way – probably due in part to the fact that he’s the great nephew of John Coltrane’s wife, Alice. That’s some lineage, there. He’s also known to rub elbows with the cats from Radiohead, having remixed a track or two, and having brought in Thom Yorke to provide vocals to the song “… And The World Laughs With You” on the FlyLo full length, Cosmogramma.

EMA: California

Pitchfork dubbed Erika M. Anderson’s nerve-shot middle finger to the Sunshine State its third best song of 2011 (right behind Bon Iver and M83, if you can believe that) … despite the fact that it’s built entirely around a litany of lines sung-spoke in an apparent effort to provoke extreme discomfort and / or the prelude to some bone shivering catharsis. And then there’s that fairly agitating instrumental backdrop that’s, literally, nothing but electric violin and doomy-sounding programmed beats. There’s something mesmerizing about it all, though, which may be why the song broke through.

It’s worth reading Pitchfork’s explication of the track to get the full flavor of what all Anderson does here to provoke, surprise, and dismay. And it’s worth listening to the song four or five times to let it sink its hooks into you. I’m still a bit mind-fucked to know that EMA got as much attention as she did with this song last year, given that it’s a pretty intense affair all through.

tUnEyAdRs: Gangsta

Everyone from KCRW to the Village Voice lost their shit over Merrill Garbus, aka tUnEyArDs, this past year, which left a few other people — namely, Chuck Klosterman — really confused. One listen and it’s easy to hear why (although the music isn’t the only thing confusing the poor metalhead from Fargo). As the Guardian’s music blogger, Charlotte Richardson Andrews, noted in a rebuttal to Klosterman’s piss-take, Garbus draws a lot of vocal inspiration from Nina Simone, whose voice, though considered a classic now, provocatively de-femmed Jazz vocals in her time. And she doesn’t stop there. The music itself incorporates loops of her voice in ways that are, by turns, grating and delightful. It also stop-starts frequently, pulling the rug out from under the listener just as as one begins to find safe purchase. This is un-easy listening … but fun, somehow .. and also annoying … but ultimately great. And then there’s the whole queer politics thing sort of running interference when you start digging into the lyrics or watching the performance.

So, while I agree that Klosterman was being a bit of a sexist (homophobic, even?) bastard in his essay, I’m right there with him in being baffled at how music like this could top the annual Village Voice Pazz + Job music poll last year. And yet, I’m sure this is going to be a phenomenal set at Coachella, and that there will be a capacity crowd watching at whatever stage Garbus commands, completely freaking out over it all.

Atari Teenage Riot: Live in Berlin 2011

Germany’s Atari Teenage Riot (and its primary musician / songwriter, Alec Empire) pioneered a harshly confrontational sub-genre of electronic dance music in the mid-90s. Sharing its title with ATR’s record label, “digital hardcore” drew inspiration equally from hardcore punk, gangsta rap, noise, and gabber — a particularly aggressive, gritty strain of hardcore techno especially popular in the Netherlands. This was music designed to provoke confrontation on all fronts: between listener and an external target (for ATR, this meant neo-nazis and fascists), but also between band and audience, and between audience members themselves. Never has a band’s name more accurately described its music.

I don’t do cocaine, so it’s tough for me to truly love ATR the way that the band’s most fanatical fans do. But, in watching this clip of a live performance in Berlin late last year, I’ve realized that I do like them an awful lot — and I absolutely can’t wait to see them live again.

I admit to feeling a certain nostalgia for it all, too. ATR’s first album dropped while I was DJing industrial and experimental music in college at KDVS back in 1996-97, and we all went completely crazy for it. Nothing else sounded like “Deutschland Has Gotta Die” at that time. And the music had a weird impact on people who experienced it live. I remember going to see the band — and several other Digital Hardcore — acts at a show in Riverside, Calif around that time with one of my best friends. We had to physically lift some meth-fried teenage girl off the ground, hoisting her by both arms, in order to stop her from angrily throwing ice cubes at ATR during its set. After we told her to settle down, and then put her back on the ground, she immediately launched into a frenzy of fake-ass karate kicks and chops, aimed at us but connecting only with air, before storming off (presumably to get another cup of ice to throw).

The group’s performance at Coachella 2012 is part of a series of reunion shows, featuring a new lineup. A vocalist named “MC KidtroniK” now stands in for original member MC Carl Crack (who died in 2001); Nic Endo replaces original female vocalist Hanin Elias, who apparently shredded her vocal chords recording all those early ATR tracks (not a shocker … there was a lot of intense screaming going on).

Coachella 2012: GET PSYCHED (Intro)

Posted: February 9, 2012 by Sean Flinn in Music
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Each and every year, my wife and I and a big group of close friends shove our adulthood into a closet, pack up our cars, and head out to Indio, Calif. for the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Annual Festival — Coachella, for short — the biggest and best respected music festival in North America.

That’s right: the best. Sorry Bonnaroo. The glut of jam bands that perpetually clots your lineup keeps you from grabbing the crown.

I’ve been doing this pretty much every year since the festival began in 1999, when my good buddy Eric Solomon and I actually covered the event as journalists. We scored free tickets and photo passes, wrote an epic review of the show and interviewed a staggeringly great roster of artists, from Moby to Underworld to Ritchie Hawtin to DJ Qbert. Security was so lax in those pre-9/11 days that Eric got to use his photo pass to climb on stage with Ming & FS and the Invisibl Skratch Piklz to shoot pics. No one minded.

Now we just attend as fans, and we go with a bunch of people we love, and the point is mostly to spend time with one another — to enjoy drinking mimosas in the morning and beer in the afternoon (and beer in the festival venue’s parking lot, and beer again back at the hotel, enough beer that someone eventually barges into someone else’s hotel room at 4 in the morning to begin drunkenly jumping up and down in their underwear on people who were, until that moment, sleeping peacefully, filming the whole thing because who knows why?). This generally means less pressure to try and cover every single band playing the show (seriously, that first year? I damn near ran my legs off jetting from stage to stage to press tent to DJ tent to stage and back again) and more pressure to resolve schedule conflicts and catch the sets that will really matter, man.

As I said, this goes down pretty much every year. I missed the festival in 2001 and 2002, when I couldn’t afford tickets. My wife and I missed it in 2011 because we somehow made the crucial logistical error of timing the birth of our children to coincide exactly with Coachella weekend. We’re back this year, however, and with us comes the revival of a tradition that I started three years ago (a tradition, mind you, that only I observe / care about), namely: foisting my music obsessiveness on the rest of our Coachella crew by picking out a handful of songs each week and sending YouTube links of them around to everyone under the heading, “GET PSYCHED!” This goes on for 10 weeks or so, right up to the festival. I aim to make the voluminous festival lineup a little less intimidating, enabling everyone to maybe discover a couple of new acts that they might want to see. Just looking at the lineup poster can be a bit overwhelming, after all, especially if you don’t spend a lot of your free time thinking about or listening to music.

I also do this because, frankly, music drives me to distraction. I’m the guy in the group who, literally, sees the lineup and finds 50 bands that I know I will want to see. Just off the top of my head. That’s what I get for spending 15+ years as a college radio DJ and a professional music journalist and an amateur music blogger. Coachella is bigger than Christmas for me, and I genuinely hope to transfer some of my gibbering loon enthusiasm to my traveling companions. I don’t consider these lists canonical or anything. I encourage everyone to disagree or suggest alternatives.

This year, instead of just sending my notes around to our little Coachella traveling group via e-mail, I thought I’d post them all here for the whole world to enjoy. THE WHOLE WORLD. I hope you’re ready for the flood of traffic, WordPress.

Enjoy!

With the United States celebrating Martin Luther King’s birthday this week (his birthday is January 15; we mark the occasion with a holiday and a national “day of service“), I thought I’d “jam” to a song that marked the occasion — and chose Public Enemy’s incendiary 1991 bombtrack “By The Time I Get To Arizona.”

There are any number of great songs from the civil rights era that one could use to mark the occasion (Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” may be my favorite) — but I was curious about Public Enemy’s more recent take because of its specific focus on MLK Day, particularly the state of Arizona’s refusal to recognize the holiday for several years after its creation. I knew from growing up that Arizona had been one of the states that originally rejected the holiday, but I honestly didn’t know if it had ever relented. This is, after all, the state whose governor, Jan Brewer, recently drew heavy criticism for signing into law some of the nation’s strictest anti-immigrant legislation.  So I did some digging.

The video to the song provides some visual clues to its historical background. In 1983, Congress officially voted to recognize the third Monday in January as “Martin Luther King Day,” a federal holiday, doing so over the protests of a handful of prominent senators. Arizona’s John McCain notably, counted among the opposition (although no one came close to matching the vigor, extent, or utterly transparent racism of North Carolina’s Jesse Helms in protesting the holiday’s creation). President Ronald Reagan, who also initially opposed the holiday, eventually relented and signed the legislation creating the holiday into law, with the United States finally observing the holiday in 1986; even then, only 27 states and the District of Columbia celebrated the holiday that first year.

Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt seems to have really lit the fuse for the political firestorm that eventually overtook his state on this issue. After the Arizona legislature failed to pass a bill recognizing MLK Day as a holiday in the state, Gov. Babbitt signed an executive order, shall we say, correcting the oversight. That order had a short lifespan; when Babbitt left office in 1987 to run for president (he lost to Bill Clinton*, who later appointed him Secretary of the Interior), his successor, Evan Mecham, made it his first official act to overturn Babbitt’s executive order, repealing the holiday.

* = Funny enough, Sister Souljah provides a spoken word introduction on the track; the same Sister Souljah whose lyrics candidate Bill Clinton would, during the 1992 election, repudiate for their apparent violence – creating what’s now known in politics as a “Sister Souljah Moment.

Three years later, in 1990, the people of Arizona voted down (by a margin of 17,000 votes) a proposal to recognize the holiday. Gov. Mecham, still an opponent of the holiday, said at the time, “I guess King did a lot for the colored people, but I don’t think he deserves a national holiday.”

Cue righteous anger at a national level. In 1993, the controversy had reached such a pitch that the NFL, amidst a broad consumer boycott of the state, relocated Super Bowl XXVII — slated that year to be played in Tempe, Arizona’s Sun Devil Stadium — to The Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Public Enemy deserves credit for stoking the fire in the intervening years, having released its fourth album, the (even more than usual) politically charged album Apocalypse 91: The Enemy Strikes Black, which included the single “By The Time I Get To Arizona.”

The song’s title is a play on the 1968 AM gold classic “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,”  a Johnny Webb-penned song that helped signer Glen Campbell breakthrough to mainstream success. The similarities pretty much end there. Chuck D had, by this point in Public Enemy’s career, reached his apex as a sociopolitical firebrand, unleashing a relentless lyrical assault that  — when coupled with intense musical production by the Imperial Grand Ministers of Funk — absolutely scorches the breadth and depth of Apocalypse.

Mecham draws Chuck’s focus throughout the song in passages tinged with violence: “Until we get some land / Call me the trigger man / Looki lookin’ for the governor” leads into “I urinated on the state / While I was kickin’ this song / Yeah, he appear to be fair / The cracker over there / He try to keep it yesteryear / The good ol’ days / The same ol’ ways / That kept us dyin’ / Yes, you me myself and I’ndeed / What he need is a nosebleed.”

The “trigger man” line is perhaps the epicenter of the song’s controversy. Chuck leads into it with a common (if oblique) reference to “40 acres and a mule,” tying Arizona’s actions to a long line of injustices and broken promises made to African Americans. He then immediately toasts himself as the agent of retribution against Gov. Mecham, who he explicitly calls out as a thoroughgoing racist.

PE then brought even more noise. The video for “By The Time I Get To Arizona” depicts the group and the S1W (the Security of the First World drill team that backs up Public Enemy with military-themed dance moves during live shows and in videos) staging an assassination of the governor, contrasted against footage of Martin Luther King’s assassination. These scenes tie the events of the past and the events of the present together in one fell “by any means necessary” swoop — and, ironically, threaten to upend King’s message of nonviolent protest. The effect is to amplify America’s polite — and, to PE’s ears, easily ignored — conversation about race matters into something more full-throated, impossible to dismiss.

Trigger more righteous anger — this time, much of it directed at Public Enemy. Spin Magazine, in its excellent look back at the song on its 20th anniversary, notes that, “P.E. was reviled throughout the mainstream media, including being scrutinized on an episode of Nightline, where columnist Clarence Page said the video was ‘the exact opposite of the message that Martin Luther King died for.'”

This did little to slow the arc of history, however. Later in 1993, following the consumer boycott and the Super Bowl relocation, the voters of Arizona finally relented during a referendum and officially recognized MLK Day as a holiday.

Chuck D and Public Enemy, fight on, however. In 2011, to protest Arizona’s viciously anti-immigrant SB 1070, the group re-recorded “By The Time I Get To Arizona” with DJ Spooky (which you can download for free here). Chuck D also penned a brief but barbed editorial in the Huffington Post decrying the legislation, and created his first-ever piece of original visual art work protesting the law:

Chuck D Poster

And this year, Public Enemy marked Martin Luther King Day by leading a free live concert on the streets of downtown Los Angeles’s “Skid Row” district — site of the largest homeless population in the United States — in an effort to “Catch the Thrown” (to borrow Chuck’s own phrasing from Twitter, where he again cleverly plays title games, this time with Kanye West & Jay-Z’s celebration of material excess, Watch The Throne). Ya don’t stop, the man says.

Thanks, Chuck, for making history live.

Note: I wrote this late on January 17 / early January 18, 2012 — right about the time Wikipedia went dark to protest SOPA / PIPA, thereby depriving me of a handy research tool (not that I mind). My thanks, then, to Nadra Kareem Nittle, the author’s of About.com’s “Race Relations” article on the history of MLK Day, as well as Arizona public television’s KAET, which maintains an informative oral history of the events surrounding the state’s repeal of the holiday, for providing alternate sources of information.

Lush-less Life

Posted: January 4, 2012 by Sean Flinn in Music
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Jason Bentley — local LA radio station KCRW‘s music director and the DJ on the station’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic” show — has been on a bit of a Lush kick lately. He’s played tracks from the long defunct British indie pop / shoegazer band on a few of his recent shows … odd to me because Lush broke up over a decade ago following the suicide of drummer and founding member Chris Acland. Maybe it’s because 2012 marks the 20th anniversary of the band’s appearance on the legendarily debauched second Lollapalooza tour, or because the band’s breakthrough album, Spooky also turned 20 last year.

Anyhow, I’m a huge Lush fan from way back. I own every album, every single, bootlegs, weird 7″ vinyl Uzbekistani live recordings, etc., etc., etc. So, Bentley’s song choices really brought back a flood of happy memories. I’m glad he dug those songs out of the crate.

I had a huge crush on lead signer Miki Berenyi late in high school and throughout college, mostly because of the video for the song “De-Luxe” (from “Mad Love” their second EP). I even had a chance to meet her once, in the summer of ’94, upstairs at the Fillmore in San Francisco. She walked past while I and my friends were hanging out in between opening bands, and I was the only person in the crowd to recognize her. I remember shyly asking for an autograph, at which point people nearby caught on and surrounded her. She just gave me a grin and said, “Now look what you’ve started.” I hope I never forget that moment.

Miki Berenyi

Incidentally, one of opening bands that night: Weezer. The Blue Album had just come out, but they’d yet to break through (“The Sweater Song” was just starting to get some airplay on local alternative stations). Rivers Cuomo, the singer / songwriter, was perched out front of the theater after the show, handing out big blue “Weezer” stickers. He handed me one, and kindly autographed that too, walking with my friends and I as we headed toward our car to go home. Super friendly, really personable guy. I’ll never forget that moment, either — as a result, no matter what I’ve thought of Weezer’s music since then, I’ve always wished them well. You want the nice guys to win, you know?

Anyhow, the video for “De-Luxe”:

That ultra-fake dyed red hair, man … I don’t know what it was about that, but the combo of hair + emerging from the water + the really excellent song = teenage me’s head going “kaboom.” When I met my wife 7+ years ago, her hair was dyed bright red too. Not quite the same shade, but just enough to catch my eye from across a room and compel me to introduce myself to her. In the back of my brain, teenage me was yelling, “I think we just met our Miki!”

Best Albums of 2011

Posted: January 3, 2012 by Sean Flinn in Album Reviews, Music
Tags:

As I said in my “Favorite Songs of 2011” post, I bought and loved more music in 2011 than I have in just about any other year — if my Amazon bill and my annual iTunes “Best of …” smart playlist are any indicators. A lot of other crap could’ve influenced those two metrics. But I’ll stand by that analysis. 2011 was a flat-out fantastic year for new music.

Credit the Arab Spring, the ongoing Great Recession, Occupy Wall Street, or the worst US Congress in American history for inspiring an artistic watershed (the cliche rationale is that art always does well in times of turmoil) … or just credit the career artists and finally-appreciated genres / eras that finally “peaked” after decades of uncelebrated toil.

Not everyone agrees. Several of my friends think nothing good has come out since 1994. The New York Times recently dubbed 2011 as “The Year Rock Spun Its Wheels.”

I consider this list, then, a challenge to all of that thinking.

In 2011, artists like Radiohead, Washed Out, The Roots, and The Rapture continued to push things aggressively forward, each working firmly within a totally modern sonic framework while producing music that will bear years — if not decades — of repeat listening. Others, like Yuck and M83, argued convincingly for the canonization of certain (until recently, popularly undervalued) parts of ’90s and ’80s music culture, respectively — repeating without reducing. Lykke Li redefined what a singer-songwriter’s music could sound like, while Charles Bradley reminded us, amidst a soul music revival, that the best of that genre may still be yet to come. And PJ Harvey made a wartime record to soundtrack the whole history of human conflict … yet somehow managed to candycoat her bitter pill such that the listener would gleefully swallow the medicine.

That said, I unapologetically present my list of 2011’s best albums. Long may they ring in your earbuds.

  1. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
  2. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
  3. The Vaccines – What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?
  4. Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes
  5. Radiohead – The King of Limbs
  6. Charles Bradley – No Time For Dreaming
  7. Yuck – Yuck
  8. The Rapture – In The Grace of Your Love
  9. Washed Out – Within and Without
  10. The Roots – Undun

Listen to “Best Albums of 2011” playlist for this article — for free — on Spotify.

  1. PJ Harvey - Let England ShakePJ Harvey: Let England Shake
    No other artist in popular music can rival Polly Jean Harvey at her best. This is, in part, because no other artist is as deft at resolving the contradictions necessary to produce timeless art. No one else is simultaneously as experimental nor as listenable as Harvey; as willing to make fearless stylistic change her only stylistic constant; or as capable of writing journalistic observations of a moment in time without making music that sounds forced, awkward, or (as is the danger, always with music that comments on current events) determinedly anachronistic.

    Let England Shake epitomizes Harvey’s ability to resolve all of those aforementioned contradictions while taking current events for its subject matter, leaving us with an album for the times. Inspired by England’s ongoing involvement in global military conflicts (Iraq and Afghanistan) and the economic and social upheaval wrought (in the UK and beyond) by the domino-like collapses of unregulated financial markets, Let England Shake poetically reports on the state of Great Britain at the end of the 21st century’s first decade. And because of Harvey’s deft songcrafting skills — honed over a long and fearless career — it may become an album for all times. Great pop artists typically succeed by taking broad, general subjects (love, for example) and making them feel very specific to the listener. Harvey works in reverse on Let England Shake, targeting very specific events with broad, general language. The result is a unique work of pop genius, music imbued with both a sense of immediacy and a timelessness. A song about soldiers dying on the battlefield in Afghanistan could easily be a song about soldiers dying in the trenches in WWI France. And the music (arranged in part by Harvey’s longtime collaborators, John Parish and Mick Harvey) — the message’s delivery vehicle — remains so listenable and so un-rooted in current genre trends or production techniques that you can put the album on and not feel like you’re sitting down to listen to a collection of ham-fisted protest songs.

    My friends may accuse me of putting this album at the top of my 2011 list because I’ve been such a die-hard PJ Harvey fan since the beginning of her career. I say: they have it backwards. I’ve been a die-hard fan for so long specifically because she puts out albums as good as this.

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  2. M83 - Hurry Up We're DreamingM83: Hurry Up We’re Dreaming

    In the song “Losing My Edge,” LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy confesses a rivalry with kids who borrow “nostalgia for the unremembered eighties.” Examples probably pass him on the streets of Brooklyn every day (the internet has made it possible for everyone to become a pop culture revivalist with minimal effort and maximum acceleration). But he also might have applied the tag to Anthony Gonzalez, whose band, M83, painstakingly crafts music that evokes emotional and sonic memories of a version of the 1980s that may only exist as a shared hallucination. Or rather, a version that’s extremely selective, in the same way that generic “best of” collections that focus on the decade tend only to highlight a very narrow slice of pop music (typically one hit wonders from the “new wave” scene), and ignore, say, the entire post-punk, indie rock, and American hardcore movements that exploded during the same period.

    Other bands attempted the same trick this year — Destroyer and Bon Iver among the most successful. But, while both of those artists eventually fell into the laziness of imitation (usually of late period Roxy Music), M83 took a more expansive route, preferring evocation as an even more sincere form of flattery. Here we have an artist paying tribute to an era by re-painting it with his own sonic palate (swapping guitars to synths, for example).

    Gonzalez and his collaborators also deserve enormous credit for making a double album that never feels bloated, and that flies by far faster than more economically constructed song collections. It’s totally possible to find yourself deep into “disc 2” (if that label even matters in the digital music era), but thinking you’ve barely scratched the surface of “disc 1.” maybe Gonzalez learned something from the hardcore scene after all. Zen Arcade and Double Nickels on the Dime achieved a similar feat, after all.

    The key to success here is that, on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, Gonzalez may have finally struck upon a superior version of the truth. Whether or not you fetishize what, say, shoegazer or early acid house or John Hughes movie soundtracks (think more Dream Academy, less Simple Minds) sounded like in 1985 in the same way that M83 does, you have to admire Gonzalez’s ability to synthesize all of the sounds and memories to create something both evocative, unique, and worth listening to as something other than a pure nostalgia trip. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is a great record, period, whether it was released in 2011 or Nineteen Eighty Never.

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  3. The Vaccines: What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?The Vaccines: What Did You Expect from the Vaccines?

    The story of West London’s The Vaccines is pretty much the same story of every other British guitar-based phenom of the last 20 years: band comes together, band quickly perfects sound that is both uniquely its own but also very much rooted in BritPop / indie tropes, band releases single, band is hailed as “the savior” or “the second coming” of British rock. By now, if you’ve followed the hype around bands like The Libertines, or Arctic Monkeys, or Franz Ferdinand, or any of a dozen (at least) other bands, you pretty much know the career arc of The Vaccines to date.

    Did the band’s debut album live up to the hype? Yes. Will the band sustain the accolades? Well … who knows? But What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? is, on its own merits, about as solid and time-test worthy of a first album as has come out in a while. Front man Justin Young is a flat out great songwriter, matching catchy melodies to rock-solid lyrics like few other artists mining the same vein. It’s tempting to jump on the hype machine and start throwing around “the next Smiths” comparisons, but I don’t know that The Vaccines have quite that variety or quirkiness up their sleeves. What they do have is the ability to make a great straightforward pop record on which every song could be a single, every chorus can be sung along with, and the balance of surging rockers to thoughtful ballads is right on point.

    I hope they can repeat. This album is way too much fun for it not to have a sequel or four.

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  4. Lykke Li - Wounded RhymesLykke Li: Wounded Rhymes

    If you want proof of the power or influence of a producer in revealing an artist’s genius, look no further than Lykke Li’s outstanding Wounded Rhymes. What Li, a singer-songwriter from Stockholm, Sweden, brings to the table: a voice that somehow manages to be both girlish and bold, organic and otherworldly; and a penchant for writing piercing, personal songs that bare bone deep sadness, bravado, and sexuality. What her collaborator (in this case, Peter Moren of Swedish indie pop masters Peter, Bjorn, and John): the skills to make the best sounding record of 2011.

    Wounded Rhymes sounded like no other record by a songwriting or dance pop ingenue in 2011. Li often come at her subject matter from oblique angles (her idea of a come-on is to compare herself, simultaneously, to a shotgun and a prostitute, telling her lover, “You’re gonna get some”). Moren, meanwhile, coats her songs in a grab bag of sonic accoutrements, doubling up Li’s voice to make her sound like the front woman of a 21st century girl group, and, Spector-like, building an instrumental wall behind her that’s all reverbed handclaps, booming kettledrums, and tightened up organ riffs.

    The mix proved potent. Wounded Rhymes spent months at the top of my “Best Albums” list, and it was torture trying to figure out where it fit amongst all of the other great albums that came out. It still sounds like nothing else. It will probably end up being one of my most listened to albums of the 2010s. Too many people I talked to this year, though, either slept on it or didn’t give it enough time to sink in. I hope they change their mind, and find the rewards it has to offer.

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  5. Radiohead - King of LimbsRadiohead: The King of Limbs

    In which Radiohead: enters its Remain In Light period, playing with rhythms associated with experimental artists like Burial and Flying Lotus in the same way that Talking Heads mined afrobeat to make Manhattanites and early ’80s college kids actually shake their asses for once; alienates the part of its fanbase that desperately wants it to just keep re-making OK Computer (which would make great financial sense, given how the ’90s have suddenly blown up as a source of fake nostalgia for twentysomething hipsters); stop playing Cassandra and giving their listeners panic attacks; start actually just sounding honestly, personally heartbroken without worrying too much about invoking neurosis on a global stage; find a way to make Thom Yorke’s falsetto sound beautiful instead of sneering and whiny; continue to build its own parallel record industry, proving that for the time being, the record industry is totally irrelevant for anyone with half a brain; firmly establishes itself as the most important band in popular music by making its eighth record its seventh earth-shatteringly awesome record in a row.

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  6. Charles Bradley - No Time For DreamingCharles Bradley: No Time for Dreaming

    I’m not sure anyone had a better year than Charles Bradley. At 62 years old, Daptone Records founder Gabriel Roth discovered him singing James Brown covers in a bar in the Bedford Stuyvesant area of New York City — where Bradley had landed after a life of chasing his musical passions, coast to coast, through innumerable ups and downs — and pointed him, finally, in the direction of the career he’d always deserved.

    You can read the whole bio on his official website. It’s not, actually, what makes him remarkable. What does make him remarkable is his debut album, released (as reminder!) at the age of 62, and which is, without a doubt, the best soul record of the genre’s ongoing revival. It’s not hard to figure out why; other artists may have soul, and pick the genre as a vehicle for their music for aesthetic reasons. Bradley, on the other hand, has lived soul, spending most of his life studying it and performing it — having already grown up on the streets and spent decades making ends meet as a chef in the at least three of the USA’s four corners (Maine, Alaska, and California). The album, as a result, doesn’t cloak itself in authenticity — it defines authenticity. No Time For Dreaming is no nostalgia trip; it’s the soul of Brown and Cooke and Redding and Pickett reborn — music made by an artist who can’t help but pour his whole heart into his songs in an effort to assuage his — and our — pain.

    Artists and albums like this don’t seem to come around much anymore. Sharon Jones (another Daptone artist) is one of the few who stand on this plateau. Maybe Bradley had to wait until 2011 for his career to ignite just so an artist like him would come around at all.

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  7. Yuck - YuckYuck: Yuck

    The buzz on Yuck, a young fourpiece from England, is that its debut was, “The best album of 1991” … the joke being, of course, that Yuck was made and released twenty years later.

    In truth, the album does indeed mine every inch of alt-rock territory uncovered two decades ago. That doesn’t really make it a stand-out. Lots of bands are returning to that time and its sound (think: the end of new wave, the breakthrough of grunge, the dawn of what pundits called the “alternative nation”), from Pains of Being Pure at Heart to Surfer Blood. It also doesn’t help that the great bands of that era have all cashed in, reformed, and hit the road again. If you haven’t caught The Pixies or Dinosaur Jr. live in the last five years, you’ve been napping. The late ’80s / early ’90s are, in a sense, still going on.

    What makes Yuck stand out amidst all of this is its virtuosity. It somehow made an album that sounds like an amalgamation of the best parts of the Pixies, Dinosaur, Teenage Fanclub, My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, The Replacements, Husker Du, Mazzy Star, the Lemonheads, (early) Smashing Punpkins, and too many other bands to name — but that doesn’t sound like some horrid Frankenstein cooked up in the basement of Spin Magazine for the purposes of amplfying the Nevermind 20th anniversary hoopla. The soungrwriting is heartfelt, the playing of the highest caliber. They even manage to toss in veiled homages to Big Star, a common motif among ’90s alt-rockers, and sound honest about it — even though every one of Yuck’s band members was unborn when the first wave of Chilton-inspired artists were cutting their first records.

    All the ’90s references aside, the songs stand alone. “Suck,” “Stutter,” and “Rose Gives a Lilly” or gorgeous low-tempo ballads that leave alone the spaces between ringing guitar notes, refusing to fill them with snarling power chords. “Georgia” and “The Base of a Dream is Empty” both push the pace and the crunch, but decorate the instrumental backdrop with gorgeous guy / girl vocal harmonies. “The Wall” is all wicked snarl, a worthy rejoinder to Sonic Youth’s “The Sprawl.”

    It’d be too easy to crib note Yuck as the ’90s analogue to M83’s ’80s affectation. The real similarity lies in both bands ability to rise above perceived nostalgia to argue for the timelessness of the music created in those eras. If, as a friend recently suggested to me, Frank Black’s Teenager of the Year could have been released last week and not sound out of place, so too might Yuck’s debut sound current twenty years from now. The joy is that this might be true without all of us feeling like we’re just repeating ourselves.

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  8. The Rapture: In The Grace Of Your LoveThe Rapture: In The Grace of Your Love

    The Rapture initially made its mark as part of the dance-punk explosion that engulfed New York City in the mid ’00s.

    Wait. Dance punk: what a weird little genre that was / is. For some people (me), the concept of music that revives the dancier elements of Gang of Four and draws inspiration equally from house music, The Stooges, Joy Division, and deep underground ’80s funk pretty much sounds like the second coming. Problem is: only LCD Soundsystem ever really made good on the genre’s promise, and the scene’s also-rans skimmed the surface of mediocrity purely on the buoyancy of sweaty live gigs and a handful of iconic singles. And now LCD Soundsystem has called it quits, so …

    The Rapture — DFA Records’ flagship act until LCD’s big breakthrough — was one of those also-ran acts, riding high on the strength of its instant classic single, “House of Jealous Lovers.” Almost right out of the gate, the band seemed primed for eventual icon status (in multiple genres, no less) spending time on the road opening for both a Sex Pistols reunion and Daft Punk. And then … implosion. A sophomore slump record was followed by internal struggles over the band’s musical direction, the death of front man Luke Jenner’s mother, and the birth of Jenner’s son — which triggered the singer’s departure from the band. Several months of soul-searching, pep talks from DFA label head James Murphy, and intramural softball later, Jenner rejoined the group (and bassist Mattie Safer, apparently on the losing side of that aforementioned directional argument, left). In The Grace of Your Love is the product of that reunion, and essentially tells the story of Jenner’s time in the wilderness. It also charts a substantial evolution for the band.

    Of course, one wishes Jenner could have been spared the heartache, but his time away (and the song fodder that his travails produced) did the band (and his writing skills) very well. In The Grace of Your Love came heralded by one more dance punk classic, the single “How Deep Is Your Love,” but was comprised mostly of material that branched successfully into new stylistic territory. Several songs slow down the tempo, and gospel music serves a recurring touchpoint (reflecting, perhaps, a spiritual pillar that Jenner leaned on during his times of trouble).

    The added emotional depth and the willingness to diversify its sound have given The Rapture everything it needed to really break through in the first place, making for one of the finest records of the year (and certainly the best “dance” album). The sweaty live shows are still essential (to be honest: this album didn’t fully click for me until I saw the band live in Austin, TX this past October) — but for a genre that places a high premium on dancing, that’s more than OK. Shaking one’s ass can be a fair price for fully realizing greatness.

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  9. Washed Out - Within and WithoutWashed Out: Within and Without

    Washed Out — the alias for Atlanta-based artist Ernest Greene — gives music critics fits, apparently. I say this because the best adjective I’ve seen used to describe his music is, “widescreen,” — which captures the romantic, cinematic, lush quality of the songs — and the worst, “hypnagogic pop,” which captures nothing except the need for a dictionary. You know you’re charting new territory when critics start inventing gibberish new sub-sub-sub genres to describe what you do.

    I wager this is because Greene’s music, produced in the early days entirely in his bedroom, seems intensely familiar (it draws heavily from synth pop, ambient, shoegazer and early ’00s downtempo) while somehow sounding specifically not like any of those sub-genres at all. And that — in addition to all that lushness and romance I mentioned earlier — really is the key to this album’s greatness: like a lot of the standout music made this year, it represents a deep spin through the spiral of cultural history, covering new and familiar territory at the same time.

    As a result, Within and Without captivates from beginning to end. The cover picture provides the best entry point; this is 21st century make-out music, synth-driven downtempo that gets quickly but quietly epic. And if you don’t have someone with whom to un-make the bed while listening, that’s OK — this also happens to be perfect inner-cinema music too, the soundtrack to a night ride home on the train, an evening flight somewhere (hopefully) exotic, or just a night-turning-into-morning spent staring at your bedroom’s darkened ceiling.

    Bedroom-made music for bedroom people? Not quite as bad as “hypnagogic pop.”

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  10. The Roots - UndunThe Roots: Undun
  11. The comedian John Hodgman has tweeted, more than once, that Philadelphia-bred rap group The Roots is, “A national treasure.” And that is, from the comedian, no joke.

    If I count correctly, this is The Roots tenth full-length album, not counting best-ofs, live records, or collaborations with the likes of John Legend or Betty Wright (an R&B signer with whom the band also released an album this year). Most of these albums are solid; a handful are great; a couple (Do You Want More? and Things Fall Apart) are canonical to hip-hop overall. You can’t canonize anything without the benefit of time to provide perspective; so The Roots will have to settle with a merely “great” tag on Undun for a little while.

    This is also The Roots’ first concept record — and one of the most effective concept record ever produced, at that. In reverse chronological order, it tells the all-too common — yet still tragically remarkable (tragic and remarkable because it’s still so common) — story of the short life Redford Stevens, an impoverished kid turned drug dealer from inner city wherever. The subject matter immediately makes the album unusual for a “concept album;” we’ve been well-trained to expect cold, sci-fi themed narratives from the conceit at this point; we rarely hear concept music that’s fully human or that hits us where we live.

    Not so with Undun. The Roots keep the focus on tight songs and world-weary soulfulness, letting the subject serve the song rather than slide into the familiar seduction of the storyline dominating all. Nine of the album’s 14 songs can stand alone — most as worthy singles (particularly “MakeMy,” “One Time,” and “The Other Side”) or mix-tape fodder — the remaining tracks bookending the album with narrative-strengthening atmosphere. One of those bookend tracks happens to be Sufjan Stevens’s touching “Redford,” a piece for solo piano that provides Undun with its title character and inspiration. Here, it begins a four-part suite that concludes the album with equal parts elegiac eloquence and dissonant free-jazz discord, the story of Redford Stephens re-told instrumentally in five-and-a-half minutes. That suite follows “Tip The Scale,” a gut-wrenching plea for escape and understanding from a character who we know will receive neither. All of this, by the way, in 38 minutes and change.

    Forget the hip-hop context or The Roots’ back catalog for a moment; find me another concept album that accomplishes all of this. Like the man said, “a national treasure.”

    The Roots have been aiming for what they accomplish on Undun for several albums now. The Tipping Point and Rising Down were both oppressively grim albums. Perhaps taking Chuck D’s maxim that hip-hop is “the black CNN,” the band weighed down those two albums with efforts to record, as journalists, something besides the immediacy and the faux glamor of “thug life,” instead grappling with the long-term effects of violence, poverty, and denial of opportunity upon generations of inner city residents. That approach didn’t quite work, if only because the gloom made the records as oppressive as the subject matter. Even PE laced Nation of Millions with “Cold Lampin’,” arguing that a little levity can draw more ears and lend the weightier tracks even more impact.

    On last year’s How I Got Over, The Roots reached a turning point. Perhaps focused by the time spent playing ultra-short “sandwiches” as the live band for “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” (and collaborating with a wide range of world class rock, rap, and dance artists along the way), the band embraced both economy of composition and ebullience of mood, collaborating with indie rockers and claiming the neo-soul crown it had long been loathe to wear. Undun represents the reconciliation of those two periods — and new high point in a long career that we can now safely say shows no signs of slowing down.

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Honorable Mentions:

Listen to over 300 songs from all of these albums, and more, for free on this ginormous Spotify playlist.

In no particular order …

Fucked Up: David Comes To Life
Black Keys: El Camino
Stephen Malkmus: Mirror Traffic
The Weeknd: House of Balloons
Danger Mouse & Danielle Lupi: Rome
Peter Bjorn & John: Gimme Some
Smith Westerns: Dye It Blonde
Raphael Saadiq: Stone Rollin’
The Joy Formidable: The Big Roar
Battles: Gloss Drop
Atlas Sound: Parallax
Black Lips: Arabia Mountain
Thee Oh Sees: Carrion Crawler / The Dream
Wilco: The Whole Love
SBTRKT: SBTRKT
Little Dragon: Ritual Union
Tom Waits: Bad As Me
Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears: Scandalous
Chapel Club: Palace
Cults: Cults
Girls: Father, Son, Holy Ghost
My Morning Jacket: Circuital
Wire: Red Barked Tree
Wild Flag: Wild Flag