Wednesday, December 19, 2018

18 for 2018: My Favorite (Mostly) Indie Music Releases of the Year

Why do we make lists? Why do we rank things that are 100% subjective? Why am I writing this article?

It would take too long to answer the first two questions, but the third one is easy. I hear music that I enjoy, and I like it when other people discover that music through my recommendations. So, as I often do as the year dwindles to an end, here are 18 music releases that I enjoyed over the course of 2018. Most of them would be classified as "indie" music, aka music that was released independently of large record labels and didn't get much attention beyond the underground music scene. No single genre is favored, though I'm kind of a rock guy (as opposed to hip hop or country or polka or whatever). I tend to like stuff that gets lumped into the "alternative" category, though the only meaning of that word seems to be "stuff that you almost certainly won't hear on pop radio". It ranges from fairly straightforward indie rock to super experimental stuff. I've included a song sample for each release, though it would behoove you -- assuming you enjoy the sample tune -- to check out the full albums if possible, all of which were released in 2018.

Anyway, enjoy. Note: these are presented in alphabetical order only; the whole "ranking of art thing" irks me.

Beak>: > > >

Invada Records/Temporary Residence

Yes, their name is Beak>. Yes, their album title is the rather unsearchable > > >. They're a Bristol, UK-based band that includes a member of Portishead, and like most of the music I enjoy, they're weird (or at least their sounds are weird; I know nothing about them personally). The song "Brean Down" had an immediate appeal to me when it was released in July. I don't know how to classify it genre-wise, and perhaps that's for the best.

The Bevis Frond: We’re Your Friends, Man

Fire Records

So, this is kind of funny, I guess. While perusing new music with Christina one morning, I came upon this release by a London-based band called The Bevis Frond. I'd never heard of them before and initially assumed they were a new artist. Then I started doing a little research and discovered that their origins go all the way back to the late '60s. This band that I thought was new is literally older than me. As my friend Jim said when I professed my discovery of them, "Damn Zak... welcome to 1988!" Anyway, their new album that was release just a couple of weeks ago is absolutely great, and I want to be sure that more people don't do what I did, which was to sleep on their excellent band.

Childish Gambino: “This Is America”


This would not be an indie release, or an album like the other items on this list. I mean, it's pretty much the opposite; it has four Grammy nominations including song and record of the year. No, it's on this list simply because this would be an Important Fucking Song, a single that a huge impact and will be remembered as one of the most defining songs of 2018. As of the moment, this video has 445,809,752 views on YouTube, but its importance isn't really about its popularity. It was back in May, when 'Bino's alter-ego Donald Glover did double duty as the host and musical guest on SNL, and simultaneously released this song that addresses aspects of being black and dealing with gun violence in the USA, and the message of "This Is America" was widespread and eye-opening for a wide swath of the population going far beyond the hip hop community. The video itself is a work of art on its own, directed by Hiro Murai, and it's unthinkable that I'd put out a year-end list and leave this off. By the way, the song is also great on its own.

Dungen + Woods: Myths 003

Mexican Summer

I've enjoyed the music of Dungen, a Swedish psychedelic folk band for quite awhile. I'd appreciated the work of Brooklyn-based folk rockers Woods, though never considered myself a huge fan. But this album where the two like-minded groups got together was like putting chocolate with peanut butter and creating a delicious and sweet musical snack. The two bands are label mates and friends, and knocked out this album in a week while both bands were in Marfa, TX for a festival. I like it.

Hanterhir: The Saving of Caden

Easy Action

Hantehir is another UK-based psych folk band -- I mean, these lists are deeply influenced by the individual tastes of the list makers, right? -- and I enjoyed them from the moment I heard them when this album was released in June. This release takes the extra step of being a 21-song concept album in both English and Cornish. I genuinely don't know as much as I should about Cornwall or any Celtic ethnic groups. It all seems very interesting, and the album's theme -- a boy who tries to drown himself in a lake but is saved by a cursed spirit -- is pretty geektacular. The music is adventurous, the band has a story to tell, and it doesn't sound like anything but itself. What's not to like?

Sean Henry: Fink

Double Double Whammy

Every year, I stumble onto some guy with a somewhat bizarre voice and an interesting sound... think Connan Mockasin or Jib Kidder. I really enjoy what Sean does on Fink. It's fuzzy guitar-driven but also soft; it throws in some odd time signatures while remaining poppy; it has ambivalence of being simultaneously silly and sad. This is his debut studio album, and I'd like to think he'll continue to mature as an artist (and hope that said growth doesn't cause him to lose the vibe that he offers on this album). Here's something odd; for whatever reason, I don't find Fink to be particularly likable, but I do find it relatable, which probably says more about me than it does about the album.

Julia Holter: Aviary

Domino Recording Company

I said up top that I wasn't going to rank the releases on this list. That having been said, Aviary by Julia Holter is one of the most amazing and unique musical listening experiences of my life. It's so good that I almost can't listen to it. Hearing what a true modern avant-garde artist can do can be slightly depressing for me, as I inevitably compare my level of talent and musical adventurousness to hers. But every track on this double album is mind-blowingly beautiful and lush, and it certainly qualifies as one of the best of 2018. I'm definitely not alone in this opinion; Aviary made many year-end best-of lists, and Julia deserves every possible accolade she gets from this album and everything else she does.

Jo Passed: Their Prime

Sub Pop

My enjoyment of bands that don't try too hard (or at all) to pretty-up their sounds has been around for a long time, going back to Sonic Youth, the Pixies, and many others. Their Prime is the debut album of Jo Passed, a band from Vancouver. Its sounds are ambitious while remaining grungy, making them rather classically appropriate for their label Sub Pop. I found it genuinely enjoyable, though if I had to pare down this list by one, this would probably be the album on the chopping block. Sorry kids. Still good, though!

Adrianne Lenker: abysskiss

Saddle Creek

Here's another example of how not to overthink an album. Adrianne Lenker recorded abysskiss in a week or so, and it's sweet and pastoral, with really well-performed acoustic guitar. I like the sparse production that allows the song to be the star. I am not familiar with Adrianne's band Big Thief, but I certainly intend on checking out their albums after having discovered her first solo piece when it was released in October. Really nice, contemporary yet timeless singer-songwriter stuff here.

The Love Language: Baby Grand

Merge Records

It's funny; I have an entire mental category of music that I call "KCRW music". KCRW is our local NPR affiliate here in the Los Angeles area, and they are definitely one of the most highly influential radio stations in the world for breaking new music. That having been said, there is a particular vibe that seems to cross over regardless of which DJ is spinning records, and The Love Language's Baby Grand definitely has that semi-indescribable vibe. Bubbly synths meet textured guitars and great lyrics. I can't help but like it.

Metric: Art of Doubt

Metric Music International

The second Canadian band on this year's list, Metric's Art of Doubt is perhaps the most straightforward rock band I've chosen to highlight for 2018. Reminiscent of other great female-fronted rock/pop crossovers like Blondie and Garbage, I've always enjoyed the band, but there are certain aspects of darkness ni the album's songwriting and production that I was drawn to for this release. That, and Emily Haines just sounds fucking great. Enough said.

Mitski: Be The Cowboy

Dead Oceans

I usually prefer to feature artists on my year-end lists that the majority of people have yet to discover. That may still be the case with Mitski, but in my musical circles, this album was toward the top of just about every "best albums of 2018" list. Like, just about everywhere from Pitchfork (#1) to Paste (#6) to Consequence of Sound (#1) to... well, you get the idea. Something that matters only to me: I discovered Mitski's music in 2016, when my band They Stole My Crayon released our debut which did fairly well, and I was looking at other releases at the time that were also getting noticed via Bandcamp, and her previous album Puberty 2 was up there on the charts. I liked her then, but I was not prepared for Be The Cowboy, which is one of the most impressive collections of indie rock music I've heard in a long time.

Mount Eerie: Now Only

P.W. Elverum & Sun

The story of Phil Elverum and Mount Eerie goes back aways. He was the frontman and main songwriter for the Microphones starting in the '90s, and switched the name of the band to Mount Eerie in the early 2000s. I've enjoyed his stuff off and on for quite awhile, but Now Only is a masterful collection of singer-songwriter tunes, full of acoustic beauty and vulnerability. It's a sad album, but it doesn't dwell too deeply in its melancholy vibe. A great album for a rainy day and feelings of introspection.

Jeff Tweedy: Warm

dBpm Records

"Warm" is a good description of Jeff Tweedy himself, as well as the happy familiarity of his voice after many years of enjoying him in Wilco and Uncle Tupelo. I enjoyed the hell out of Sukierae, the album he did with his son Spencer in 2014. Warm, his first solo album of entirely new material, is apparently a companion piece to Jeff's recently-released memoir that I haven't gotten around to reading yet (but will). I can imagine sitting on a patio of a rented cabin in Joshua Tree on a spring day and putting this album on and eating nachos while watching lizards scurrying by. I may do exactly this at the next opportunity.

Kurt Vile: Bottle It In


This is, perhaps, the only artist/band on this year's list of whom I've been a massive fanboy at an embarrassing level for a long, long time. As a performer, I've covered Kurt far more than any other indie artist, to the point that there are probably hundreds of people who could sing along with songs like "Never Run Away", "Shame Chamber", and "Pretty Pimpin" who have never heard Kurt's versions of those tunes... just mine. You're welcome, buddy. Also, I adored Kurt's 2017 Lotta Sea Lice collaboration with Courtney Barnett, and we saw them do that album live last year, which was awesome. I always get a bit nervous that the artists who I really enjoy are going to fuck things up out of boredom or bad influence, but Bottle It In is exactly what I was expecting from a new KV album. It's totally enjoyable and laid back, and continues to show that when you have artists who are driven by the same sounds that drive you, nothing but good things happen.

Kamasi Washington: Heaven and Earth

Young Turks

I was a somewhat early passenger on the Kamasi Washington train, having taken notice of him as a sideman on albums by Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus before he released his label debut album The Epic in 2015. I first heard some of the material for Heaven and Earth while watching the live stream from Coachella last spring, and knew that this was going to be something special. At this point, I have a slight amount of that silly hipster resentment, with a bunch of people in both the jazz and pop worlds suddenly finding out about this guy (and trust me, this album is on many of the world's "best of" lists at this point). But there's no denying his special skills as a writer and, above all, a performer on the tenor sax who will be regarded as one of the innovators of jazz for years to come.

Erika Wennerstrom: Sweet Unknown

Partisan Records

Here's a case -- it happens sometimes -- where someone comes out of a band I'd never heard of, but I get totally into that person's solo material. Apparently, Erika Wennerstrom was in a band out of Cincinnati called Heartless Bastards (whom I should probably check out retroactively), and did this solo album, her first, during a hiatus. It was released in March, and I love it. I love her songs, I love the guitar tones, I love the organic vibe... but most of all, I fucking love her voice. The songs aren't particularly challenging to listen to, but that's cool. I'd put this on and drive through the desert in the late afternoon as the shadows grow long and the sun dips down over the rocky horizon.

Yawning Man: The Revolt Against Tired Noises

Heavy Psych Sounds

To have any clue about Yawning Man, you first have to familiarize yourself with an entire scene of music that is called either Desert Rock or Stoner Rock. Tons of bands that came from that scene or were influenced by it, like Kyuss, Queens of the Stone Age, Fu Manchu and many more, were first inspired by Yawning Man. Here's the weird thing about them: they were playing at generator parties in the SoCal desert going back to the mid-'80s and were a great live band, but never put out a studio album until 2005. We got to see Yawning Man's frontman, Mario Lalli, as part of his other band Fatso Jetson at Pappy & Harriet's in Pioneertown a few years back, and it was a remarkable experience. Anyway, The Revolt Against Tired Noises is a case where the album title lives up to its name. Plus, it includes "Catamaran", a song that Kyuss covered and released in 1995, and has only previously been available by Yawning Man on nearly unlistenable noisy cassette tapes. Hallelujah!

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Zak's Autumn Playlist 2018 - Episode 13

Well, here we are, together at the end. This is the 13th and final episode for my 2018 "Autumn Playlist". Next weekend will be the official beginning of winter, which will obviously make my fall music curation project a thing of the past, at least until next year. But looking over the whole thing, it's a pretty damn good list of 65 tunes in total, and hopefully includes some you already enjoy and some you might not have heard if not for this little project of mine. In any case, here are our last five tunes, presented in chronological order as we've done each week of the season.

EP 1EP 2EP 3EP 4EP 5EP 6EP 7 • EP 8EP 9EP 10EP 11EP 12

1. Claude Debussy: “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” (1910)

2. Kings of Convenience: “Misread” (2004)

3. Songs: Ohia: “Farewell Transmission” (2003)

4. Fight Cloud: “No Grain, No Pain” (2013)

5. Ultimate Painting: “Song for Brian Jones” (2016)

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Zak's Autumn Playlist 2018 - Episode 12

We're coming close to the completion of our little journey down this musical path of songs that have an autumnal feel to me. Next week is week 13, the final episode; the following week will be the official start of winter and this playlist will have ended. I've found that I look forward to the routine of waking up on Saturday mornings and selecting the songs for this musical collection, and will miss it when it's over. An interesting thing I've noticed, looking through the various songs that made my list: there's certainly no single genre or even specific musical feel that defines all of these songs. Even I, who curated this whole thing, couldn't tell you precisely why some of these songs are on here. But here they are. Anyway... five songs in chronological order that give me a fall feel. Enjoy.

EP 1EP 2EP 3EP 4EP 5EP 6EP 7 • EP 8EP 9EP 10EP 11

1. Hank Williams: “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” (1949)

2. Nick Drake: “Pink Moon” (1972)

3. Neil Young: “Philadelphia” (1993)

4. Alice in Chains: “I Stay Away” (1994)

5. Radiohead: “Daydreaming” (2016)

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Serenity Gardens (12.03.18)

Doing December tunes at Serenity Gardens. Photo by Kat.

Last night's show at Serenity Gardens in Second Life was quite good, as most of them are. Before I talk about that, I want to mention something about the upcoming changes to Tumblr, the blogging platform.

It's sort of funny that I'm here on Google's blogging platform (Blogger) to mention something about a competing service, I suppose, but many people use multiple forms of blogging and social media for different purposes. Some of that is due to the nature of the platform itself. Twitter, for example, with its character limitation and ways of reaching followers, is very different from Facebook, which is in turn very different from Instagram. Tumblr, for those unaware, is set up sort of like Twitter (minus the character limits), with a dashboard that allows you to scroll through the feeds of any account you follow, arranged chronologically, with lots of content being re-blogged between users. Tumblr posts can be liked, shared, and commented on. It allows for longer text-based posts (like Facebook) and inclusion of images (like Instagram) and videos (like YouTube). That combination of features has made it ideal for what has become a sizable base of users... various kinds of artists, and people who enjoy NSFW content, aka porn. And yesterday, Tumblr made the announcement about upcoming changes in its community guidelines that will essentially remove all NSFW content on December 17.

Making a judgement on Tumblr's new community guidelines doesn't seem to have a right or wrong answer.

To backtrack a moment and give this some business context, Tumblr (like many online properties) started as an independent entity. This happens a lot. YouTube was a standalone platform until Google wrote them a big enough check to allow themselves top be absorbed under that corporate umbrella. Instagram was already successful when they were acquired by Facebook. Up until not that long ago, Tumblr also stood alone... but then they were bought by Yahoo, who was in turn bought by Verizon, who set up a subdivision called Oath to handle their digital content business. What does a company like Verizon want? To make money... duh. And how does a publicly-traded corporation make money? Via investment in their stock. So let's say you're Verizon, and you end up owning this blogging platform, and you find out that a huge portion of its existing content is user-created porn, and that your goal of encouraging investment is perhaps somewhat hampered due to the public's uneasiness about investing in what's essentially a giant porn site, with almost 450 million blogs and over 500 million monthly visitors. What do you do?

You probably do what Verizon has done, which seems fairly obvious... tell the users that there's a new set of guidelines that doesn't allow for the type of content they've been creating and posting. To be clear, I'm not here to make some argument in favor of porn. Especially in previous times, pornography has been inherently problematic on multiple levels, and that's been true of Tumblr as well, with instances of child porn and other aspects of adult content that are socially unacceptable and sometimes illegal. However, per many reports in the case of Tumblr, over the years it's become a sort of safe haven for consenting adults and the sorts of victimless porn that is not in any way against the law. An article from the BBC says it well:

"Unlike typical pornography sites, which overwhelmingly cater to men, and serve an often narrow definition of what is attractive, Tumblr has been a home for something else - content tailored at vibrant LGBT communities, or for those with tastes you might not necessarily share with all your friends.

If society deems it acceptable for any porn to be on the internet, then that acceptance must surely be inclusive. Unlike most of those other sites Mr D’Onofrio speaks of, Tumblr has been a space where different body types are sexually celebrated, not degraded."

Again, to be very clear, I'm not advocating for any kind of pornography. But what has grown from Tumblr is an interesting, almost unique case. There are entire communities there of people who find similar sexual interests, with a much larger percentage of female users than is typical in porn, who feel like the platform has been a safe haven for them to express themselves in ways that would not be possible otherwise. Those people will either find new sites that are more focused on adult content, or abandon that aspect of their lives altogether. The other aspect of this change would be funny, if it wasn't sort of sad. The algorithms being used to scan the millions and millions of posts of all Tumblr blogs is misidentifying many images as being against community guidelines... things that have absolutely nothing to do with porn at all. The ironic end result is that in the effort to make Tumblr more appealing to investors, Verizon/Oath may inadvertently end up removing the value of the platform's content and killing it entirely. As the same BBC article concluded, "That change means marginalised people, those who are all-too-used to being ostracised in their offline lives, now face it in their online space too. Some of the internet’s most-needed communities are now homeless."

Didn't You Have a Show?
Ah yes, the show. Over the weekend, as I often do before my bi-weekly shows at Serenity Gardens, I took a look at my set list and decided to a) make some additions and b) pull out some tunes that are only appropriate to play at this time of year, and I think that worked out very well at last night's show. I also had an unplanned moment of hilarity when I got a request for my silly cat-themed song "Pickles", but hadn't intended for it to be in my set, so I ended up doing a live mashup of that song with "Holly Jolly Christmas" and that was about as ridiculous as it seems it would be.

"Have a holly jolly... Pickles?" Photo by Kat.

Ilsa does a remarkable job of keeping the decor seasonally appropriate at Serenity Gardens. Photo by Kat.

Serenity Gardens set list...
Northern Sky (Nick Drake)
River (Joni Mitchell)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
Here’s Where the Story Ends (The Sundays)
*Badge (Cream)
The Crystal Ship (The Doors)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Among the Leaves (Sun Kil Moon)
*Time in a Bottle (Jim Croce)
*Holly Jolly Pickles (Burl Ives/Zak Claxton)
Where Are We Now? (David Bowie)
Long December (Counting Crows)
While My Guitar Gently Weeps (The Beatles)
*Serenity Improv #792 (Zak Claxton)

*Indicates the first time I've performed this song in SL.

Gigantic thanks to all who came out to Serenity Gardens and had a good time, with special kudos to the following people who helped support the show!
Kat Chauveau, go2smoky Resident, Asimia Heron, Tyche Szondi, Kat Claxton, TheaDee Resident, Aurelie Chenaux, my superb manager Maali Beck, and the fabulous team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Zak's Autumn Playlist 2018 - Episode 11

How is it December already? Look, I understand the elastic nature of time as much as anyone, but this year really flew by. I'd say that as we get closer to wrapping up 2018, I'm more confident and optimistic about the upcoming year than I was about the one that's nearly over. Speaking of nearly over, this is week 11 of my fun little Autumn Playlist project, meaning there are just two episodes left before I run out of fall, and that will be the end of this little music curation exercise. Below, five songs in chronological order that have the feel of the season.

EP 1EP 2EP 3EP 4EP 5EP 6EP 7 • EP 8EP 9EP 10

1. Joni Mitchell: “A Case of You” (1971)

2. Steve Earle: “Pancho & Lefty” (2009)

3. Ducktails: “Hamilton Road” (2011)

4. German Error Message: “Everything Is Scary” (2014)

5. They Stole My Crayon: “Things Under Trees” (2016)