December 18, 2019
Brief Editor’s Note:
We like to close down each year here at Off Your Radar by doing something a little bit different, basically throwing out our normal format and try to do something special before we sign off for a few weeks.
In 2016, we picked records for each other to review in a modified version of Secret Santa. In 2017, we picked our favorite guilty pleasure records and railed against what exactly “guilty pleasure” means. In 2018, we turned attention away from albums and zeroed in on songs as we each curated our own mixtape / playlist.
For 2019, we decided to honor the end of an unpredictable and wildly fruitful decade by discussing our favorite underrated and overlooked records from the past ten years. Some of us chose to revisit some more recognizable records, giving them some extra love amidst all the “End Of The Decade” lists being populated. Others decided to dig deeper and dust-off favorites, new and old, that deserve a much larger audience than they initially received.
Either way, here are several album picks we highly recommend you check out over the last few weeks of the year. It’s a diverse collection of hip hop, indie rock, folk, metal, pop, punk, and more, representing the divergent path this past decade took providing music fans enough quality material from all over the musical spectrum to fill a lifetime.
To readers of Off Your Radar, old and new, we greatly appreciate your support and hope to continue putting out dozens upon dozens of detailed and intriguing issues in 2020 and the years that follow.
Thanks for reading — we’ll be back in the new year, and new decade.
Released On June 14, 2011
Released By Hopeless Records
I don’t normally get obsessed with albums. I usually have a group of albums that I’m into at any given point in time. But this year was different. I found myself battling depression, the first time in my life that I’d been able to give it a name, and the world seemed gray and pointless. But then, sometime in March or April, for some reason, I decided to listen to The Wonder Years’ 2011 album Suburbia I’ve Given You All And Now I’m Nothing.
I was familiar with the song “Don’t Let Me Cave In” from a Warped Tour comp, and I loved it. Suddenly, here was an album full of songs at least as good as the one song I already knew. And I started to pick up on a structure. I did some research on Genius.com and was blown away by what I found. I learned that not only is this album heavily based around Allen Ginsburg’s 1956 poem “America,” which it references heavily, but it also was full of references to songs and bands I knew and albums and books I didn’t know. And in fact there are a lot of lyrics that reference the previous Wonder Years album, The Upsides.
It tells the story, presumably factually, of Dan “Soupy” Campbell breaking up with a girlfriend, quitting a job, and moving back in with his parents to try to sort out what direction his life is meant to go in and how where he’s from (South Philadelphia) influences both who he is and who he tries not to be, struggles that I recognized from my own life.
But as depressing as that sounds, the album is upbeat. It’s about leaning on your family (both birth and chosen) when you’re feeling untethered. To quote the third track, “Local Man Ruins Everything” (which is a Simpsons reference and further proof that I was destined to fall for this album), “It’s not about forcing happiness, it’s about not letting sadness win.”
I’m always on the hunt for good, pure pop-punk and that is exactly what The Wonder Years provides. This year I have gone from being fairly unfamiliar with most of their songs, to blasting through all of their albums, seeing them perform a Halloween show (first as Limp Bizkit, then as themselves), and coming to terms with the fact that I have added a new band to my list of “Bands You Know I’m Into, Even If We’ve Just Met”.
And this magnificent record was the spark that lite the fire.
Released On October 31, 2011
Released By Warner Bros. Records
“Search fearlessly for every sin, for out of sin comes joy.”
The exercise we have set for ourselves to end the decade is futile by design. How many hundreds of albums have been released since January 1, 2010? And how many are remembered now or even got a fraction of notice they deserved at the time? After dithering a little (should it be Holly Miranda’s Mutual Horse? Sour Soul by Ghostface Killah & BADBADNOTGOOD? War Room Stories by Breton? Catholic by Gavin Friday? Waterlines by Christopher Trapani?), it struck me with the force of a blunt instrument: it had to be Lulu, the much-disparaged collaboration by Lou Reed and Metallica. Looking back at the reviews now, I find it even more astonishing how many draw the conclusion that the record is an objectively bad work of art. Not “this is unexpected” or “it’s outside my frame of reference” — just bad, a worthless result of terrible decisions and artistic instincts gone awry. Some people even seemed to draw this conclusion from one song, namely “The View,” which was the first single. The rain of hatred created a considerable amount of noise, but I was determined, as a passionate admirer of both artists, to listen through it and decide for myself. When I did, I heard a bold and blistering take on the work of Frank Wedekind, whose Lulu plays had inspired Alban Berg’s opera of the same name, a towering work of 20th Century modernism. The admixture of the text, so allegorical and melodramatic, and heavy music laced with carefully deployed electronics and strings made for a uniquely intense experience that I ranked 9th on my Top 10 for 2011.
Here is that original review:
Let me just say that half the people piling on this record are descendants of the dudes who returned White Light/White Heat to EJ Korvette’s for a refund in 1967 because they thought there was something wrong with it. And the other half are followers just doing it out of aesthetic insecurity or those guys who considered ending it all when Metallica cut their hair. This is a great record — big riffs, nasty lyrics, moments of transcendent beauty. Perhaps Lou is dragging the Metallicatz into the world of German expressionism rather forcefully, but they pump their own blood into the songs. Like The Strokes album, I’m convinced Lulu‘s time will come.
Listening again, I feel basically the same way, except now I’m appreciating the finer points more since the bludgeoning guitars are so familiar. The acoustic intro to “Brandenburg Gate,” for example, is longer than I remember, setting up the slamming riff for maximum impact. Sarth Calhoun’s mournful electronics on “Cheat On Me,” blending so beautifully with Jenny Scheinman’s string arrangement. More acoustic guitar on “Little Dog,” spooky, and holding its own with brooding guitar feedback. And, of course, Rob Wasserman’s upright bass on “Junior Dad,” the album’s masterpiece. Just the way Reed hums along with the drone at the beginning of this nearly 20-minute epic puts me in a place of holiness, the church of rock & roll, if you will, a space defined in part by “Venus In Furs,” “Sister Ray,” and “Street Hassle.”
Many begrudgingly admitted that “Junior Dad” was something special before complaining that it was too long. Bizarre. The drone at the end is perfect, the only way to reset your moral compass after the depredations within Lulu.
As for the guitars, they are as extraordinary as you would expect when you put one of the greatest guitar bands of all time together with one of the most exacting sonic technicians of the instrument. Take “Iced Honey,” for one, perhaps the most traditional rocker on the album, and a classic Reed two-chord wonder. The guitars gleam and sparkle with no loss of weight, like being crushed by a diamond of impossible size. I’m surprised this song hasn’t been covered by… anyone.
Anderson herself has been known to perform an instrumental version of “Junior Dad,” keeping some of Lulu‘s legacy alive. She also dropped this gem for us true believers at Reed’s induction as a solo artist into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2015: “And after Lou’s death, David Bowie made a big point of saying to me, ‘Listen, this is Lou’s greatest work. This is his masterpiece. Just wait, it will be like [Reed’s 1973 album] Berlin. It will take everyone a while to catch up.'” Have you?
P.S. The Strokes’ album I refer to above was Angles — another denigrated work that I soon came to regard as a classic. Give it a chance!
“I only want to warn you that even the best can do one harm when one isn’t ripe enough in years to receive it properly.”
Released On March 5, 2012
Released By Merge Records
Like — I assume — everyone else, I’ve really struggled to come up with an album of the decade. I’ve liked (and even loved) plenty of songs that have come out since 2010, but it isn’t often that I love an entire album. Part of that is likely due to the widespread popularity of playlists and curated radio from things like Spotify and Pandora, but that’s not just it. I frequently take part in the social media challenges of the Ten Most [insert personal adjective here] Albums, but when I looked over those lists as a reference for this issue, most of my selections leave off in the early-mid aughts. I already talked about Sayde Price’s Wilt All Rosy back in Issue #141 and it’s definitely high on my list, but I find myself wanting to pick something I haven’t talked about here before. I only heard Otoboke Beaver’s Itekoma Hits for the first time over the summer, but their “Don’t Light My Fire” almost made them my choice, just based on the number of times I’ve played that one song, alone. Okay, so… I’m not picking my Album of the Decade just because I was obsessed with a single track. I then considered Explosions In The Sky’s Take Care, Take Care, Take Care. And I was so close to talking about that album, until I discovered that at some point when I wasn’t paying attention, they became super popular and I don’t know that a song with nearly a million views on YouTube counts as underrated. But then last night, I got a message from a friend asking me why she thought of me when a certain song comes on, so I asked her what her album of the decade is, and she was able to answer without hesitation (it was The National’s Sleep Well Beast, if you were wondering). And that’s when I realized that I had known my choice all along, but had worried it was maybe a bit of a cop out. Because my very first thought was “oh, Magnetic Fields’ Love At The Bottom Of The Sea.” But I second guessed myself, partially because I’m predisposed to love everything Stephin Merritt does, but also because it just felt too obvious. Then I remembered when it came out in 2012, how delighted I was to hear those warm synths that I’d been missing since 69 Love Songs, and how I kind of felt like I’d taken crazy pills while reading reviews that called it average or subpar. I listen to this album in full at least once a month, and I have since it came out. It has never left my rotation, and I never get tired of it. “God Wants Us to Wait” might even be my song of the Decade, so how can I deny this album my top spot? I can’t.
50 Foot Pop Queenie
Released On January 8, 2013
Released By Ooh La La Recordings
I knew this would be a difficult issue before I even alerted all the other contributors. This is our 189th issue, 74 of which have been about records from this decade, and that’s not even counting Secret Santa or Guilty Pleasures which would bump the number up higher. Chances are if a contributor had a favorite record from this decade, they’ve already discussed it here. It’s true for me, to a degree. Many of my most beloved overlooked records from the 2010s are ones I offered up to the group: Feral Conservatives’ Here To Almost (Issue #32), For Everest’s We Are At Home In The Body (Issue #146), Julia Nunes’ Some Feelings (Issue #159), Vienna Teng’s Aims (Issue #172), and Brooke Waggoner’s Originator (Issue #184). Hell, I even picked Smalltalk’s Plus! for Matt Klimas back in our Secret Santa issue.
I love all of these records and would definitely include the majority of them on a personal Best Of 2010s list, specifically Feral Conservatives, a band which sadly dissolved a few years ago. But none of these are actually my favorite overlooked or underappreciated album from the 2010s. For that one, we go to a record I’ve been debating picking for its own issue for years now. A record that I stumbled upon by pure happenstance and then could not put down for seemingly forever. A record I was shocked never found a huge audience, but also selfishly glad for reasons fans of smaller and unknown bands know all too well. A record entitled Twistifcation by a group called The Last Royals.
Before I dive into the record, there is an elephant in the room: if this record is so great, why haven’t I picked it for its own issue of Off Your Radar? Well, that’s a good question, hypothetical reader I just invented, and I’m not entirely sure why. I still can pick it, I guess. Right now, it’s at the top of a list called “future picks” I have in a spreadsheet, right above Labi Siffre and The Wondermints. So why haven’t I just bit the bullet and offered it up to the team here? Maybe I’m scared a contributor will crack a joke about a song or lyric and it will be like the glass shattering episode from How I Met Your Mother. Maybe I know it’s something I’ll like and not many other people will. Or maybe, in a much more believable sense, I’m just not entirely sure how to properly convey into words how great this record is and I’d rather not see my clunky rambling at the top of an issue dedicated to it. Instead, I’ll tuck this away in a special issue and hope that my rambling is accepted better due to the hectic holiday season and end of decade pandemonium as opposed to my own indecision and pickiness. Yeah, that sounds about right.
Cue the rambling.
Indie rock is a mess of a genre, easily surpassing the equally murky “alternative rock” as the dumping ground for bands and artists you don’t really want to describe in more than two words. Indie rock isn’t just one thing — it’s a lot of things. It’s Death Cab For Cutie and The Decemberists. It’s LCD Soundsytem and Grimes. It’s Joanna Newsom and Sufjan Stevens. It’s everything from a five-piece band featuring loud guitars and anthemic synth lines down to a random dude singing a quirky melody over a ukulele.
In that sense, Twistification is the perfect embodiment of indie rock. Just from my description alone, this record has loud guitar and synth lines (“Come Take My Hand“) and a random dude playing a ukulele (“Crystal Vases” — acoustic guitar, not ukulele, but you get the idea), and a lot of ground in between. There are quirky ditties that bounce between electronica and bedroom pop (“Good Day Radio“), tender ballads (“All Over Again”), rousing power rock bangers (“Come Take My Hand”), and even a wispy, fanciful intro song (“Winter Waltz”). Whatever your idea of indie rock could be, it’s housed within here.
But there are a lot of records like that, many of which I also love. What helps Twistifcation leap into my forefront when I think back on 2010s music is the feeling it all encapsulates: passionate hope. Fast or slow, quiet or loud, every track here is wishing for something more. To be a better man (“She said oh, my baby says she wants to fall in love / She said oh, I hope that I can deal with what may come”). To fit in (“Trying every day and always to belong”). To finally make it big (“Then it seems as if you’re ready for your day on radio”). To escape a bad state, literally and figuratively (“I’m losing sleep \ And I’m waiting for a bed of my own”).
And then there’s “Friday Night” and “Barefoot Winter Waltz,” two sweeping compositions that can barely fit into speakers. These songs essentially open and close the record, anchoring all the sounds and words that flow between with a yearning desire for more. In “Friday Night,” it’s a pep talk of sorts, pumping yourself for the excitement on the horizon, while “Barefoot Winter Waltz” serves as a public declaration, going all in on the hopes that your yearning will become reality. And just as “Barefoot Winter Waltz” reaches its apex, it recoils into itself, before fading back into the opening track “Winter Waltz,” showing that even if you do get what you want, there’s always going to be more to push for in this life.
Like any ten years in a person’s life, the 2010s were monumental for me from marriage and fatherhood to career changes and being able to turn passionate hobbies into something productive and memorable. More than any record this decade, Twistification embodies my game plan for the past ten years: be better, do better. I honestly can’t answer if I executed that plan successfully, but I also know that there’s always more to strive for and I’ll always have this record pumping me up along the way.
Released On April 28, 2014
Released By Caroline Records
Mainstream, I’ve got a bone to pick with you. I am committing to Brody Dalle. I need you to understand that my playlist of the most underrated artists and albums of the past decade was long, diverse, and contained what I consider to be some of the biggest but most unrecognized accomplishments in popular (or unpopular, for that matter) music of the last ten years. While it’s going to be hard not to make this sound derisive of anyone who self-identifies as a member of your club: you are failures, all. Admittedly, if you’re reading this at all then you’re probably not part of the Mainstream. If it’s the case that you’ve ventured a little bit deeper to read this series and invite the introduction to the things you may have missed, then welcome. Gather around with me and we’ll stand over here and poke fun at The Mainstream, their pedestrian tastes, their obliviousness to the sublime nuance of both sincerity and irony and the hideousness of the mediocre and the contrived. Let’s relax and close the year listening to the album that outlasted all the other albums on my unsung list: Brody Dalle’s Diploid Love. Let me explain why I think we’re experiencing something that far too few were able to recognize.
When you look at an artist through the eyes of a critic, you’re supposed to appreciate them both for their individual merits and also within the overall context of what they do. Where is pop music now? What is presently great, innovative, or fresh and how does it differ from what sucks terribly? Where does the work of this particular artist fit on that spectrum? Does it even matter with this artist? It would be dishonest not to acknowledge that we critics are guilty of a certain amount of subjectivity too. The art of what we do lies in justifying our preconceived tastes with enough finely crafted rhetoric to defend it. All of this is to say that I considered everything from the dystopian drum ‘n’ bass of Homemade Weapons to the sweet and syrupy pop-rock of The Beths and the woefully underreported metal monster that is New Zealand’s Beastwars. All of these are wonderful artists, but in the end, none of them are left as inexplicably wanting of recognition as Brody Dalle and particularly, Diploid Love.
We first encountered Dalle as the frontperson of the now legendary punk band The Distillers. While the simple-minded reached for obvious comparisons to Hole’s Courtney Love and Garbage’s Shirley Manson, others saw at least a career parallel to Gwen Stefani. Here you have a genuine bad-ass, a punk’s punk, aggressive, irreverent, and simultaneously sexy enough to seduce you and then to spit in your face. Stefani made a name for herself on the wonderfully timely “Just A Girl” with No Doubt and managed to build a career first as a band and later as a pop artist. Dalle began by blowing up the world with tracks like The Distillers’ “Dismantle Me” and gave us just a hint of pop crossover potential in “The Hunger.” Unfortunately, The Distillers never made it there as a band and her more radio-friendly project Spinnerette is arguably a candidate for this very same underrated recognition. (See Issue #137.) Check out “All Babes Are Wolves” or “Ghetto Love” and what you find is an artist who is in love with punk rock but amicably and unapologetically flirts with the notions of pop stardom. She nailed it. She did it better than anyone. Somehow, you still ignored her.
All of this sauce and aptitude for disgusted and saucy songwriting culminated in the creation of her first solo record, Diploid Love. The record is nine tracks that cover everything from a punk anthem decorated with a brass horn section in “Rat Race” to a ’90s grunge weird-out of “Blood In Gutters.” Each boasts Dalle’s unmistakable and satisfying baritone rasp, now controlled and honed like a sniper’s weapon. Her vocals in The Distillers were a live wire, flailing around uncontrollably as she seemed to aim to sound like she wanted to sound bad to sound punk. Diploid Love sees her in full control of that talent, bending it to her will for the first time. She wields it in all the right places. “I Don’t Need Your Love” is a sweet ballad sung in an uncharacteristic soprano and “Dressed In Dreams” tears your speakers apart as a drone of angst and melancholy rings out.
“Don’t Mess With Me” should have been the single of the year. Hell, in the #metoo era, it was just too early to be the play-it-loud theme song of a generation of women who are growing up for the first time understanding that they have more control over their own dignity and destiny than they’ve ever had. Every time I hear it, I am left baffled that this track, if not this entire record, didn’t dominate the airwaves in 2014. Mainstream, what did Brody Dalle do to you?
You carried Gwen Stefani from a similarly empowering feminist anthem to a career where she could appear unrepentant, essentially wearing human accessories and being obnoxious in interviews. You recognized and loved the innovative genius of Blondie, and you tolerated the antics of the queen who presided over the eventual demise of grunge, Courtney Love. All of this, and yet here you have a record which is arguably miles beyond any of these previously mentioned in range, style, talent, and production and it’s mainly overlooked. One of the decades’ most promising talents is talked about more because of her marriage to Queens Of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme than because she made not just one, but several of the decades’ most influential and exciting contributions to music. I will leave you with the furious thrashing of “Oh The Joy,” to which I rock-out frequently. It may interest you that this and “Meet The Foetus” was recorded with Garbage’s Shirley Manson, a nod, I think from one of the defining women of the previous decade to one of the defining women of this one. It is my wish that we will recognize the achievement of the original “bad guy” in retrospect. As for you Mainstream, don’t you have a Billie Eilish show to get to?
Released On March 31, 2015
Released By 8123 Records
When I got the e-mail saying our last post for OYR was our favorite album or EP from the last decade, I panicked. Ten years of music. Ten years of bands I love releasing music that I love. Ten years of discovering brand new bands. Ten years of countless bands that deserve attention they never got. Dear lord, how was I going to pick just one?! I studied what I was listening to over the past two weeks closely trying to find that one artist or album that I came back to time and time again and although I still don’t think I really picked the most deserving album for recognition, I was able to pick the album that had the biggest impact on me and therefore, am comfortable calling it the album of the decade.
American Candy by The Maine. Yes, to call The Maine an underrated band would be a stretch. They’ve had their spotlight and have been kings of the pop-punk scene since they began back in 2007 but I feel like, unless you’re in the pop-punk scene and never grew out of your emo phase, you probably haven’t heard much about this band.
The Maine’s American Candy album was released on March 31st of 2015 and, although it took me awhile to really appreciate the album in all of its glory, it eventually took over my daily playlist and has yet to leave. The thing that I love the most about this album is the fact that it’s from a band that I spent my angsty teenage years with and, just like me and mental state, has grown up throughout the years alongside myself and my entire generation. It’s still a pop-punk album through and through but there was more thought put into it than their previous releases and more emotion. Songs about growing up and dealing with the stress of adulting hit me just in the right spot this past decade. It was comforting to know that even though in the past two years I’ve done everything from start a “big girl job” to growing my own booking company to getting approved for a townhouse (I close on February 7th — everyone please send good vibes because I feel like I’m in completely over my head), The Maine was still there to comfort me through everything and it was mainly because of this album.
I could go song by song on this ten-track album and connect it to a moment in the past couple of years with no hesitation but that would mean nothing to you. All that matters is we all have that album that brings back memories (both good and bad) while making us think of the future and even, if I may be so bold, make us optimistic about the future. The Maine’s American Candy is that album for me and that’s why I’m calling it the album of the decade.
I’m a lyrics girl so I leave you with this opening line from The Maine’s “Another Night On Mars:”
The ones who make me feel less alien
I do not think I would be here if not for them
See all the nights in shitty bars
Throwing up in taxi cars
Or on our backs under the stars
As we sang
As we sang”
Everyone have a happy and safe New Year’s! Cheers to another year and decade full of amazing music.
Released On September 11, 2015
Released By Thirty Tigers Records
I realize there’s some risk in writing about Southland Mission, given that I’m certain there’s another Phil Cook superfan in our Off Your Radar midst, and he may be blurbing the same album as I type this. But in a certain sense, this whole story is about the rewards that await when you take a chance. In late 2011, my wife and I visited Portland, Oregon for a few days, and while we were there, we decided to catch a show at the Doug Fir Lounge — a move that remains somewhat out of character for us. Our travel itineraries don’t usually contain concerts, but I’d been listening to the band performing that night, and we decided to give it a go. That band was Megafaun, and that concert changed my life. Maybe not right away, though I did enjoy it a great deal. Canadian singer-songwriter Doug Paisley opened, and I snagged a copy of his Constant Companion LP from the merch table. I even wrote a couple of blog posts about how great the show was, but the real impact would unfold over the course of the rest of the decade. In fact, it’s still unfolding, because the network of good music that extends outward from the Megafaun members I saw on the Doug Fir stage — Phil Cook, his brother Brad, Joe Westerlund, and Nick Sanborn — is like a root system that never stops growing. Phil’s guitar brought me closer to Hiss Golden Messenger, whose performances are as spiritually fulfilling as any live music you can see right now. I’ve also seen Brad Cook perform with Hiss, though I’ve benefited more regularly from his production genius, especially his groundbreaking work alongside Justin Vernon as Bon Iver which has set the pace for musical innovation in the 2010s. Nick Sanborn’s gone on to make a whole other brand of uplifting music with singer Amelia Meath as Sylvan Esso, and Meath’s preexisting group Mountain Man has become another favorite. Joe Westerlund made a wildly creative children’s album with the help of the Spacebomb gang here in Richmond, which is how I came to learn that this root system had been growing under my feet this whole time. The more these connections revealed themselves, the clearer it became that Richmond, Durham, and Eau Claire are linked via the people making the music that matters most to me. The joy this creative community has given me is immeasurable, and Southland Mission remains the purest distillation of it. If you’ve seen Phil Cook play live, you know he radiates that sense of joy with every song he plays. You can see it in the way he reacts to bandmates, and to the music he’s playing. “Ain’t It Sweet” is the lossless musical embodiment of that visible jubilation, and the rest of the album follows suit, from the inviting group vocals in “Great Tide” all the way through to the warmth and weary wisdom of “Gone.” I’ve shaken Phil Cook’s hand a few times now — first at the Doug Fir, next when he signed my copy of Southland Mission at Friday Cheers in 2016, and most recently at Richmond Music Hall last year. On that last occasion, I asked him to sign the copy of Megafaun’s self-titled album I’d recently picked up at a record store in Portland, Maine. I shared a little about how meaningful that 2011 show in the other Portland had been, but doing so with other folks waiting in line to buy merch was like trying to will all of the sand in an hourglass to drop instantaneously. I feel the same way writing this. My gratitude is too big for one conversation, or one blurb. It’s a great tide, and when I listen to Southland Mission, it washes over me.
Released On March 4, 2016
Released By XL Recordings
When I actively try and think back to music in 2010 up until now, it has come a long way, and it is only going to continue to do so, given that there was no Spotify, Apple Music, or any other streaming services really. Social media has played a huge role in getting people discovered or getting music seen everywhere, and it is actually incredible to think that so much has changed in the span of just ten years. To just pick one album of the decade that I thought deserved more attention was a much more difficult task than I thought. Given that at the beginning of this decade I was starting high school, and now at the end of the decade I’ve had my fair share of life experiences, it’s only natural that my music tastes have also changed (not entirely, but I’m not 13 years old anymore). I was trying to decide which album to go with, and honestly there were a few that crossed my mind, but I kept coming back to this one.
Låpsley caught my attention when I was living in England, and while there was definitely some popularity there, I don’t think many people at all in North America even knew of her, which I think is a shame. The second I heard her voice, I was hooked. Such an amazing sound matched with incredibly moving lyrics that definitely got me through some tough times. One of the things I love about the album is that, even with emotional lyrics, songs like “Hurt Me,” “Heartless,” and “Operator” all have backing tracks that are actually quite upbeat. I guess I enjoy that because I used to only just listen to songs that would make me cry when I was sad, but this album kind of helped me see that I could have music to dance to instead. That said, two of my absolute favourites are the slower songs “Painter” and “Station,” I just love the slow electronic sounds, which, quite simply, just sound beautiful.
Like I said, I’m a massive fan of this album and for a debut album, I truly believe she did not get the recognition that she deserved (in North America anyways).
I am very much looking forward to a sophomore album from her whenever that day comes.
Released On June 30, 2017
Released By Roc Nation
Yes, I know, OYR is about the underdogs. The unknowns. The indies. The have-nots. I realize that citing arguably one of the most famous, celebrated artists on the planet is a bit subversive, but there’s a good reason. As far as hip hop goes, Jay Z released maybe the most important, overlooked, and underappreciated album of the past decade. On the surface it violates every “rule” of our dear newsletter, but I sincerely believe that the aftershocks of this monumental record will be felt for generations to come. The mere circumstance and execution of 4:44 makes it a touchstone in the still very short history of hip hop culture, and here’s why. Rap has always been a young man’s game. The culture itself is still less than fifty years old, but remains the voice of the youth. One of the most prominent growing pains of this culture that has seemingly taken over the world is that we have yet to celebrate our elders. Other genres like rock, jazz, country, and R&B have long heralded the longevity of it their most coveted artists. Their fan bases have held them up over time, awarding the iconic artists of the aforementioned genres with lifetime achievements and unyielding respect. Hip hop has not been so kind. But with 4:44, Jay Z put forth hip hop’s first effort to garner multi-generational fanfare in real time. Armed with a sneaky, top secret, break-the-internet marketing strategy, Hov commanded the attention of an entire youth culture — at the age of 47! This has never been done in the history of hip hop. No artist has held onto such universal legitimacy this long, not even Dr. Dre (who released the less than enthusiastically received Compton in 2015 at age 50). Not only is the longevity noteworthy, but the subject matter is just as important. There are no club records. Instead, Jigga disperses knowledge on real estate, credit ratings, financial responsibility, infidelity, his mother’s struggle to live her life as a lesbian, fatherhood, and loyalty. Grown man shit. To have this project accepted by the masses is a moment that will echo forever. Because of this record, other greats like J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar and even Kanye West can actually conceive a future past their thirties in a culture that’s been oh so unforgiving when it comes to ageism. Shawn Carter not only let down his guard to provide us the most vulnerable record of his career; he broke down the wall for mature artists and audiences within hip hop.
Released On July 13, 2018
Released By Anti-
On the topic of underrated records from this decade, I turn to Deafhaven. I discovered the metal group in early 2015, and I immediately became obsessed with their 2013 breakthrough, Sunbather. I was so impressed by it, I wondered how they would manage to top it. They answered my question that fall with New Bermuda, a record I loved even more than Sunbather. Then I wondered how they’d top that. And in July of 2018, they answered again with Ordinary Corrupt Human Love. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with Ordinary since it came out. Maybe I’ve given Dark Twisted Fantasy or the three Run The Jewels albums more spins, but those aren’t underrated or overlooked.
Now, Deafheaven isn’t overlooked, either. The reason I picked Ordinary, though, is that when Deafheaven appears on best of 2010s lists, it’s Sunbather that gets the shoutout. It was (and still is) an important album, especially in metal circles, so I suppose it’s justified. The reviews for Ordinary upon release were quite good, including an 85 on Metacritic (Sunbather has a 92 on Metacritic), so it’s not like it was disliked or shunned. It is, however, underrated because it isn’t Sunbather and, thus, isn’t what gave Deafheaven mainstream attention. Ordinary also happens to be a better album than Sunbather. What I find most pleasing about Ordinary — what makes it superior to their other records, in other words — is the sheer expansion of their sound, including the integration of classic rock. When I wrote (briefly) about it that summer, I stated that it was “their least metal offering,” and that main songwriter Kerry McCoy “wisely opts for sunset-purple watercoloring and arena-ready solos”. It’s an album that works well at the gym and at home in front of the stereo and on a long drive. I have yet to find a location where it would be out of place. It’s aching and it’s seething, but it’s also hopeful. It’s the band’s most cathartic release, which makes it their finest work. When it came out, I ended my short piece by saying, “Is it happy? Rock? Black metal? None of that matters when an album is this fucking beautiful.” A year and a half later, I don’t know how to say it better.
Deafheaven is wonderful to talk about at the end of the decade, but my mind also races to decade reflections in general. I’m not quite sure where to start, so I figure I’ll just start at the beginning.
I found the first couple of things I had published at the beginning of the decade. I thought that perhaps I could get some insight into where my head was then. The first thing I had published was on January 5, 2010 — my 24th birthday, as it happens — and it was a review of The Len Price 3’s Pictures. (How fitting! [See Issue #148.]) Then on the 7th, I had a column called “A word on modern metal (part 1)” published. However, given that these two ran during the first week of January, it’s likely that I wrote them in December. That puts them outside of this decade for the sake of this discussion. So we move onto the next closest, which is a news item on January 10 about DJ and producer Party Ben releasing a mash-up of the Andy Griffith Theme and Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” I was still snarky then and it shows: I stated that the mash-up makes Beyoncé’s song “listenable” and then added, “I know, it’s shocking.” Fast forward to late January where I had a review published of Sleep Whale’s Houseboat. I have no memory of writing this, or listening to this record for that matter. Having reread it, I clearly decided to use water and surf imagery for the entire piece: “The whole album is a swirling cacophony of guitars, keyboards, and background noises that all churn the aural waves around you” and “‘Light Tunnel’ features a vocal sample buried underneath the whitecaps”. I find that a bit obnoxious now.
I bring all this up because I’d like to think that over these ten years, I’ve matured as both a person and a writer. Just look at a review I had published two months ago: “The resulting collection is a fun throwback that’s made all the better by a series of commercial jingle-level hooks. This isn’t in any way pejorative, but instead meant to illustrate how easily these songs burrow into your brain.” This is writing that’s more subdued, subtler, kinder, and (hopefully) more cerebral. But I suppose the best example of this is my foray into fiction this year. I first dipped my toe in with the absurdist short story for Marlin Greene’s Tiptoe Past The Dragon back in Issue #115. When I saw that I could create fiction, or the potential to, I wrote a pair of thousand-word short stories. Then between January and April of this year, I wrote the initial draft of a feature-length screenplay. Writing fiction is a relatively new experience for me, and I don’t think it’s something I was ready for, or mature enough to handle, in 2010, or even 2015. (It should be noted that one of the main characters of my screenplay is a music nerd.)
Letting go of that snark and trying to be nicer was a conscious choice. I got tired of thinking that way, and I also no longer saw the point. Part of that is growing older — I turned 30 during this decade — and part of that has been writing for OYR. The latter is probably as big a factor as any because: 1.) Knowing the artist might see what you had to say tempers your judgement, and 2.) Staying within the guideline of ‘don’t be negative’ is a (solid) writing directive. I definitely still have growing to do, but I think I’ve distanced myself enough from a former version of me without letting go of who I am entirely.
Sure, Let’s Go With That
Released On June 3, 2019
When I first saw Curtis Cooper play, they were in a band called Community Service, tearing it up at the Pharmacy in Philadelphia. Songs like “Want It,” “You’re All Ugly,” and “Doin’ Fine!” were just a few of the tracks that got me through my college years. Explosive, quick-hitting, and often hanging from the rafters, Curtis was a visceral character of a person on any stage who I just knew I had to follow, all the way up to their latest release, Graceful. But let me sing the praises of their previous solo albums before I delve into the pure elegance that is Graceful because it’s important to the story (trust me).
Curtis dropped their first solo record, Laughing In Line, in 2016 and they stripped everything away from the standard shoegaze-y pompousness that often comes with indie rock and replaced it all with pop hooks and masterful songwriting. The first track that drew me in was “Today LA” — the guitar work at the beginning makes me buzz quite literally and their vocal harmonies make me swoon. When Curtis’ voice breaks in like a bank robber (“Today is the day that I should have been dying to get back home! How long has it been before I destroy my new comfort zone!?”), it’s aggressive and sorrowful in the most beautiful way. I very quickly found myself falling endlessly in love with every track on that album, from “4 Minutes” to “The Effect” and “Tonight Is For Me” to “White Lies.”
Messy came next, a mirage of noise and sadness and catharsis and violence. It was understandably “messy” but all the same, it was a testament to what Curtis was going through with gender dysphoria, substance abuse, and finding their way in the world. Taking influence from artists like Laura Jane Grace from Against Me! and Bright Eyes, Messy became Curtis’ own new awakening — a scar so visible that it was almost begging to be shared with the world. I know Curtis looks back on Messy as something they are scared of (“too personal, too honest”) but to me, it is almost religiously monumental. It’s a miracle that Curtis made their way through the darkness.
Finally, we come to Graceful, the whole point to this post. What can I say about Graceful that hasn’t already been said by every rock critic in Philly? It is the magnum opus that Curtis has been trying to fulfill ever since they began their solo endeavor. It is everything that encapsulates love and loss and self-discovery and finding every avenue to explore music and how it can be a tangible art form for the masses to express raw emotion. It is just that — graceful. Their instinct to write beautifully and make it relatable and digestible despite the heaviness of the content is unmatched. There are so many quiet, peaceful moments throughout the record that bring you to a lull of bliss. There are moments that embrace you and gently brush your hair. Graceful captures mood and melody in a psycho-social way in that you listen to it and you feel instantly understood. Accomplishing something as mood-driven and luscious as Graceful is no easy feat, but Curtis Cooper makes it appear that way.
Curtis is a superb artist and an artist to the core at that. I’ve yet to come across a local artist with as much heart and soul, or talent. Whatever comes next, I’ll be there with arms wide open. I just love what they’re doing in every way imaginable and Graceful took my affection for Curtis’ work to a whole other level that I never thought I would have.
The Love That Whirls (Diary Of A Thinking Heart) by Bill Nelson
Chosen By Guest Contributor Jack Tatum (Wild Nothing)