The world didn’t end, but I did hear a lot of great music that I want to share with the world.
Some of the bands and artists in this column are ones I have loved for a long time who released stuff this past year; others are completely new to me.
Genre-wise, it’s about 85% punk, because I fell back in love with punk super hard in 2012 (I fall back in love with punk every year, but in 2012 I fell so hard you’d have thought I was 16 again) – but there’s some non-punk stuff, too, and the punk stuff runs the gamut from Ramones-style pop punk to snarling hardcore.
As ever: tune into Mix Tapes from the Midwest: The Podcast, to hear these songs, as well as fourteen others that are just as great.
1. Angel Haze – Cleaning Out My Closet (from Classick)
I don’t know much about hip hop. I began listening to rap and hip hop in the early ‘90s, but then punk ate my brain and I never fully delved into it. In 2012, I decided it was time to change that. I put out a post on my blog, asking for hip hop recommendations; I said that I specifically wanted to hear kick-ass female MCs and queer MCs. One of the recommendations I got was Angel Haze, and man, I am so glad I did. First, I downloaded her debut EP/mix tape Reservation, which I liked so much that I promptly downloaded her second mix tape, Classick, when it was released in October.
Classick is sort of like what, in the rock world, would be called a ‘covers album.’ Except, the tracks aren’t covers, not in the strictest sense of the term. Imagine if a band released an album of other people’s songs, and kept the music, but changed the lyrics. Not in a parodic manner, like Weird Al, but in a making-it-their-own manner. That’s what Classick is – an album of re-workings of songs by more famous hip hop artists. There’s Angel’s take on Lupe Fiasco’s “Bitch Bad,” her take on Missy Elliott’s “Gossip Folks,” her take on Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing),” and a few others. It’s all truly excellent. Angel Haze has fierce talent, she spits rhymes like fire; she is by turns funny and brutal – sometimes in the same breath.
The highlight of the EP is her re-working of the Eminem number “Cleaning Out My Closet.” It details rape and sexual abuse she went through as a child, as well as the physical and psychological aftermath. At times, the details are graphic. It is difficult to listen to – and if you are a survivor, take care, it can be incredibly triggering. If you do listen to it, yes, you will hear her talent, but you will also be made uncomfortable, and angry, and sad. And that’s as it should be. As Angel says:
Disgusting? Right, now, let that feeling ring through your guts.
2. BNegão e os Seletores de Frequência – Essa é Pra Tocar No Baile (from Sintoniza Lá)
I was in my car one day, listening to 88.9 WYMS, one of my favorite local radio stations. The DJ was spinning music from around the world, and most of it was good for tapping my hands on the steering wheel, but nothing really stood out – until he played this song. When I got home, I went to the station’s website and looked up the band, and later that evening, I purchased the album.
BNegão e os Seletores de Frequência are a Brazilian hip hop group. Some websites describe them as ‘rap rock,’ but to me the term ‘rap rock’ is reserved for dreadful bands like Limp Bizkit, so I wouldn’t call it that. They are a hip hop group that play around with a lot of other genres. Listening to Sintoniza Lá, I hear hip hop, ska, brass band, funk, Brazilian musical styles such as samba and bossa nova, and even some hardcore. “Essa é Pra Tocar No Baile” is like hip hop meets ska-punk; if I had to compare it to any other bands I’d say it’s like Leningrad with a bit of Cake thrown in. Except, you know, Brazilian.
Sometimes I worry about listening to songs sung in a language I don’t speak, because I think: “They could be saying something totally horrible and I’d never know!” I don’t speak, or understand, a lick of Portuguese, so I have no idea what BNegão’s songs are about. All I know is that they make my ears happy, and they make me want to dance. I’ll take it.
3. Firewater – Dead Man’s Boots (from International Orange!)
I love Firewater. I love how they incorporate styles of music from all over the world into their stuff – and were doing it before Gogol Bordello or any of those others – but dear God, don’t call them World Music. Call them Border-Crossing Punk, or Circus Goth. Or anything but World Music; World Music calls to mind New Age white people who smell like patchouli and think they’re cultured cos they own some Putumayo CDs. Firewater may play with a variety of styles of music, but they also have the anger and acerbity and self-deprecating humor of punk, and the dark heart and sexy-sad strut of goth.
I love Firewater, and they release albums so infrequently that I’m always overcome with excitement whenever a new one comes out. The release of International Orange! was no exception. I downloaded it the day it was released, and proceeded to crank the volume and dance around my house while listening to it. I wonder what my neighbors thought.
“Dead Man’s Boots” is one of my favorite tracks on the album. Lyrically, there is a nod to the Clash song “Know Your Rights” – Rule no 1: everybody drop your gun, / It can never be your funeral / If you’re in your birthday suit. And I know for a fact that the Clash/Joe Strummer are one of Tod A.’s main influences. Sonically, however, it sounds nothing like the Clash, or, well – the Clash experimented with different styles of music, too, but not the same ones. Imagine if the Clash had played drunken Balkan carnival-pirate music rather than punky reggae party stuff. That’s “Dead Man’s Boots,” that’s Firewater, that’s International Orange!
Download/listen: Amazon or iTunes
4. Morning Glory – Poets Were My Heroes (from Poets Were My Heroes)
If you heard older Morning Glory albums, and then heard Poets Were My Heroes, and no one informed you they were by the same band, you might not realize it at first. Older Morning Glory is more in the vein of Leftover Crack/Choking Victim, et. al. (you know, that whole crusty ska-punk thing, with an equal number of songs about politics and getting fucked up, aka Crack Rock Steady) – and no surprise, as Ezra Kire, frontman/songwriter for Morning Glory, was at one time in both those bands. On Poets Were My Heroes, Morning Glory branches out into strange new territory, and I mean that in the best possible way.
Don’t worry, there are still some elements of a ska, and a lot of punk, there are still some tinges of Crack Rock Steady, and there’s still plenty of fury and noise. Morning Glory hasn’t gone soft or anything. But there’s also an orchestral combination of instruments, at times reminiscent of the World/Inferno Friendship Society (perhaps in part because Lucky Strano, former guitarist for World/Inferno, plays guitar on the album). Truly, Poets Were My Heroes is meant to be listened to as an album, in its entirety – and in this, the age of the digital single, far too few bands focus on the album-as-art-form thing, anymore.
Since I can’t play the entire album on my podcast, or write about each song in depth in this column, I chose the title track. If ever a song deserved to be called epic, “Poets Were My Heroes” is that song. It starts off as a melancholy piano ballad, then blasts into a hard rock/metal type thing – but the piano remains, and Ezra’s voice in that moment sounds all battered and worn. Then the guitars change, and they become something that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Queen song. And then the whole thing starts to swell, and build, and the strings come in, and it builds more until you can hardly stand it, and then the horns join in, and it all reaches the breaking point and explodes all around you and at the end you feel all breathless and aren’t sure what you just heard, but you know you liked it.
If Poets Were My Heroes were a (punk) rock opera, this would be the song sung during the climax, and then again at the end, reprise-style.
5. Red Dons – Ausländer (from the Ausländer 7”)
The two songs on the Ausländer 7” (“Ausländer,” and the B-side, “Mauvaise foi”) are so good that they make me itch to hear whatever Red Dons do next.
As Joe Briggs (https://somedaysthethundergetsyou.blogspot.co.uk) says of this song: It’s one of those punk songs like “Kids of the Black Hole” that feels endless in the perfect way. He’s right that it feels endless in the perfect way, and I can hear “Kids of the Black Hole” in it, too. I can also hear a little bit of “Holiday in Cambodia”-era Dead Kennedys, and even some Thin Lizzy. Although not as orchestral as “Poets Were My Heroes,” I’d call this song epic, too. And the crazy wall of feedback and distortion and franticness at the end! And the lyrics: I keep a little piece of where I’m from / in my pocket if I can, I can / and it’s all I’ll ever own / cos I’m never coming home.
Oh, I could listen to this over and over, to the point of driving everyone around me nuts. Guess I’ll keep my headphones on.
6. Holograms – Memories of Sweat (from Holograms)
And here’s something for your darker, gothier moments. Holograms play gothy post-punk, at times sounding kinda like Joy Division (or, actually, more like the pre-Joy Division band Warsaw), at other times sounding kinda like Wire or Gang of Four; but then there are also some louder, harder-edged moments, and times when it has the menacing feel of mid-tempo hardcore.
This track leans more toward the Joy Division end of things, in a really great way. What gets me most about this song is that drumbeat (at least I think it’s a drumbeat?) that sounds like a gunshot. It keeps you from getting too comfortable in the groove of the song.
7. Nü Sensae – Tea Swamp Park (from Sundowning)
Sundowning scares me. It scares me because it’s so good – the drums and the vocals in particular. It scares me because the influences are all over the place – I hear post-punk, goth, metal, and noise; the vocals are by turns screamy and melodic, and on some tracks Andrea Lukić does this deadpan talk-singing a la Kim Gordon. It scares me because it’s genuinely creepy as hell, like a psychological thriller in album form.
“Tea Swamp Park,” in particular, freaks me out. It is under two minutes long, but it gives me goosebumps that linger long after the music fades out. It has a sinister bass line, and an almost Siouxsie and the Banshees vibe, but then the guitars also remind me a little of old Sonic Youth. And the vocals – like an eerie post-punk children’s rhyme, like a modern version of “Ring Around the Rosy.” Yikes.
Download/listen: Amazon or iTunes
8. Honeysuck – Secret Pussy (from the Honeysuck 7”)
Honeysuck make super-rad short-fast-loud shrieking girl-punk. I hate to bring in the riot grrrl thing, cos people do tend to look at every girl-punk band since 1991 through the lens of riot grrrl, but Honeysuck does share some common elements with some of my favorite RG bands. Like, I can definitely hear some Heavens to Betsy and early Bratmobile in there. I also hear some similarities to one of my favorite Chicago punk rock bands, Mary Tyler Morphine.
“Secret Pussy” is a diatribe against self-absorbed asshole ‘scene’ dudes. It’s barely over a minute long, but it is biting, and screaming, and feral, and I love it. Best line? This isn’t 1994.
9. Classics of Love – World of the Known (from Classics of Love)
Classics of Love is the most recent band from Jesse Michaels (formerly of Operation Ivy and Common Rider). They released an EP in 2009, which I somehow missed, but hey, now I have their full-length, and dear gods, it shreds. It’s impossible not to draw comparisons to Operation Ivy, and I do hear some residual traces of Op. Ivy in Classics of Love, namely Jesse Michaels’ vocals and the ska-punk elements. But it doesn’t really sound anything like Op. Ivy. For one thing, it is much more akin to hardcore/post-hardcore than Op. Ivy ever was. And I don’t know what it is about it, and I know this is sort of blasphemous, but…I think I may actually like Classics of Love better than I like Operation Ivy.
“World of the Known” makes me wanna start a circle pit every time I hear it. Like, even when I’m alone in my living room.
Download/listen: Amazon or iTunes
1. Propagandhi – Devil’s Creek (from Failed States)
Propagandhi is back with more of that pure hardcore rage we’ve come to love and expect from them. Failed States is a barbed-wire fence of sound, it thrashes, and the vocals are melodic and the lyrics are as great as ever. Of course, most of the songs are angry anti-capitalist credos (uh, check out “The Fucking Rich Fuck the Poor”); my favorite tracks are the more personal ones. Though I do enjoy angry songs, anti-capitalist songs, and political/protest songs, nine times out of ten I’d still rather listen to the more personal tunes by any given band or musician. To paraphrase something Eric Bachmann once said: “I find the way the human heart works a much more interesting topic than how much the government sucks.”
Which is why I chose “Devil’s Creek” to represent this album. It’s about being a lonely child, and I can relate.
Never understood the other kids. / The adults even less. / So I hung out by myself in a backroad drainage ditch. / I called it Devil’s Creek so it wouldn’t seem so sad. / When you can’t have what you want, / you learn to want what you have.
2. Arms Aloft – Where Seagulls Dare (from Sawdust City)
If I were a dude, I’d be so orgcore it wouldn’t even be funny. Cos I fucking love this kind of music – melodic punk rock with sad bastard lyrics and gravelly vocals. Also, I have a number of plaid shirts, I’d probably have permanent stubble if I could grow facial hair…and when I was 18, I very nearly got an Alkaline Trio tattoo. For real.
All that aside – Arms Aloft are an awesome band. Yes, they make melodic punk rock with gravelly vocals, and yes, many of their songs are about getting fucked up or feeling fucked up, but they manage to sound not at all generic, and their lyrics are clever as hell. They’re worth listening to for the references alone; I love it when bands can successfully reference pop culture or other songs in their songs, cos it makes me feel like I’m in on the joke, so to speak. For example: they have a song titled “Skinny Love,” cos they’re from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, which is the same town indie darling Bon Iver is from. (Their song’s not a cover, and I like it infinitely better than the Bon Iver song of the same name.)
And this tune, “Where Seagulls Dare,” well, the title itself is a reference…and see if you catch the Pogues reference in the lyrics:
We stick to the bottom. / Keep the lights and our sights down low. / Pick through the trash. / Drink next to the tracks. / Yeah, we’re fucking crows. / And as the band played “Hail To The Chief”, / we snuck out through the cellar door. / And when the band stopped playing, / we got shipped off to war.
3. The Menzingers – The Obituaries (from On the Impossible Past)
If you tuned into my podcast two weeks ago, you heard The Menzingers’ cover of “Straight to Hell.” Well, they write some great originals, too, and they released an album of them in 2012. Sound-wise? It’s kinda orgcore, kinda straight-up pop punk, and there are also a couple more down-tempo, ballad-like tunes… All the songs are simultaneously anthemic and depressing. To paraphrase something my pal Jose once said: “That’s why I like this kind of pop punk. It’s like: life sucks, but I can still have fun.” That’s the gist of this album – life sucks, but you can still have fun. And this track. Listen to it twice through, and then just try not to sing along:
‘cuz I am the shadow of the wax wing slave. / I felt the buzz issued from window panes. / I am just freaking out, yeah I’ll be fine. / But I will fuck this up, / I fucking know it.
4. Forgetters – O Deadly Death (from Forgetters)
Way back in early 2009, a band called Thorns of Life appeared on the scene. Thorns of Life was comprised of Blake Schwarzenbach (Jawbreaker, Jets to Brazil), Daniela Sea (The Gr’ups, Cypher in the Snow), and Aaron Cometbus (Pinhead Gunpowder, Crimpshrine, and a thousand other bands, not to mention Cometbus zine). I totally fangirled about it. “Blake Schwarzenbach and Aaron Cometbus have a band together,” I said. “I can die happy.” I devoured their live recordings, and anxiously awaited a studio album and a chance to see them live, myself. Sadly, they broke up before either of those things happened.
Shortly thereafter, Blake formed Forgetters. I didn’t get quite as geeked about them as I did Thorns of Life, but I was glad to hear new music by Mr. Schwarzenbach. They released a self-titled double-7” in 2010, and in 2012, they released their self-titled LP.
If you love a hard-hitting, depressing Blake Schwarzenbach song as much as I do, you’ll love Forgetters. Of course, I’ll never love it as much as I love Jawbreaker – although, maybe I shouldn’t say ‘never,’ after all I didn’t think Jesse Michaels would ever top Operation Ivy… – but it is an excellent record. To compare it to Jawbreaker and Jets to Brazil – musically, it’s closer to Jawbreaker; lyrically, it’s closer to Jets to Brazil – and, in a way, even darker than JtB. Blake’s voice is so beat-up that it adds a new level of hollow-you-out sorrow to the songs. And all the songs are about death, yet in their desperation there is something life-affirming. Had this album been released when I was 16, I would have listened to it over and over. Instead, it was released when I was 31, and I’ve been listening to it over and over.
“O Deadly Death” started as a Thorns of Life song, and I loved it then, even in poorly-recorded live show form. I love it even more, now. I mean, the track opens with a clip from Jack Kerouac’s Dr. Sax! (Still killing cops and reading Kerouac, eh Blake? Sorry, sorry. I had to.) And the lyrics:
When I get low, and can’t forget. / There’s always you, there’s always one thing left. / There’s always death.
Download/listen: Amazon or iTunes
5. Dan Vapid and the Cheats – Die Trying (from Dan Vapid and the Cheats)
A brand-new pop punk band featuring Dan Vapid (Screeching Weasel, The Riverdales, The Methadones, Noise By Numbers). How could it possibly be bad? Answer: it couldn’t, and this debut self-titled album proves it. All the songs are under three minutes long and perfect to pogo to, they’ve all got bitter and bitingly funny lyrics (mainly about girls and depression), there is a heavy Ramones influence (as well as a bit of a nod to Devo, most notably on the song “Devo on Speed”), and there are more ‘whoah-ohs’ than you can shake a stick at. If Lookout Records still existed, this album would be on Lookout. I wanna listen to it every day. A-whoah-oh.
“Die Trying” is a sing-a-long, pogo-tastic tune with a – forgive me for getting literary, here – ‘find what you love and let it kill you’ message. Jump up and down and shout:
1-2-3-4 / I’m gonna die trying.
6. Terry Malts – Nauseous (from Killing Time)
Terry Malts’ Killing Time is a garage-punk masterpiece. I could draw a Ramones comparison, but I hear more Undertones and Buzzcocks in it than I do Ramones. There are elements of power pop, as well, and it has a sweetness to it, but the rawness of it, the fuzzed-out guitar, and the lyrical content give it enough of a sour edge to balance it out. Think of it this way: songs about being a screwed-up loser never sounded so nice. Or: if Killing Time were a mixed drink, it would be a whiskey old-fashioned, heavy on the bitters, with just a dash of sugar.
“Nauseous” is about fundamentalist Christians who tell you they love you, that Jesus loves you, but what kind of love is it if it comes from people who are constantly judging you?
Fun fact: while I was writing this column, two Christian women came to my front door and tried to tell me ‘how to better utilize the Bible at home.’ I politely told them I was busy, and then I shut the door.
7. Candy Hearts – Bad Idea (from The Best Ways to Disappear)
This EP is cute, jangly, girly, power pop/pop punk. For the record – I am not using the words ‘cute’ or ‘girly’ in a disparaging manner, at all. As far as I’m concerned, the punk/indie scene needs more cute girly stuff, because it is often overrun by Serious Hardcore Bros, y’know? So, yes, The Best Ways to Disappear is cute, and sweet, and heart-string-tugging, with a sound that feels to me like it owes a lot to ‘90s female-fronted power pop/pop punk bands, such as Sarge. Again, I mean that as a compliment.
And “Bad Idea?” This song is my life. I cringe a little bit when I think about just how many of my past (and current) crushes and relationships I could apply it to.
But you’re a bad idea and I know it. / You’re a bad idea and I know it. / Well, I will do it anyway; / My heart won’t listen to my brain. / You’re a bad idea and I know / I want to be a little reckless with you, / Pick a penny up on the unlucky side, / Trace a curse word into the back of a car / That hasn’t been washed in a while.
8. The Taxpayers – I Love You Like An Alcoholic (from “God, Forgive These Bastards”)
I have been into The Taxpayers for a while, this punk- band that can’t be contained under the umbrella of ska-punk, or hardcore, or pop punk, or even folkpunk. Their earlier albums were sometimes compared to Bomb The Music Industry!, and even though I thought they had their own sound, I understood where the comparisons came from. With “God, Forgive These Bastards,” they have fully come into their own. This album is punk, and folk, and jazz; it is also none of those things. And, it’s a story in album form: the story of Henry Turner, who was a pitcher for the Georgia Tech baseball team in the ‘70s, and who threw his arm out before he had a chance to play for the big leagues. I love obscure history and I love baseball, so that makes me like the album even more!
“I Love You Like An Alcoholic” is a beautifully off-kilter little song, with dual vocals that stumble all over each other the way they should in a song with this title. Musically, it has an acoustic blues, New Orleans street band strut – and there’s an accordion in it. Perfect.
9. Tim Barry – Driver Pull (from 40 Miler)
Oh, Tim Barry. I’ve had Tim Barry-related music in three of my prior columns; this makes number four. He used to be the frontman for Avail, and now he does solo stuff. Or, as he says: “I used to be a punk. Now I’m just an old fucker with an acoustic guitar.” Well, I love punk Tim and ‘old fucker’ Tim, just about equally, and 40 Miler has the best elements of the post-Avail Barry stuff – the old-time (yet not redundant) sound, and some songs where he makes fun of himself, as well as some songs that are just total broke-down-ness.
Like the sheer broke-down-ness of “Driver Pull,” for instance. If you’ve ever been in a place where everything in your life had crashed down around you, and you heard those trains goin’ by and you just wanted to hop on one and get gone, so bad that you didn’t even care where the train was headed (and let’s be honest: everyone’s been in that place at least once, even if they’ve never acted on that impulse) – this song will get to you. Tim’s ragged voice, and the fiddle and piano that join in during the choruses, make it even more painful. Oof.
Download/listen: Amazon or iTunes