Category Archives: consumption

The Best Music of 2019

Circumstances prevent me from providing a full description of these records, but I wanted to mention the music that meant the most to me this year before before 2019 turned to 2020. With that in mind, click the links in each entry to hear this fine music.

1. Chris Brokaw, End of the Night (Vin du Select Qualitite)
2. OUT, Billie (Comedy Minus One)
3. 75 Dollar Bill, I Was Real (Thin Wrist Recordings)
4. Peter Jefferies, Last Ticket Home (Ba Da Bing Records)
5. Tropical Fuck Storm, Braindrops (Joyful Noise)
6. Lizzo, Cuz I Love You (Nice Life/Atlantic)
7. FCKR JR., I’m Sorry Mom and Dad (Born Yesterday)
8. Uzeda, Quocumque Jeceris Stabit (Temporary Residence Ltd)
9. Sarah Davachi, Pale Bloom (W.25TH/Superior Viaduct)
10. Michael Kiwanuka, Kiwanuka (Interscope/Polydor)
11. Mekons, Deserted (Bloodshot)

REISSUE: Silkworm, In the West (Comedy Minus One)
(Yes, the Peter Jefferies album is a compilation of rarities. Since it has several recent tracks unavailable elsewhere, I list it with new releases.)

The Best Music of 2018


My favorite records of 2018 reflect several musical approaches to living in troubled times. Click on each album title to hear selections from each record and instructions to support the musicians by purchasing their work. This list is limited to ten, but I encourage readers to seek out additional worthy recordings from the past year by The Ex, Thalia Zedek, John Prine, and Barbara Manning.

Some of the most cogent popular culture critiques of this year come from Australia. Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette takes the form of standup comedy to produce a searing critique of the misogyny at root in Western art, politics, and society (including comedy and the comedian). Tropical Fuck Storm (featuring Gareth and Fiona of the Drones) examine the corrosive effects of online discourse in late capitalism on A Laughing Death in Meatspace. My description gets at the lyrical content, but does not capture the tone or the music – this is bleak but also playful, brimming with energy, wordplay, tangled guitar lines, and male-female call-and-response vocals that owe a debt to Fela Kuti. At its best (like the album closer “Rubber Bullies”), this is bracing, witty, immediate, pulsating music, stuff that makes the listener hunger for what TFS will do next.

What this review is missing is adequate description of just how funny TFS are. I could quote the lyrics of “Soft Power” about “either going to Mars or war” or that song’s goofy coda referencing The Wizard of Oz and Happy Days, but instead I direct readers to watch the videos for “The Future of History,” “You Let My Tyres Down,” and “Chameleon Paint.” It’s an imperfect comparison, as the Drones released a lot of impressive music, but A Laughing Death in Meatspace feels like the advance for Gareth Liddiard’s music that the albums Post and Gossip represented in Paul Kelly’s career.

Though they are not on this album, I cannot discuss my favorite records of the year without mention of TFS’s stellar covers of “Stayin’ Alive,” “Back to the Wall,” and especially their brilliant take on Lost Animal’s “Lose the Baby,” which sounded equally terrific on their fall 2018 tour of the states. I hope to hear more from this band in 2019.

Mint Mile, Heartroller (Comedy Minus One)

Mint Mile began as Tim Midyett’s post-Bottomless Pit solo project and have evolved into an honest-to-goodness band with some echoes of the Byrds and early-Sausolito Van Morrison. (Think especially of the feel and structure of Saint Dominic’s Preview, only without horns.) The interplay between baritone 12-string guitar and pedal steel guitar hits a sweet spot for me, and every one of the four songs here rank with Midyett’s best work. The closer “Disappearing Music” is as close to ABBA as Midyett’s ever gone, a cheerful roller disco anthem of life’s impermanence that I’d be happy to have my survivors play at my funeral. (Or not; I mean, I won’t be there to know one way or the other.) Heartroller is the third and best EP Mint Mile has released, and this is a terrific introduction for newcomers.

Charnel Ground, Charnel Ground (12XU)

My favorite instrumental record of the year features Chris Brokaw leading the rhythm section of Kid Millions and James McNew through five guitar workouts. That description could raise warning signals of noodling to those unfamiliar with Brokaw’s strong sense of structure, but from the shortest (“Play La Ticla,” a playful number under two minutes) to the longest (the hypnotic 18-minute title track), each piece is grounded in a strong sense of rhythm and rewards repeated listening.

Alejandro Escovedo, The Crossing (Yep Roc)

Escovedo_The_CrossingEscovedo’s written on the immigrant experience of America before, not least on his wonderful By the Hand of the Father, but this album presents a new dimension of Americana with the tale of two friends — one from Italy, one from Mexico — and their experiences in Texas. Escovedo’s use of strings is one of the distinctive aspects of his sound, whiich will be familiar to fans of his work since the early 90s. Wayne Kramer’s presence on “Sonica USA” gives an idea of what the louder rock songs sound like, and their ferocity supports lyrics that are disgusted with how the white supremacist blood lust that dominates American political culture in 2018 has horrific consequences for vulnerable peoples as well as for the good people who actually are trying to help vulnerable peoples. The Crossing is an elegant expression of how diasporic movement of peoples is at the heart of American culture, no matter how much the modern Republican Party has reconstituted itself as a fundamentally racist movement attempted to restore an imaginary golden era of white supremacy like the Ku Klux Klan’s postbellum revolt against Emancipation. Escovedo’s music has always served as a cultural response against such revanchism and a better America would have 62 million people listening to him and no more than a few thousand thugs supporting Donald Trump, Cindy Hyde-Smith, and the rest of the Confederacy.

Light Coma, CONCORD (self-released)

CONCORD does not sound like a band that had not put out a record in seven years. Actually, that span of time is not quite accurate, as Brian Orchard’s trio played Crazy Horse to Andy Cohen’s Neil Young on last year’s Unreality. The Crazy Horse comparison is apt, as like that band, Light Coma has a terrific feel for raw rock songs. This band has a tighter rhythm section than the Horse, and fans of Orchard’s previous bands .22 and Bottomless Pit will find CONCORD to be another stellar, no-nonsense collection of the kind of music that makes me miss living in Chicago.

FACS, Negative Houses (Trouble in Mind)

FACS_Negative_Houses.jpgTwenty years after Hurl decided to end the reign of the greatest math-rock band to call Pittsburgh home (yes, I said it), drummer Noah Leger has become the backbone of some of the best rock bands in Chicago. In recent years, he has played in Disappears with Brian Case, and now those two form 2/3rds of FACS, producing spare, heavy atmospheric rock that fits well in a set with the moodiest tracks from Tar and Bailter Space. Readers may take that description as confirmation that Negative Houses is mostly thick guitar, rumbling bass, and drums, but the epic “Houses Breathing” adds saxophone to the textures to great effect.

Sarah Davachi, Gave in Rest (Ba Da Bing)

Davachi_Gave_in_RestIf you want to use one word to describe Canadian composter Davachi’s music, “minimalist” gets you in the ballpark. This album, recorded in part with members of Godspeed! You Black Emperor and Thee Silver Mount Zion, and in part solo, draws on European Christian influences (both religious music and the acoustics of churches), and a mix of acoustic instruments, synthesizers, and room ambience. Gave in Rest sounds like something that wouldn’t sound out of place as a 4AD release c. 1986, and is perfect accompaniment to grey rainy mornings as the winter solstice approaches.


YLT_RiotJames McNew’s second appearance on this list in records produced by a trio comes with this album marking Yo La Tengo’s 34th year as a band. The title does not reflect the gentle textures within; Ira Kaplan’s guitar work leans more to his mining of the Velvet Underground’s post-John Cale melodies rather than the sheets of feedback that mark his more aggressive work. The music marks a return of sorts to some of the quieter, gently electronic sounds the band explored at the turn of the century. The lyrics reflect attempts to be good to one another amid troubled times, and that’s what I understand is the context for the title of this album.

Henry Threadgill’s approach to bandleading has always appealed to me, as he strikes the balance between being a distinctive leader and organizer with a coherent compositional identity with being a collaborator allowing space for his bandmates to shape their work together. This is true of his work in small groups such as Air, larger ensembles such as Very Very Circus, or now this 15-piece band 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg. Not many composers use tuba and cello together, but both instruments are staples of Threadgill’s work. The sweep of this large band’s sound makes it a rich new chapter in Threadgill’s long career, and brings to mind the dedication and engagement Duke Ellington gave very late in life to his And His Mother Called Him Bill project.

SAVAK, Beg Your Pardon (Ernest Jenning Recording Company)

Two years ago, I called SAVAK  a virtuosic and adaptable rock band from Brooklyn whose debut record Best of Luck in Future Endeavors ought to appeal to anyone who knows what the names Graham Maby or Greg Sage represent. That description holds true for their most recent release Beg Your Pardon. SAVAK continues to produce muscular, melodic rock with a good dose of horns. I wouldn’t call Beg Your Pardon power pop, exactly, but if you are looking to surprise a Cheap Trick or Lookout! fan with a record that mixes hooks and noise, you could take a reasonable change of introducing them to SAVAK with this record.

Check the links to hear what all this music sounds like, as well as for information on purchasing these fine records and compensating their creators. I thank all the musicians for the part they have played in making 2018 a little better.

The Best Music of 2017

2017 was a brutal year in many ways, and no less so in the world of music. Many of the musicians who informed the sensibilities of my past lists died, some long before their time. That directly shaped this year’s list and inspired the creation of the records at the #1 and #10 slots. Click on each album title to hear selections from each record and instructions to support the musicians by purchasing their work.

Karl Hendricks died in January at the age of 46. During his life, he wrote, taught, was the buyer for (and eventually owner of) Pittsburgh’s best new records store, and released nine records. In all of these endeavors he set a standard for excellence combined with a quiet, wry decency that sought to help people find hidden excellence. His life made many lives better.

No surprise, then, that when Karl became ill, the community of people he touched came to his aid with fundraisers in 2014 and 2015. In the days after Karl’s memorial service, a plan to use Bandcamp to assemble a benefit record for his family quickly fell into place. The musicians on this tribute range from the highly recognizable (Eleventh Dream Day’s Rick Rizzo, Chris Brokaw) to those that toured with Karl (Kyle Sowashes). Tracks by fans who never met the man adjoin those from friends and coworkers who knew Karl for more than a quarter of a century. Karl’s lyrics tempt comparisons to Raymond Carver for his precise details about the lives of working people, though my mind goes to Pittsburgh writer Jim Daniels as the closest analogue. His melodies and beautifully composed guitar parts produced songs sturdy enough to withstand adaptations into country music (The Beagle Brothers), electronica (Entertainment), and, well, incompetence (The Card Party).

That last track is mine. Yes, a record I played on is #1 on my list. I make no claims to objectivity here, nor do I see this fact as a conflict. Music does not exist in a vacuum; it is part of the cultural fabric of communities. I am part of the community that benefited immeasurably from Karl’s contributions to Pittsburgh and the world, and so I am part of this small contribution by the community paying respects to the man as well as a listener who deeply appreciates the music on this compilation.

One of the benefits of making this record a Bandcamp release is the project could grow gradually over time from its initial release date. As of this writing, 22 different artists have contributed to a living, evolving tribute. The Wheel & the Alphabet is not the only home of a Karl Hendricks tribute this year (the Gotobeds’ brilliant cover of “Flowers Avenue” came out late in the fall), but it does a fine job of showing the influence and brilliance of the man. Thanks always to Karl for showing us the best way forward.

You know Cohen from his work in Silkworm and Bottomless Pit over the past quarter century. (If you do not, and you are somehow reading this anyway, just BUY EVERYTHING NOW and enjoy.) Here, Chicago trio Light Coma acts as his Crazy Horse for a mostly-electric set of new songs. Cohen’s ability to turn mundane details into poignant character sketches has defined his work at least as far back as “Don’t Make Plans This Friday,” and here it shines through in the opening “Repack,” a collection of overhead children’s dialogue that becomes a swirling anthem. Neil Young comparisons come with the alternately gentle acoustic fingerpicking and shrieking electric lead lines, as well as the decision to close each side of the record with alternate versions of “Midwest DTs.” If these are Cohen’s “ditch years,” may a flurry of releases come soon, as his voice is a distinctive one that I always have time to appreciate.

Dream Syndicate, How Did I Find Myself Here? (Anti-)

In the three decades since the Dream Syndicate’s last proper album Ghost Stories, leader Steve Wynn has sharpened his writing further, become an even better guitarist, and forged a partnership with stunt guitarist Jason Victor that has been the most sustained collaboration Wynn’s had with any lead guitarist. Here Wynn and Victor team up with the Ghost Stories rhythm section (as well as that album’s coproducer Chris Cacavas on keyboards and, for one track, original bassist Kendra Smith on vocals) to create a record as informed by the care and craft of the Miracle 3 records as the cacophony of 1980s-era Dream Syndicate. What is especially glorious is how Victor takes to the sound and sensibility of the earlier band, matching the violence of anything Karl Precoda or Paul Cutler did on record. The result is a record that is fully in the spirit of past triumphs without ever feeling derivative, and possibly Wynn’s finest record since Here Come the Miracles.

OUT, Swim Buddies (Comedy Minus One)

The singalong (yell-along) album of the year comes from veterans of Kalamazoo’s Minutes, who bring the rock and then get out of the way…eleven songs in half an hour, none feeling rushed nor wasting a second. “Left for Dead” is one of the more inspiring songs possible with a title like that, and if you manage to listen to “Cyclists” or “Back That Truck Up” and don’t get their hooks lodged in your consciousness, then we simply are wired differently. I am grateful (though not surprised) that Swim Buddies is sufficiently faithful to OUT’s exhilarating live sound.

Robyn Hitchcock, Robyn Hitchcock (Yep Roc)

Covering “Vegetable Man” while with the Soft Boys no doubt cemented Hitchcock as an acolyte of Syd Barrett, but his own music reveals a writer more grounded on Earth…indeed, his placement of people within ecosystems featuring insects, fish, and birds make him one of the least anthropocentric songwriters I know. He is also a terrific guitarist influenced by the 60s British folk-rock movement at least as much as he is by Barrett and John Lennon, and these ten tracks show off his chops and wryly fatalistic lyrics alongside contributions by past collaborators Gillian Welch and Grant Lee Philips as well as new ones in his current Nashville home. The mood reminds me of a cross between 1989’s Queen Elvis and 2004’s Spooked, though more electric than the latter and less self-consciously weird than the former. (No less funny, though, including a song about the lead character in the ridiculous film Mindhorn.)


Joel RL Phelps and the Downer Trio, Consulate (12XU)

Joel Phelps is a master interpreter of songs, as evident by the inspired covers he has released of songs as diverse as the Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” and Iris Dement’s “Calling for You.” Here he and the Downer Trio (joined by Marino Correia) reinterpret four of his own songs, all spare acoustic versions of tracks from Gala, their 2013 album. The effect evokes the skeletal arrangements of the mostly-covers Inland Empire record while reminding listeners of how strong the Gala songs are. Brilliant as always, and a fine companion to the 2013 LP.

Clipping, Splendor and Misery (Sub Pop)

This came out in 2016, but I didn’t hear it until the winter. (Somehow my attention span for Daveed Diggs’s work in the fall was absorbed completely by his recurring role on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.)  Splendor and Misery reminds me of science fiction radio plays of the early 80s (most famously the original version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) as filtered through an Afrofuturist perspective ranging from hiphop to gospel and just enough white noise to make this lodge into my brain.

Halvorson’s Away With You was on last year’s list; this record departs from the ensemble sound of that one by emphasizing the virtuosic interplay between Halvorson’s guitar and Courvoisier’s piano. That said, the contrast is not that great. Initially, Crop Circles lulls you into complacency as tracks start slowly, then gradually pick up in intensity as both spew dense clusters of notes that flesh out the sound as if a large band was playing. Not recommended listening if it makes you lose faith in your own guitar or piano abilities, but if insecurity is not a problem, enjoy this spirited duet of two confident, dexterous musicians.

Game Theory, Supercalifragile (KCM Records)

SupercalifragileCoverThe first half of this record is vintage Scott Miller. Witty lyrics, incredibly melodic guitar and keyboards, and that distinctive voice singing songs that rank with the best of his 90s work with the Loud Family. Hell, they rank with his 80s classics, making the resurrection of the Game Theory name worthy.

The second half is distracting. Painfully so, due not at all to the people who worked on it and entirely due to the circumstance that necessitated its existence. The problem is Miller’s voice is only detectable as writer, as friends and fans ranging from Aimee Mann to Ted Leo take over lead vocals. This was unavoidable, as Supercalifragile is a posthumous release painstakingly assembled by Miller’s widow and Ken Stringfellow, and their work is remarkable in achieving the level of detail that was a hallmark of Miller’s craft. In a vacuum, these tracks are beautiful and thoughtfully rendered in Miller’s style. Listening to them just reminds me that this distinctive, talented, and very nice man is no longer with us. The one exception is his onetime bandmate Alison Faith Levy’s one lead vocal, as I can fool myself into thinking it a spotlight feature for her made under normal conditions. I may grow to enjoy these tracks more and greatly appreciate the work that went into them, but I would be lying if I said I enjoyed them as much as the great Miller tracks on the first half.

Archival Release of the Year

Alternate title Thank You So Much Terry Katzman. This 3 CD/4 LP set documents the early years Grant Hart, Bob Mould, and Greg Norton played together, with much better audio fidelity on contemporary live work than found on Land Speed Record. Katzman’s tapes made this possible, and this surpasses the Rhino edition of Everything Falls Apart and More as the best sounding CDs from the band. May Numero Group have the opportunity to treat the band’s later  work with the same care; for now, this serves as a fitting tribute to Hart, who died a few weeks before the set was released.

Also well worth your time: Lardo, SinkingMark Eitzel, Hey Mr. Ferryman, Xetas, The Tower, The Bismarck, Follow Your Heart, and Jon Langford, Four Lost Souls.

Check the links for information on purchasing these fine records and compensating their creators, or in the case of too many of these records, the creators’ surviving loved ones.

Coming in 2017: Aluminum Upcycled.

zimringpostedThis year, Johns Hopkins University Press is publishing my book Aluminum Upcycled: Sustainable Design in Historical Perspective. It is available for pre-order now, with shipping sometime in February. From the press:

Beginning in 1886 with the discovery of how to mass produce aluminum, the book examines the essential part the metal played in early aviation and the world wars, as well as the troubling expansion of aluminum as a material of mass disposal. Recognizing that scrap aluminum was as good as virgin material and much more affordable than newly engineered metal, designers in the postwar era used aluminum to manufacture highly prized artifacts. Zimring takes us on a tour of post-1940s design, examining the use of aluminum in cars, trucks, airplanes, furniture, and musical instruments from 1945 to 2015. 

By viewing upcycling through the lens of one material, Zimring deepens our understanding of the history of recycling in industrial society. He also provides a historical perspective on contemporary sustainable design practices. Along the way, he challenges common assumptions about upcycling’s merits and adds a new dimension to recycling as a form of environmental absolution for the waste-related sins of the modern world. Raising fascinating questions of consumption, environment, and desire,  Upcycling Aluminum is for anyone interested in industrial and environmental history, discard studies, engineering, product design, music history, or antiques.

This was a fun book to research, allowing me to combine discussions with my colleagues at Pratt with explorations of many “covetable” goods, including furniture by the Eames Office, Herman Miller, and Emeco, vehicles by Ford, Honda, Porsche, and Aston Martin, and guitars by Travis Bean, John Veleno, Wandre Pioli, and Kevin Burkett’s Electrical Guitar Company (among others).

I plan on giving a few talks about the book this spring. If you would like to schedule one, contact me at czimring “AT” pratt “DOT” edu.

The Best Music of 2016

My eighteen favorite records of 2016 feature a variety of styles, moods, and approaches. If nothing else, 2016 was good for showing the diversity of good music being made (and this list can, should readers be at all curious, traced to various times and places in my life). Click on each album title to hear selections from each record and instructions to support the musicians by purchasing their work.

bowie_blackstar-album-800x800For all the experimentation and genre-hopping David Bowie did over the years, he rarely (one 1985 collaboration with Pat Metheney aside) incorporated jazz into his records.

After a long hiatus, Bowie’s 2013 album The Next Day drew upon work with many of his longtime collaborators to produce another rock album. In his late sixties, he seemed to establish a sound and way of approaching recording.

Which he immediately discarded. Beginning with one new track on his 2014 compilation Nothing Has Changed, Bowie began working with Donny McCaslin and his band on recordings that reflected contemporary New York jazz. Thanks especially to drummer Mark Guiliana, the tracks on  are as fluid as any in Bowie’s catalog. The songs are dour, playful, skronky, and dramatic — all words that could describe tracks on Low, Diamond Dogs, or Scary Monsters — but approached with a freshness and vitality that promised a rich new chapter in Bowie’s career. Listening to this, I could easily imagine 70-year-old Bowie collaborating with Ingrid Laubrock, Tomas Fujiwara, or many of the thrilling improvisational musicians working in New York.

That will never happen. Bowie died two days after ‘s release. Listening in retrospect, this is obviously a farewell record from a man facing death with wry humor (the title track), fear (“Lazarus“), anger (the heartbreaking “Dollar Days“) and acceptance (“I Can’t Give Everything Away“). It is a magnificent exit, and in a year defined so many ways by loss, an easy choice for best record of the year.

wussy_forever_soundsChuck Cleaver’s made great records for a couple of decades (with the Ass Ponys’ Lohio being a particular highlight), and has just gotten better since he and Lisa Walker teamed up to lead Wussy. A theme in this year’s list is the strength of interdependent, democratic communication amongst highly accomplished, skilled people.  That theme runs through Wussy’s entire catalog, and the swirling guitars (including pedal steel) and vocals have never been stronger than they are here. Forever Sounds is heavier and more psychedelic than last year’s Attica! producing my favorite record involving Cleaver.

Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book (self-released)

chance_the_rapper_coloring_bookChance the Rapper captures the sounds of Chicago at a time and place as definitively as Donnie Hathaway did more than forty years ago. This is the Chicago of middle-class and working-class African Americans, of churches deeply rooted in neighborhoods, of friendship and collaboration amid injustice and tragedy. Just as the AACM represented some of the best and most distinctive aspects of the South Side half a century ago, Coloring Book does the same with local hip-hop. This is resilient and hopeful music that promises to be influential at home and across the country for years to come. I’m looking forward to hearing how he builds on this and hope he plays Comiskey Park a half dozen times a year every year.

Thalia Zedek Band, Eve (Thrill Jockey) | E, E (Thrill Jockey)

Zedek_Eve_Album_Cover.jpegA_Band_Called_E_Album_Cover.jpegIf one of the great singers and guitarists of the past thirty years is going to release two strong, distinctive albums four months apart, then both will find their way onto this list.

The Thalia Zedek band puts Zedek’s vocals to the forefront with arrangements including strings, piano, and her guitar. It’s a delicate, ravaged sound that would fit a play set in the late Weimar Republic perfectly. Zedek uses it to great effect, best so on the Hurricane Sandy-inspired “Afloat.”

E is a dual-guitar trio that manages to sound very little like Zedek’s most famous two-guitar band, Come. That’s down to both the democratic sharing of vocals and the interplay between her and Neptune’s Jason Sanford. Unlike, say, Creedence Clearwater Revival, when this band splits up the vocals nothing is lost (check out percussionist Gavin McCarthy’s singing on “Candidate“); this is an interdependent, fascinating, and original band.

Henry Threadgill’s Ensemble Double Up, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (Pi Recordings)

threadgill_old_locksThis is an unlikely Threadgill album to cite in a best-of list, in that he does not actually play a note on the record. But this four-part tribute to Butch Morris is vintage Threadgill in the writing, and he conducts a lively band featuring Jason Moran on piano and (as usual for Threadgill) buoyant tuba lines performed by Jose Davila. This is engaging, engaged, playful, and thoughtful. I love Threadgill’s process of composing and collaborating (as seen in this video from 2014), and Old Locks and Irregular Verbs represents this spirit even if the composer is not actually playing on it. Threadgill deserves all the recognition he is getting and here is a modest addition to the chorus of praise.

Mary Halvorson Octet, Away With You (Firehouse 12)

Halvorson Away With You.jpgSo, anyone who read my 2015 list knows what I think of Mary Halvorson as a guitarist and composer; her work with the Octet builds on Anthony Braxton’s approach and at times recalls the playful thoughtfulness of, yes, Threadgill’s work. I’ll just add that on this album she decided to add Susan Freaking Alcorn’s brilliant pedal steel guitar. This album came out a few weeks after I saw Alcorn blow away the crowd at the Dead C’s Brooklyn show and made me feel grateful to live in a city with such a thriving improv scene. THESE ARE TWO OF THE BEST GUITARISTS ALIVE WORKING TOGETHER WONDERFULLY.  Those of you who have the opportunity to hear Halvorson perform should not waste it; those in other cities have many, many outstanding recent recordings to enjoy and this is a magnificent introduction.

the rutabega, Unreliable Narrator (Comedy Minus One)

rutabega_unreliable_narratorthe rutabega is two men, helped out on occasion by a friend or two, maybe a family member on a couple of tracks. I mention this because a casual listen to their records would make you think they were one of those bands like Arcade Fire that has more members than some census tracts have people. This is down to their superb sense of dynamics, producing both long and short songs as cinematic as any produced this century by a rock band. Amazingly, they retain the atmospherics and grandeur of the record in concert, and should be seen live if you have the opportunity.

Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker (Columbia)

cohen_darkerUnlike his labelmate David Bowie, Leonard Cohen did not keep his physical decline a secret. In interviews for You Want It Darker, his musings on his health and mortality meant his November death was sad but not a shock. A happier development was his collaboration with son Adam, resulting in one of the best-arranged records of his career, mixing guitars, choirs, and orchestral flourishes with the synthesizers that have structured much of his music since his hair turned grey. Like Bowie, Cohen managed a pretty splendid swan song (granted, this is the most gravel-voiced swan to ever sing).

Robbie Fulks, Upland Stories (Bloodshot)

Fulks_Upland-Stories.jpgPeople, if you are not already convinced of Fulks’s brilliance as a writer, arranger, or guitarist, I don’t know if I can convince you here that he is one of the great country singers of the past forty years. (No, he’s not quite that old. Yes, I moved the goalposts so as to rank him with the legends cranking out gold in the Seventies.) Upland Stories continues the quieter, more acoustic and reflective approach of much of his past decade. In some respects, these songs combine the seriousness of Couples in Trouble with the bluegrass Fulks used to perform with Special Consensus.

Mint Mile, The Bliss Point (Comedy Minus One)

MintMile_Bliss.jpgTim Midyett’s second EP since putting Bottomless Pit on hiatus rocks a little harder than last year’s In Season & Ripe and, on “Park,” has a new take on the jangle and twang of Gene Clark’s best work. I would not mind at all if the steel guitar approach on this EP anchors Mint Mile’s sound the way Bottomless Pit built its sound around Tim’s baritone guitar, but I am also happy to enjoy the sonic variety Mint Mile has already provided.

Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter (Third Man) 

price_farmerI did not know Price before hearing her on TV this spring. About thirty seconds into her performance of “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle)” I knew I needed to hear the whole album. She’s an excellent singer, with a great band behind her, and Midwest Farmer’s Daughter shows she’s a fine writer as well. I look forward to hearing more from her in the future.



SAVAK, Best of Luck In Future Endeavors (Comedy Minus One)

SAVAK_luck.jpgSAVAK is a virtuosic and adaptable rock band from Brooklyn whose debut record ought to appeal to anyone who knows what the names Graham Maby or Greg Sage represent. Neither of those gentlemen is in SAVAK, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to hear otherwise. (The band consists of veterans of Obits and the Make Up, if that helps set your expectations.) Of all the records on my list this year, this is the one that most blatantly straddles the divide between noisy rock and pop hooks.

The Cell Phones, No (No Trend Records)

Cell_Phones_No_Album.jpgYes this just came out. Yes I am confident calling it one of the best records of 2016, in part because I’ve been hooked on the two advance singles “You Make Me Say No” and “Lake Shore Drive” for a while. This Chicago trio has everything a great rock band needs and nothing it does not, and their second LP has slicker production than 2013’s Get You Alone did. It matters not; the songs are as strong as Lindsey Charles’s voice, which is to say, Pretty Damned Strong. The trio continues to waste no time getting down to business rocking out. Not to be missed live or on record.

The Flat Five, It’s a World of Love and Hope (Bloodshot/Augiedisc)

flatfive_hopeKelly Hogan’s entire catalog is a singing masterclass. She possesses sufficient talent to be called Diva, yet one of the reasons her music is so good is she is as skilled a collaborator as she is a lead vocalist.

That’s a good way to introduce this supergroup she’s in with Nora O’Connor, Scott Ligon, Alex Hall, and Casey McDonough. The Flat Five focus on Chris Ligon’s compositions, and the result is a bizarro world’s Fifth Dimension of pop virtuosity and odd songs. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and is also a great deal of fun.

Fake Limbs, Matronly (Don Giovanni)

fakelimbs_matronlyOK, this and the Flat Five record sound nothing alike. But they both have charismatic singers and waste no time grabbing your attention. Fake Limbs are louder, noisier, and manage to both supply your USDA supply of feedback and title a song after my favorite Raymond Carver collection of stories. Not to mention my favorite song title of the year: “hotdoghotdoghot.”



The Dead C, Trouble (Ba Da Bing!)

dead_c_trouble_albumThis is a smoother transition from the last record, as Fake Limbs and the Dead C both revel in noise. The comparison ends there because Fake Limbs veer much closer to the Jesus Lizard’s rock textures and Bruce Russell, Michael Morley, and Robbie Yeats are New Zealand’s foremost practitioners of feedback-drenched drone.

To get through 2016 required the relentless pounding that marked the Xpressway label’s best records; label founder Russell and his colleagues come through with Trouble, a double album consisting of five numbered tracks of nasty racket. Even with Yates absent from this autumn’s United States tour, this music proved incredibly powerful in concert. The album retains that intensity.

Oren Ambarchi, Hubris (Editions Mego)

ambarchi_hubris_albumConcluding the list with more Antipodean instrumental guitar music (I didn’t splurge for Roy Montgomery’s box set, otherwise three such releases might have made this list), but Hubris has less emphasis on the noise than you’ll find with the Dead C. Not no emphasis on noise, but the result is closer to Ambarchi collaborator Jim O’Rourke’s layered, melodic work while employing more synthesizers and electronic percussion than you would find on O’Rourke’s own records. In two long (and one fairly short) parts, Hubris builds a hypnotic atmosphere that abruptly ends in an amusing way. I find it useful to listen to when exercising.
 Again, check the links for information on purchasing these fine records and compensating their creators. I thank all the musicians for helping make 2016 a little better.

Holiday Wish List

presentsAs someone with a birthday this time of year, and with Christmas and Hannukkah approaching, I am asked what presents I would like.

This, then is a shameless and public plea for presents. Many, many presents. I am greedy for presents this year. Well, two presents, that I want hundreds of times over. Here is my list:

Donations to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC is “dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society. Using litigation, education, and other forms of advocacy, the SPLC works toward the day when the ideals of equal justice and equal opportunity will be a reality.”

It is also made up of some of the most courageous, patriotic Americans that exist. We are indebted to the work they do identifying violence against our people and working for a better society. If you want to give me presents, consider donating to SPLC.

Donations to the American Civil Liberties Union. “For almost 100 years, the ACLU has worked to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States.”

The President-elect has made several statements over the past year that run counter to constitutional readings of the First Amendment. The ACLU will be very busy in 2017. If you want to give me presents, consider donating to the ACLU.

These are not the only presents that would be really great — I can think of quite a few more. If you indulge my greed for presents, feel free to click on those links and give, give, give for the holiday season.

Hanging Tight to the Concrete (Thanking Karl Hendricks)

Sound_Cat_Karl_Hendricks.jpgAll hail Karl Hendricks.

This week, Karl is selling Sound Cat Records (formerly Jim’s, formerly Paul’s CDs, soon-to-be Juke Records), the best record store in Pittsburgh. Karl writes:

August 16th, Sound Cat Records will be changing its name to Juke Records, under the new ownership of Jeff Gallagher. Jeff has been a customer at 4526 Liberty Ave. going back to the Jim’s Records days, through Paul’s CDs and Sound Cat, and he says that he “intends to honor the tradition and historical quality of the store offerings”. Plus, Jason and Bob, who most of you have gotten to know well through their years of working for Sound Cat and Paul’s will be staying on. So, you can count on Juke Records to be your stop for cool and interesting new and used records and CDs, and Jeff is going to work on expanding the stock even further. As for me, Karl, it’s bittersweet for me to sell the store, as I’ve been at the store for 27 years, working for Jim and Paul and owning Sound Cat for almost five years. But I’ve gotten to spend my adult life around other great people who love music, and for that, I’ll always be thankful. Anyway, Sound Cat will be open until Sunday, August 14th, the store will be closed for the transition on August 15th and Juke Records will open on Tuesday, August 16th. Here’s hoping you can stop in before next weekend to say goodbye to Sound Cat and then stop in after August 16th to welcome Juke Records!

I said this is the best record store in Pittsburgh. It is not the largest, but it is the best. It is the best because the people who work there provide a deeply thought out selection of rock, punk, experimental, jazz, country, folk, and related records that rival the best stores in San Francisco, Chicago, and New York. (Believe me. I have spent more money than I care to disclose buying music in all of those cities.) The symbiotic relationship between the store and WRCT over the years brought so much good music to so many people. I will be forever grateful for all that I learned because of that relationship.

Sound Cat is the best in no small measure due to Karl’s labors and subsequent ownership. Karl has been at the center of the best music in Pittsburgh for over a quarter of a century, both as a performer and (if you will) a curator of this immaculately selected catalog. I can’t thank him enough, and I will close this note with a device blatantly stolen from Nick Hornby in his book about a similar store. Thank you, Karl, for everything.

Click on the links and let Karl have the last word.


10. “Know More About Jazz.” 
Captures a mindset in many I knew c. 1998.

9. “Baseball Cards.”
The collector’s lament.

8. “Underdog Park.”
As perfectly constructed as rock songs get.

7. “Naked and High on Drugs.”
How does one live when your mid-twenties approach? From 1996.

6. “The Ballad of Bill Lee.”
It’s baseball season now and this is a great example of Karl’s forays into longer, more improvised guitar lines.

5. “The Official Shape of Beauty.”
Conversely, one of Karl’s most concise short songs.

4. “The Mens’ Room at the Airport.”
How does one live when your mid-forties approach? From 2012.

3. “Nogales By Tuesday.”
A staple of road mixes and a certain kind of optimism.

2. “The World Says.”
I will always be grateful for this song. From the summer of 2007, around when I visited the Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center as a caregiver.

1.”Dreams Ha.”
More on why here.

The Best Music of 2015

Here are the  best records I heard from the past twelve months.

Toiling_Midgets_A_Smaller_LifeDoes ranking a record with tracks as old as 35 years make me decrepit? Guilty, but let me explain while A Smaller Life merits the top spot on my list. Neither reissue nor straight new release, this record makes the invisible history of San Francisco rock visible. Toiling Midgets had roots in the first wave of San Francisco punk, made one of the area’s defining albums in Sea of Unrest, then fell apart due to heroin addiction on the part of just about everyone in the band. That didn’t end their story; in 1990 they began working with Mark Eitzel as lead singer, even recording an album of thunderous, cavernous songs for Matador. That ended when Eitzel took their drummer, but Tom Mallon stepped in and original singer Ricky Williams came back. Unfortunately, Williams died after a show, but the band pressed on without a singer, playing occasional Bay Area shows and recording (though not releasing) thick waves of textured guitar parts. Every once in a while, word of a possible album would come out, but no album.

Glioblastoma killed Mallon at the beginning of 2014. With his death, I assumed the recordings would not see the light of day. A Smaller Life proves me wrong, and I am so happy to be wrong. It covers the entire span of the Midgets work, from 1980 demos through Sea of Unrest, Deadbeats, the Eitzel work, the short-lived Ricky Williams reunion, and all of those 90s and 00s recordings. This plays like a postpunk Fairport Chronicles, giving novices a great sense of what the band is about with enough new material to make old fans excited to listen repeatedly. I am grateful to Jordan Mamone and the surviving band members for making this release possible. 

Eleventh Dream Day – Works for Tomorrow (Thrill Jockey)

Eleventh_Dream_Day_Works_For_TomorrowEleventh Dream Day gets stronger with age, and adding Jim Elkington as second guitarist was a very good idea. Works for Tomorrow has a strong 1970 Muscle Shoals vibe, some of Janet Bean’s best singing, and a take on classic rock that reminds me of Steve Wynn’s late-90s records. By the way, if Steve Wynn and EDD would like to collaborate on a record akin to the one Wynn make with Come in 1996, please let me know where to send my money.


Necks_VertigoForty-four minutes of glorious Necks drone. Play this back to back with Mint Mile’s “Modern Day” and you’ll have a good idea of what I’d do with a radio show these days.


alabama-shakes-sound-and-colorI am buying what Alabama Shakes is selling. Too much Americana lacks noise or soul, but Sound & Color has plenty of both. An Alabama Shakes/Eleventh Dream Day stadium tour would be about the only event save a White Sox-Yankees playoff game to get me into Yankee Stadium.


Mint_Mile_In_SeasonWith Bottomless Pit finished, Tim Midyett uses a revolving cast of musicians (including Andy Cohen…and Michael Dahlquist made his way into the proceedings, going by the liner notes) to make a more meandering, more acoustic set of songs that brings early-70s Van Morrison to mind. (Think “Almost Independence Day” rather than “Jackie Wilson Said” for an approximation of the sound.) “Modern Day” makes me wish I still had my radio show so I could play it on a hot summer night and get calls asking what it was.

The Chills - Silver BulletsThe Chills are back! Well, Martin Phillips is back, with the rotation of supporting Chills slightly different than on 2004’s Stand By EP, but any personnel changes don’t appreciably change the organ-and-jangle Kiwipop with worried lyrics. Still works for me, and I hope Phillips is healthy enough to record a followup before eleven more years elapse.


TV_Colours_Purple_SkiesUS issue of noisy Australian punk-pop musician Brian Kill’s cacophony thanks to Jon Solomon. Most comparisons to Hüsker Dü leave me longing for Hüsker Dü rather than enjoying the record in question, but not here (though the drums are more Roland than Grant Hart).



Richard-Thompson-StillIt’s Richard Thompson, without much production fuss. If you like guitars, why wouldn’t you dive into this?



Victor_Krummenacher_Hard_To_See_TroubleKrummenacher is still better known as the singer in the Monks of Doom and bass player in Camper Van Beethoven than for his solo work. That’s unfortunate, as the records he’s made under his own name are the best recordings anyone from either band had made over the past quarter century. If Toiling Midgets are the secret history of Bay Area rock, Krummenacher’s solo work is the distillation of West Coast Americana stripped of artifice.

Tomas Fujiwara & the Hookup – After All Is Said (482 Music)

Mary Halvorson – Meltframe (Firehouse 12 Records)

People – 3xAWoman (Telegraph Harp)


Tomas Fujiwara (drums) and Mary Halvorson (guitar) are the two most exciting improv musicians I hear in New York City, and they often work with the other most exciting improv musicians around (Ingrid Laubrock, Tim Berne, Tom Rainey, Michael Formanek come to mind). These three records show off different aspects of Halvorson’s work, from one element in a jazz combo (After All Is Said) to solo guitar (Meltframe) to delightfully dense pop (3XAWoman). Like Toiling Midgets and Richard Thompson, Halvorson provides fans of guitar some wonderful music to enjoy.

“A Gesture of Kindness”

In 1995, the Karl Hendricks Trio released their album “A Gesture of Kindness.” Artwork for the album was provided by Chris Ware.

Twenty years later, Karl faces medical bills after surgery for oral cancer. Chris Ware has generously donated his original artwork for auction to help Karl and his family. The auction is live until April 16. Here are a few photos of the artwork; the auction listing has more, as well as a full description of the pieces.



All proceeds go to benefit Karl Hendricks and his family. Thanks to Chris Ware for his gesture of kindness.

UPDATE: The auction has concluded, with the artwork selling for $2809.08. Thanks again to Chris, to Jon Solomon for running the auction, and to the bidders.