Get warped with the latest tracks and trends in metalcore, post-hardcore, emo, pop-punk, and everything in between, as selected by The Dowsers Justin Farrar.
The triumphant return of Brand New—whose new single "Cant Get It Out" pushes deep into the modern-rock zone—is upon us. But dont sleep on Converges "Under Duress," a chilling slab of metalcore, or Blindwishs "Single Word"—post-hardcore blending soaring melodieswith pummeling heft.
Power pop could be perhaps the most ironically named of rock subgenres. Sure, as a purely sonic descriptor, it makes sense: Take the pristine jangle of ‘60s melody makers like The Byrds and Love and add some Marshall-stack muscle. But historically speaking, power pop has been the playground of the powerless: the aspiring Anglophiles who dreamed of being as big as The Beatles only to get crushed by an indifferent music industry (Big Star, Flamin’ Groovies); the eccentrics whose expertise with a hook belied their peculiar personalities (Todd Rundgren, Cheap Trick); the down ‘n’ out misfits for whom the ringing chords of a Rickenbacker are the only salve for a world of pain (The La’s Ted Leo).For enthusiasts, power pop represents rock ‘n’ roll in its most immaculate state—the perfect synthesis of melody, harmony, and riffed-up swagger. But at its most potent——be it Badfinger’s swooning “No Matter What” or Sheer Mag’s aching “Just Can’t Get Enough”——it’s also the frozen-in-amber sound of dreams unfulfilled, love unrequited, and halcyon days that can never be relived. Even as its gamely adapted to every rock trend of the past 40 years (punk, indie rock, lo-fi, grunge), power pop’s essential chemistry remains the same: It’s the sugar rush and the bitter pill all in one.
Despite its reputation as the No. 1 music-industry disruptor of 2019, Lil Nas X’s honky-hop hybrid “Old Town Road” owes a great deal of its success to an age-old formula: the promotion of the chorus from cleanup hitter to leadoff batter. Although its usage has gained considerable traction in the streaming era (when shortened attention spans demand that artists engineer their tracks to elicit love-at-first-click), you can find examples of chorus-verse-chorus songwriting throughout pop history. This playlist provides a brief history of songs in which the first verse is secondary, chronologically charting how the practice has evolved over time. Back in the days of Elvis and The Beatles, it was an instant invitation to get up and dance to the devil’s music. For iconoclastic rockers like Neil Young and The Clash, it was a means of putting their social messaging front and center. At the height of hair metal, bands like Bon Jovi and Twisted Sister put their shout-along refrains up front in anticipation of engaging with their arena-size audiences. And as hip-hop and R&B have become the dominant forms of pop music in the 21st century, it’s becoming increasingly common for artists in the former camp to lure you in with hooks steeped in the latter.
The great irony about the MTV Unplugged phenomenon of the 1990s is that the performances were often less stripped down than gussied up. Sure, the series provided a forum for rock artists to reimagine their riffed-up repertoires as campfire fare, but it also gave them license to crowd the stage with string players, woodwind sections, and other auxiliary personnel. Even a punk-conscious band like Nirvana weren’t immune to this when they sat down for their now-iconic Unplugged taping in November 1993 (released a year later as MTV Unplugged in New York), as they brought along a cello player and a couple of Meat Puppets. But the band’s quietest performance ever proved to be their most intense, no more so than on Kurt Cobain’s traumatic excavation of the Lead Belly standard “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.”That song didn’t just become a key part of Nirvana’s legacy; it set the gold standard for acoustic-administered emotional exorcisms, clearing the bar set by white-knuckled strummers like Bob Dylan and Richie Havens. The other performances collected on this playlist may not approach the same soul-wrenching extremes, but they each document a revelatory moment in a career (such as a young David Bowie finding his flamboyant voice in Jacques Brel’s “Port of Amsterdam” and the early Jane’s Addiction showcasing their range with the harmonica-honked anomaly “My Time”), or they capture a legend in their purest, most primal state (see: Lauryn Hill’s epic freestyle on “Mystery of Iniquity” and Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum stretching the physical limits of his voice on the haunting “Oh Comely”). The casual nature of acoustic performances has also presented artists with a forum for making other people’s songs their own, like Wings’ dramatic reading of Paul Simon’s “Richard Cory” (in which Macca cedes lead vocal duties to Denny Laine) and Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson’s arresting rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore” (released on the Singles soundtrack under their Lovemongers alias). And no survey of quality acoustica is complete without oft-overlooked hair-metal outsiders Tesla, whose Five Man Acoustical Jam record actually predated the first proper MTV Unplugged release by six months.
Let’s make one thing glaringly plain right at the start: This is not a Halloween playlist. So if you’re expecting “Monster Mash” or “Ghostbusters” or any of that sort of business, you’re trick-or-treating at the wrong door. The songs assembled here are meant instead for ushering in Samhain, a holiday that occurs at the same time as—and is a predecessor to—Halloween, but has different, decidedly older origins. But make no mistake, things surrounding Samhain can still get plenty creepy.
It’s essentially an end-of-harvest commemoration that is Gaelic in origin and goes back at least to the 10th century if not farther. It’s generally reckoned to be connected to paganism, and some of the spooky rites and rituals connected to it (which have also been an inspiration on Halloween) bear that out. But there’s also an organic and naturalistic, almost folksy side to it. Check out the classic ’70s movie thriller The Wicker Man (represented here) some time and you’ll get an idea of that intersection, albeit slanted distinctly toward the dark side.
Then again, positioned as it is to herald the oncoming winter, Samhain is known as the harbinger of the “dark half” of the calendar year. So that darkness manifests itself in more ways than one. And the Samhain-friendly songs here fall all across the spectrum. On one end, you’ve got the gentle folky stuff, be it Led Zeppelin’s “Battle of Evermore,” Jethro Tull’s “Songs from the Wood,” or Loreena McKennitt’s “All Souls Night.” Then there’s the moodier, more intense, dancing-naked-in-the-moonlight vibe represented by the likes of Dead Can Dance, Kate Bush, and Faith and The Muse. And on the most unsettling side, you’ve got Black Sabbath, Bruce Dickinson, and Electric Wizard conjuring classic metallic, black-magic imagery.
Some of these tunes have an explicitly subject-specific spin, and some may simply fit the feel, but brought together they provide a soundtrack for the full range of Samhain moods.
Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash
What’s This Playlist All About? The folks at Under the Radar Magazine highlight some of the biggest sleeper tracks in alt and indie rock. On their first go-around, they cover a wide field of songs that seemingly have nothing else in common other than being “precious stones buried in discographies” or ones that are simply “underappreciated for a variety of reasons” --leaving listeners to figure out what those reasons are for themselves.What You Get: This is mostly an exercise in digging up deep cuts from big-name bands like Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead, and Coldplay. But before you get there, they throw in a few offbeat indie and electro artists worth a shout-out, like Brooklyn duo High Places and Spencer Krug’s highly underrated solo project Moonface. Things get a little wilder midway through with the woozy Clap Your Hands Say Yeah nugget “Mama, Won’t You Keep Them Castles in the Air Burning?” and PS I Love You’s propulsive noise-rocker “Get Over.” Then it all cools down a bit with the Cure-esque Pablo Honey ballad “Thinking About You” and the slow-burning tearjerker “Friends and Foe” from Irish greats The Frames.Greatest Discovery: Lead track “Digging Holes” comes from a lesser-known band from Madison, WI, called Icarus Himself. The song has several twists and turns, with organ jabs, wieldy guitar licks, and magical quavers of an electronic instrument called the Omnichord. The group sound like The Walkmen one minute, then Beirut the next, as the song concludes in a celebratory squall of brass.Most Questionable Pick: Lady Gaga’s gut-wrenching showstopper “Always Remember Us This Way” from her Oscar-nominated performance in A Star Is Born. It may be up there as one of her greatest performances, but is this Billboard Hot 100 hit really a song that’s been slept on?
Trent Reznor has been soundtracking the end of the world for decades now, and somehow—no matter what is dominating the news cycle—it always feels appropriate. Coming out of the bowels of Cleveland, Ohio, as a fan of Skinny Puppy, Gary Numan, and Nitzer Ebb, Reznor brought his blackened synth-pop to the masses with 1989’s Pretty Hate Machine. On that album, between the seething industrial dance anthems “Head Like a Hole” and “Sin,” he bared his soul for “Something I Can Never Have,” a minimal piano elegy that dares to dangle its feet over a great black hole of hopelessness. Each succeeding NIN album would include at least one such devastating dirge: The Downward Spiral’s “Hurt,” The Fragile’s “The Great Below,” With Teeth’s “Right Where It Belongs.” Even the highly underrated Still, a 2002 set of instrumentals and stripped-down songs, was completely dedicated to the concept.
Now a prestigious Oscar-winning composer, Reznor has long mastered the art of eliciting emotion from the subtlest of sounds and drawing out our deepest-seated anxieties from the space between those sounds. Just see his haunting scores for films like The Social Network and Gone Girl with Atticus Ross, the darkly ambient Ghosts series, and more recent doom-stricken dirges like Add Violence’s “This Isn’t the Place.” As any NIN fan understands, there’s something sinisterly seductive about allowing yourself to slip into your own shadow, to slide further down the spiral, to soak in the dreariest of drones. But what’s kept the band evolving—and what makes you keep listening—is the profound realization that darkness can’t exist without light. To that, Reznor’s most powerful compositions manage to radiate and resonate with the slightest sense of solace (see: “Leaving Hope”).
Indie supergroup GØGGS features singer Chris Shaw of Memphis-based punk outfit Ex-Cult, indie psych darling Ty Segall, Bay Area garage noise revivalist Charles Moothart and bassist Michael Anderson. Having started as a conversation between Shaw and Segall when Ex-Cult opened for White Fence back in 2013, the band has just surprise-released their second album Pre Strike Sweep digitally in early September and are currently celebrating the physical release. Built on the more aggressive side of their foundational music influences (namely 80s hardcore), GØGGS is both fierce and thoughtful, exploring each members root in the underground through the totally fitting theme of destruction and rebirth. We recently asked them to make us a playlist, and were stoked to see them explore that theme and their musical influences family tree even further.Says Chris Shaw: "Pre Strike Sweep- the title track from the new GØGGS album- is a song about starting over. New beginnings are a common theme in rock music, so it was easy to make this list of rippers that are all loosely based on some kind of change. This is also probably the only playlist to ever feature Lee Hazelwood and Urban Waste back to back. Medicinal marijuana will do that to you."Listen above or go right here.
Before Tracy Chapman came along, 1988 sure didnt seem like it was waiting for her. Remember, the U.S. had been through two terms of Ronald Reagan, and the sense of American entitlement (or at least white American entitlement) had reached toxic levels. The "greed is good" era was in full swing. Conspicuous consumerism had become a virtue, if not a requirement. It felt like the entire country had taken a worrying swing to the right.The album charts, airwaves, and MTV rotation were overloaded with bigger-is-better hair metal and synth-swathed, hi-tech dance pop. Nobody was expecting an androgynous young African-American balladeer with an acoustic guitar to bring back Americas social conscience and rise almost overnight from obscurity to iconic status.But when Tracy Chapmans self-titled debut album arrived, packed with undeniably urgent tunes that could only be classified as protest songs, it was as if the world suddenly realized it had been nursing a Chapman-sized void for years, which was finally being filled. And the world responded in kind: a No. 1 record all over the globe, an armful of Grammys, a Top 10 hit with "Talkin Bout a Revolution," and saturation of just about every arm of the media, from magazine covers to radio playlists.Though nobody had heard of Chapman before April of 88, by September she was co-headlining Amnesty Internationals Human Rights Now! tour, alongside socio-politically savvy rock titans like Springsteen, Sting, and Peter Gabriel. But the force of her songs, sound, and persona made it impossible to imagine any other scenario.In the year of "Dont Worry, Be Happy," here came a forthright troubadour with a force-of-nature voice delivering songs about domestic abuse (the chilling, a cappella "Behind the Wall"), the harsh realities of American poverty ("Fast Car"), the madness of materialism ("Mountains O Things"), worldwide injustice ("Why?"), and of course, the long-overdue arrival of a political sea change (the rabble-rousing"Talkin Bout a Revolution," which proudly proclaimed, "finally the tables are starting to turn").Sure, an eyeblink later we had The Indigo Girls, Melissa Etheridge, et al. But when that first Tracy Chapman album burst into being, it felt like something unprecedented was happening, or at least something the likes of which the nation hadnt seen since the days of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs more than two decades earlier. And it was lost on no one that this charge was led by a sexually ambiguous woman of color in a time when a doddering, reactionary white man defined Americas image.30 years after Chapman first made her mark, the U.S. finds itself at a troubling juncture once more, a time when an alarming number of citizens have swung to the right yet again, and all the social ills of the 80s are threatening to take up residence in the heart of America again. If Tracy Chapman were making her debut now, when theres such a grievous crevasse in our nations liberty, she would probably be described as "woke."But Chapman was woke long before that colloquialism ever even existed. If songs like "Fast Car" and "Talkin Bout a Revolution" were unleashed for the first time in 2018 instead of 1988, theyd feel just as much like a desperately needed breath of clean, fresh air. In fact, if you dust those tracks off and take them out for a spin right now, youll find that they still speak to the state of things with just as much resonance as ever. And while its a shame that theyre still so necessary, its a blessing that theyre still so unshakably powerful.
In July of 1967, The Monkees dropped what would quickly become their fourth top-five single in just under a year. At first blush, “Pleasant Valley Sunday” is a lot like its predecessors: a hummable gem powered by finger-snapping swing and tumbling folk jangle over which fly pleading harmonies anchored by Micky Dolenz’s nervy soulfulness. There’s a nifty percussive breakdown at the 1:30 mark that recalls Ringo Starr’s super-charged bongos in “A Hard Day’s Night;” even better, though, is the bottomless cavern of reverb and echo that, like a black hole, swallows the song whole in the closing 30 seconds--a small but significant step towards the then exploding psychedelic movement.“Pleasant Valley Sunday” is exactly why Screen Gems picked up The Monkees concept from producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider: to churn out the kind of feel-good pop that both The Beatles, having graduated from lovable mop tops to acid-dropping sound explorers, and The Beach Boys, retreating into insular eccentricity after Smile failed to materialize, had abandoned by the time of the Summer of Love. Davy, Peter, Michael, and Micky, the film production company were banking, would appeal to those suburban youth who still craved innocent AM pop and not the anti-establishment weirdness of the hippies.Dig into the verses, however, and one discovers the song--penned by Gerry Goffin and Carole King in reaction to the leisurely boredom of identical row houses, perfect lawns, and patio cookouts--actually satirizes the very suburbia that embraced the act. It’s brilliantly subversive, and The Monkees make for an exceptional delivery system, turning out a nuanced performance that manages to encode youth alienation into a song that on its surface is as plastic and superficial as its subject.At the time, and for several decades afterwards, The Monkees were derided as corporate-manufactured fluff (i.e. the “Pre-Fab Four”). It’s a view that has softened in recent years. Yet there’s still a long list of music critics and rock tastemakers (including, apparently, Jann Wenner, cofounder of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that has yet to induct them) who fail to fully acknowledge the band’s slyly radical genius--of which “Pleasant Valley Sunday” is just a small taste. From 1966 through to 2016’s Good Times!, an impeccable album featuring one of the 21st century’s most heart-aching slices of indie folk in the Ben Gibbard-penned “Me & Magdalena” (and yes, The Monkees make modern indie folk), they haven’t just released a wealth of finely crafted pop; they’ve also pushed the form into brand new sonic territory and conceptual complexity.Considering the era from which they emerged, it only makes sense that The Monkees’ experimental streak expresses itself most stridently in their psychedelic recordings. Their single greatest song, the symphonic “Porpoise Song (Theme from “Head”), from their 1968 flick lampooning their own celebrity and consumer society in mid-’60s America, is every bit as glorious and dramatic as “Good Vibrations” and “A Day in a Life.” Not far behind is “Randy Scouse Git,” littered with references to partying with The Beatles and a dancehall-style melody sped up and smashed into pieces with ball-peen hammer, and “Auntie’s Municipal Court,” which folds the chiming drone and bassy thump of the Fabs’ “Rain” into California-bred roots-pop. But seriously, we could could go on and on, citing nuggets like “Daily Nightly,” one of the first rock songs featuring the sci-fi zaps and twirls of the Moog synthesizer (Dolenz owned one), or the drug reference-littered “Salesman,” written by Craig Smith who later record deeply strange psych-folk under the name Satya Sai Maitreya Kali, or “Circle Sky,” a fuzz-punk raver pivoting on a wiry riff presaging The Fall, or “Zilch,” ear-tweaking avant-gardeness that’s crosses Mothers of Invention-type studio shenanigans with composer Steve Reich’s tape loop experiments. You see?There also exist subtler yet no less bold examples veering off in the other direction, into earthy twang and proto-singer-songwriter intimacy. The Monkees--whose battles with music supervisor Don Kirshner for creative control are now the stuff of rock legend--actually had a far harder time slipping this material onto their ’60s albums. Where the psych-pop fare could be pretty strange, at least it made commercial sense when placed alongside trippy joviality like “Incense and Peppermints” and “Sunshine Superman.”Cuts such as 1967’s “You Told Me,” in contrast, make a more thorough break with the silly lightheadedness of The Monkees television program, recasting them as pioneers of the kind of countrified confessionals that wouldn’t pierce mainstream pop until the early ’70s. As the cerebral and astute Michael Nesmith has explained time and time again, the concept of The Monkees, as a mass media creation, simply didn’t have the room for his love of American vernacular music. This meant a great deal of the outfit’s most mature material, including the Bob Dylan-flavored “Nine Times Blue” (a dreamily poetic ballad Nesmith’s First National Band also recorded), wouldn’t see the light of day until Rhino’s stellar Missing Link series of outtakes, demos, and rarities that popped up in the late ’80s.When you add up these myriad facets of The Monkees’ catalog--all the psychedelia, the fuzzy garage punk, the rustic country-rock, the synthesizer-laced Baroque pop—a case can be made that not unlike The Byrds or even The Grateful Dead they managed to unite humanity’s oftentimes opposing desires for a sense of roots and cosmic transcendence into a rock-and-roll vision that’s profoundly expansive. And they did this while struggling to achieve creative autonomy and a sense of human dignity in a cold, corporate world. No shabby feat, people.
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.