Hi gang, sorry for pushing another fly-by entry your way, but I’m feeling super distracted this morning and I want to get some writing work done today, so…here, have a recent video from They Might Be Giants, featuring songs about coffee that were apparently planned but mostly unused for a Dunkies ad campaign.
[PS: Speaking of whom, I recently bought a twelve-pack of a special run of donut-flavored beer put together by Harpoon and Dunkin, featuring Boston Kreme stout, pumpkin, coffee porter, and jelly donut IPA. It’s…actually kind of tasty!]
While the events of 2020 has put a lot of entertainment on the backburner, even including the regular release schedule of albums, it hasn’t exactly put the kibosh on the usual round of reissues and remasters. These are usually planned well in advance, of course, with most of the remastering production done over the course of the time leading up to it.
Here are a few of my favorites that have dropped this year!
Porcupine Tree, In Absentia (Deluxe Edition), released 28 February. This release of their stellar 2002 record features recent remasters — a day job lead singer/guitarist Steven Wilson has been busy with for the last few years — and numerous demos and rarities.
The The, See Without Beeing Seen, released 27 March. Cassette copies of one of Matt Johnson’s early teenage projects recorded before 1981’s Burning Blue Soul were unearthed, prepped and made widely available for the very first time. It may not be as professional as his later work, you can definitely hear the seeds of his signature style.
Paul McCartney, Flaming Pie (Archive Collection), released 31 July. Paul’s 1997 album was deeply inspired by two things: the Beatles’ Anthology project and his relationship with Linda as she fought cancer. It’s full of lovely classic Macca pop songs and features an abundance of guests such as Ringo, Steve Miller, and Jeff Lynne. This reissue features numerous demos, single sides, and the six-part ‘Oobu Joobu’ radio show he’d put on as part of the album’s promotions.
Prince, Sign ‘o’ the Times (Super Deluxe Edition), released 25 September. I posted about this one earlier, and I can’t say enough about how amazing it is. It somehow manages to fit the remastered 1987 album, the multiple 1986 projects that led up to it, and a full live show.
John Lennon, Gimme Some Truth, released 9 October. This is not so much a ‘greatest hits’ collection but an extended selection of hits, singles and deep tracks, all of which have been remastered with ‘Ultimate Mixes’, and they sound so much clearer than I’ve ever heard them.
The Replacements, Pleased to Meet Me (Deluxe Edition), released 9 October. The Mats’ 1987 record (the first one of theirs I’d bought, by the way) gets the remaster / reissue here with rough mixes and demos. It’s one of their poppier albums and a fun listen.
Elvis Costello, Armed Forces (Super Deluxe Edition), released 6 November. Elvis’ third album was his breakthrough record and remains a fan favorite. There’s not too much new and unreleased in this collection, but it gathers as much related music from the 1978-79 era and drops it in one place, and it sounds great.
First off, I should say that 1) I’m quite the latecomer to K-Pop. I’ve been well aware of it, but never paid all that much attention to it until relatvely recently, and 2) I am so not a gamer, so I have little to no background or interest in League of Legends.
That said, I cannot seem to get enough of the LoL virtual spinoff band K/DA (its name of course being a reference to a player’s kills, deaths and assists), as a part of Riot Games’ plan to include more original music in the LoL universe. It features Miyeon and Soyeon from the k-pop band (G)I-DLE as well as soloists Madison Beer and Jaira Burns playing the in-game characters Ahri, Akali, Evelynn and Kai-Sa respectively.
The 2018 single “Pop/Stars” came to my attention due to a few gifs of featuring a masked Akali (the tomboyish ninja assassin) rapping in a subway car, and after falling down the YouTube rabbit hole, I found the video and was blown away by the creative animation.
Sure, they’re eye candy for the gamer boys, but damn if this song didn’t get stuck in my head on a daily basis! I’d put it on my mp3 player that I brought to the gym and found myself playing it on repeat. It wasn’t just a great video, it was a damn fine pop song with some tight production work. It sounds absolutely amazing in headphones, so I imagine it would sound great on high-end speakers as well. It ended up on my end-of-year mix and I still throw it on now and again. And yes, it got me interested in (G)I-DLE as well!
League of Legends continued to release a few more tunes and videos to coincide with their World Championship event (2019 saw the badass track “GIANTS” by True Damage, and 2020 featured “Take Over” by Worlds 2020), but apparently the K/DA track proved to be so popular that it was announced they would release more music as a virtual band.
In late August of this year they dropped the news that a new EP would be released, and released the lead single “The Baddest” soon after. And wouldn’t you know, this song got stuck in my damn head as well! While it’s merely a lyric video with minimal animation, it’s still a great track and has already gotten over a million watches on YouTube.
The accompanying EP, All Out, was released this past Friday (11/6) and it features the above song as well as the follow-up single “More”, which returns us to another high quality virtual band setting and featuring another LoL in-game character, Seraphine, as a special guest. It’s another visual feast with all kinds of eye candy but also a lot of fun blink-and-you’ll-miss-it drop edits (such as Akali causing Serpahine to bust up laughing near the end). And just like the previous singles, “More” is a hell of a fine earworm. This one’s going on my year-end mix, of course.
The rest of All Out is just as fun and worth checking out if you have the time!
Well before the band was a not-entirely-hilarious throwaway joke in one of the Austin Powers movies, The Alan Parsons Project — essentially Abbey Road studio boffin Parsons, vocalist Eric Woolfson and a revolving door of session musicians, some of them former members of Pilot — had a solid string of radio hits between the mid-70s to the late 80s. And they were one of my favorite bands of my youth.
I’d discovered them in late 1980 when their album The Turn of a Friendly Card was released, along with the one-two punch of two fantastic singles, “Games People Play” and “Time”. The first centered around a synth loop that got stuck in your head in a good way and had that driving beat and melody kind of similar to Christopher Cross’ “Ride Like the Wind” from earlier that year.
The latter was a gorgeous ballad that must have been played at numerous school dances and senior proms at the time, and was a favorite of mine for years:
I owned an ‘oldies reissue’ single containing both songs and was most likely one of the first non-Beatles-related records I ever owned as a kid. But it wasn’t until 1982 when my older sibling gave me a dubbed copy of their then-new album Eye in the Sky, which received a lot of airplay on many rock stations. It’s a light and poppy record that fits in well with the commercial charts of the time, even with its occasional foray into weird prog nerdiness.
The next few albums may not have had the same chart success as their previous records, considering the tendency for their sound to remain firmly in the Adult Contemporary genre, but they still contained some fantastic singles both light and serious. The ELO-like “Don’t Answer Me” from Ammonia Avenue was a chart hit with a humorous animated video that gave a nod to old comic books and pulp novels:
Parsons and band alum Andrew Powell also recorded a fascinating soundtrack for the Matthew Broderick/Michelle Pfeiffer/Rutger Hauer film Ladyhawke in 1985, and you can definitely hear the APP influence.
I actually liked 1985’s Stereotomy as it had a really interesting and spacious mix and was far more prog-rock than their previous records. It didn’t do too well on the charts, but the title song was catchy as hell and had a surprisingly creative video directed by visual artist Zbigniew Rybczyński.
Their last record as the Project, Gaudi, was an odd album centered around the architect, and went over the heads of a lot of people, but it did give them one last great single, “Standing on Higher Ground”.
Parsons and Woolfson went their separate ways soon after. Parsons occasionally released solo records while also returning to production work, including at Abbey Road. Woolfson released two solo records and then work solely in musical theater, and passed away in 2009. Parsons and many of the APP alums still pop up live occasionally!
The Alan Parsons Project may have been a corny joke in a Mike Myers film, but they wrote wonderfully creative pop records, and still have a strong fanbase. Their music still pops up in the most interesting of places — for instance, “Eye in the Sky” has been sampled by electronic group The Avalanches with their new song “Interstellar Love” with Leon Bridges, which dropped just this morning, thus the inspiration for this entry!
I’m a little busy today with a few projects, so in the meantime I’ll share a recent find: a band called The Reds, Pinks & Purples. They’re a semi-lofi band that’s not quite shoegaze and not quite dreampop. I’d say they bear a very remarkable resemblance to 80s bedsit-rockers Felt, which is a big plus in my book.
They’re also a local band…so local, they come from my neighborhood! Their latest album You Might Be Happy Someday just dropped a week or so ago and it’s quite lovely, but part of what won me over is the cover, taken on the corner of 5th Ave and Balboa, a little over a mile away from our house! (Their other releases have similar cover pictures of houses and shops in the Richmond District, which I also think is kind of cool!)
Here’s a few more months’ worth of tunes that have been getting play on my PC! Enjoy!
Run the Jewels, RTJ4, released 3 June. When RTJ surprise-dropped their latest record online and let people download it for free for a few days, who was I to pass it up? They’re an interesting rap duo in that they’ll deliver anger and righteousness on one track and further down the playlist have something utterly silly (such as the track “Goonies vs ET”).
Hinds, The Prettiest Curse, released 5 June. This Spanish foursome delivers some super fun rock that slides between shoegaze and pop-punk and is so worth checking out. (Check out their cover The Clash’s “Spanish Bombs” as well, which is a super fun single!)
GoGo Penguin, GoGo Penguin, released 12 June. Still one of my favorite current jazz finds, the trio continues to infuse electronica-style beats into their music, making their songs not just memorable but easy to get lost in.
Wire, 10:20, released 19 June. This is an interesting collection of outtakes and new versions of previous tracks, very similar to their 1989 IBTABA record but with a much harder edge.
Sault, Untitled (Black Is), released 19 June. No one knows who this band is or anything about them other than that they’re a Black collective from the UK, and the group seems to like it that way. They dropped two albums in 2019 and two in 2020, and they are absolutely amazing.
Hum, Inlet, released 23 June. One of the positives of 2020 is that so many fantastic bands we thought were long gone or on an unending hiatus released new records! This is a welcome return from an underrated 90s guitar band.
The Beths, Jump Rope Gazers, released 10 July. A shiny, bouncy and bubbly alt-pop record that hints at some of the best 90s bands like Letters to Cleo, it’s a super fun listen that’ll definitely get you in a good mood!
Fontaines DC, A Hero’s Death, released 31 July. This Dublin punk band delivers a surprisingly dark and melodic record that took quite a few people by surprise. It’s also much tighter and more polished than their previous record.
Goodness, it’s been far too long since I last updated with a rundown of albums and songs that have been on my mp3 rotation. I should rectify that, shouldn’t I? Considering that my station of choice (KEXP, natch) hasn’t changed one bit, pretty much all of these albums and singles came from that one station. Big thanks to John Richards and Cheryl Waters for providing some damn fine music during this time!
The Weeknd, After Hours, released 20 March. “Blinding Lights” is such a wonderful earworm, and the rest of the album is an enjoyable pop gem.
Pearl Jam, Gigaton, released 27 March. Good to see this band is still going strong after all these years. The new record is full of fine and memorable singles.
Phish, Sigma Oasis, released 3 April. Sensing that the COVID pandemic was going to be a lot bigger than anyone expected, the band felt it necessary to drop their new album early in lieu of not being able to tour for the foreseeable future. It’s mellow and introspective as well, but the style suits them just fine.
EoB, Earth, released 17 April. Ed O’Brien, guitarist for Radiohead, drops an interesting record that sounds equally like his main band and…Zooropa-era U2? Sure, why not? It’s an unexpected style but it works fine, showcasing his flair for catchy riffs as well as meandering jams.
Hayley Williams, Petals for Armor, released 8 May. Her solo debut is just far enough away from her Paramore sound that it still rocks without having to lean on the epic hard rock trappings all the time.
Nation of Language, Introduction, Presence, released 22 May. An interesting band with one album to their name (so far) but with a big dreamy sound that pulls you right in.
Indigo Girls, Look Long, released 22 May. This is a fantastic record with a sound reminiscent of their first couple of albums. There’s a lot of introspection and remembrance here, but it’s just as strong and determined as the future-looking ‘Closer to Fine’.
NOTE: I’ve been listening to their album Big Bang nonstop lately, partly because I love it so but partly because it’s inspiring some ideas on a new story idea that’s gestating over in my daily words. Thought I’d share a post from six(!!) years ago about one of my favorite 80s bands, with updates and edits. Enjoy!
We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Gonna Use It!!, aka Fuzzbox here in the States, was a cute and punky quartet out of Birmingham UK, and one of my first music crushes when I started listening to alternative rock. They’d been brought to my attention right about the same time as Sigue Sigue Sputnik in the glossy music mag Star Hits, and upon seeing their crazy-colored and spritzed hair and punky Oxfam chic, I was completely hooked–which in all honesty wasn’t really hard, considering it didn’t take much to rebel in a small town like mine. They made me realize punk wasn’t just about rebelling against society, like American punk had suggested — it was also about doing your own thing, however bizarre it might be, and not giving a shit about what other people thought about it.
Fuzzbox was initially together only for a short time, releasing just two albums and a handful of singles before going their separate ways, but they were just so damn fun to listen to that it didn’t matter.
Fuzzbox started sometime in 1985 with four friends who’d decided to start a band. And like any punk band worth their salt at the time, mastering your instrument wasn’t exactly high on the list of priorities. Consisting of Vickie Perks (aka Vix) on vocals, Tina O’Neill on drums and sax, and sisters Maggie (aka Magz–vocals, keys and guitars) and Jo Dunne (bass, guitars and keys), they immediately jumped in on the occasional open mike night at the local bars and learned their chops onstage. It’s said Maggie was the creator of the band name, announcing that they did in fact have a fuzz distortion guitar pedal they were about to use.
Their debut single was the gritty and poppy “XX Sex”, with shockingly direct feminist lyrics about exploitation and sexism in the media. They followed up with a ridiculous and silly summer single with labelmates The Nightingales and alternative comedian Ted Chippington with “Rockin’ with Rita”, and by summer’s end they were given a spot on the highly influential NME C86 compilation with “Console Me”. They prefaced their debut album that October with a jittery and bass-heavy single about unrequited love, “Love Is the Slug”, my musical introduction to them via MTV’s 120 Minutes.
Bostin’ Steve Austin (released as a self-titled album here in the US, but with the same cover) was released in December of 1986, featuring a dozen gems about the girls’ life in Birmingham–not just containing the teen heartbreak of “Love Is the Slug” and “Jackie”, it also contains the confrontational “XX Sex” and “What’s the Point” (their follow-up single released in January of 1987) and “Preconceptions”, as well as a weirdly hypnotic cover of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky”. The quality of the music here is surprisingly tight, even when it hints at sounding on the verge of disintegrating into a distorted mess. Vix’s lyrics alternate between playful, angry, and emotional, and despite the simplicity of the melodies there’s a lot going on musically. The stop-start of “You Got Me”, the building tension in “Love Is the Slug” and even the 60s-girl-group pastiche of “Hollow Girl” works perfectly.
Bostin’ Steve Austin got a ridiculous amount of play on my tape players between early 1987 and mid-1989–this was the side of punk that I gravitated to, the revelation that I didn’t have to try fitting in with the in-crowd anymore. I didn’t really need to do much, of course–wear some of my college rock tee-shirts, my grandfather’s green trenchcoat, and let my hair grow out of its quintessentially 80s spiky ‘do (but not to the point of longhaired metaldom), and start writing music reviews for albums hardly anyone else in my school listened to.
Fuzzbox disappeared for a short while, and would reappear in early 1989 with a completely new and unexpected look and sound. I admit I wasn’t entirely sure how to approach it at first, having twitched and thought “oh god, they’ve become Jem and the Holograms.” But there was something about it…something about the slick late 80s production, the chart-ready poppiness, that called to me. I began to realize that this was the forbidden candy for me as a fan of college rock, the ultimate test: do I dare admit that, after labeling myself an alternative music nerd and a nonconformist, I actually enjoyed this admittedly catchy music?
Gone was the thrift shop fashion as well, replaced by glitz and glamour. The fuzziness of their sound was also gone, replaced by shiny synthesizers and sequencers. They now had an outsider as a cowriter of songs in the form of session musician/producer Liam Sternberg. And yet…
…and yet, there was something about this new album, Big Bang, that I just could not give it up. I was older and now in college, and yet the music hinted at the readymade poppiness of 80s Top 40, the kind that was throwaway and yet catchy and likable at the same time. The Brummie humor was still there, hiding in the lyrics of lead single “International Rescue”, a loving ode to the Gerry Anderson tv classic Thunderbirds (and, in the video, a humorous nod to Jane Fonda’s Barbarella as well, featuring Adrian Edmonson from The Young Ones as an evil scientist).
Big Bang kicked off with the irresistibly poppy “Pink Sunshine” (and also released as the second single) and my immediate reaction was to wonder where the hell my punk goddesses had gone off to…but I soon understood what they were doing. This wasn’t about rebelling, not anymore. It was about being an adult now, having gotten over the teenage growing pains. These were the Brummie girls stuck in their jobs, dealing with the drudgery of the real world and letting it all loose at the end of the working week.
There’s a lot of flirting and sexiness going on with this album, and that’s part of what makes it so irresistible. There’s the rocking sci-fi of “Fast Forward Futurama”, the heartbreak of “Self!” (featuring the guitar work of none other than Queen’s Brian May!), and the gorgeous dancefloor bliss of “Versatile for Discos and Parties” (quite possibly my favorite track off the album). There’s even a brilliant cover of Yoko Ono’s “Walking on Thin Ice”, retaining the song’s mystique but giving it additional emotional beauty. The album ends on a very somber yet lovely note with a track called “Beauty”, which sounds like nothing else they’ve ever recorded.
I realized that Big Bang‘s shameless pop wasn’t shameless at all — it was a loving tribute to the dance pop of the decade, one that was about to come to a close. The sound of 80s pop would age, and often not for the best, but when it was done right, it was still fun to listen to. A few years later, once I discovered anime movies and series from the 80s and 90s such as Urusei Yatsura and Silent Möbius and later to the Gall Force series and Sailor Moon, I began to realize that, thanks to Big Bang, I now had begun a long-lasting love affair with JPop. I began seeing the album as an unintended but spot-on paean to the J-Pop so prevalent in the credits and montages in anime, and that made me love the album even more. It’s pure pop, but it’s still irresistibly fun.
In 1990 they would release a final single, “Your Loss My Gain”, written for a never-realized third album, and while it seemed they were progressing in a more mature pop direction, they soon split up. They all went their separate ways. Only Vix remained in the music industry, recording under various band names including Vix n’ the Kix. Three compilations would surface a bit over a decade later: two albums of demos and outtakes called Fuzz and Nonsense and Rules & Regulations to Pink Sunshine: The Fuzzbox Story, and a greatest hits collection amusingly titled Look at the Hits on That (a very Fuzzbox-worthy pun title). And in 2010, Vix, Maggie and Jo reunited with the help of Vix’s backing band for a one-off single, a cover of M’s classic track “Pop Muzik”. Sadly, Jo would pass away from a cancer-related illness in 2012, but a year later, Vix decided it was time to rerelease the band’s 80s discography. Bostin’ Steve Austin would finally have its debut on compact disc, and Big Bang would contain all the remaining 80s tracks, including the “Your Loss My Gain” single.
But there’s more!Since I first posted this, Vix and Maggie have returned to music under the Fuzzbox name and have dropped a few new singles over the last few years! In 2016 they released a new single called “Let’s Go Supernova”, and in 2018 they crowdfunded another single, fittingly called “WGAF…AWGUI!!”. In 2019 they released a video-only single called “Say Hello” for a local Birmingham project. And they will soon be releasing a box set called We’ve Got a Box Set and We’re Gonna Use It!!. It certainly is great to see them still going strong, still irreverent and still full of poppy goodness.
We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Gonna Use It!! is a band that influenced not just my listening habits but my way of life when I was growing up in the late 80s; it was a refreshing view of punk-as-freedom rather than punk-as-anger, and helped me realize that the music I listen to, then and now. My tastes still lean towards the alternative, but I’m not above the shamelessly pop, especially if it’s done well. In relistening to Bostin Steve Austin I now hear a lot of the intelligence and fearlessness in the lyrics, which makes me appreciate it all the more. And as an added bonus, they’re there if all I want is some great and fun music to listen to.
Oh hey! It’s time for another month’s worth of new releases! The first quarter’s music so far has been surprisingly fruitful with a lot of great albums, and I’m quite happy about that! Here are a few new records I’ve been playing on my mp3 player as of late…
Destroyer, Have We Met, released 31 January. This is a rather quirky band that’s been around for quite some time, but their music has always been consistently melodic and intriguing.
Joseph, Trio Sessions: Vol 1, released 31 January. This is a fine alt-folk trio that channels the sounds of 70s Laurel Canyon and their three-way harmony is just lovely. I highly suggest checking out the rest of their work as well.
Poliça, When We Stay Alive, released 31 January. This Minneapolis band has always been a bit on the strange side with their music, but this new one is far more soulful and moving than their previous work. It’s an unexpected but wholly welcome direction and I love it.
Revolution, I Love You, Black Feathers, released 7 February.I don’t even remember where I’d discovered this band (NoiseTrade, perhaps?) but I fell in love with their strange but amazing mix of shoegaze, goth, synthpop and maybe even a bit of punk. The new record goes in all sorts of unexpected and wonderful directions.
Green Day, Father of All…, released 7 February. The new album kind of reminds me oftheir late 90s/early 00s era records, especially Nimrod and Warning, as the songs slide between all-out punk assaults and radio-friendly groovy rock. Not that that’s a bad thing, because they still manage to pull it all off.
Stone Temple Pilots, Perdida, released 7 February. They’ve lost two singers and that’s enough to break any band, but the DeLeo brothers soldiered on to write and record a stunningly gorgeous and heartbreaking album.
Hayley Williams, Petals for Armor 1 EP, released 7 February. The Paramore lead singer finally releases her first solo outing and it’s well worth the wait. It’s darker and quieter than her band work, but it’s just as powerful.
Best Coast, Always Tomorrow, released 21 February. I’ve always liked this band, and I love how they’ve completely embraced their own brand of that California sound — sunny, punchy, and just that little bit off-kilter. This one’s a fun and infectious record and I really should be playing it a lot more!
Grimes, Miss Anthropocene, released 21 February. I did not expect to enjoy the new Grimes as much as I do! She’s quite firmly in the ‘off in their own universe’ column when it comes to musicians and personalities, but the new record is just brimming with really neat sounds and ideas that pulled me completely in from the beginning. One of my favorites so far!
I’ll admit, it took me years to actually grok what David Bowie’s music was all about. I was of course familiar with all the tunes you hear on classic rock radio: Rebel Rebel, Fame, Ziggy Stardust, Space Oddity, and so on… I was also familiar with his early 80s output, thanks to MTV: Let’s Dance, Modern Love, Ashes to Ashes, Fashion… all those poppy songs and weird videos. But I didn’t even own a Bowie album until high school when I found The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust in a Salvation Army bin for fifty cents.
I was a huge fan of his Tin Machine project, especially since I’d felt 1987’s Never Let Me Down was, to put it bluntly, quite dull and lifeless. Tin Machine revealed a much-needed energy that was lacking in most of his 80s output.
And it really wasn’t until 1997’s Earthling that I finally decided to actively start checking out his back catalogue, and figured out why he had such a huge following.
I started picking up the Rykodisc reissues and got myself caught up. I finally figured out why the Berlin Trilogy is so revered. I was intrigued by the numerous evolutions of his style and look in the 70s. And interestingly, I found myself really liking a lot of the less famous tunes of his! Over the years I’ve finally acquired most if not all of his discography, and I’ve really come to appreciate just how creative he was.