Fifty years ago this summer, Sly and the Family Stone were melting down amid a mess of missed shows, internal frictions, and bad PCP. Yet the funky utopia they briefly represented remains utterly compelling even now.The band’s mastermind was Sylvester Stewart, a singer and multi-instrumentalist who had first gained fame in San Francisco’s music scene as a DJ and producer under the handle of Sly Stone; this surname would also be used by the two bona fide siblings among his bandmates. Sly and the Family Stone were integrated not only when it came to matters of race and gender but also in terms of Stewart’s remarkably inclusive creative vision, one that would be presented with an exuberance that dissolved any boundaries between rock, funk, soul, pop, and psychedelia.As per the boastful title of the band’s 1966 debut, they were indeed a whole new thing. And on the heels of their set at Woodstock in August 1969, record buyers were ready to go wherever Stewart wanted to take ’em. Alas, life within the Family fold had already become a far heavier trip than listeners could have known based on their three iconic hits of 1969 and early 1970—“Hot Fun in the Summertime,” “Everybody Is a Star,” and “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”—and the massive success of 1970’s Greatest Hits, the most indispensable album ever to bear the title. Things just got heavier after that, though Stewart managed to prevent his complete personal collapse long enough to make two more masterpieces in 1971’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On and 1973’s Fresh.As grim and weird as the later chapters of this story have been, the music Sly and the Family Stone made in their imperial phase is somehow as inventive, exhilarating, and downright joyful as ever. One reason it still feels fresh is the abundance of hip-hop, R&B, and dance tracks powered by samples of the originals’ hooks, horns, and harmonies—and, of course, the unbeatable grooves provided by the rhythm section of bassist Larry Graham and drummer Greg Errico. Here’s a set of songs that wouldn’t be half as amazing if not for their sturdy foundations of Stone.
Suffice to say it’s not been a good year for best-laid plans. On the brighter side, 2020 has seen a welcome abundance of acts and artists who spent years (sometimes decades) underneath the radar and who have returned with new music that instantly reminds us why we loved them in the first place.Some—like Tame Impala and Grimes—really weren’t gone for long but clearly had too much going on in their lives to find the necessary time to realize their big ambitions, and we’re happy they finally did. Other cases—like Paramore’s Hayley Williams and LINKIN PARK’s Mike Shinoda—involve familiar lead singers who’ve been understandably careful about how they want to launch their post-band careers. Someday, hopefully, Zack de la Rocha will feel as if he’s ready to do the same and let some of those unheard collaborations with Trent Reznor, DJ Shadow, and Questlove outta the vault—his guest spot with Run The Jewels will do fine for now.Then there are those who are back after some truly epic-length hiatuses. There was no lack of coverage for the end of eight-year waits for new material from Bob Dylan and Fiona Apple (and Brandy and Alanis Morissette, too) or the 14-year pause for The Chicks. Yet those gaps hardly compare with the more extreme creative layovers that recently concluded, like the 29 years in between new albums by The Psychedelic Furs, the 35 in between efforts by the original lineup of X, or the 36 for Bob Geldof and his Boomtown Rats.Arriving at the tail end of 2019 was one of the weirder comebacks: the first new album in 16 years by Gang Starr, constructed under controversial circumstances by DJ Premier from unreleased raps by his former partner Guru, who wasn’t around to argue over the results since he died of cancer in 2010. Similarly surprising (and awesome) is the return of Eddie Chacon. Formerly one half of Charles & Eddie—a ’90s soul-pop duo who scored a global hit with “Would I Lie To You?” before disappearing into oblivion—Chacon left the music business decades ago to become an art and fashion photographer. Full of gorgeously eerie and deeply stoned alt-R&B made with Solange and Frank Ocean collaborator John Carroll Kirby, Chacon’s very belated solo debut, Pleasure, Joy & Happiness, is the kind of album that feels very much worth the wait even if you had no idea you were waiting for it. Here’s hoping this playlist of 2020 returnees directs you to more music that gives you that feeling.Photo by Sachyn Mital
Like everyone else in the world, Billie Eilish may be wishing that 2020 had gone a lot differently. Back in February, she entered the grand pantheon of performers enlisted to sing a theme for a James Bond movie. Her mission: to somehow wrest something mellifluous out of lyrics based on a title that would be un-singable in any other circumstances. In the case of her movie assignment and her accompanying single, that title was No Time to Die, the 25th official entry in the franchise of espionage thrillers about agent 007 that was launched by 1962’s Dr. No.As fine as it is, Eilish’s moody and grandly orchestrated song would not feel complete until it followed the tradition of its predecessors by accompanying a Bond-movie opening credit sequence (intros which, in keeping with other efforts to make the series more contemporary and less sexist, now feature far fewer shadowy female nudes than they once did). Alas, “No Time to Die” still awaits that honor, since its namesake film—one of many big Hollywood releases delayed by the coronavirus crisis—will not be seen on big screens until November.A James Bond theme without a James Bond movie might hardly count as poignant to some people. After all, it can be hard to overlook the character’s reputation as a repellently chauvinistic and possibly sociopathic symbol of badly outmoded colonialist and Cold War ideals who murders in service of the state. And don’t get us started on that thing Roger Moore used to do with his eyebrows.But just like the sight of Daniel Craig in swim trunks, there’s so often something magnificent about the music the Bond movies have produced, caused, or inspired. Whether shaken or stirred, songs like Eilish’s contribution swell with all the high drama, old-school cool, and/or cheesy grandeur that listeners could possibly desire—and perhaps crave more than ever now that the pandemic has torpedoed so many of the summer’s usual pop-cultural distractions. Here’s a playlist of Bond-related songs (both official and not) to make you feel more suave than you ought to.
Over the past two years, there’s been such a remarkable abundance of great music by female artists in the overlapping territories of alt-country, roots, and Americana that it could fill this playlist many times over. From the folky, sepulchral sounds of Pieta Brown, to the Kitty Wells-style honky-tonk throwbacks of Rachel Brooke, to the raw and tender country blues of Adia Victoria (pictured), it’s a boom time all round.That said, trying to fit a disparate group of artists into a tidy category that’s based in part on their gender can’t help but feel unfairly reductive. Hell, it may even perpetuate the kind of backward sexual politics that persist in the worst of American country music and that many artists understandably buck against. Back in 2014, the duo Maddie & Tae scored a surprise smash with “Girl In A Country Song,” a bouncy piece of C&W pop that doubled as an unusually acerbic satire of the ways women are typically represented by Nashville. “We used to get a little respect,” goes the chorus. “Now we’re lucky if we even get to climb up in your truck/ Keep our mouths shut and ride along/ And be the girl in a country song.” Three years later, with “bro-country” acts like Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan, and Chase Rice doubling down on innuendo-laden tailgate-party anthems and yet more videos with models in bikinis, mainstream country needs that kind of skewering even more.Lest all this just serve as another reason for alt-country hipsters to feel smug about their superior tastes, even they ought to admit that there ain’t much gender parity when it comes to the artists who generally cross over from the No Depression crowd and gain wider renown and success. After all, there are many more female acts who’ve been just as willing as Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson to pursue a richer, more adventurous kind of artistry than Nashville generally tolerates. They too deserve to garner audiences beyond the flannel-clad roots-music devotees who already recognize the virtues of Rhiannon Giddens’ revamps of old-time spirituals, savor the gilded harmonies of The Trishas, or tremble at the sound of Tift Merritt’s warble.This bounty of talent ranges from newbies like Kacy & Clayton (a Canadian duo who’ve become protégés of Jeff Tweedy) and Molly Burch (an Austinite blessed with a voice whose chilly beauty evokes Patsy Cline and Karen Dalton at their most desolate) to Shelby Lynne and Alison Moorer, sisters and alt-country vets who demonstrate their own dexterity by combining covers of Townes Van Zandt and Nirvana on their new album Not Dark Yet. These are the alt-country women you need to hear if you haven’t been so lucky already. Big-hatted bros best take heed.
What can you say? Brian Eno is a people person. Even before his tenure with Roxy Music was done, he was networking with just about every member of the art-rock elite. Dalliances with King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, John Cale, Kevin Ayers, and Nico would lead to his collaboration with David Bowie on his Berlin trilogy. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, he’d prove his mettle with rock’s new vanguard as a producer for Ultravox, Talking Heads, and Devo, as well as the no-wavers he included in the No New York compilation.His work with an ambitious young Irish band is what truly established Eno’s rep as someone who could bring the best out of musicians in a recording studio. Eno and Daniel Lanois’ wide-screen production aesthetic for U2’s The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree became the gold standard for Important Rock of the 1980s. But rather than apply the same brush to every artist’s music, he’s continued to adapt his methods to whatever the situations require, thereby eliciting extraordinary moments both from blue-chip clients like Coldplay and Damon Albarn and fellow avant-pop artists like Owen Pallett.
Despite his later reputation as rock’s preeminent egghead, Brian Eno clearly delighted in his showman tendencies when he arrived on Roxy Music’s stages looking like a space-age ostrich before smothering the band’s high-concept art-rock rave-ups and decadent ballads with synthesizer whirrs and squeals. Even by the standards of early-‘70s glam, he was wildly flamboyant, so much so that Bryan Ferry grew weary of competing with him for attention from audiences and critics. The tensions prompted Eno to quit the band in 1973.Starting with the same year’s Here Come the Warm Jets, Eno then released a series of solo albums that were just as packed with wild new ideas as his albums with Roxy Music had been. With the help of friends like Roxy guitarist Phil Manzanera, King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, and Soft Machine’s Robert Wyatt, he would demolish just about every piece of existing rock methodology in songs that turned and twisted while somehow retaining their headlong velocity.
Of all the many artists and songwriters who cited the Doors’ mercurial frontman as an inspiration, no fan may have been quite as ardent as Patti Smith. “Jim Morrison probably got the closest to being an artist within rock and roll,” she once said. “His death made me sadder than anyone’s. He was really a great poet.”That last word is an especially significant one. When the Doors’ career as Elektra recording artists was launched with the release of “Break On Through (To The Other Side)” on the first day of 1967, the idea that a poet had any business being in a rock ‘n’ roll band was still a radical one. Claiming Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire as his own heroes, Morrison was determined to bring a sensibility that was both unabashedly literary yet as sexy and dangerous as you’d hope for from a guy who looked so good in tight black leather pants. As a rock ‘n’ roll poet, Morrison had also introduce explicitly adult content and subversive themes into a musical form that was still marketed first and foremost to teenagers. No wonder that “Break on Through” sparked the first of many controversies for the Doors when Elektra balked at releasing it with its original lyric “she gets high” lest such a blatant drug reference offend radio programmers. The single flopped anyway, only later becoming one of the Doors’ signature songs.That first single also served as an opening salvo for a band whose musical ideas proved just as influential as Morrison’s lyrical provocations. Robbie Krieger’s spidery guitar lines were as distinctive as the Ray Manzarek keyboard sound the band used in place of bass guitar. And while drummer John Densmore was capable of supplying all the required force and momentum, his rhythms were equally suggestive of non-rock influences like bossa nova and German cabaret music. The latter influence signposted when a cover of “Alabama Song” showed up alongside that debut single and the band’s first true hit “Light My Fire” on the Doors’ self-titled album.The wild, passionate and daring music that followed the Doors’ first recordings was bound to make a strong impression on musicians for generations. Sometimes this influence was glaringly obvious. That was certainly the case for vocalists who’d perform with the surviving Doors in the years after Morrison’s death in 1971, starting with the fellow rock legend who very nearly replaced him: Iggy Pop. Such was Iggy’s admiration for Morrison that he smuggled many of the Lizard King’s lyrics inside his own songs, including “The Passenger”. Stone Temple Pilots’ Scott Weiland and the Cult’s Ian Astbury were two more Morrison devotees who fronted later versions of the Doors.Despite the punks’ oft-stated disdain for hippies, many of the blank generation’s key acts were Doors fans, too. Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen even described the band as “the most perfect and compatible four musicians in the history of time.” Siouxsie & The Banshees considered them a core inspiration, later covering “You’re Lost, Little Girl” and “Hello I Love You.” Legendary Manchester producer Martin Hannett modeled his productions for Joy Division on the sound of Waiting for the Sun. Meanwhile, the Stranglers’ use of keyboards explicitly evoked Manzarek’s and the spare, eerie feel of “The End” was closely studied by Bauhaus. Then there was the example Morrison set with his rich baritone and literary gravitas for heavy-duty singers and songwriters like Nick Cave and Mark Lanegan. X and the Gun Club were two of many later bands from the Doors’ hometown of Los Angeles acknowledged their stylistic debt.More recently, retro-rockers like Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Allah Las have been equally brazen about their devotion. Indeed, the realm of the Lizard King is and always has been a crowded one – this playlist serves as your passageway.
There’s something uniquely satisfying and majestically meta about a hard rock classic whose core subject is the transformative power of rocking out. An unbeatable demonstration of Foreigner’s brand of no-apologies and no-holds-barred AOR, “Juke Box Hero” demonstrates that fact with all the cocksure swagger you could possibly demand.Over a stark, almost metronomic beat and a burbling, ominous synthesizer, frontman Lou Gramm devotes the first verse to a cinematic vignette about a downcast dude who “couldn’t get a ticket” to “the sold-out show” and now finds himself stuck in the rain. Nonetheless he gets all he needs by putting his ear to the wall and hearing the one guitar that “just blew him away.” As the tension rises through the second verse, he arms himself with the proverbial “beat-up six-string” and gets down to business. And you can tell how good all that rocking makes him feel because the song makes damn sure you feel it, too, especially when a series of windmill-ready riffs leads into a chorus that seems scientifically engineered to elicit fist-pumping, hard-strutting and anything else you need to do to cope with the surge of testosterone in your bloodstream. Formed in 1976 in New York by former Spooky Tooth and Leslie West Band sideman Mick Jones and King Crimson co-founder Ian McDonald with a cluster of burly Americans like Gramm, Foreigner undoubtedly knew they were never going to be cool. After all, they emerged as unrepentantly old-school rockers at a time when disco still ruled the airwaves and the critical establishment was far more interested in punk and new wave. There was little respect afforded to any band doing – as Jones later admitted – “the exact opposite.” Of course, that hardly meant there wasn’t an audience for their sound, which – thanks to the match of Gramm’s muscular vocal style and Jones’ flair for crunchy riffs and sticky hooks – was a big cut above most of the AOR that would become predominant on American radio through the ‘80s. On early hits like “Feels Like the First Time” and “Hot Blooded,” Foreigner managed to be beefy without being bombastic and dramatic without being overblown. They’d fine-tune the formula even further while somehow doubling its force when they joined forces with the era’s two most innovative rock producers: Roy Thomas Baker (Queen, Cars) for 1979’s Head Games and then Robert John “Mutt” Lange (AC/DC, Def Leppard) for 4.Alas, in the wake of the success of the globe-conquering but hardly strut-worthy power ballad “I Want to Know What Love Is,” the alliance between Gramm and Jones splintered. Though they would periodically re-team over the ensuing decades as Jones worked hard to maintain Foreigner’s health as a reliably rockin’ staple of the amphitheatre, county-fair and casino circuits, neither man would reach the heights they did in Foreigner’s ‘80s golden age. That said, Gramm did unleash one final iconic burst of AOR glory in 1987’s “Midnight Blue,” a pretty much perfect solo hit that may be the mightiest ever example of jukebox heroism. With all that in mind, we present this celebration of the Foreigner Strut, full of all the hits and deep cuts that you need for the ‘80s-movie training montage that may already be running in your mind.
This post is part of our Disco 101 program, an in-depth series that looks at the far-reaching, decades-long impact of disco. Curious about disco and want to learn more? Go here to sign up. Already signed up and enjoying it? Help us get the word out by sharing it on Facebook, Twitter or just sending your friends this link. They’ll thank you. We thank you.A revolution in music arrived in April of 1976. And like all good revolutions should, this one began with bongos. The extended percussion break was just one exciting element of the remix -- or “disco blending,” as the credits put it -- of Double Exposure’s “Ten Per Cent,” the handiwork of DJ Walter Gibbons and engineer Bob Blank and the first-ever commercially available 12-inch disco single. When the sales for this seven-minute masterpiece outstripped those of the regular 45 by two to one, the music business swiftly realized the new format’s potential.It’s no accident it was an independent record company, Salsoul, that first gave record buyers a chance to experience the musical mutations that DJs like Gibbons and Larry Levan were concocting in such clubs as the Paradise Garage and Le Jardin. Unencumbered by the girth of the major record companies, the indies had the agility and street-smarts to fully capitalize on the phenomenon, which began in the early ‘70s in Fire Island’s hotspots and David Mancuso’s Loft and pretty much swallowed America whole during Saturday Night Fever mania at the end of ‘77.By then, most majors had their own disco departments eagerly churning out 12-inches, sometimes by rock acts like the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, and pretty much anyone else who wanted to get a song on the radio or in the clubs. But the big gears it took to move units for them meant that disco’s greatest innovations were by smaller operators. They didn’t mind the very limited lifespans for fleeting dancefloor faves and hastily assembled, studio-only acts, which didn’t suit majors more interested in the bigger profits that came with album sales and touring artists.This action was its most feverish in New York, disco’s birthplace and epicenter, where companies like Salsoul, Prelude and West End all fought hard for disco dominance. Labels based in other parts of the country -- like Casablanca in L.A. and TK in Florida – got their pieces of the action, too. By staying on top of the latest advances of DJs and the changing tastes of dancers, these labels were able to maintain a steady stream of 12-inch magnificence. And that lasted well after the majors abandoned the dance-music marketplace at the end of the decade, chased away by the disco backlash. There was also such a glut of product, many marvels only got a fraction of the exposure they deserved, which is why these tracks are so coveted by collectors and compilers today.The long-unheard mixes collected on For Discos Only: Indie Dance Music From Fantasy & Vanguard Records: 1976-1981 demonstrates how much incredible music was out there, and how little disco’s much-publicized death impaired the scenes in New York and the West Coast. The enterprising ways of many key indie labels had everything to do with that. Like Salsoul (which began by licensing a chunk of CBS’ Latin music catalog), Fantasy and Vanguard both started with very different kinds of music on their rosters than disco. Fantasy was founded in San Francisco in 1949 as a home for jazz great Dave Brubeck before hitting big with the Creedence Clearwater Revival. Founded in N.Y.C. the following year, Vanguard released many of the most iconic folk and blues recordings of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Listen closely and you can sometimes discern traces of those histories in the labels’ disco-era output, whether it’s in the irresistibly smooth jazz-funk the Blackbyrds cut for Fantasy or the impeccably performed tracks by the Players Association, which got its start when drummer/arranger Chris Hills and producer Danny Weiss began enlisting some of New York’s best session musicians to record covers of smashes like “Love Hangover” for Vanguard.But there are flashes of the future too, especially once Harvey Fuqua – a former Motown producer behind Fantasy/Honey, an Oakland-based disco imprint for the label – united his protégé Sylvester with young electronics whiz Patrick Cowley. With their synth-heavy, ultra-orgasmic sound, Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and “Dance (Disco Heat)” spawned their own subgenre: Hi-NRG. Fantasy/Honey’s slate also included similarly exhilarating singles by Two Tons of Fun, two back-up singers for Sylvester – Izora Armstead and Martha Wash – who’d get a lot more famous when they changed their name to the Weather Girls.Meanwhile back in New York, Vanguard became a haven for some of the city’s most skilled disco purveyors. Rainbow Brown was the brainchild of Patrick Adams, a producer and arranger responsible for killer cuts for Salsoul and Prelude. A studio project modeled after Chic and Adams’ Musique by former Weather Report drummer Alphonse Mouzon, Poussez! was more sophisticated than its salacious-sounding name would suggest (but then it would have to be).It’s a testament to the era’s abundance of creativity that so much of this music has been little heard -- especially in their “disco-blended” incarnations -- since they first appeared. To mark the release of For Discos Only, here’s a playlist that relights the fuse for that original indie disco explosion.
This post is part of our Disco 101 program, an in-depth series that looks at the far-reaching, decades-long impact of disco. Curious about disco and want to learn more? Go here to sign up. Already signed up and enjoying it? Help us get the word out by sharing it on Facebook, Twitter or just sending your friends this link. They’ll thank you. We thank you.Sylvester James Jr, better known simply as Sylvester, was one of the boldest and most memorable figures to emerge out of the late ‘70s disco scene. His signature song, "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)," remains not just one of the most recognizable songs of the era but possibly the most exhilarating, too. Sylvester was more than just a hitmaker -- he was an icon for both the LGBTQ community and the San Francisco dance music scene. His life is the stuff of legend. During his far-too-few 41 years on the planet, the distinction between factual incidents, apocryphal stories, and fantabulous fabrications is often difficult to discern -- and where’s the fun in trying to do that, anyway?My favourite of these legends reflects the ongoing inability of the music industry of the ‘70s and ’80s to figure out what to do with a natural-born star with such a singular sensibility. Frustrated by one of these record companies’ efforts to tone him down and repackage him as a Teddy Pendergrass-type – whose husky voice Sylvester could actually emulate when not doing his trademark falsetto – our hero had no recourse but to burst into the president’s office while wearing a blond wig and negligee and exclaim, “This is my image and I’m not changing it!” Gestures of defiance don’t come much fiercer than that.Regardless of whether it actually went down like that, the story is in keeping with the unapologetically lusty bravado that Sylvester brought to many classics of disco’s golden age. The recent arrival of For Discos Only: Indie Dance Music From Fantasy & Vanguard Records -- a compilation featuring rare versions of many of these tracks, including “Dance (Disco Heat)” and “Over and Over” -- is one of many recent signs that Sylvester continues to loom large. Another is the near-weekly namechecking he receives on RuPaul’s Drag Race, whose host was inspired by the bravery and brazenness Sylvester displayed in an era that was far more closeted than its hedonistic reputation may suggest. Though producer Jacques Morali populated the Village People with symbolic representations of members of New York’s gay subculture and initially marketed the group to LGBTQ audiences, the record company and performers (all but two of whom were straight) still played coy with mainstream listeners about the true inspiration of songs like “Y.M.C.A.” Openly gay performers – like Tony Washington of the Motown act Dynamic Superiors or the utterly singular Klaus Nomi – remained surprisingly rare.Of course, things were different in San Francisco, disco’s West Coast epicenter. Later memorialized by writers like Armistead Maupin, the city’s clubland was a far wilder and bolder place than even New York’s. The scene’s music makers had no choice but to keep pace. A former songwriter and producer at Motown, Harvey Fuqua showed a keener understanding of Sylvester’s potential than most of his music-biz peers would when he signed the singer -- who’d been a member of the gender-bending avant-garde theatre troupe The Cockettes – to his imprint on Fantasy. He also made a deal with Sylvester’s backup singers, a duo named Two Tons Of Fun who’d have their greatest success as the Weather Girls with “It’s Raining Men”.But Fuqua’s smartest move was teaming Sylvester with Patrick Cowley, a San Francisco synthesizer boffin with a knack for increasing the intensity of the kind of sultry, machine-made grooves that Giorgio Moroder had first fashioned for Donna Summer. When Sylvester’s gospel-influenced yet unabashedly carnal vocals topped Cowley’s sleek synthesizer throb on hits like “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”, the results were so extraordinary, they birthed their own subgenre: hi-NRG.At the height of his success at the end of the ‘70s, Sylvester was a sensation among gay and mainstream audiences alike. But like many artists of the era, he struggled to find a new direction when the disco backlash caused record companies to be more skittish about the kind of flamboyance that had been de rigueur just a few years before. More gospel and soul influences came to the fore on Sylvester’s final albums for Fantasy and subsequent recordings. He also showed off other aspects of his voice, his natural baritone having been long obscured by his show-stopping falsetto.By then, the gay community that had made him a star had begun to suffer the ravages of the AIDS plague. After one final triumph with the singer on 1982’s exhilarating “Do You Wanna Funk,” Cowley became an early casualty. AIDS would also claim Sylvester in 1988, though he defied another taboo by going public about his condition in an interview published before his death in the Los Angeles Times. “It bothers me that AIDS is still thought of as a gay, white male disease,” said the singer. “The black community is at the bottom of the line when it comes to getting information, even when weve been so hard hit by this disease. I’d like to think that by going public myself with this, I can give other people courage to face it.”The songs Sylvester was working on at the time of his death were posthumously released on an album named Immortal. Given the long shadow that his music and style cast on the present, the title seems like more than the usual hyperbole, and the cover photo of him in flaming orange hair and a pair of black heels captures his timeless spirit. Here’s a playlist of Sylvester at his finest.
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.