Words by Jonathan Stout
When not doing freelance writing, Jonathan Stout is heavily involved in the NKY and Cincinnati music scenes as the Marketing Manager for Kentucky based venue The Southgate House Revival and founder of DIY Recording label Lo Fi City Recordings. He’s also an active musician, performing and recording with Sleepy Drums, Mutt Fuzz, Burnt Cabins and Uncle Fungus. Here are his top ten albums in no order.
Some critics negatively regard the fact that Yo La Tengo albums will often shift genre sometimes from song to song. However this feature has become a thrill for most fans. This Stupid World finds the band in seething, restrained noise mode, desperately trying to make sense of the modern day chaos in the world surrounding them. Album opener “Sinatra Drive Breakdown” starts things off with a scorching slow burn, similar to “Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” from I’m Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass. In songs like “Tonight’s Episode” looping feedback becomes the guitar lead as bass and drums frolic in a kraut rock march. Somehow with so many noise aspects, vocalist Ira Kaplan is still able to deliver lines at a very subdued volume, sometimes almost a whisper. The mixing of the album is perfect and gives every instrument used in the minimal arrangements their own space, so even when guitars are swelling and feeding back, it doesn’t overwhelm the recordings.
Fans of Purling Hiss had to wait seven years for another full length between High Bias and Drag on Girard but the wait was well worth it. Drag on Girard is one of the band’s most accessible and cohesive collections of songs yet, honing in on everything the band does best. This is true, raw rock n roll, that belongs in a beer-soaked basement, surrounded by amps turned up to 11 and vibing dudes with long hair passing joints and banging their fists. And I mean that as righteously as possible.
For my money, The Men are the best current American rock band. A bold statement, I know, but few bands are able to maintain such consistency while also maintaining a raw, no-bullshit sound. Their last few albums have taken them on different sonic paths – from Neil Young style folk slow burners to heavy hitting post hardcore and everything in between. New York City finds the band firing on all cylinders with one of their most straightforwardly rocking sets. For musicians who have been at it for a while, this album is remarkably energetic, fierce and focused. No frills rock n’ roll with a strong proto-punk and hardcore influence. This album calls to mind imagery of sweaty basement punk shows- the kind of cathartic music made because it must urgently be expelled. The Men is the real deal and their pretense-free recordings always revitalize my belief that rock n’ roll can still be exciting without the necessity of wheel reinvention.
If you haven’t heard, Scaring The Hoes is the name of the collaborative project between MC/producers JPEGMAFIA and Danny Brown. Their self-titled debut was produced entirely, and impressively, on a single Roland SP-404 MKII sampler drum pad by JPEGMAFIA. On the track “Burtict!” JPEGMAFIA proclaims “Ni*** I do this for fun!” which could be the general mission statement for the entire project. This is an album for the real heads – the kind that artists make for themselves and other musicians. To be blunt – I’ve never heard anything that sounds like this album. I’ve heard it referred to as “a Sgt. Pepper’s moment for contemporary hip hop fans” and it’s hard to argue with that. The dizzying, complex and yet raw production is not casual listening. It demands your attention, and once it has you, it doesn’t let go. With beats too busy for most MCs to even try to touch, JPEGMAFIA and Danny Brown weave through the open spaces, clearly in their element. The compositions often defy genre, with samples chopped beyond recognition, and audio frequencies peaking. This collection goes hard both lyrically and musically while still maintaining a smirk and a party vibe. Both exciting and fun from start to finish. This is future music: get in your flying car and ride!
It can be hard for songwriters as prolific as John Dwyer of Osees to release music as rapidly as his band does while also keeping things interesting and consistent. Luckily, Dwyer is an artist that seemingly remains inspired, and as a result the Osees have morphed many times, in name, lineup and sound. Their previous album cleansed the prog palette of their previous run of releases with some ferociously sharp punk. The newest collection, Intercepted Message, switches things up yet again with a clear new wave influence. However, even though there are clearly different muses at work for the songwriting here, Dwyer is still able to make it sound patently like Osees even with the sonic alterations. Overall, this is simply one of the more fun and immediately accessible collections the band has released in years.
Even though Wilco are still ultimately one of the most popular alternative/indie rock bands ever at this point, something began happening within the past few years – their public perception began to change a bit, especially to younger listeners. Many trolls began labeling them boring, low-energy, bland, etc. Longtime fans of course know that Wilco can actually be quite dynamic and creative. However, their recent work has unfortunately been less than memorable.
Putting out records rapidly can be thrilling, but artists must also sometimes consider the possibility of burying earlier content by flooding the market with new content (unless that’s your intent). Case in point- if your experience with the band was fostered with Summerteeth, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born, then you know that the band can be inspired, diverse and engaging. But if your references for the band are Schmilco, Ode to Joy and Cruel Country, not only will you likely think the band is predictable, you’ll also probably be confused as to why there are six members in the band. Increasingly sounding akin to the solo albums concurrently being released by Jeff Tweedy, the simple folk and country driven songs lack the sonic textures and left turns made on such albums as A Ghost Is Born, The Whole Love and Star Wars. But don’t give up yet! Even a bad Wilco song is better than many other things.
Cousin, their offering of 2023, finds the band getting weird again (thankfully). Perhaps the result of being the first release since 2007 that an outside producer (Cate Le Bon) was involved, it appears the band can actually benefit from some direction. From the swirling ambient loops incorporated with the album’s opener, “Infinite Surprise,” to the ominous soundscape of “Ten Dead,” the hopelessness of “Pittsburgh” and the tried and true Wilco sound of “Evicted,” this album returns to the variety and depth of their previous work while still sounding fresh. The songs have a fuller sound, with a more collaborative vibe and clear contributions from the band members. Hopefully, Cousin can be an effective reset for the band, with a possible new approach for future releases.
The collaboration of JD PInkus (Butthole Surfers) and Tall Tall Trees (Mike Savino) might be somewhat unexpected, but if anything can be said about the new partnership, it’s that the two surely bring out the weird in each other. Although both are multi-instrumentalists, they’ve honed a focus on the experimental banjo in recent years. However, don’t be fooled by the word “banjo”. This isn’t fake cowboy garbage, this is something else entirely. Ponder Machine features collaborative songs that stretch out and grow, one loop after another, sometimes developing into deliberate cacophony. The more straightforward compositions are bound together by exploratory noise soundscapes that create doomy and sometimes ghostly introductions for proceeding tracks. To reference an old expression- “This ain’t your Grandpa’s banjo record!” Instead, it’s a psychedelic journey and immersive experience created by instruments not usually associated with such adjectives.
Pile- the trio of Rick Maguire, Kris Kuss, and Alex Molini -have evolved quite steadily throughout their prolific discography. For their newest album, All Fiction, the band found inspiration in the studio, working tirelessly to record, experiment, manipulate, mutate and layer the songs with lush orchestration, haunting synths and abstract textures.
The band is in the process of a reset of sorts. The aggressive riffs of earlier albums are now often replaced by an astute sense of space- the vocals at one moment sound like they’re yelled from the other side of the room and are hushed the next. Notes are held out longer. Arrangements increasingly minimalist. However, no matter how different it may seem at first, the more you listen, the more you can feel the music’s intrinsic spiritual connection to Pile’s previous albums.
This new filter that Pile’s music is being presented through is transformative in the best of ways. It can be haunting, suspenseful, driving and atmospheric- sometimes all in one song. What’s most rewarding is that it gets more fascinating with each listen.
It’s been a long ten years since Quasi (aka Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss) have released an album. For their newest release, the playfully titled Breaking the Balls of History, the band draws inspiration from the political and social chaos of the last few years, and does so with gusto. The collection of songs roll and tumble, pulling the listener in, one catchy hook at a time. Coomes lets off quite a bit of lyrical steam throughout, but instead of drenching the songs in a depressing sea of minor chords, Quasi makes talking about serious problems fun with a slew of uptempo, exciting rockers.
The songwriting of Breaking the Balls of History occurred during a unique period in the members’ lives. In the summer of 2019 Weiss got in a serious car accident where she broke both legs and her collarbone. By the time Weiss and Coomes began writing again, Weiss was not only still in physical therapy but a deadly virus had nearly killed off live music, leaving the future of the music industry unclear. With this context in mind, the amount of catharsis involved in the creation of these songs is palpable.
For Wand frontman Cory Hanson’s newest album, Western Cum, he continues the western themes of his previous album, Pale Horse Rider. However, whereas Pale Horse Rider seemed to celebrate the atmosphere of a lonesome evening traveler riding on horseback through a lonely desert via psych-folk balladry, Western Cum instead finds a middle ground between the heavy rocking melodies of Wand and Hanson’s new found love of southern rock.
Don’t let the term “southern rock” fool you, Hanson isn’t singing “Sweet Home Alabama” here, instead he uses a little extra twang as a backdrop for some pretty twisted storytelling. In the song “Ghost Ship” Hanson sings the lyrics “Upside down and spinning around/The entrails of a dog/ The cocaine that you’re carrying/Is taped onto your balls/Swinging around in the darkness/No one to hear your call.” So… yeah. Not typical lyrical fare.
That being said, the vocals and lyrics take a secondary role on this collection, as this is most definitely a huge guitar album. Where Pale Horse Rider excelled in its restraint, Western Cum is balls to the wall (ahem) as a relentless riff tour de force. Though southern rock is the color most broadly painted across the songs, other classic rock and punk influences also shine through Hanson’s playing- from Thin Lizzy, to Neil Young, Television and more. The juxtaposition of all these influences makes for a very unique and thrilling listen. He’s certainly on a bit of a streak now and it’s exciting to see where he may go next, either with Wand or solo, his songwriting and guitar playing does nothing but improve exponentially with each release.