Following the US election on Nov 8, 2016, we asked Dowsers contributors to discuss the moods and music the results inspired. We collected their responses in a series, After the Election.Like the rest of my fellow dowsers, I spent the second half of election week in a fog; I had trouble functioning. What menial task could make a case for my attention when so much had just gone so wrong? Then the weekend arrived, and my wife and I found ourselves at what might have been the single best place to spend that particular Saturday and Sunday: at a lesbian wedding in Berkeley, bearing witness as our Iranian/Indian/Pakistani friend married her Jewish partner. That Sunday, we exclaimed “Mazel tov!” as the new couple stamped on a glass; we watched as they sat next to the Sofreh as friends rained sugar down on them. Later, we danced the hora, then we danced to Bollywood jams, then we danced to “Call Me Maybe.” And man, what a dancefloor: flamboyant gay men dressed like Stevie Nicks, Iranian aunts and mothers in their finery, white folks from so-called battleground states, all cuttin’ a rug together.Alas, this playlist is not a mix of tunes played that night. I do not have sufficient working knowledge of klezmer, Bollywood, or Carly Rae Jepsen to pull that off. But recalling that wedding did seem like the unavoidably right way to start this post. Because in between the anger, sadness, and pure dumbfounded shock of it all, I’ve found that the mental space I’ve been most drawn to of late is the one in which we’re all making our best good faith effort to connect and commune, to remember a lot of the original values that set us on our various paths in the first place, and what ultimately helped us all to find one another: love for the arts and the people responsible for them; respect for diversity and the myriad ways it enriches our lives; vigilant empathy for all participants. This election reminded us that not all our countrymen share those values (or at least they don’t prioritize them as we might like). And it reminded me that the first place to start when it comes to upholding and ultimately proliferating them is with oneself.And so I made a mixtape. I used to make mixtapes all the time — not curated playlists of ‘70s psych or ‘90s boom bap or nu-metal workout essentials, which have their place, surely — but personal mixes of radical tunes that I shared with friends who did likewise. This is that. In the event we just met, or you’re an old friend who I haven’t talked to in awhile, and you wanted to know the kind of music I listen to when I want to feel a little more at peace and connected with the universe of good and worthy things this election has momentarily obscured our view of — it hasn’t gone anywhere, by the way, it’s just over the next hill, and we will march on until it comes back into view — then this would be a good place to start. It begins with a lot of dance music, because no matter what happens we should always remember to dance. Then it winds through some singer-songwriter stuff and some ambient-instrumental music, then resolves with a relatively new Monkees song written by Ben Gibbard and some Ethiopian jazz. Protest music, it is not, unless your idea of a protest is turning off the news for an ideally long stretch and just dwelling in your happy place, which actually come to think of it was exactly what that weekend’s wedding was: an act of defiance, dressed in the technicolor dreamcoat of love.
The ’90s have never sounded better than they do right now—especially for modern-day indie rockers. There’s no shortage of bands banging around these days whose sound suggests formative phases spent soaking up vintage ’90s indie rock. Not that the neo-’90s sound is itself a new thing. As soon as the era was far enough away in the rearview mirror to allow for nostalgia to set in (i.e., the second half of the 2000s), there were already some young artists out there onboarding ’90s alt-rock influences. But more recently, there’s been a bumper crop of bands that betray a soft spot for a time when MTV still played music videos and streaming was just something that happened in a restroom. In this context, the literate, lo-fi approach of Pavement has emerged as a particularly strong strand of the ’90s indie tapestry, and it isn’t hard to hear echoes of their sound in the work of more recent arrivals like Kiwi jr. or Teenage Cool Kids. Cherry Glazerr frontwoman Clementine Creevy seems to have a feeling for the kind of big, dirty guitar riffs that made Pacific Northwestern bands the kings of the alt-rock heap once upon a time. The world-weary, wise-guy angularity of Car Seat Headrest can bring to mind the lurching, loose-limbed attack of Railroad Jerk. And laconic, storytelling types like Nap Eyes stand to prove that there’s still a bright future ahead for those who mourn the passing of Silver Jews main man David Berman. But perhaps the best thing about a face-off between the modern indie bands evoking ’90s forebears and the old-school artists themselves is the fact that in this kind of competition, everybody wins.
It may be that 2019 was the best year for ’90s metal since, well, 1999. Bands from the decade of Judgment Night re-emerged with new creative twists and tweaks: Tool stretched out into polyrhythmic madness, Korn bludgeoned with more extreme and raw despair, Slipknot added a new drummer (Max Weinberg’s kid!) who gave them a new groove, and Rammstein wrote an anti-fascism anthem that caused controversy in Germany (and hit No. 1 there too). Elsewhere, icons of the era returned in unique ways: Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor scored a superhero TV series, Primus’ Les Claypool teamed up with Sean Lennon for some quirky psych rock, and Faith No More’s Mike Patton made an avant-decadent LP with ’70s soundtrack king Jean-Claude Vannier. Finally, the soaring voice of Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington returned for a moment thanks to Lamb of God guitarist Mark Morton, who released a song they recorded together in 2017.
Taking a look at the playlists for my show on Boston’s WZBC might give the more seasoned college-radio listener a bit of déjà vu: They’re filled with bands like Versus, Team Dresch, and Sleater-Kinney, who were at the top of the CMJ charts back in the ’90s. But the records they released in 2019 turned out to be some of the year’s best rock. Versus, whose Ex Nihilo EP and Ex Voto full-length were part of a creative run for leader Richard Baluyut that also included a tour by his pre-Versus outfit Flower and his 2000s band +/-, put out a lot of beautifully thrashy rock; Team Dresch returned with all cylinders blazing and singers Jody Bleyle and Kaia Wilson wailing their hearts out on “Your Hands My Pockets”; and Sleater-Kinney confronted middle age head-on with their examination of finding one’s footing, The Center Won’t Hold.Italian guitar heroes Uzeda—who have been putting out proggy, riff-heavy music for three-plus decades—released their first record in 13 years, the blistering Quocumque jerceris stabit; Imperial Teen, led by Faith No More multi-instrumentalist Roddy Bottum, kept the weird hooks coming with Now We Are Timeless; and high-concept Californians That Dog capped off a year of reissues with Old LP, their first album since 1997. Juliana Hatfield continued the creative tear she’s been on this decade with two albums: Weird, a collection of hooky, twisty songs that tackle alienation with searing wit, and Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police, her tribute record to the dubby New Wave chart heroes (in the spirit of the salute to Olivia Newton-John she released in 2018). And our playlist finishes with Mary Timony, formerly of the gnarled rockers Helium and currently part of the power trio Ex Hex, paying tribute to her former Autoclave bandmate Christina Billotte via an Ex Hex take on “What Kind of Monster Are You?,” one of the signature songs by Billotte’s ’90s triple threat Slant 6.