Monday, December 17, 2018

Favorite Albums of 2018

Another stellar year for the long player has me trying to whittle down about 35 candidates into a tight top 20. Here are a few worth mentioning that will just miss the cut. Missing on a technicality, the Just Joans had a new album released in America in January, but most of you in the UK got your hands on it over there in December. With the Breeders and Gruff Rhys on the 2018 calendar, both of those seemed like a shoo-in, but I find myself a little underwhelmed. They will, however, find a spot on the best songs list. The same also goes for Anna Burch, Eleanor Friedberger, Tracey Thorn, Soft Science, Drinks, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, the Orielles and the Limiñanas. Good albums with some great songs, but as I assemble this list today, not quite top albums material. Can you imagine the disappointment they must be feeling right now? Some old fat guy from Seattle thinks we aren't quite up to snuff...

20. (tie) Sharesprings - Paraparlor
More evidence the world is getting smaller. A quick but unforgettable 20 minutes of dreampop straight outta Indonesia.

20. (tie) The Treasures of Mexico - Everything Sparks Joy
Mark Matthews and Bob Collins from the Dentists are still cutting their teeth on easily digestible pop. Sorry about that.

19. Blues Lawyer - Guess Work
This Oakland band likes Flying Nun and isn't afraid to show it. Respect.

18. Juliana Hatfield - Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John
Even though I saw Blake Babies many times, it might surprise you this was bought at least as much for the songs of Newton-John. If I wasn't such a wuss, I would place this one much higher.

17. Molly Burch - First Flower
That voice you fell in love with last year is even better on this Austin-based singer-songwriter's follow up to her stunning debut. She has more on her mind than just romance too.

16. Various Artists - 3x4
Paisley Underground legends the Bangles, the Three O’Clock, the Dream Syndicate and Rain Parade cover each other's songs. The liner notes may be even better than the music!

15. Pete Astor - One for the Ghost
If the man behind the Loft, Weather Prophets and Ellis Island Sound has an album out, chances are he will have a place on this countdown. My hero.

14. Watoo Watoo - Modern Express
Word on the streets of Bordeaux is this will be the last album for the husband-and-wife team of Pascale and Michael. Fans of Stereolab-inspired music mourn.

13. The Monochrome Set - Maisieworld
Amazing to consider 40 years into their career this decade might be their must fruitful. Can't wait to see them in 2019.

12. Math and Physics Club - Lived Here Before
The death of lead guitarist James Werle makes this one difficult to listen to right now. With the passage of time, I suspect this one will be looked on as one of the band's best.

11. Various Artists - Four Band Comp
New and previously unreleased tracks by Sarah stars Even as We Speak, Boyracer, Secret Shine and Action Painting!

10. Smokescreens - Used to Yesterday
La-La-Land band is known for its love of Kiwi pop, but on this second album there are new influences added to the repertoire that make them an even nicer fit on the Slumberland roster.

9. Wallflower - Ever After
Japanese jangle-pop vets return to give the sound of vintage Pains of Being Pure at Heart a run for its money.

8. The Beths - Future Me Hates Me
The guitar-driven songs of this New Zealand outfit have more hooks than you'll find on a fisherman's floppy hat. There's still plenty of room on this bandwagon.

7. Tracyanne & Danny - Tracyanne & Danny
With so much time, tragedy and sadness since Camera Obscura's 'Desire Lines,' it did feel like we might not hear from Tracyanne Campbell again. We all feel relief and root for her with new confidant Danny Coughlan.

6. The Goon Sax - We're Not Talking
Riley Jones' increased contribution has much to do with the Brisbane trio avoiding the inevitable sophomore slump.

5. Alpaca Sports - From Paris With Love
The songs of Swedes Andreas and Amanda seem light as air, but heartbreak, loneliness and desperation are not far away. In other words, perfect pop.

4. Various Artists - Daytrip Records Presents: This Is My Street
Indie-pop favorites, including the School, the Catenary Wires, the Just Joans and Cosines, are recruited by a small Welsh label to cover songs by the Kinks. A dream come true!

3. The Perfect English Weather - Don't You Wanna Feel the Rain?
I have to hand it to the Pickles Clan. To have me anticipating releases by their personal side project with the same enthusiasm as a new Popguns album is no mean feat, and the themes of this album really hit home to this "maturing" music fan.

2. The Chills - Snow Bound
After getting his feet wet again a few years ago with welcome comeback album 'Silver Bullets,' Martin Phillipps feels fully back this time. Best effort since 'Submarine Bells.'

1. Shannon Shaw - Shannon in Nashville
She leaves the Clams at home for a solo venture with the help of Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys and a band that backed Elvis, Roy and Dusty. The result is a little Lesley Gore and a lot Shangri-Las.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Favorite Reissues of 2018

Well, I did it again. It was another year where I spent more resources on new reissues than new releases, although I did keep it closer than usual. What can I say? I'm an old guy holding on to the past with arthritic fingers. I have a feeling my favorite reissue of 2018 is one I don't even have yet. Fingers crossed 'The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society' box set will be under the tree on Christmas morning. As Casey Kasem used to say, now on with the countdown.

20. Various Artists - Record Store Day singles
Not for the brave of heart, but I shivered in the cold for the first time in years to pick up 7" reissues of Frank Wilson's "Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)," Nico's "I'm Not Sayin'" and Chris Bell's "I Am the Cosmos." Not sure I would do it again, but I am happy to have them.

19. Stereolab - 'Switched On (Volumes 1-3)'
For die-hard fans, not much sizzle here, but I was one volume short. 'Switched On' (1992), 'Refried Ectoplasm' (1995) and 'Aluminum Tunes' (1998) are remastered and come in a clam-shell box. Also available on clear vinyl.

18. Bettye Lavette - 'The 1972 Muscle Shoals Sessions'
Bettye and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Enough said. How in the world did this one sit on the shelf for decades? Run Out Groove brings this to us on vinyl for the first time with two bonus tracks.

17. The County Fathers - 'Lightheaded'
Cloudberry Records has a stellar reputation for unearthing gems like these. You may know Mark Radcliffe as a BBC radio presenter, but he was once in an indie-pop band based in Manchester. This set includes the coveted three-track "Lightheaded" 12" that came out in 1988, plus a bunch of extras.

16. Various Artists - 'Basement Beehive: The Girl Group Underground'
I'm such a sucker for this sound. Don't expect the Shirelles. Believe me, Numero Group dug deep for these obscure gems. Skip the vinyl and double your pleasure with the 56-track double CD.

15. The Mayfields - 'Compact & Bijou'
They shared bills with the right bands (Pooh Sticks), recorded for the right labels (Ambition, Bus Stop) and showed up in the right fanzines (Sarah 4), but I never owned anything by the Mayfields until Firestation put this one together. Perfect late '80s indie pop.

14. David Bowie - 'Loving the Alien (1983-1988)'
I "showed off" my extensive '80s Bowie collection a couple of years ago. So, you may be wondering why I would shell out big bucks for this 11-disc set. Even with all of those singles, there was just too much here I didn't have, including a 2018 rethinking of 'Never Let Me Down,' live shows and a handful of other songs. Probably a needless extravagance, but it's so well put together I have no regrets.

13. Joe Strummer - '001'
On the day this one came out, my list of music wants was as long as my arm. This resulted in me going the cheap route for the basic double-disc edition. Some have argued this is for the uninitiated, and they may have a point, but I found there was quite a bit here I didn't have as my post-Clash collection of Strummer is a bit patchy.

12. Wire - 'Pink Flag', 'Chairs Missing', '154' Special Editions
The 80-page 7"-sized hardcover books contain the remastered original album and a disc or discs of singles, B-sides and demos. The texts, interviews and photos in the books make these just about the most beautiful artifacts in my music room.

11. Various Artists - 'C89'
Like the previous three editions presented by Cherry Red, I immediately bought this celebration of indie pop like it was a Pavlovian response. I do think the quality of the songs ticked down a bit (starting with 'C88,' actually), and it feels like a good place to stop... unless the label would like to go back to 'C81' and work from there. I would be up for that!

10. Yung Wu - 'Shore Leave'
Like a long lost Feelies album but with percussionist Dave Weckerman taking the lead. Every member from the 'Good Earth' era had a hand in it. I completely missed this one when it was released in 1987. 'Shore Leave' was my most listened to reissue in 2018.

9. Various Artists - 'The Sound of Leamington Spa' 'Vol. 8' and 'Vol. 9'
Firestation's signature series appeared to have ended in 2013, but then label founder Uwe Weigmann dropped a bombshell on these very pages last year. I don't know how he finds these obscure indie-pop bands from yesteryear, but I'm sure glad he does.

8. Various Artists - Optic Sevens Series
Has anyone noticed the 7" subscription series seems to be making a comeback? (See Slumberland and WIAIWYA labels for a couple of other stellar examples.) Optic Nerve is in the midst of releasing 12 classic indie-pop singles in 12 months. So far I have had Apple Boutique's "Love Resistance," the Siddeleys' "What Went Wrong This Time?" and East Village's "Cubans in the Bluefields" in my mailbox. The presentation of these reproductions has been jaw dropping. They have come with posters, postcards, pins and all kinds of extras, and in this day of declining vinyl quality, I have been floored by the sound of these artifacts.

7. Bow Wow Wow - 'Your Box Set Pet (The Complete Recordings 1980–1984)'
If you already had all of these remixes in your vinyl collection, I tip my cap. This remastered three-disc set is beautifully put together in a clam-shell box with well-done liner notes.

6. The Pale Fountains - 'Something on My Mind'
The '82 Crépuscule/Operation Twilight maxi single is here, as well as a handful of interesting studio tracks from Crépuscule compilations and other unreleased curiosities. This clear-vinyl edition includes an entire CD of live material from the same period. In a nutshell, this is everything you'll need before the band moved to Virgin.

5. Martin Newell - 'The Greatest Living Englishman'
I once wrote the name Newell should be included with the likes of English icons Hitchcock, Davies, McCartney and Partridge. Twenty-five years after its release, Captured Tracks celebrates this classic by restoring the original tracklist as envisioned by Newell and producer Andy Partridge, as well as including 10 pages of liner notes penned by the artist.

4. The Monochrome Set - 'Eligible Bachelors (Expanded Edition)'
Arguably the band's best album is blown up to three CDs and includes the 'Fin' live album and singles (not just from this time period), B-sides, rarities and BBC sessions from 1979-1981. If you don't have much from this band, start here.

3. The Wolfhounds - 'Hands in the Till: The Complete John Peel Sessions'
The name says it all. Three energy-packed sessions from the 'C86' vets recorded between March 1986 and January 1988 and put out by Slumberland.

2. Various Artists - Sarah Records Reissues
Even As We Speak - 'Feral Pop Frenzy',
Action Painting! - 'Trial Cuts (1989-1995)',
Boyracer - 'Fling Yr Bonnet Over The Windmill'
Back in the spring, Emotional Response Records mined the vaults of Sarah Records and released these albums (plus one more we will get to on the new releases list) as a bundle to fund a trip to Indietracks for Even As We Speak. You can purchase them all separately now, and I suggest you do. 'Fling Yr Bonnet Over The Windmill' is Boyracer's three singles on Sarah. 'Feral Pop Frenzy' is Even As We Speak's classic 1993 album in its entirety. 'Trial Cuts' is Action Painting's four singles (three for Sarah and one for Damaged Goods) plus unreleased material.

1. Candy Opera - '45 Revolutions Per Minute' and 'Rarities'
Apologies to Andy Pawlak, but I'm going to need a do over on that list of Firestation's best releases I put together last year. No. 1 with a bullet is '45 Revolutions Per Minute.' There's a little of Pawlak's sound in this Liverpool band, and you might hear early Aztec Camera and maybe some Prefab Sprout too. This Liverpool band is the very definition of shoulda been, and it warms the cockles that 30-plus years later these "lads"are receiving nothing but accolades from all who hear them.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Putting a Polka-Dot Bow on This Series

It's a story we read all the time. From smash in 1985 to split in 1986, Strawberry Switchblade's time came and went in the blink of an eye. There were clearly thoughts of a second LP, and you only need to look as far as the band's appearance on John Peel's show in the spring of '85 as evidence. "Sixty Cowboys" was a new song, and "Cut With the Cake Knife," we would later learn, was already in line as Strawberry Switchblade's next single. Alas, it was not meant to be.

Rose McDowall took some of those last songs and recorded several others between 1986 and 1988. If you followed McDowall's career in the late '80s, you may also know she was performing with a new band of Creation alums that included, among others, Lawrence of Felt fame and the rhythm section of the Weather Prophets... a real time machine moment if there ever was one. If you caught them, I would love to hear about it.

The songs from this era would finally see the light of day in 2004 and be reissued again in 2015. For fans like myself, 'Cut With the Cake Knife' was like a gift from the gods. Some of the songs are not a world away from the sounds of Strawberry Switchblade, but you can hear McDowall going in a different direction in others. She did just that after these sessions. Here is a particular favorite of mine. "Tibet" is a sad lament about a friend leaving masked by some pretty sounds and melodies. You must know by now I'm a sucker for that combination.


Saturday, December 8, 2018

Thank You, Pete

We lost one of our heroes this week. I say "our" because I can't imagine there are any visitors out there who didn't spend many a night in their formative years listening to 'Singles Going Steady' by Buzzcocks. I have said it many times on these pages, but once more won't hurt: I have never owned a better band compilation... period. You'll agree those first three albums were pretty special too.

I have spent the wee hours of this Friday night/Saturday morning listening to my favorite songs from Buzzcocks and the solo career of Pete Shelley. I didn't, however, go to the golden age. This will be inexplicable to all, I imagine, but my favorite long player from beginning to end is the virtually unknown comeback album 'Trade Test Transmissions' from 1993. I was working at a record store when it came out, and I just couldn't get those songs out of my head. I played it in the shop every day for weeks. I had just graduated from college and was completely confused about the future. Looking back, I think this album was the soundtrack to my final efforts at staying the kid that grew up listening to 'Singles Going Steady' over and over again. That rebellious spirit was desperately trying to hang on in the nooks and crannies of my soul, but time was running out.

In remembrance of the recently departed Shelley, here is a little mix of songs a bit off the beaten path of the most well-known albums. Thanks for everything, Pete. You will continue to live on in our hearts and on our stereos.

Howard Devoto on vocals in '77, but that's Pete on guitar. From the EP "Spiral Scratch."

Everybody's Happy Nowadays
Live at the Hammersmith Odeon in March of '79. The entire show can be found on the album 'Entertaining Friends.'

Clocking in at more than nine minutes, here is the Elongated Dancepartydubmix found on the flip side of the 12", circa 1981.

Telephone Operator
A minor hit from his 1983 solo album 'XL1. Like 'Homosapien, it was produced by Martin Rushent.

I know what you're thinking, but I can't recommend 'Trade Test Transmissions' enough.

Totally From the Heart
It took three years to follow 'Trade Test Transmissions,' but it was worth the wait.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Short Stack of Strawberry Switchblade B-Sides

I sense the natives getting restless. I'll put a polka-dot ribbon on this obsession with all things Jill and Rose this weekend. I promise. The synth-heavy songs "Since Yesterday" and, to a lesser extent, "Let Her Go" are the hits from the duo's self-titled long player, and the B-sides from these singles are of quality stock. The cover of "Sunday Morning," as well as "By the Sea," come from the 12" of "Since Yesterday" and have that early lo-fi vibe like you would find during the band's "Trees and Flowers" era. These were produced by indie legend David Balfe. My copy came with a gorgeous poster of the gals that's still in pristine condition. I seem to recall not hanging it because I was worried my dad would freak out. Seems pretty tame now.

Sunday Morning
By the Sea

The two songs on the flip side of the "Let Her Go" 12" are from a Janice Long session first broadcast on BBC Radio 1 in October 1984. Nary a duff note on these gems. Speaking of radio sessions, that brings me to my plea. If there is anyone out there who can hook me up with Strawberry Switchblade's sessions for John Peel or David Jensen from Oct. 1982, I would be most grateful. I have wanted those for about as long as I can remember.

Beautiful End
Michael Who Walks By Night

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Too Hot, Too Cold, Just Right (Not in That Order)

In the blog's infancy, I used to do a series called Fables of the Deconstruction. It was basically a listen to an early version or demo of a song put up against the final released version found on a single or album. So often, too many cooks in the kitchen would mean the unpolished bedroom recording was the superior take. That's more or less the way I feel about today's pick from Strawberry Switchblade. There are a few versions of "Go Away" to compare and contrast, but the beautiful 1983 B-side to "Trees and Flowers" is the definitive version for me. By the time the song became a deep cut on the band's debut album, it's almost unrecognizable. The time period, however, is not. As with the previous post, the 1982 demo is from the band's days as a quartet, and the feel is decidedly post punk... and awfully good too.

Go Away (1982 demo)
Go Away (1983 B-side)
Go Away (1985 album version)

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Polka Dots and Moonbeams

I finally caught 'Teenage Superstars,' the brilliant follow-up to 'Big Gold Dream,' and even though there was no music to go along with the in-depth interviews on Glasgow's indie scene of the '80s and '90s, I found the documentary at least as interesting as the look at labels Fast Product and Postcard Records in its predecessor. Watching Rose McDowall's input lit a fire under me, and I have spent the past couple of days ripping all of my vinyl from Strawberry Switchblade.

It would be easy to stick to the really early material to make it seem like I only liked the cool stuff that had more in common with the Velvet Underground than the drivel the pop charts were churning in the early '80s, but that wouldn't be honest. I bought into the hits too. We will, however, start with one of the more accepted songs... according to the music intelligentsia. "Trees and Flowers" was the band's first A-side and Jill Bryson's admission she suffers from agoraphobia:

Can't you see
I get so frightened
No-one else seems frightened
Only me, only me

There are some pretty impressive names associated with this single on both sides of the glass, including Bill Drummond, David Balfe, Will Sargeant and Roddy Frame, but Kate St. John and her oboe is the real standout among some other interesting instrumentation, including the French horn. Do yourself a favor and follow the "Just Music" B-side with St. John's work on the the Dream Academy's instrumental version of "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want." These two songs back to back are pure bliss. As for the 1982 demo, this was when they were a female four piece, and their sound has more of a post-punk feel. As for the extended mix, you know my weakness for 12" singles. I have read in places the band had little or nothing to do with the extended versions that appeared on the 1985 Japanese release called 'The 12" Album.' This is the best of the lot.

For you trivia lovers, "Trees and Flowers" featured at No. 47 on John Peel's 1983 Festive 50.

Trees and Flowers (1982 demo)
Trees and Flowers (1983 single)
Trees and Flowers (Just Music) (1983 B-side)
Trees and Flowers (extended mix)

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Got Me By the Short Hairs

As we are wrapping up a wonderful four-day holiday weekend, I'm filled with dread at the thought of the 6:00 alarm bell tomorrow. Waking up this morning to 'My Long-Haired Life,' the 1996 album from Marti Jones,' however, was a mellow contrast to the start of this day. I saw Jones at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., on this tour, and even 22 years later I remember her putting on a good show as the opener for Marshall Crenshaw. Her husband, the legendary Don Dixon, was on guitar. I think Jones' best albums are the ones that mix her originals with inspired covers. You'll find songs by Nick Lowe, Aimee Mann and Otis Redding on 'My Long-Haired Life,' but this one from Squeeze sounded the best this morning as I was stretched out in my own bed.

Black Coffee in Bed

Jones is also quite an accomplished painter, and this is her work on the cover above. It depicts a big change in her life when she cut her own locks and became a new mother. Here's my favorite of the Dixon/Jones compositions.

It's Not What I Want

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Just What You Always Wanted

I was checking out some clips of Soft Cell's "Say Hello Wave Goodbye" 40th anniversary farewell show from September and was tickled to see Mari Wilson performing a duet of "Last Chance" with Marc Almond. I haven't followed Wilson's career with the same passion of uber fan Post-Punk Monk, but I do adore her early work, particularly during the Compact Organization era. Here's the extended mix of her smash (well, not here in America, but you folks across the Atlantic will know it), as well as one of my favorite B-sides. Please excuse the scratchiness of my 12", but this is among the first dozen or so pieces of vinyl from my collection. As for the B-side of the 1980 single "Love Man," I'm opting for a cleaner sound from the highly recommended 2016 double-disc comp of female indie pioneers titled 'Sharon Signs to Cherry Red.'

Mari Wilson - Just What I Always Wanted (12")
Mari Wilson With the Imaginations - If That's What You Want

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Tuesday's Not-So-Long Song

Here's a nod and a wink to my blogging pals and their inspiring series of long songs each Monday. I have a whole room chock full of three-minute pop songs but not nearly enough long tunes to play along... that is, unless I start pulling out my '80s 12" singles. That would certainly put a damper on what is already the most depressing day of the week. Here's one you know quite well in its seven-minute form. It won't surprise you to know this version didn't make it on Joe Strummer's '001' compilation that came out earlier this year. I opted for the relatively inexpensive two-CD set of that one, and I will probably end up regretting that choice. What can I say? My list of record wants is a mile long.

For you Strummer completists out there, it might interest you to know the U.S. version of this 12" came with a dub and instrumental version of "Love Kills" that doesn't seem to be on the UK version. Not sure how it happened, but this silly Yank somehow ended up with the UK version.

Love Kills (Extended Mix)

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Dusted Off and Visible Again

I found myself in one of those YouTube rabbit holes the other night, and a wonderful and relatively recent clip of Pauline Murray performing "Dream Sequence" unplugged popped up. That immediately took me to the shelves to pull out 'Pauline Murray and the Invisible Girls.'

This came out a couple of years before my time, but I understand it was a hit in the UK, reaching No. 25 on the album chart in 1980. I, however, was an ocean away, and I bought it later in the decade without ever hearing a note or even knowing the name Pauline Murray. Her previous group, the punk band Penetration, had not been on my radar either. What attracted me to it was the cover. Remember when we used to see an album in the bins and take a risk like that? I miss that mystery, but at the vinyl prices these days, I'm not going to complain too much about Soundcloud and the like. Uh-oh, here comes a tangent. Focus, Brian, focus.

There was a Factory look to the image and, sure enough, the cover was credited to two giants, photographer/designer Trevor Key and graphic designer Peter Saville. It didn't hurt to see Martin Hannet's name on there as producer and band member too. As you can see, Vini Reilly was part of the Invisible Girls as well, but I had not discovered the charms of the Durutti Column just yet.

All these years later, I enjoyed listening to the album this week more than I thought I would, but "Dream Sequence" remains a level above the rest. I don't know if I completely buy into this description from Melody Maker, but I do wish I had said it. They called it "an exciting new area of electronic pop where Motown meets the modern world." Rolls off the tongue.

Dream Sequence

Saturday, October 27, 2018


Earlier this week, I went to my son's middle-school band concert. To some of you I imagine this sounds like a fate worse than death, but it's different when you have someone to root for from the uncomfortable bleachers of the gym. Obviously, my son was the best one. Ha! For Halloween, they played three movements from 'Darklands Legends,' and there is a part when one of the percussionists really gets to go to town on the tubular bells. Man, do I love bells. I have always wanted to take vibraphone lessons. Why haven't I just done it? Inertia, I guess.

Anyway, as this kid is wailing on the bells, a couple of pop songs popped into my mind. Here's one of them. Perhaps they are best known for backing Captain Sensible on a couple of smash hits, but Dolly Mixture was a female trio I knew from their short time on Paul Weller's Respond label. In fact, the "Been-Teen" single was the very first release. This is RESP 4, released in 1982, and I hope you like your bells. This makes the fourth Respond act featured here in the last couple of years. A Craze, Tracie and the Questions were the others. Can Vaughan Toulouse be far away?

Everything and More