Words by Jonathan Stout
Jonathan Stout is an Ohio based freelance writer with a specialty in music. He has written about various topics for several outlets, including Lifestyle Magazine, Cincy Music, Pop-Daze, Herzog Music and more. He is heavily involved in the Cincinnati music scene and is the founder of DIY media label Lo Fi City Recordings.
Wake up is a band centered around the songwriting of Los Angeles based songwriter Evan Mui, though there’s nothing about their sound that screams “LA!” (and I mean that in the best way possible. Instead, their sound is a brilliant callback to the indie slacker rock of the 90s, taking the best aspects of some of the best bands of the era and putting them together to create the perfect mix of guitar driven hooks, catchy melodies and a lot of heart to boot. Songs like the album opener, “I gotta get away,” recall Crooked Rain era Pavement with a bridge reminiscent of some of Built to Spill’s most poignant moments heard on albums like “Keep it like a Secret.” Add some small dashes of contemporary jangle-pop and basically you have an album comprised of most of my favorite kinds of sounds, guaranteed to please anyone who grew up in the mid-90s or began their study of indie rock with albums released then.
An album that is hypnotic, mysterious and yet also immediately accessible, Afrique Victime is a true audio treat. There were so many times throughout the year that I would play this album on repeat multiple times in one day. There are so many subtle nuances, jaw dropping guitar riffs and moments of spiritual beauty sprinkled all throughout that it’s truly one of those albums where you hear something new with every listen. Blending together fundamental aspects of Saharan music with pulsing western psychedelics and a confident rock n roll strut, Mdou Moctar creates a perfect blend for listeners of both their native land and far beyond. This is ethereal and cinematic music, huge enough in scope to make even a short drive to the grocery store feel like an epic journey. Charging forward always, with a prevailing sense of determination and purpose. His unique guitar skills alone make him deserving to be a household name. How much more interesting would the pop music spectrum be if American teenagers with guitars strived to play like Mdou Moctar rather than Slash or John Mayer? Maybe one day…
All in all, there’s probably no album released this year that I listened to more than Cooler Returns by by Toronto’s Kiwi Jr. I even purchased the record as a gift for multiple friends, doing all I could to spread the good word. This album automatically grabs you and doesn’t let go, as you take a comfortably paced jog with the band, eagerly listening to their societal critiques and character studies, set to expertly executed arrangements and jubilant lead guitar hooks. Seemingly leading what seems to be a new jangle-pop revolution (followed closely by Ducks Ltd. who also released a great album this year) Kiwi Jr. stand apart by providing a distinct nod to Flying Nun inspired roots of bands like the Clean, while adding a bit of polish and more than a faint smirk. This is no frills, straight up power pop filled with all of the things that make the genre so accessible and fun.
Easily one of the most consistently reliable groups in the game, I’m very rarely let down by any Czarface release. Since their previous collaborative album with MF DOOM, 2018’s Czarface Meets Metal Face, basically automatically entered classic status, a new collaboration was highly anticipated for years. It makes it all the more bittersweet that it would wind up being DOOM’s final outing. That tragedy aside, this album is a blast, filled with varied styles and bulging at the seams comic book and sci-fi references. But don’t be fooled, this album goes hard and isn’t relegated merely to comic nerds. Any fan of 90s hip hop, Wu Tang or boom bap beats will automatically find a comfortable spot for this on their turntable.
Returning with his best collection of songs since 2015’s V, Hideaway finds Nathan Williams and crew once again churning out some great grungy punk pop gems that automatically get stuck in your head. Perhaps it was moving back to his parents’ house, recording in the same shed where he wrote his earliest material, or maybe from the urging of producer Dave Sitek, but this album returns to the aesthetic that works best for Williams’ compositions. From the simple, direct and catchy song structures to the raw and succinct production, this is definitely fan service, but I hope Williams was also able to gain some worthwhile catharsis from its creation as well.
Babehoven – Nastavi, Calliope (self-released)
Though the song topics featured on this album refer to highly specific events in songwriter Maya Bon’s life, it’s hard not to relate to the greater concepts of isolation, disappointment, death and heartbreak in the greater context of what it’s like to exist in the pandemic world of the last two years. So on the album’s opener, Bad Week, when Bon sings: “Its hard to talk about it being a bad week when it’s been a bad week for a long time now, and it doesn’t seem to get better,” it’s hard not to FEEL IT to your core. From there “the feels” don’t end, as this album conjures all emotions ranging from chill lethargy, contemplativeness, internalized reflection, and more, but in the end, serves a celebration of life and love. An album that serves as an adequate soundtrack to both a rainy afternoon or breezy early summer evening, these songs exemplify an artist’s growth both within their art and personally. It only makes me even more intrigued to hear where they will go with their next album.
Cub Scout Bowling Pins – Clang, Clang Ho (Rockathon Records)
Fans of Robert Pollard/Guided by Voices have always been a bit spoiled, as they have delivered multiple albums basically every year for as long as I can remember. As many artists spent the quarantine songwriting and doing home recording, GBV basically continued business as usual, but had a little bit more time to create than usual. So in 2021, fans were treated with two GBV albums and this album, released under the surname “Cub Scout Bowling Pins.” I personally found its reception to be a little bit surprising in context to what was said of the GBV albums that preceded and followed it. Many things were said of their first release of 2021, Earth Man Blues, ranging from realistic to completely unfounded. “Their best album since Alien Lanes!” “The best album from the current lineup!” “A return to form harkening back to their early days!” The hype was real to say the least. So I was more than a little surprised after purchasing the record to find that none of these claims were correct. However, after keeping it on my turntable and flipping it over constantly for a couple weeks, it quickly grew on me. After releasing the equally popular Heaven Beats Iowa ep under the Cub Scout Bowling Pins surname, fans were very eager to hear what the following full length, Clang Clang Ho, would sound like.
By and large, the reviews were mixed and not nearly as exuberant as the red carpet rolled out for Earth Man Blues. To my ears though, Clang Clang Ho was the most easily accessible and automatically enjoyable endeavor the band has released this year. Part of this is likely caused by my yearning for more of the power pop/60s influence heard in the band’s early material which has been dwindling and systematically shedding from the band’s newer records. Don’t get me wrong- Pollard has likely assembled his most talented backing crew yet with his current lineup; musicians with the energy and talent to keep up with Pollard’s muse. However the newer albums have leaned much harder on post punk (ala the Fall/Wire) and prog (early Genesis
vibes) which is fine, it’s just not where I feel like the band truly shines. The albums have all taken a lot more listening to sink in, which might be a sign of elevated art, but very few of the songs really stick with the listener automatically, which is a very big difference from the bands most celebrated material (“My Valuable Hunting Knife,” “Glad Girls,” “Teenage FBI,” “I am a Scientist,” “Tractor Rape Chain”) which fans continue to sing to themselves long after the record is over. Clang Clang Ho is a fast paced, fun album full of vintage AM pop and psychedelic nuances. It feels like a very different album than those surrounding it, and for that reason alone, I feel like it deserves some extra attention within the Guided By Voices canon.
Cory Hanson- Pale Horse Rider (Drag City)
I first stumbled upon this album accidentally via Corey Hanson’s “Limited Hangout” web series created during the pandemic as a promotional tool for his newest album, Pale Horse Rider. Not seeing Hanson’s name attached to it initially, I was instead drawn into the show by its bizarre, Tim and Eric style skits. That was until a strange man in a tan suit and hot pink face paint emerged with a cowboy backing band. “Oh, a goofy music skit now,” I thought to myself. Imagine my surprise when the songs that came out of this cartoon crew were gorgeous and heartbreaking. Something about the pink faced singer’s voice sounded familiar. After doing some investigation, sure enough it was Corey Hanson of popular psych band Wand. Although his voice is still highly recognizable, the backing music of this album certainly comes from a different palette as much of his previous work with Wand. Instead, Pale Horse Rider takes on cosmic country/Americana, painting bleak landscapes of a lone cowboy riding desperately in the night upon horseback, under a limitless star-filled sky. Have you ever wondered what it would sound like if Thom Yorke made a country/folk album? Well it’s something like that- and it’s amazing.
New York’s Acid Dad refer to themselves as “alternative rock,” which in a way is refreshing. The genre label was avoided in the early 2000s, as it had basically lost its meaning. Coined in the early 90s, it referred to the bands making rock n roll that weren’t necessarily gunning for radio play, were potentially harder rocking than bands dubbed “college rock” at the time, and yet too classic rock infused to be called punk. However, by the early 2000s, the word was often used to define many bland bands like Fuel, Puddle of Mudd and Seether, and that point begged the question: alternative to what? Alternative to good music? However, when applied to a band like Acid Dad, it makes sense. The band blends together aspects of psych rock, punk and even classic rock to fill a sonic space that could easily share a stage with many different types of bands. So instead of being any of those genres in specific, they blend them together, creating an alternative sound! Aha! I get it!
Take It From The Dead finds the band getting evermore comfortable in its sound, without sounding forced and without the more derivative moments of their previous outings. Occupying a brief 35 minutes, the album gives the listener a great taste of what the bands capable of, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and leaves the listener wanting more.
It’s crazy to think that this far into a career of such prolific output Lou Barlow would release his finest, most concise grouping of solo songs in 2021, but here we are! Reason To Live collects his most melodic, personal and confident songs to date. Largely recorded on his own at time, there’s an intimate nature to all these songs, but the songs have all been mixed and mastered beautifully, and without the added Lo Fi noise associated with some of his earlier recordings, the true bone of the songs shines through quite clearly. Although still struggling with some lingering demons, Reason To Live also finds Barlow singing from a place of peace and acceptance not always heard on previous albums. Overall, it’s a very refreshing album from an artist who’s endured the test of time and seems to be improving with age.