Spotify Playlist: “Loomers”

In a post last year, I mentioned how My Bloody Valentine’s “Loomer” sounds exactly the way I want all music to sound due to its contrast of heavy guitars and light, feminine vocals. This playlist is a collection of songs that feel similarly to me and are the basis of my theory that “Loomer” spawned its own micro-genre of music that falls somewhere between shoegaze and metal. The songs range from artists that are doing essentially My Bloody Valentine tributes (Fleeting Joys) to bands who push the principles in “Loomer” as far as possible to explore more adventurous musical ground (metal groups like SubRosa and True Widow).

For most of music’s history, loud guitar noise has been strongly associated with machismo and was considered ugly or abrasive. I love this style of music because it twists those preconceptions with the vocals, resulting in songs that have fascinating dualities: they are ugly and beautiful, strong and fragile, masculine and feminine. These themes all get blended together in the music and start to blur these arbitrary gender lines. (I just read The Left Hand of Darkness if you can’t tell.)

On a less academic level, listening to these songs always makes me think of the apocalypse. The image the sound creates in my head is of a lone voice singing while the world crumbles around them.  

#10: No Joy – “More Faithful”

I continue to think No Joy are the best current band at taking the familiar sound of shoegaze and turning it into something that feels fresh and new. More Faithful feels more stripped down than its predecessors, dropping some of the band’s massive guitar riffs and putting more emphasis on songcraft.

While some fans may miss the ear-splitting guitar maelstroms from some of their previous albums (*raises hand*), More Faithful impressively pushes the band in a new direction without fundamentally changing who they are. Jasamine White-Gluz’s vocals are more central to the songs now (though still not very decipherable), and Laura Lloyd’s guitar playing is more subtle while still having the noisy shoegaze sound that is key to the band’s chemistry.

While I’ve loved all their music, I think No Joy have often been perceived as a derivative band that is just cloning previous shoegaze artists. More Faithful shuts down a lot of those arguments and proves that the band can make original, exciting music within the shoegaze framework.

No Joy – “Wait to Pleasure”

The biggest challenge of writing about music is trying to describe why I like what I like. With some artists, it’s not too hard, because something about their music or personality lends itself to narrative, or they played a role in my life that makes for a decent story. Others are more difficult — the music might just sound the way I like music to sound, in which case there isn’t a whole lot to say other than “This is really good, in my opinion. Maybe you will like it too.” These bands may not make for the most interesting blog posts, but they are a large part of my music collection, and really define my taste more than the bigger name artists.

No Joy is one of those tricky bands. Built on the songwriting duo of Laura Lloyd and Jasamine White-Glutz, they play music that basically has everything I like: very loud shoegaze guitars that unleash sheets of noise, melodic songwriting and (of course) female vocals. Wait to Pleasure is their second full length, following 2010’s vastly underrated Ghost Blonde and last year’s Negaverse E.P, and it represents a huge leap forward for the band, who have now developed their own identity while continuing to refine their songwriting. It’s not an album that will have any sort of broader narrative attached to it, but fans of the band and this genre will almost certainly be very pleased.

No Joy separate themselves from the horde of bands mining similar influences by doing everything just a bit better: the guitars are louder, the melodies are catchier, and the production is cleaner. This is a band that understands what makes shoegaze great and why people listen to it. Songs like “Hare Tarot Lies” sum up their strengths well, combining noisy riffs and hooks, which with their indecipherable lyrics make the song accessible and mysterious at the same time. “Lunar Phobia” sounds different from any song on Ghost Blonde, with more emphasis on keyboards and a programmed drum beat that helps the band step out of the shadow of their influences a bit.

It can be easy to write off a band like No Joy as an imitator of earlier groups that have explored similar territory, but Wait for Pleasure is an album that actually doesn’t sound like much else — it has a pop sensibility that some other shoegaze groups lack, and the decibel levels separate it from lighter noise-pop bands like Best Coast. It’s basically non-stop jams, and I recommend it a lot to anyone with an interest in loud guitar rock. You can buy it from their label, Mexican Summer, here.

2012’s Overlooked Albums

The end of the year is usually my favorite time in music, because I’m a big sucker for end-of-year lists and various other “year in review” pieces. But this year I may have officially gotten tired of year-end lists, or at least ones that are focus-grouped by websites or magazines in an attempt to rank the “best” albums.

What stood out to me this year a lot is just how samey all of these lists are — the same names are at the top of just about every list (Fiona Apple, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar), and the sites that ranked 50 albums are generally just shuffling around the same music into different places. The main reason an artist makes it onto a year-end list is not because their album was good, but because it was “important.” And certain artists who don’t fit into the broader conversation on music in 2012 get shut out entirely. (I’m guilty of this as well, which is maybe why I’m writing this.)

I’ve always thought the best purpose for a year-end list was to maybe introduce people to music they might have missed, or make people reconsider an album they may have underrated after listening to it just a couple of times. The lists this year were, for the most part, one obvious name after another, with the year-end list being more of an exercise in branding and a coronation for the same hyped-up artists we’ve heard too much about this year already. Like, do you really need to see Japandroids on every top 50 list to get the idea that Celebration Rock was a good album?

With this in mind, I thought it’d be fun to just list some albums I liked this year that I haven’t seen on any year-end list. I’ll go alphabetically:

Dead Sara – Dead Sara

Why it was good: Loud, unpretentious guitar-driven rock songs with memorable hooks and an extremely talented lead singer in Emily Armstrong. Dead Sara was a breath of fresh air in many ways for me because it didn’t sound as fussed over as so much of the indie stuff that passes for rock these days.

Why it’s not on year-end lists: I already hinted at it in the last paragraph: Dead Sara isn’t indie enough, and they also didn’t have enough mainstream success to potentially be noticed by a less snooty magazine like Rolling Stone. There’s not really a place on year-end lists for just a fun rock album, unless it gets some wider narrative attached to it (like Japandroids did — they were the indie saviors of guitar rock or something).

Evans the Death – Evans the Death

Why it was good: Similar to Dead Sara, Evans the Death was a relentlessly hooky pop-punk album with surprisingly witty, self-deprecating lyrics from singer Katherine Whitaker. This band has some more indie influences, adding some noise and shoegaze to their bright sound.

Why it’s not on year-end lists: Not “important” enough. They’re also not breaking tons of new ground with their sound and they don’t fit into any of the biggest indie trends of 2012. But not every worthwhile album needs to fit into what the mags and websites are pushing onto everyone.

The Evens – The Odds

Why it was good: Punk legend Ian Mackaye and his wife Amy Farina’s third album had perfect harmonies, acoustic arrangements, and more energy than their previous efforts. It also had typically smart, politically-minded lyrics that made it a perfect example of how punk doesn’t always need tons of noise and sloppiness to be effective.

Why it’s not on year-end lists: It was made by old people. The focus of most sites is to try to attach themselves to up-and-coming artists, which results in talents like Mackaye being tossed aside for hipper acts. The Evens also have to operate in the shadow of Fugazi, which is too bad — they’re a completely different band that make better music than the young whippersnappers of today.

Grass Widow – Internal Logic

Why it was good: For a few albums now, Grass Widow have been pursuing a completely unique sound, with ghostly three-part female harmonies and bouncy post-punk guitars and bass-lines. Internal Logic has stronger songwriting than their previous releases, resulting in their most consistent effort so far.

Why it’s not on year-end lists: Too self-contained. Sounding like nobody else can sometimes be a bad thing, and in the case of Grass Widow it causes them to be ignored for artists that fit into more superficial trends that are being hyped up by the music press.

Is/Is – III

Why it was good: The Minnesota band’s first full-length combined shoegaze, stoner rock, and various other psychedelic genres into a cohesive package with high-quality songwriting. This was a unique, heavy album that had a wide range of sounds that were all executed really well.

Why it’s not on year-end lists: All the reasons for Grass Widow also apply here, but Is/Is also represent another kind of band left off these lists: the hard-working locals who haven’t made it onto the national scene. In this case, the album just didn’t reach enough ears, but it was better than most of the crap that did.

Jessica Bailiff – At the Down-turned Jagged Rim of the Sky

Why it was good: Bailiff’s sixth album was some of the best shoegaze-influenced music I heard this year. This album had songs that were haunting but also weirdly addictive, and as a whole it seemed to form its own little world.

Why it’s not on year-end lists: Bailiff likely lacks a certain amount of “star power” that these lists are looking for. She does her own thing and her introspective music isn’t really trying to grab the attention of anyone. Nonetheless, this album will appeal to fans of shoegaze and quality singer-songwriters.

No Joy – Negaverse EP

Why it was good: Building on their excellent 2010 album Ghost Blonde, No Joy quietly released this EP, which featured more of their familiar shoegaze/noise rock sound with vocals buried deep in the mix. Negaverse had some more moments of exploration than their full length, and in general it’s just a sound that I really like.

Why it’s not on year-end lists: Combination of EP length, obscurity, and being overshadowed by bands like Dum Dum Girls and Best Coast that have more of a style and girl-group sensibilities in the noise-pop department.

Tindersticks – The Something Rain

Why it was good: The veteran band’s ninth album had great lounge-jazz-pop arrangements and Stuart Staple’s low, soulful vocals. But it’s mostly on here for the first track, “Chocolate”, which was one of my favorite songs of the year —  it’s a 9-minute spoken-word day-in-the-life tale that has a genuine twist ending.

Why it’s not on year-end lists: Any band putting out their ninth album is highly unlikely to make it to one of these lists — in the eyes of the media, their time has passed and it’s time to focus on new groups. Tindersticks have mostly been replaced by The National, who pillaged much of their sound but gave it more of a sad-boy indie sensibility.

White Lung – Sorry

Why it was good: This was one of the most furious and energetic punk albums I heard this year, with 10 hardcore-influenced songs over 19 minutes fronted by singer Mish Way’s various feministy rants. Sorry obviously recalls some old Riot Grrrl bands, but also adds in some grunge influence.

Why it’s not on year-end lists: This is a tough one. My guess is either the short running time, the fact that it’s female-fronted, or maybe the music press just has bad taste.