With the 2020 season in question and the world still in the midst of a pandemic, we’re continuing our series of recommendations of all sorts of things to do at home. Today, we make our second round of music recommendations, which run the gamut from emo to jazz, pop to soul. Enjoy!
Streetlight Manifesto - Somewhere in the Between: I first heard Streetlight Manifesto on a Victory Records sampler that came along with a Thursday CD I had purchased. About 20 seconds into their song “We Will Fall Together” I was downloading their entire discography. I had never fallen so head over heels for a band so quickly before. I loved ska from well before I listened to Streetlight Manifesto, but they represented a refreshing, energized, and completely distinctive sound to any ska punk band I had ever heard. Their four-person brass/horn section gave them a much fuller and more orchestral sound than their peers, and it was music to my ears (quite literally). This album remains one of my ten all-time favorite records. Besides featuring ten unique and memorable tracks, as a whole the album tackles the ideas of death, existence, and the afterlife, and takes a critical look at religion. Tomas Kalnoky’s inspired and provocative lyrics will give you something to think about, but it’s the horns that will hook you.
Jeff Rosenstock - WORRY.: Jeff Rosenstock is something of a Long Island Legend™. The veteran has fronted two all-time ska punk bands (Arrogant Sons of Bitches and Bomb the Music Industry!) but it wasn’t until his solo work that I became a fan for life. Jeff really is the perfect songwriter for the millennial generation. His sound, which incorporates his ska roots along with some punk, folk, hardcore, country, and acoustic elements, focuses on economic, societal, and political anxieties that anybody in their late 20s or early-to-mid-30s can really relate to. This album includes some of his sharpest commentary on current society yet (none that I enjoy more than “Born as a data mine for targeted marketing/And no one will listen up until you become a hashtag or a meme/But hate’s not a fad that dies with its virality” from “To Be a Ghost...”) and paints a grim but also not a hopeless view of how one can survive amongst the worry we’re feeling. The last eight tracks also blend into one truly incredible experience to finish of the album and remains probably my favorite string of songs on any given record.
Camp Cope - How to Socialize and Make Friends : The music industry’s long history of gross sexism cannot be fixed overnight, but Camp Cope have done everything they can to start calling them out and enacting as much positive change as they can. The three-piece rock group from Australia have been extremely vocal about the injustices that persist in the industry and have, for better or worse, become attached with the #MeToo movement. Their opener on the album, appropriately titled “The Opener”, is an absolute must-listen, featuring a verse solely comprised of lines the three ladies have heard from various parties in the music industry about their lack of viability as a headlining band. The band is empowered by Georgia Maq’s raw, honest, and razor-sharp lyrics and complimented by Kelly-Dawn’s impressive and catchy basslines and Sarah’s strong and steady drumming. They’re a fantastic band that has a lot to say, and their second album dispelled any notions of a sophomore slump after their acclaimed Self-Titled debut.
Bayside - Interrobang: In a normal world, Bayside would have been touring in celebration of their 20th anniversary, and I would have been attending a show at Terminal 5 earlier this month. Bayside has been a part of my life since they released their sophomore Self-Titled album in 2005. Aside from Green Day, they are the band I have loved the longest. The local boys from Bayside, Queens were a staple of the early Victory Records days alongside Hawthorne Heights, Silverstein, etc., but their longevity can be attributed to their consistently great releases and their devoted fanbase (which is often referred to and embraced as a “Cult”). It’s hard to pick one among their eight studio albums, each of which I love equally as if they were the children I don’t have, but I’m going with their most recent 2019 release, Interrobang (‽). It’s filled with some truly face-melting guitar riffs, which guitarist Jack O’Shea has been supplying for the better part of two decades and has made Bayside a cut above the rest in their class. Anthony Raneri’s lyrics are some of my favorite and have give the music the emotional core necessary to form that strong bond with their audience. For an intro to the band, this album is as good as any I could suggest.
The boygenius music universe (BGMU): I’m cheating slightly with my last rec, but there’s too much good music here to talk about. Boygenius is an indie rock supergroup comprised of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus, a real embarrassment of riches with three of the most gifted songwriters in the scene today. To try and accurately sum up the depth of their talent would take a dissertation-length paper, but the best summary I can provide is that they each expertly blend elements of emo and alternative rock to bring some truly heart-wrenching and soul-fulfilling music. Their debut Self-Titled six-song EP, which came out in 2018, is one of the rare instances when a group like this actually lives up to the hype of their individual brilliance, with their stunning voices complementing each other well and their collective song-writing expertise shining throughout. I’ve been a fan of Baker the longest, and her two albums, Sprained Ankle and Turn Out the Lights, have both become staples in my music rotation. Bridgers’ debut album, Stranger in the Alps is amazing, and her recently-released sophomore effort Punisher has already managed to top her acclaimed debut for me. Finally, Dacus’ latest album Historian is an underrated gem and puts her right up there with Baker and Bridgers. What’s even more impressive is that each of the three members are 25 or younger, so the sky’s the limit to what they can achieve in the music industry. Thanks to Jack McLoone for coining the term “boygenius music universe”.
Bishop Briggs - Church of Scars: I was hooked on Bishop Briggs from the first time I heard “River,” the single from this album. Her voice is soulful and incredibly powerful. I tend to describe this album as full of the type of songs that you sing into your hairbrush in front of the mirror when nobody is listening. “White Flag” is an anthem about never giving up. “Wild Horses” will make you dance around like an idiot. And “Hallowed Ground” and “Hi-Lo” will make you feel all the feelings as you sing along. Bishop is an incredible vocal talent and a fantastic performer.
twenty one pilots - Blurryface: I’m a sucker for a good concept album and I love this one. It reminds me a lot of what American Idiot was for me in high school—an opening up about mental health issues through music that is healing for many a young listener. The album personifies depression and anxiety as a character called Blurryface and the album returns to those themes throughout.
The Gaslight Anthem - Handwritten: This one’s for the New Jersey contingent of the Amazin’ Avenue community. The Gaslight Anthem are straight out of the Bruce Springsteen school of music and their sound is a classic one.
Hey hey, turn the record over
Hey hey, and I’ll see you on the flip side
There you go, turn the key and engine over
Let ‘er go, let somebody else lay at her feet
Brian Fallon croons in his role as a scorned lover in the single “45” off Handwritten. “This record was different, because when we started out, I didn’t know what was gonna happen, you know, and after American Slang after The ‘59 Sound, I was like, ‘What am I gonna do? Is there anymore Gaslight songs?’ It’s a scary thing when that feeling, it hits you. When we wrote the song ‘45’, I was like, ‘Thank God.’ I just knew that it was gonna be alright,” Fallon said about the song. Thank God, indeed.
Hootie & The Blowfish - Cracked Rear View: This is a pure nostalgia pick on my part. Sometimes during times like these when we open Twitter and wonder what fresh hell awaits us each day, you just need a return to what’s comforting and familiar. Cracked Rear View is that album for me. The album recently celebrated its 25th anniversary and to me the unique blending of folk and rock elements remains relevant today. Darius Rucker has gone on to have a successful career as a country artist, but he’s always going to be Hootie to me.
The Murlocs - Young Blindness: Here’s a fun fact: Despite being a big fan of King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, I didn’t realize until sometime during the stay-at-home era that two members of King Gizz constitute half of the Murlocs—and I’ve seen the Murlocs live. Perhaps that realization happened because I’ve just been listening to the Murlcos a bunch over these past three months, and if you like one of their records, you’ll probably like them all. I’m picking Young Blindnessi simply because it has my favorite song of theirs on it: “Wolf Creep.” There’s so much great music coming out of Australia these days, and one silver lining of the pandemic has been getting more familiar with these guys.
Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit: Speaking of Australia, Courtney Barnett might be the best songwriter of the past decade. Her style is unique, and very few people have ever been able to mix a lyrical style that sometimes feels like a stream of consciousness—in a very good way—the way she does. Both of her full-length albums are great, as is the virtual full-length album A Sea of Split Peas, which combines her earlier work all in one place. The album I’m recommending here was the one that got me into her music in the first place, and the solo set she played at Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky festival in Mexico back in January was easily one of the best sets of music I’ve seen anyone perform live. If you start with this record and get to see her live, with her full band or solo, someday, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll enjoy it.
Mavis Staples - We Get By: Speaking of Wilco connections, Mavis Staples has made a lot of music over the course of several decades, and two of her recent albums were ones she made with Jeff Tweedy. This one, though, was made with Ben Harper, and while it seems to have flown a bit more under the radar than the records she made with Tweedy, it’s really good. I’ve only taken a deeper dive into the record recently, but I’m glad I have. The duet with Harper on the song after which the album is named is a treat.
Wand - Laughing Matter: From start to finish, this really feels like a cohesive piece of work. The first time I listened to it, it didn’t click right away, but after finally having seen Wand live for the first time early last summer, it all hit me. Unfortunately, there’s no timetable for when any bands will be able to play in front of audiences again, but I hope you like it immediately. If not, though, hit play on it again. “Wonder” is the standout track here, and there are several runners-up.
Kikagaku Moyo - Forest of Lost Children: This psychedelic band from Japan has been a favorite since seeing them for the first time in late 2017, a few years after this record had been released. All three of their full-length releases are pretty great, but this is where I’d recommend starting. “Kodama” might still be their single best song. And this applies to several of the bands I’ve written about in this series: Watch the KEXP sessions on YouTube. As someone who goes to 30 to 40 shows per year on average, I’ve very much enjoyed catching on the great performances that KEXP has recorded in its space, all of which are available with a simple “KEXP [band name]” search on YouTube.
Daniel Romano and the Outfit - Infidels (What Could Have Been): Bob Dylan is an incredibly interesting story, even if you don’t care for his music. The artistic left turns, the blatant lies, the shifting personas, all of it makes for great speculation and discussion. Shortly after his record Infidels was released, Dylan made his first appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, backed by members of the LA punk group the Plugz. The sound was far more urgent than what Dylan was making at the time, and the performance has become legendary.
In steps Daniel Romano, a Canadian singer/songwriter who has released something like seven (7) records in 2020 already. Romano and his band, the Outfit, recorded a full album cover of Infidels as if the Plugz were Dylan’s backing band. Romano and Dylan have similar voices, so it doesn’t take a ton of effort to buy into the premise. It reimagines the album in a way that, at least to my ears, is something much more interesting and unique in Dylan’s catalog. If nothing else, it is a really fun thought experiment, come to life.
Alabaster de Plume - To Cy & Lee: When I listen to music, one of the first things I take note of is the mood that is created by the music. This matters far more to me than technical prowess or lyrics; I want the music to take me someplace. Alabaster de Plume’s To Cy and Lee is an instrumental record that creates these little soundscapes that almost resemble film scores. It’s not really jazz, it’s not really classical, it’s not really ‘rock;’ it’s just really beautiful, evocative sound paintings.
Sun Ra - Haverford College 1980 Solo Piano: I’m not an encyclopedic Sun Ra fan, though I own a number of his records, and I’ve never before heard him do a solo set on an electric piano before (a Fender Rhodes, to be precise). And so, this recently released collection is somewhat unique in his catalog. The Rhodes’ tone is gentler and warmer than an acoustic piano, and so it colors the performance quite a bit, and so when he breaks out “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” it fits like a glove. Slightly chaotic at times, gorgeous at others, this is a reasonably short set, and a great piece for a mellow morning or late night.
Didi Wray - Mision Tango Surf: I’m a sucker for surf music, and when I pick up my guitar, there’s about a 50/50 chance I’m dicking around with a twangy, reverb drenched surf lick I stole from some old record. I recently discovered Didi Wray, who created the subgenre ‘tango surf,’ which combines surf guitars and tango rhythms. This, to me, is a match made in heaven. This record was recorded with musicians from all over South and Central America, and is a great introduction to Wray’s work. Highly recommended if the sound of tremolo and a whammy bar puts a smile on your face.
R.E.M. - Chronic Town: Sometimes, you’ve just got to listen to an old classic. Chronic Town is R.E.M.’s debut EP, and it is a wonderful piece of history, showing exactly where the band that would branch out into baroque pop, electronic music, and glam-grunge all started. The vocals aren’t quite out front (nor perfectly in tune), the bass is mixed maybe a bit too loud (which is no problem for this bass player), and the songs aren’t anywhere near as complex or meaningful as they’d eventually get, but there’s magic in these five songs. If “Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars)” doesn’t do it for you, I’m not sure we can hang out. (I’m just kidding, let’s still hang out when this pandemic is over)
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - Reunions: I recommended Isbell’s first post-sobriety album in the first round of music recs. Since then, he’s released a new album along with his backing band the 400 Unit, and I’m pleased to report that Reunions matches the quality of the music that he has been releasing ever since he’s gotten sober. The ten tracks here offer a mix of political anthems railing against inaction in the face of injustice and deeply personal songs dealing with subjects like marriage, sobriety, and fatherhood. Regardless of the topic, each song contains the killer lyrics that Isbell is most famous for, and it remains very difficult to make it through one of his albums without water welling up in one’s eyes at some point. For my money, Reunions is one of the best albums that has been released so far this year, and it further cements Isbell as one of best and most insightful musicians out there.
Pearl Jam - Gigaton: Pearl Jam is one of my favorite bands, but as a group that has been around for three decades, I keep my expectations relatively tempered for their new releases—after all, most musicians aren’t putting out their best work that late into their careers. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Gigaton, which came out at the end of March. It’s the most explicitly political album the band has released in a while (which I suppose is to be expected, given current events), and it gives a lot of the songs a much needed shot of energy in comparison to their other recent offerings. The highlight for me is “Seven O’Clock,” which I would put up there as being amongst the best songs that the band has released this century. On the whole, I would happily place Gigaton in the upper half of Pearl Jam’s discography, and for a band with as prolific a history as theirs, that’s not nothing.
Michael Kiwanuka - Love & Hate: I’ve recently wanted to diversify the type of music I listen to, both in terms of the genres I gravitate towards and the artists whose music I consume. Discovering Michael Kiwanuka, a British singer-songwriter and the son of Ugandan parents, was one small step towards accomplishing that goal. Thus far, the only full album of his I’ve listened to is this one, and it’s an intensely memorable one—a bit more soul and R&B inspired than the stuff I normally go with, but again, going outside of one’s comfort zone can be a valuable experience. Television fans might recognize “Cold Little Heart” as the catchy song in the title credits for Big Little Lies, and it is just the first of several heartfelt and stirring songs on display here. And maybe current events are clouding my judgment, but damn if the title track of this album isn’t an anthem tailor made for this moment in time. I’m very glad that I was recently exposed to Kiwanuka, and I’m excited to hear more from him soon.
Spanish Love Songs - Schmaltz: Following the recommendation of this punk rock band’s most recent album in the first round of music recs, I checked the group out and discovered that they are every bit as awesome as Vas said they were. While the album he suggested is my favorite of their three offerings, their preceding effort Schmaltz is also well worth listening to. Its songs offer a potent mix of high octane, in-your-face melodies with soul-crushing lyrics about the overwhelming challenges of just making it through each day. Furthermore, a lot of smaller bands like this one who rely heavily on live shows to make a living are struggling right now, which makes it an ideal time to discover and support such groups—either by buying their music and merchandise or simply by spreading the word about them.