As the year end best-of lists roll in, I've noticed a few things notably missing: 1) the risk that most reviewers are taking (e.g. turning over rocks, looking at digital-only and self-released records) continues to shrink and 2) the flyover country of U.S. is woefully underrepresented, while places like Los Angeles, Brooklyn and San Francisco continue to snatch up most of our national bandwidth. It strikes me more and more that if one isn't from coastal America, it's harder to reach much more than a regional audience, regardless of the quality of your art. Of course, all this is somewhat speculative, not based on a particular data set or something, but it's what's informing our year end list. The following are the records we listened to a bunch in 2013, were moved by, and felt like needed to be talked about a bit more.
BEST RECORD OF 2013: Federation X: We Do What We Must. Always a bit of an outsider within the world of stoner/loud rock circles because of their melodies, strong audible vocals and vulnerablity, in 2013 Bellingham, Washington's Federation X released a record that sits well atop a roughly ten year career of putting out really good records. We Do What We Must marks the bands biggest investment in recording, and boasts the best set of sounds on records recorded by greats like Tim Green and Steve Albini. Songs wise, this record hasn't got a single dud. This record more than any other has this band fully comfortable with their sound, and only sounding like themselves, which is to say like a hard rock band with no bassist*, a burley drummer and Bill singing. (*actually, there's bass guitar on this record).
RUNNER UP: Gay Witch Abortion: Opportunistic Smokescreen Behavior. If you're a man who longs for his cotton/poly thrift-acquired fertilizer company jacket, gallons of domestic lager, cigarettes, gasoline that cost about $1.05 and all the other trappings of 1990s underground life, let me introduce you to the time-warp of a band that is Gay Witch Abortion. Two pieces, guitar and drums, a heap of cool shit like octave pedals and songs with names like Congolese Freedom Taxi*, Gay Witch Abortion isn't trying to remind me of the best of the Dope Guns and Fucking comps, they just are playing tunes that would easily stand up to the best of the Cows, Hammerhead and all the rest. (*not an actual song title).
RUNNER UP: Miss Lana Rebel and Kevin Michael Mayfield: A Real Subtle Beauty. It's hard as hell to deny the power of (Tucson, AZ's) Lana and Kevin's music, even if it's delivered on a pretty simple CDR in a paper sleeve, it's a good reminder that some of the best music out there isn't striving for anybody's attention, doesn't have media nor radio campaigns behind it, and even without those trappings it can have the haunting beauty of a sunrise in a saguaro-studded valley in southern Arizona.
Mr. Dad: Deadliest Catch 5". Well, it's not an long-player, but it's great. This Minot, ND band's renewed our faith that good things occasionally come from small places. Mr. Dad's deal is kind of spazzy punk rock, thoroughly informed by the great local scene that is Minot, ND. I'm really looking forward to a full length.
Ben Von Wildenhaus: Great Melodies from Around. Rainy Seattle has always been a cultural backwater, at least on the national scene. Sub Pop used this fact to their advantage and made it seem like all their late '80s/early '90s groups were erstwhile loggers and millworkers, which nobody really was. Ben Von Wildenhaus has been plying his solo guitar music for a lot of years now, and this record actually was released in late 2011, but I'm in favor of calling it a 2013 release, because that's when I got my copy. It's a goddamn winner of a record, with a familiarity that means that you'll flip it about half a dozen times before realizing it's what you've been listening to exclusively
Mordecai: College Rock. Butte, Montana shit rock whose tunes make me think of groups like the Swell Maps and the Fall, though those comparisons are a little weak, mostly because Mordecai sounds like a Rustbelt American psych band, somehow misplaced in the Rockies in the 2010s. What's nice about Mordecai is their vibe, which they've comfortably fit into from day one. I still regularly listen to their first CDR.
Needlecraft: S/T. Hana and Mikki are two of our favorite Missoulians, and this record marks one of the most fruitful collaborations we've seen come from Western Montana is at least a decade. Needlecraft have some girl group Ronnie Spector stuff happening, some Shags fumbling, and awesome attitude.
The Blind Shake: Key To A False Door. Minneapolis' Blind Shake spent a month and a half on the road with the Oh Sees, which probably roughly sextuppled their audience and gave us some hope for the kind of annoying garage scene with its itchy-eBay fingered fanboys, tight jeaned Pabst drinkers, Ray Bans and all the other recycled cultural offal from whenever. I mean, fuck it, some of the stuff like Warm Soda, Shannon and the Clams and Thee Oh Sees is really well done and fun, and some of it's just overhyped, and thoroughly mediocre. So it goes, but the Blind Shake we're sure, with their non-partying cold stun-guitar shit don't really fit in with most of what is going on in the nouveau garage world, and we like their outsiderness and moreover we like their songs and their live show. The Blaha bros and Jim Roper are a serious force to be reckoned with.
Dreamsalon: Thirteen Nights. Craig Chambers' (the Lights) and Min Yee's, (A-Frames) newish group is a great example that a band can be great, and have the modest aim of making great music, and that's about it. Actually, I'm speculating that's the case because I didn't read anywhere near enough about this record, which is excellent in pretty much every way.
INTERNATIONAL FLYOVER NOTE: Dead: Idiots. Dead are the one Melbourne, Australia band that fit pretty squarely outside of the world of the Eddy Currents, the Cunts and all the rest of the garage guys who've been reviving the attention that message boards like Terminal Boredom seem to give the southern hemisphere. Dead are like a weirder Motorhead or something, thoroughly fans of the Melvins and Karp, and making loud weird bassy, riffed out tunes about cats.
NON FLYOVER SPECIAL MENTIONS: Vaz: Visiting Hours. Vaz do currently have a cool zip code (Brooklyn) that they call home, but it's important to note, as with Lord Dying, they're from as un-cool a part of the country (Fargo/Moorehead) as one really can be from, so, they made the list. And their weird space race, soviet futuristic paranoiac rock and roll fits into a genre currently populated by only Vaz, and we love that fact.
Lord Dying: Summon the Faithless. Lord Dying is a Portland band, which officially isn't flyover country, but with half of its members from Utah, and one from Memphis, they're pretty much a stocked with flyover dudes whose hard work shows through pretty much from the first note. There's an unquestionable nod to Tom Warrior and Martin Ain's collaborations, but this thing gives us some hope that metal isn't all godawful backlooking hesher bullshit, or of the dreaded nu variety these days.
Shannon and the Clams: Dreams in the Rat House. This record grew and grew and grew on me in a way that kind of left me needing to hear it at least once a day to be reminded again how good it is. The talent runs incredibly deep with Shannon and Cody, and this record is their third, and runs equally deep with their themes of sleep, agoraphobia and anxiety
Hundred Visions: Permanent Basement. Austin group Hundred Visions deserves to immediately double its audience, strictly for the pop genius and great video associated with Where Do I Sign from their self-released (we think) Permanent Basement LP. This record is the recorded music version of books "pager turner" which is to say, it's a flipper. Kept getting flipped for about 5 weeks in our house. Kind of a power pop/British invasion deal, kind of a handful of things, but at the end of the day, it's a sound they wear well and own completely.