According to one account, disco was born on Valentines Day, 1970, in New York City. It certainly couldnt have come at a better time. Nixon had been president for a little over a year; the Vietnam War was dragging on, and the unrest of the 60s had settled in like a hangovers dull throb. Some groups had it worse than others: In New York, it was still illegal for two men to dance together, and while the Stonewall Riots of the previous year had helped kick a nascent gay-rights movement into gear, undercover cops were still busting gays, lesbians, and transsexuals in dimly lit bars.So you can understand why a young, bearded bohemian named David Mancuso wrote "Love Saves the Day" on invitations announcing a private party at his home, a loft in a former warehouse in a deserted corner of lower Manhattan. A little positive energy was needed. A safe space was sorely needed—space to dance, space to socialize, and space simply to be oneself. ("Love Saves the Day" might also have been a way of hinting at the mystery ingredient in the punchbowl, but what world-changing musical event hasnt come with its own social lubricant?)Mancusos private party eventually became a regular shindig, known simply as the Loft. Its trappings became legendary: the scores of multicolored balloons hugging the ceiling and bobbing along the floor; the sumptuous fruit spread; the Klipschorn speakers, so clear that listeners heard details in records theyd never noticed before. Two elements above all were paramount: the mixed crowd—a joyfully nonhierarchical sampling of sexualities, genders, ethnicities, and social classes—and the music, chosen and sequenced according to Mancusos own impeccable instincts.And while it wasnt a club, by any stretch of the imagination—for one thing, the Loft remained a members-only event, and strictly BYOB—in its focus on the music and the crowd, its attempt to carve out a refuge from the pressures of the outside world, the Loft established the blueprint for the discotheque and the modern nightclub. Thats not to say that many modern clubs live up to the example set by the Loft; most dont. (As Mancuso himself told Red Bull Music Academy in 2013, "For me the core [idea behind the Loft] is about social progress. How much social progress can there be when youre in a situation that is repressive? You wont get much social progress in a nightclub"; for Mancuso, the non-profit motive was crucial to preserving a venues liberatory potential.)Mancuso didnt call himself a DJ; he preferred to be known as a "musical host," and somewhere along the line, he even stopped blending his transitions, simply letting each song play out in full before starting the next one. But the open-mindedness of his selections helped establish disco, at least before it codified into an oonce-oonce beat, as a zone of possibility rather than a narrowly defined genre, and that message continues to resonate with DJs today. This Spotify playlist gathers more than 100 songs that Mancuso played at the Loft: deep, ecstatic funk (Wars "Me and Baby Brother," The J.B.s "Gimme Some More"), African funk (Manu Dibangos "Soul Makossa," a song Mancuso popularized), classic soul (Al Greens "Love and Happiness"), house music (Fingers Inc.s "Mystery of Love"), even folk-rock (Van Morrisons "Astral Weeks"). No playlist can replicate the way he played the music, though, juxtaposing songs to play up their lyrical themes, or building intensity as the party crept toward dawn.In Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979, Tim Lawrence asks various New York DJs who came in Mancusos wake if they had ever danced at the Loft. "Time and again," he writes, "they would describe Mancuso as their most important influence, a musical messiah who also happened to resemble Jesus Christ."That messiah died on November 14, 2016, after a protracted illness, at the age of 72. It seems a cruel irony that he should leave us now, precisely when safe spaces, both real and metaphorical, suddenly feel more necessary than ever, their survival even more precarious. His followers can only hope that love might save the day once more.
It’s difficult to overstate how much DFA meant to modern indie music. When the label first appeared in the early aughts, many in the Pitchfork crowd were afraid of dance music, but bands like LCD Soundsystem and Rapture made electronic music hip again for a certain audience. It was post-internet music, meaning that there was a premium put on pastiche and obscurity; and the music referenced everything from Krautrock to disco. But the music wasn’t stale or overly cerebral; it rocked, thumped and sometimes bumped. Elliot Sharp, from RBMA, places the tracks in chronological order, and it’s interesting to hear the collective sound develop and mature over the years. There seems to be an over-reliance on remixes, and some of the labels biggest names are not on here, but every track is great, and it’s a decent enough place to start.
Arthur Russell was an extraordinarily gifted musician whose talent flowed unobstructed into myriad areas of musical culture. Born in Iowa in 1951, Russell rose to prominence in the ‘70s and ‘80s through New York’s downtown music scene, where he engaged with avant-garde, disco, experimental, classical, and more, working with artists such as Philip Glass, David Byrne, and Allen Ginsburg. His disco orchestrations were both profoundly complex and thoroughly hip, employing cello and horns in a radically vanguard way. He is perhaps most famous, though, for his use of amplified cello, the reverberated timbres of which provided an impeccably lush counterpoint to his angelic voice and candid words. His intimate solo recordings remain the nucleus of his genius, the extent of which may never even be fully known, as a tremendous amount of unreleased tapes and demos continue to be discovered since his untimely death in 1992.
Bayside’s Vacancy is an album steeped in the tradition of a very specific iteration of New York-bred punk rock. With a name nicked from a train station in the nether reaches of Queens, the group shares far more in common with other bands that have emerged from the city’s outer boroughs, family-oriented neighborhoods, and even the suburban sprawl of Long Island than they do the hipster transplants infesting Williamsburg and Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The number of top-tier musicians who call these, the uncool parts of the greater New York metropolis, home is really rather bonkers. After all, where would New York punk and hardcore be without the likes of the Ramones, Sick of It All, Murphy’s Law, and Brand New?
This list is great. One could argue that there’s too much Chi Ali and not enough Queen Latifah, or that “Jazz (We’ve Got)” doesn’t belong in the top 10, or that the list would be better if they opened it up to Native Tongue “affiliates” such as The Beatnuts or Pharcyde. But, really, it’s fine. The tighter focus on the core Native Tongue members makes it more cohesive and gives the playlist a flow as it progresses from the rougher sketches that dominate the early tracks (the playlist is in reverse order) to the tighter, tauter “classic” songs in the top 20. Why this all only kind of works, and one of the great tragedies of the digital era, is that only 57 of the 100 greatest Native Tongues tracks are currently available on Spotify. This is largely, though not entirely, due to sample clearance issues around De La Soul’s catalog. De La does show up on “Fallin’,” their collaboration with Teenage Fanclub from the “Judgement Night” soundtrack. The song reminds us of everything we love about that group — their competing pull of whimsy and melancholy; the back-of-the-classroom absurdity that gives way to twilight-youth pathos and then comes full circle as that sadness loses focus and dissipates into fits of giggling.
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.