It’s that time again! The annual entry where I look back at the previous year as one of six people nationwide who still prefers compact discs to digital. I don’t splurge too much because it’s increasingly tougher for new music to catch my ear as I grow older and more finicky, and as my favorite acts of yesteryear die, stop recording, or turn toward musical directions that take them beyond my zones of interest. That usually means missing out on what the majority loves, thus further dragging me down the long plummet into total irrelevance.
I’m also not among the trendier listeners collecting vinyl…yet. One of my most underrated achievements in 2019 was acquiring my first new record player in over twenty years. I haven’t rushed out to stock up on new LPs yet because, honestly, I have a large stack of oldies and accumulated oddities I’d rather go through first before I go overboard. We’ll see where the future takes me. For now, it’s CDs all the way.
Well…not counting the two cassettes I bought this year. Talk about unexpected. Alas, both are disqualified from inclusion here because neither was a 2019 release.
The following list, then, comprises all the CDs — and only the CDs — that I acquired last year that were 2019 releases. None were bad, but we’re not into 4-way ties here on MCC, so somebody has to give. On with the countdown:
4. Bob Mould, Sunshine Rock. Mould’s solo career has lasted twice as long as Hüsker Dü and Sugar did combined, and yet it’s hard to resist the reflex to work “former frontman” into every mention of him. When was the last time anyone introduced Beyoncé as “former Destiny’s Child member”? I suppose musicians need a certain level of fame before their listeners will agree to bury their obsolete descriptors.
Mould will be 60 this October, but refuses to turn down the amplifiers and declare an “acoustic-only” phase in his career like other aging singers. Guitars still ring out with their pulsing klaxons, while bassist Jason Narducy and drummer Jon Wurster celebrate their fourth album as a hard-driven trio with him (officially outlasting Sugar), and moments of quietude remain a minority. Pull out any individual dose of fuzzed-up power-pop on its own and they’re gems by themselves even though the choruses don’t leap out (maybe that’s a thing that tires older songwriters? the last Foo Fighters album did much the same), but as with his last album, 2016’s Patch the Sky, played back-to-back they start to blend together and it’s easy to miss when the next track has started. The energy is bracing, but isn’t aimed at passive listeners.
(Sample tune: not every song is optimistic, but “Sunny Love Song” expresses a Mould of today who’s more content with life than he used to be, awakening from a sluggish winter to brighter possibilities ahead if only he can reach out to them. “I’m like a polar bear crawling through the tundra / Of some penumbral paradise / As I make my way to pen and paper” — he’s thirty years and several levels of self-realization away from the crushed heartbreak and feedback squalls of Black Sheets of Rain.)
3. Karen O and Danger Mouse, Lux Prima. The lead singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs walks the electronic paths in this team-up with the grade-A producer whose arguably funkiest collaboration, Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”, haunted our family at least three times a day on our 2006 vacation. I was secretly hoping for the most danceable album I’ve bought in years, but it begins and ends in such hushed, soothing tones that I was overjoyed whenever any infectious bass lines brought the slightest goosebump. The first catchy groove shows up on the second track “Ministry”, a lilting sort-of hymn that’s a relatively saintly opening act for the slinkier “Turn the Light”, which reworks the pace of “Stayin’ Alive” into a prettier ode to nightlife, all the better without those hairy-chested bar-crawling disco dudes who used to leave six shirt buttons unbuttoned for Tha Ladeeez.
Her old YYYs bandmate Nick Zinner — you might remember his guitar licks from such works as Mad Max: Fury Road — drops by to lend a touch of crunch to the back half of a female-empowerment stomp called “Woman” whose title and lyrics are simple yet aptly timed. “Woman” shifts from proud stance to confident threat in “Redeemer”, set to a Spaghetti Western guitar hook that would fit perfectly inside some future Tarantino period psychodrama. Beyond that point, things settle down to a low-key lounge mood that’s below my patience level when it comes to slow songs. Love that high-rising middle section, but as a whole, file this one under Albums I Might Like Better When I’m Even Older.
(Sample tune: the album version of “Woman” is invigorating as all-get-out, but also of interest is the live version they performed on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert — sans Zinner, alas — in which Mr. Mouse himself plays bass and director/cameraman Spike Jonze records it all in glorious black-and-white as he weaves around Ms. O, freaky props, audience participation, and a bevy of dancers that include special guest Beanie Feldstein from Lady Bird and Booksmart.)
2. Raconteurs, Help Us Stranger. Jack White and Brendan Benson (and the rest!) reunite for my all-time favorite White Stripes side project. Yes, that includes White’s own solo albums. Yes, I’m aware the White Stripes are no longer a thing and therefore no longer qualify as an ongoing touchstone. Regardless, their first jam session since 2008’s Consolers of the Lonely is…well, more of the same, really: yesterday’s hard rock in the borrowed but refurbished Jack White style, using far fewer electronics — or at least noticeable ones — compared to 90% of what I find on the radio whenever I turn to anything but repetitive comfort-oldies. I’ve never been a huge fan of ’70s guitar rock, but I dig White’s version of it, less macho womanizing and more eccentric storytelling, without sacrificing volume or verve.
(Sample tune: the very Zep-py “Don’t Bother Me” deceptively sounds like a peevish “go away” rant, but closer scrutiny of what the chorus is truly saying after each of his complaints — “It don’t bother me” — reveals you’re an annoying liar who complains too much and cleaves too closely to that darn internet fad, but your issues don’t faze him. Yes, he noticed your awfulness, whoever the “you” is that he’s scoffing at — maybe it’s all of us? — but he’s got better things to occupy his mind.)
1. Kim Gordon, No Home Record. The stalwart indie-scene singer/bassist arose from the ashes of Sonic Youth to release her official debut solo album at age 66. The mid-tempo malaise of the band’s later albums had scratched them off my must-buy list (I never bothered to check out their swan song, 2009’s The Eternal), but they became even tougher to revisit after reading Gordon’s 2015 autobiography Girl in a Band, which detailed the dual collapse of both the band and her marriage to its ostensible leader. It’s never fun to watch Mom and Dad fight, but when it’s everyone’s Alt-Rock Mom who’s been scorned and Alt-Rock Dad who’s being a big fat jerk, it doesn’t take much pondering to choose a side and start rooting.
After a series of creative projects that happened when I failed to pay attention — some musical, some not — Gordon adjourned to the studio with producer Justin Raisen and focused her energies on nine unconventional compositions that show zero interest in topping charts or filling dance floors beyond lower Manhattan or selling CDs at Starbucks or churning out an acoustic backing track for some CW series’ romantic montage. No Home Record is every bit as eclectic, elliptic, bruising, accusing, and jaggedly forthright as any of her Sonic Youth tracks. It wasn’t just those other three dudes who were into avant-garde off-key cacophony, but without them she’s free to venture into new terrain, by which I mean dark, seething, bass-heavy electronica. She authorizes noise-punk guitars under controlled circumstances (the overtly Youth-ful “Air Bnb”), but the opener “Sketch Artist” confounds expectations with a classy string overture, which then sees its instruments crushed by bass vibrato that drops upon them from six stories overhead and skitters around to huskily voiced memories of wind chimes and dead stares.
Little else is predictable as we roll through the art gallery. The lollygagging bass of “Murdered Out” repurposes the discarded spine of Soul Coughing’s “Super Bon Bon” at half-speed as Gordon scratches another name off her goodwill list. “Paprika Pony” is all swaggering whispers bouncing along with what sounds like bottles for percussion from some tiny Caribbean club. “Don’t Play It Back” drops Fatboy Slim into a swimming pool and laughs at his gasps, while “Hungry Baby” comes closest to lyrics vaguely sounding “sexy”, set to Jesus and Mary Chain wall-of-sound plaster scrapings. The sparsely martial “Cookie Butter” is just a steady heartbeat, a lost Drummer Boy pounding a snare to save his life, and a coda that sounds like someone shoved Lee Ranaldo into a baler while she chants the phrase “industrial metal supplies” in maddeningly tantalizing tones.
All told, the sum of Record‘s grooves is like someone handed a stack of mid-period Nine Inch Nails instrumentals to PJ Harvey and dared her to make something useful and fierce out of them. Gordon’s vivid assortment of independence assertions is absolutely my kind of rhythmic discord.
(Sample tune: my favorite is “Paprika Pony”, but Matador Records — among the few bastions of indie-rock recordings still around from ye olden tymes — has been selective in how much they allow online. Instead let’s run with “Air Bnb”, represented by a minimalist “video” that invites the viewer to use their imagination and applaud one of the internet’s greatest contributions to the art world: works made entirely of text.)
…so that’s the limited scope of my 2019 in musical purchases, then. See you next year, assuming all my favorite 120 Minutes veterans keep remembering to advertise on social media so I know they’re still alive and making new stuff!