Issue #46: Secret Santa
December 19, 2016
Brief Editor’s Note:
For our last issue of the year, we at Off Your Radar figured we’d do something fun and different: our very own Secret Santa! Each contributor was assigned a random person they needed to choose a record for, one off the beaten path as always, and that person would talk about it below. For this issue, instead of fifteen people talking about one record, you’ve got fifteen people talking about fifteen various records from all over the place and we do mean all over the place. The picks range from ’60s records until more modern picks with genres including metal, sunshine pop, trip hop, folk, grunge, electronica, and even some jazz guitar.
The picks and accompanying thoughts are presented below in chronological order with some information about the record, as well as who picked what for whom. I encourage everyone reading to give each record a shot, as they are all fascinating albums all worthy of place in your record collection. Enough talking though — enjoy Off Your Radar‘s take on Secret Santa!
Released In November, 1968
Released By Columbia Records
Begin by The Millennium might just be the fanciest footnote in rock history. At the time it was made, it was rumored to be the most expensive production in Columbia Records history. Millennium wasn’t a band, per se, but rather a wealth of talent led by Curt Boettcher, a singer-songwriter-producer-arranger who had some heavy cred thanks to producing two top ten hits for The Association (“Along Comes Mary” and “Cherish” for those scoring at home). Despite abounding melodies, beautiful harmony vocals, and a production approach that leaves out the kitchen sink but includes talking drums, Japanese harps, and all manner of orchestrations, the album was a dead flop. Before I postulate about why that happened, first let me say that any fan of Forever Changes by Love, Days Of Future Passed by The Moody Blues, and Odessey And Oracle by The Zombies (not to mention Sgt. Pepper’s and Pet Sounds by those other bands) needs to hear this record.
It’s full of wonderful instrumental colors, genius arrangements, and a star-eyed sweetness that is contagious. There are many highlights among the songs, with my favorite being “Karmic Dream Sequence #1,” a psychedelic gem with an extended coda of sound effects that will definitely find its way onto many trippy playlists in the future. So why did Begin fail? For one thing, there isn’t that killer single like “Nights In White Satin” or “Time Of The Season.” For another, I think it lacks that touch of madness that distinguishes some of those other records, that sense that things just might go off the rails, which makes Forever Changes, for one, such a gripping listen. It reminds me of when my writing teacher would tell me that I was just “a turn of the key” from really connecting. The same could be said for Boettcher and Co.’s overstuffed masterpiece, which means it’s not only a wonderful listen but also a great set of clues about why those other records are canonized and Begin remains a cult classic.
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
Released In November, 1971
Released By Harvest Records
My Secret Santa in the Inaugural OYR Secret Santa Exchange was Jeremy! And the album he gave me to write about was Michael Chapman’s 4th album, 1971’s Wrecked Again! Before I start talking about the music, I think it must be pointed out that this man has recorded over forty albums, releasing one most recently in 2015. That’s very very impressive. The music is very compelling. I feel like Jeremy did a great job picking something that I would be into. This album contains music that reminds me of Bob Dylan, Elton John, Blood, Sweat, and Tears, Pink Floyd, and maybe even Chicago. It’s both folky and proggy and I love it. His voice is so unique and it couldn’t be more suited to the cold weather we’ve been having this week in Virginia. Though, at the same time, I bet it would also feel perfect at the end of a hot and humid July day. Maybe it just would sound perfect at any time of the year. His voice is slurred like he’s gotten a little buzz before starting to record and yet the listener can understand the lyrics perfectly, which is important to me, especially with this kind of music where the lyrics are so important. Actually, maybe that’s the reason I like it so much. The music and the lyrics are both very intricate and impressive and worth the listener’s attention, so the album gains a depth that it might not have if one or the other were lacking. The highlights for me are currently the title track and the track that follows it, “All In All“, but the whole thing is just a real treat to listen to. And from an artist that was truly off my radar! Thanks Jeremy!
James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts
Released In June, 1973
Released By A&M Records & Ode Records
Back in Issue #15, I talked about the profound impact John Frusciante’s music had on my life and I’d be remiss to not say the same thing about Carole King. Honestly, there’s not a musician out there whose music I hear more frequently than hers. Every time my wife and I put on Gilmore Girls (which happens way more than we’d like to admit), there she is welcoming us in song to a lovely world full of intricate stories and sensational melodies, much like her own albums. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t find myself humming “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” a song that was not only one of the first I learned on guitar, but the actual first I ever played in front of a crowd. Still, to this date, the very first thing I do when I pick up a guitar is strum those opening chords and think of those first saccharine words: “Tonight, you’re mine… completely…”
Carole King is one of the most lauded female musicians of all time, and yet I still feel she is a perfect fit for Off Your Radar. Despite the numerous accolades and inductions into various hall of fames, she is someone that has had the majority of her work overlooked and cast aside time and time again. While there are a dozens of reasons and situations you can point to in order to figure out why, you really don’t need to look further than veiled sexism and irresponsible snobbery. On the sexism front (which I’m sure some people are fuming over), as I said, she is one of the most lauded female musicians of all time, but much of her praise is shared alongside her ex-husband Gerry Goffin. I’m not going to debate who did what in the relationship or try and lessen his importance in musical history — songs like “One Fine Day” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” easily make them a legendary duo — but the two did divorce before King’s first record was ever released and for many rock critics, King’s contribution to music ended roughly around that time. Look no further than the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Sure, she’s inducted… as a non-performer… with Goffin. Nothing else, nothing more. Let’s ignore that Tapestry is regarded as one of the finest records ever made. Let’s ignore that she wrote standards like “You’ve Got A Friend” and “Jazzman” after she split from Goffin. Let’s ignore the fact period that she was able to transition seamlessly from songwriter to performer. Nah, doesn’t matter. Put her in as a non-performer and slap her together with Goffin. That should suffice.
The other reason for her records being overlooked, the irresponsible snobbery, ties in more with Fantasty, a beautiful record I was thrilled Kellen picked for me. It’s well-documented how destructive and caustic rock “critics” were in the ’70s. At best, they were writing with reckless abandon while at worst, they were doing so with malicious intent. Carole King, with her ever-changing style and wide-ranging influences, virtually had no chance the minute she deviated at all from Tapestry‘s playbook. Fantasy was not the first record of hers to be criticized for paling in comparison to Tapestry, but it was the most glaring error that critics made back them. Fantasy was easily King’s most ambitious work to date, not only by the stylistic decisions and seamlessly segueways, but also for its lyrical content. “Welfare Symphony” is a stand-out on the record for this very reason. Musically, it’s as compelling as any music from the time, but it’s the words she sings that make it beautifully daring. “She often cried as they left her without a shred of pride.” How true do those words feel today? In fact, much of the record is applicable to today’s climate and it’s not just by happenstance. The beauty of King’s work is how timeless it is. It’s why songs like “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” are still impeccable, and why an overlooked record like Fantasy still seems exciting and germane. It’s why she is one of the most important musicians of all time, female or not. Look no further than the title track of the record to feel the timeless nature of her words, words that soundtrack a constant struggle to find common ground.
“Looking for a way to say / The things I think about day by day / Listen to their meaning if you can / I may step outside myself / And speak as if I were someone else / That’s one way I know you’ll understand / In fantasy I can be black or white / A woman or a man”
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
Released On July 29, 1996
Released By Columbia Records
I think I just now realized that Trip Hop was twenty years ahead of its time. I remember accepting Portishead with open arms because, to me, the production was just so RZA-esque, circa 1995. But I also remember not being so thrilled with other forays into the genre in the following years, so I never really kept up with it. While listening to A New Stereoscopic Sound Spectacular, I was struck by how many of the tenets of this decades-old music are dominating the landscape of today. There’s the ambient synth patches and 808 drums of “Inhaler“. My first reaction? This sounds like Blondie on prescription cough syrup. Cut the tempo in half, add some Percocet, and you’ve got every song coming out of Atlanta for the past 5 years. I immediately fell in love with “2 Wicky“, which samples an all too familiar Isaac Hayes loop, but livens it up with some clever synth chords and angelic vocals. “Wardrope” sounds like something Mannie Fresh would whip up for Sade — somber chords on a bed of hard hitting New Orleans bounce (not unlike a few Drake records you may have already heard). And remember when Pharrell went on that pop radio rampage a couple years ago with Daft Punk and Nile Rodgers? I feel like “Revolver” could’ve easily been the bridge between Skateboard P’s savagery and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk“. Maybe part of the reason I simply don’t “get” a lot of today’s hip hop (aside from being old) is because I didn’t incorporate Trip Hop into my musical diet? I guess it’s hard to go from filet mignon to Spam without having a hot dog in between. Great pick, Matt!
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
Released In September 24, 1996
Released By Headhunter Records
Boys Life were a mid-nineties post-hardcore/emo/indie (just pick your flavor already) band from the same Kansas City scene as The Get Up Kids. During this era, I tended to lean towards bands like At The Drive-In and Engine Down*, but totally hear the Boys Life influence in one of my favorite bands …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead. It would be easy to compare the studio textures of “Radio Towers” to songs like “It Was There That I Saw You” but click the links to hear the live versions. There are also similarities in album titles: Departures And Landfalls / Source Tags And Codes. Both band sprouted from similar seeds before eventually growing different branches but as sub-genre scenes tend to be, the influence can be circular. In a recent interview, John Rejba of Boy’s Life cites ST&C as one of his favorite albums.
PJ Sykes (@pjsykes)
Gutsy Punk Renaissance Man
Released On September 9, 2003
Released By Absolutely Kosher Records
My first introduction to The Wrens was through Okkervil River. The band worked closely with Charles Bissell and even asked him to perform with the group for a while. During that point, the groups decided to cover one of each other’s songs. Despite this relationship with one of my favorite groups, I never really descended into the world of The Wrens. Funny enough, Will Sheff would cover “Ex-Girl Collection,” a song included on The Meadowlands.
Thanks to PJ, I have made the leap and I never could have imagined how much of the story of this band would speak to me: a group that was critically revered and could not score a single break within the music industry. The Meadowlands is very much a reaction to growing older and succumbing to self-doubt. In a variety of interviews, Bissell admits that they scrapped a number of songs due to just not feeling like they would live up to the material of their yesteryears.
The Meadowlands is a reaction to the idea of life escaping you and noticing the wrinkles in time. “Boys, You Won’t” seemed to encapsulate this idea perfectly. With a phrase like “lived through underrated / getting jaded / to wind up with no one,” you can understand the tension the band felt as they tried to find a home for their music for close to a decade. The Wrens’ music deserved to be held to a pinnacle of acclaim, but the system in which music is released fought against them. The Meadowlands is their reaction to feeling betrayed and creating the perfect soundtrack for such an idea.
I now want to explore the vast territory that has been disclosed to me through this recommendation and I couldn’t be happier to dig deeper into the story of The Wrens.
Shannon Cleary (@thatssocleary)
Musical Explorer Of All Angles
Released On July 24, 2006
Released By A Small Tribe Records
I want to thank my Secret Santa Shannon for throwing me a curveball that takes me away from my nonstop listening of Christmas music and songs from my favorite albums of year by giving me Vermillion Lies’ Separated By Birth. This album is a wonderful foray into the world of cabaret/circus folk music created by sisters Kim and Zoe Boekbinder. It doesn’t stick to one type of sound either. The horns and strings of “Circus Apocalypse” soon give way to the somber melodies of “I Should Fly” (easily one of my favorite tracks on the record) then on to the mandolin-fueled “Shady.” It’s a great musical journey to take and by the end of the record, I’m ready for another cabaret adventure with them.
Andrew Cothern (@rvaplaylist)
Beloved & Influential Richmond Chronicler
Released On September 3, 2007
Released By Embassy Of Music
I present to you the inner monologue of one James Peart around Tuesday this week:
Why am I reviewing a Chris Pratt movie for a music publication?
Oh wait, that’s Passengers.
*rips up movie ticket and googles Passenger*
Why did I think Passenger was Scandinavian?
Oh, he’s British? Really?
Why isn’t he a bigger star over here in that case?
He had a band also called Passenger? Say whaaaaaaaa…
Yeah, turns out I really knew nothing about Passenger going into this week, which actually turned out to be a good thing because what I did learn was that I really like Passenger. I also thought he was a sort of one-hit-wonder because of “Let Her Go“, but it turns out that was incorrect too, as that song only reached number 2 in the UK and number 5 in the US. Go figure. What really surprised me was that he had a band.
Seeing that Wicked Man’s Rest was released in 2007 and yet never gained any traction or even charted in the top 100 was very surprising. After all, since around 2005, there’s been a growing folk rock resurgence in UK music, with bands and artists like Noah And the Whale, Laura Marling, Ben Howard, Bear’s Den, George Ezra, and, of course, the biggest act Mumford & Sons. Passenger fits the mold of those artists who have broken into the mainstream, yet he’s known only for one song, which is a great shame for his only record with his band shows that he’s a very versatile and talented songwriter.
This is a very harmonic and melodic record, with some very candid songwriting from Mike Rosenberg (Passenger), but the thing I liked the most from this record was the guitar work. There’s some fantastic hooks and arrangements in here like on the up-beat “Night Vision Binoculars” and the wonderful “You’re On My Mind.” There’s also something about the lyrics that just feels so British. An honesty with a dry wit that we do oh so well. You can see from this early work that Passenger is a strong songwriter with the ability to write a hit song.
Wicked Man’s Rest is a record that’s just perfect for me. All those folk rock artists I listed earlier? I love them all, it’s very much my genre of choice and I’m kind of ashamed I didn’t know anything of Passenger past the big solo hit. I’m very glad he’s been brought to my attention. You can see from this record why Rosenberg maybe ditched the band and went solo. His strength comes from his songwriting and his arrangements and maybe the autonomy of going alone plays to his strengths. What I do know is that I’m very much looking forward to delving more into his later work. But this record on its own stands up. It’s a terrific piece of UK folk rock with some really great tracks inside it. It gets a high recommendation from me. Listen to it, enjoy it, and question why Passenger isn’t a bigger artist than he is. That’s what i’ll be pondering this Christmas season.
James Peart (@choccyr)
Fascinated Binger Of Musical Zeitgeist
Released On September 11, 2007
Released By Merge Records
Christmas. Came. Early. (Okay, technically it came on Thursday when I had my mind lasered by Rogue One, but Santa always rings twice). I need an Oakley Hall tour shirt. I fucking adored I Follow You. It’s like someone hardwired into my brain and downloaded everything I could want from an American album: boy-girl vocals, electric violins, hella heartbreak, and an insane amount of musical variety. Some highlights, from listening sessions that really rocked my proverbial socks:
- The guitar playing in “Free Radicals Lament” is insane.
- “Angela” inexplicably makes me want to cry.
- Of course “I’ll Follow You” is a drinking song, because every great Josh album needs a drinking song.
- Alright guys, I’ll see your lowkey Gitche Gummi shout out.
- How the hell does “Alive Among Thieves” sound totally different than the rest of the album… forty minutes in.
- Real time reaction to listening to “Rue The Blues:” Hmmm okay, this track I’m digging… some good windows-down strumming… ooo, these vocals are legit: “You told me you loved me darling / you said it like a warning”… oh my God, this song is perfect. I’m actually kinda freaking out.
Okay, so this write-up was all just teenage screaming and rambling, but I just feel kind of head over heels with this one. I need to bake a cake for my Secret Santa. I love my OYR family. It’s been a great year, y’all. Merry Christmas.
Josh Buck (@altq42)
Devout Pop Music Purist
Released On August 1, 2011
Released By Red Deer Club
I was surprised to see that Master Of None was released in 2011, though I’m not sure when I would have guessed it was released. “Photosynth” would have fit nicely on The Postal Service’s album, which came out in 2003, though elsewhere, on tracks like “Lungs Are Important” and “Infinitea,” I hear sounds that reach back a little further, to pre-turn-of-the-millennium indie like The Beta Band or Badly Drawn Boy. What makes this such a hidden gem (Thanks for choosing it for me, James!) is how intuitively the eras and influences are applied. The album’s title is perfect in that sense, taken from the saying “Jack of all trades, master of none.” While that expression can have negative connotations, we see the best of it here — even “Bed Beds,” which ventures into the realm of talk-singing/rapping, feels natural. A departure for sure, but not a stretch. Incidentally, “Bed Bugs” may be the best example on Master Of None of a low-key, percussive vocal delivery that reminds me of Matt Berninger from The National. I’ve always had trouble getting into The National because of Berninger’s singing style, but I really like the approach here. I was driving around listening to Jonnie Common this weekend and had the thought that maybe Master Of None will act as a gateway to The National, in which case James will have given me two gifts, not just one. I think that means he won Secret Santa.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
Released On December 6, 2011
Released By CrackNation Records
Right after Y2K, when indie music publications, most notably Pitchfork, first started to take note at all of the existence and creative fertility of metal, the style of metal they focused on — pretty much exclusively at first — was all the roaring midtempo epic metal stuff that took obvious influence from Neurosis and tended to sound like the soundtrack to a movie about a pirate ship chasing an enormous angry whale through stormy waters at night. If it sounds like I’m pretty much describing Mastodon’s Leviathan in that last sentence, by the way, it’s because I pretty much am. That album obtained the apex of the indie world’s veneration of a style of music that soon earned the derisive tag “hipster metal.” A lot of what came afterward in that style seemed tainted by its osmotic proximity to the indie world; melodic vocals pushed aside a lot of the tortured screams that had become metal’s chief parlance by this point, and ponderous song structures that devoted much more time to slowly-building crescendos than to the headcrushing riffage that had given metal its original raison d’etre.
None of this is to say, though, that nothing good in the world of post-y2k metal has ever come of an obvious Neurosis influence, or an interest in mid-paced epic songcraft, or some properly roared vocal theatrics. Bands like Isis and Baroness have certainly demonstrated a facility with these tropes… though often, one is best advised to get into them quick and let them fade away slowly, as bands like this tend to succumb to the siren charms of the indie world and delve too deeply into sedate melodies once they’ve worked through their initial burst of inspiration. If this is going to eventually be true of Czar, it thankfully hasn’t happened yet, and 2011 debut LP Vertical Mass Grave represents a really obvious sweet spot at which fans of true headbanging brutality should definitely jump on the bandwagon. Riff-wise, they tend to stick to that same post-Neurosis heavy midtempo thing, but their riffs have a lot of weight to them and hit the listener with a ton of power. When they do change up tempos, as on “Cun“‘s brief left turn into black-metallic blast beats, they do so skillfully and in a manner that befits the song. At other moments, as on “Brunt,” they demonstrate a talent for off-kilter time signature shifts and structural complexity that dispels any fear of their standard midtempo pound becoming boring or predictable. It all makes Vertical Mass Grave a must-hear for any fans of heavy music. Because this album absolutely delivers.
Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground
Released On April 22, 2014
Released By Kanine Records
Fear Of Men’s Loom was actually a perfect Secret Santa selection for me… because I own it! However, I think I have put it on once since I bought it at Record Store Day a few years ago. I had to have it. I loved the band’s EP Early Fragments, and wrote about it on my blog. But like most of my RSD purchases, it ended up in a “to be listened to” stack and promptly forgotten about. With the exception of Destroyer reissues, RSD releases don’t ever seem to be a part of my permanent collection, even when they’re excellent new LPs, like Loom. I posted a few years ago why I hate RSD (I even mentioned this record in that post), and I will add “When I buy ten records in one day, I can’t listen to all of them at once, so I forget they exist.”
So, yes, I am dumb. So very dumb for not spinning this amazing LP within an hour of taking it home. Fear Of Men are a little darker and weirder than other British rock bands with a female singer (seriously this is my favorite genre, what was I thinking??). Opening track “Alta” is a brief bit of dreamy noise. The unexpected a cappella beginning of “America” is lovely, and the lyrics “Don’t run disaster hits / Don’t run when they take it all” are more meaningful to me in this political climate.
Like other artists that we have talked about this year, Jessica Weiss’s songs read like what she sees in her dreams — lots of waves, the ocean, and death, all of which give her trouble sleeping. Unlike, say, Grouper, Fear Of Men’s music is upbeat, albeit in a very British way — Weiss repeats “There is a sickness an a health / That keeps me from your door” over “ahhhhs” and peppy guitar lines in “Descent.” The final song, “Atla,” leaves listeners slightly more hopeful, as Weiss sings sweetly, “Baby come before the light is gone / You don’t disgust me anymore.” See, totally pleasant, right?
Rediscovering something you already own is a wonderful gift, and I am thankful to David (whom I have never met, but he sure does have damn fine taste in music) for putting it under my tree this year.
Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ
Released On February 24, 2015
Released By Hardly Art Records
Most of the writers for Off Your Radar are people I barely know. Three of them I have met in person, the rest added as Facebook friends after I started writing here. Trying to understand a person from their social media alone is a pointless and skewed activity, and looking at mine would only give you a series of ridiculous band names mixed in with a bunch of pictures of my partner doing weird (cute) things, so when waiting for my Secret Santa pick I had no expectations of the album. Chances were that whoever got me would be someone who doesn’t know me well, and chances are I would still like the album because I respect the taste of everyone here and I like a lot of music. Proving, though, that this community of writers and music lovers are also observant, not only was I handed an album from an artist that I have not heard of, but I was into it from the first listen. Playing Colleen Green’s 2015 album I Want To Grow Up over the speakers of my computer at work, hearing that grown-up riot grrl sound, made me smile. So much of what I really love in music can be found on this album. Though definitely that riot grrl mentality colors the lyrics and heavy guitar, the tracks fluctuate to include a range of emotion. At times bouncy, generally irreverent, and surprisingly existential, this is a perfect album for someone like me, who found her brand of feminism largely through music.
Laura Confer (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
Released On June 22, 2015
Released By RCA Records
Somewhere between the art pop/rock of Wild Beasts, the intricacy of Dirty Projectors, the dance-ability of LCD Soundsystem, with a hint of prog thrown in, exists Everything Everything’s Get To Heaven. It’s a record that pulls the listener between catchy, upbeat hooks and an underlying anxiety and darkness both overtly and subtly apparent through the band’s lyrics and musical arrangements, respectively. Lead single “Distant Past” is a heavily syncopated earworm, with it’s deliciously catchy two-against-three rhythmic through-line. Listen to the lyrics a little closer, however, and their invocation of the natural world, even biblical Eden, juxtaposed against dripping, blooming blood and gore temper the once-infectious song, making one question just what it is they’re dancing to. “The Wheel (Is Turning Now)” is the best pop song on the record for three minutes before transitioning into a hypnotic electronic groove, lead vocalist Jonathan Higgs questioning over and over “Do you know how far you’ve come?” It’s an ominous ending that leads directly into the perverse euphoria of “Fortune 500.” It’s the biggest song on the record, filled with arpeggiated synths and big, dark, blaring brass, but as Higgs cries “They told me that I’ve won,” it sends a chill down your spine. On Get To Heaven, Everything Everything blends topical contemporary subject matter of violence, corruption, despair, and confusion permeating our modern world and dynamic dance rock with wild success. It’s a record that speaks on today’s issues astutely and artistically without pontificating. This is music with a conscience, and the world is better for it.
David Munro (@david_c_munro)
Idiosyncratic Avant-Garde Wanderer
Released On November 27, 2015
Released By Chunksaah Records
So here we pick up about exactly where 1992 left off. A breezy gambol of an indie pop record with a modicum of snarly guitars and lite melodrama. Taking cues from Chapterhouse and The Pale Saints, Smalltalk delivers track after track of neatly wrapped jangle and sentiment. At no point does it falter. “Holding Out” definitely has some groovy Morrissey vibes. The stand out duet “People Only Die Of Love In The Movies” is full of mellow throb and slightly acetic shimmer. “Only You” provides an energetic coda as it gloriously dissolves into layers of melodic phrases. There’s a marvelous sense of balance and space, so prepare to let these lovely pop ballads settle in as these resplendent fifty-two minutes take up residence in your heart.
Matt Klimas (@nearcticfauna)
Surveyor Of All Things Fuzz
Sha Sha by Ben Kweller
Chosen By James Anderson