Dinosaur Jr.

Rust Is Just Right’s Best Albums of 2016

Today is April 18, and while the rest of the nation trudges through another Tax Day (a few days later this year), we here at Rust Is Just Right choose this occasion to return from the dead and release our Best Albums of the Year list.  We follow this unusual schedule for a few reasons: 1) It allows some of the albums that are released at the end of the calendar year to get some recognition, since they usually get swallowed up in the attention of the flurry of year-end lists; 2) We get the chance to analyze other lists to pick up on albums that somehow escaped our attention during the course of the year; and 3) It provides a handy consumer guide for people to focus where to spend their tax refund.

The process that is used to determine this list is highly rigorous and hardly scientific.  However, we are still in the process of attempting to patent and trademark The Process, which if you may recall, is simply tallying up the play counts on iTunes for each album.  It has served us well in years past, and a quick glance at our list this year proves that it has worked once again.

Note: Though the list is a Top 10, there are more albums than slots, because we don’t like breaking ties for the same play count.  If you’re really intent on focusing on only 10, I guess take the 10 highest performing albums from the list, but you really shouldn’t limit yourself like that if you can help it.  Also, we have reviews for nearly all of these albums, so for those of you seeking a more detailed analysis all you need to do is click the appropriate tag above.

10. Alcest – Kodama; Angel Olsen – My Woman; A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service; Bon Iver – 22, A Million; Pity Sex – White Hot Moon; Summer Cannibals – Full of It (7 plays)

Garage rock is still a dominant trend in indie circles these days, and Summer Cannibals with their fiery energy and Pity Sex with their peppy melodies represent the best of the scene.  As for Tribe, who knows what was more surprising–that the group reunited or that its comeback effort was so good, able to call back to their 90’s heyday without sounding like retreads.  Many have pointed out the influence that Alcest has had on Deafheaven (frontman Neige even appeared on the latter’s groundbreaking Sunbather for a spoken-word contribution), and it looks like the tables have turned–after going in a softer direction in Shelter, Alcest brought some edge back (and a few shouts) to their melodic mix of shoegaze and metal.  Bon Iver continues to experiment with loops and vocal effects (in the vein of his work in Volcano Choir) moving further and further away from the delicate acoustic of For Emma, Forever Ago; however, the result is still some gorgeously moving music.  Angel Olsen was one of the artists that we picked up on after reading year-end lists, and we quickly became fans of her versatility, with an album that ranges from classic retro numbers to sweeping epics.

9. Chance the Rapper – Colouring Book; Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression (8 plays)

If you were looking for inspiration or a quick pick-me-up, the best place to look last year was the ebullient Chance the Rapper.  His mix of gospel and hip-hop helped create some of the best songs from last year, but the album as a whole seemed to run a little to long.  Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age helped Iggy Pop stun audiences and critic with a great comeback album, mining the sounds of Pop’s landmark solo efforts Lust For Life and The Idiot.  The new songs mixed seamlessly with the classic material when they were out on tour, and together they put together one of the best shows we saw last year.

8. Dinosaur Jr. – Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not; Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam – I Had A Dream That You Were Mine; Mitski – Puberty 2; Parquet Courts – Human Performance (9 plays) 

With their latest, Dinosaur Jr. has now put together more great albums in their reunion years (four) than in their original golden era (three-ish).  Parquet Courts rebounded with an album that stood up to repeated listens much better than the at-times grating Sunbathing Animal, and songs like “Berlin Got Blurry” stuck with us long after the fact.  Hamilton Leithauser formally teamed up with Rostam Batmanglij (Vampire Weekend) for his second solo effort (after collaborating on a couple of tracks for Black Hours), with the result being a record that effectively matched Hamilton’s remarkable and unique voice with doo-wop, old country, and soft ballads.  Mitski was another find from the critics lists, and we only wished we had come across her inventive explorations of identity and depression sooner.

7. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition; Deftones – Gore; M83 – Junk (10 plays)

We continue to be amazed at the ability of the Deftones to continually put out great new records in a genre where bands can quickly grow stale; perhaps more impressive was how Gore did not have any big singles but was still able to hold your attention from beginning to end.  A lot of people dismissed Junk when it first came out, but we quickly grew to love it once we realized the truth in the title; the complaints about the sequencing of the album have some merit, but we enjoyed the detours into what seemed like theme songs from lost 80’s French TV shows.  Plus, Anthony Gonzalez deserves all the credit in the world for his ability to use a Steve Vai guitar solo effectively.  Danny Brown’s voice can grate on people, but if you can accept his B-Real-style vocals, then it’s easier to plumb into one of the most musically adventurous hip-hop albums in years.

6. The Besnard Lakes – A Coliseum Complex Museum; Radiohead – A Moon-Shaped Pool; The Thermals – We Disappear (11 plays)

This is the part of the list where old favorites take up residence.  The latest from the Besnard Lakes was a bit of a disappointment, though it ends on an incredible high note that makes one wonder why they didn’t build the whole album out of this song.  Radiohead returned with a much better version of what they previously attempted with the forgettable The King of Limbs, though the best song from the sessions comes only on the deluxe edition (the rejected version of their theme to Spectre).  However, we don’t need any caveats to explain how The Thermals ended up this high on the list, as we enjoyed how they were able to meld the better parts of their recent work (the energy of Desperate Ground, the insight and thoughtfulness of Personal Life).

5. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial; Operators – Blue Wave (12 plays)

Come for the lo-fi guitar rocks, stay for the incisive wit and deep explorations of the young psyche with Car Seat Headrest.  Teens of Denial is an album that grows with each listen, and amazingly never feels as long as its 70-minute runtime.  Dan Boeckner never lets us down, and we were big fans of his latest side-project Operators, which brightens the sound of his previous drum-machine and guitars outfit Handsome Furs.  The man effortlessly comes up with great melodies, and the new wave keyboards are a nice touch.

4. LVL UP – Return to Love (13 plays) 

We were excited to find a new band that apparently loves the classic Elephant 6 sound as much as we do, with the song “Hidden Driver” especially reminding us of On Avery Island-era Neutral Milk Hotel.  However, the band switches between three different songwriters, and the result is a more varied record that one might expect, though all hitting in that sweet spot of classic alternative/indie rock.

3. The Avalanches – Wildflower (14 plays)

Another comeback album that a lot of people seemed to have forgotten, we immediately fell in love with Wildflower.  Yes, Since I Left You is now a classic in some circles, but this was another brilliant mix of countless samples and original music that we kept revisiting over and over again.  Also, we might argue that “Because I’m Me” was the song of last summer and of many summers to come.

2. Preoccupations – Preoccupations (15 plays)

We initially were underwhelmed by the announced name change, but we were much more impressed by this sophomore effort from this Canadian foursome.  The band built on the promise of the second half of Viet Cong and released a post-punk masterpiece.  This time the centerpiece of the album comes right in the middle, with the epic three-part “Memory”; the middle section with Dan Boeckner might be some of the most gorgeous music we heard all of last year.

1. Cymbals Eat Guitars – Pretty Years (17 plays)

We still believe that LOSE should be considered the band’s masterpiece, but we became serious fans of the band’s followup to that incredible album after repeated plays in our car.  It may be a step back in terms of ambition, but there are plenty of hooks throughout the record, and you may find yourself humming different songs each day of the week.  The band is still capable of packing an emotional punch as well, and the layers reveal themselves after multiple listens.  At the end of the day, this is the album we always would default to when deciding what to play, and that may be as good a reason as any to make it our album of the year.

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Reviews: Quick Hits (Part 2)

Though we here at Rust Is Just Right try as hard as we can, it simply is not possible for us to review all the great new albums that come across our way.  However, since our goal is to highlight great music that you may have not discovered yet, we feel obligated to at least give a brief mention to some of the records that we have accumulated over the past few months that are worthy of your consideration.  With that in mind, we present another slate of albums.

Frog Eyes – Pickpocket’s Locket With their previous albums Tears of the Valedictorian and Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph, Frog Eyes showed a certain flair for the dramatic, delivering cracked indie rock epics that can overwhelm listeners with their passion and intensity while challenging their preconceived musical sensibilities.  For this album, Casey Mercer has pulled back a bit and offered a more stripped-down version of his group’s bombastic sound, but delivered with a similar fervor.  You still get Mercer’s unique voice, but this time it is often accompanied by strings.

HEALTH – Death Magic For their long-awaited follow-up to Get Color, noise-rockers HEALTH have decided to throw on the most depressing dance party ever.  Industrial affectations adorn slow, slinky beats, creating a menacing if alluring album.  The only downside is a tendency early in the album to borrow a melody from Vampire Weekend’s “Giving Up The Gun”, but that might be a problem that does not afflict everyone equally.

Lou Barlow – Brace the Wave It is really strange that two of the members of probably the loudest fucking band on the planet, Dinosaur Jr., enjoy making gorgeous acoustic music in their spare time, but such is the case for J Mascis and Lou Barlow.  To be fair, Barlow has shown this side for years, even on a handful of Dino songs, but Brace the Wave is an especially gorgeous collection of songs.  Recorded after the dissolution of a long marriage, there is the expected melancholic element, but it is balanced with several moments of fragile beauty.

Wire – Wire The old punks are still kicking, and they are as restless as ever.  Not content to rehash their early work that has inspired countless modern bands, Wire instead dives into a dour post-punk take on shoegaze.  That is probably a poor characterization of their sound, but goes to show how the band has always managed to defy description.

Wolf Alice – My Love Is Cool The band got some airplay with the aggro-indie track “Moaning Lisa Smile”, but the album as a whole exhibits far greater diversity than one might expect.  Wolf Alice shows a bit of love to multiple 90’s subgenres and trends, but avoids sounding like a rehash of that decade.  My Love Is Cool does not quite work as a cohesive album, but there should be plenty of stray tracks that fans will love.

Catching Up On The Week (Sept. 19 Edition)

Some #longreads as you prepare for the return of the purest of athletic competitions: Ivy League football.

Next week sees the release of the highly-anticipated new album from Aphex Twin, Syro, though if you live outside of the United States, you may have had the chance to purchase the album as soon as today.  This is Richard D. James’s first album under the Aphex Twin moniker since Drukqs came out in 2001, so anticipation has been extremely high for electronica fans.  James sat down for an extended interview with Pitchfork (filled with all sorts of fancy website tricks) that you should probably read to help pass the time before you get a copy of Syro in your hands, and the Village Voice has a piece putting the new album into context.  For a taste of the new album, here’s “minipops 67 [120.2]

“:

Another high-profile release coming out next week is the album that Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy made with his son Spencer (released under the name “Tweedy”), Sukierae.  Jeff writes a piece for The Guardian discussing the significance of the album form, and why Suierae is a double-album.

J Mascis sat down for a fun interview with Pitchfork for their Guest List feature.

NPR examines the lasting popularity of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September”.

WIRED samples some psychological studies that attempt to explain the scientific reason why you and your friends tend to like the same music as well as analyzing the significance of music in social interaction.

And finally, our readers should be well-aware of how psyched we are about the reunion of Death From Above 1979, so of course we’re going to pass along any stories about these guys.  FADER talks to the band about some of their favorite movies while Rolling Stone talks to the band about their time apart.  In true Rolling Stone fashion, the interviewer keeps on referring to the limited-run Romantic Rights EP as the touchstone of their early days instead of the wide-released full-length You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine, but I’m willing to let that detail go.

Covered: “Just Like Heaven”

Covered is a feature where we examine the merits of various cover songs, debating whether or not they capture the spirit and intent of the original, if the cover adds anything new, and whether or not it perhaps surpasses the original.  If we fail on those counts, at the very least we may expose you to different versions of great songs you hadn’t heard before.

One of my all-time favorite covers is Dinosaur Jr.’s take on one of The Cure’s biggest hits, “Just Like Heaven”.  The Dino version somehow succeeds in being both faithful to the original and irreverent at the same time.  The video above helps make my point, as the band clearly has a bit of fun with the original version by mimicking many of its dance moves, but it’s done in a gently mocking manner instead of a heavy-handed insulting way.  The distinctive bass pickup/drumfill intro remains, but this time at a quicker tempo, followed by a shimmery acoustic guitar that’s a close match to the original.  It’s when the next wave of guitars enter that changes the mood, first with a heavily wah-wah’ed backing rhythm guitar, and then followed by a guitar that’s been whammy’ed within an inch of its life that takes on the memorable melody line, instead of the delicate twinkly style of the original.  It’s at this point that this sounds like a classic Dinosaur Jr. song, though with a more danceable beat.

J Mascis matches the vulnerability of Robert Smith’s vocals, and J’s distinctive whiny drawl actually helps bring out the emotion of the lyrics.  But it’s Lou Barlow’s shouted contribution of “You!” to the power chord-heavy chorus that really seals it, and it makes me crack up every time I hear the song.  It’s so jarring and unexpected that it changes the whole demeanor of the song, but once you know it’s there, you can’t wait for it to appear again.  J then twists the melody into one of his trademark blistering solos, further putting the band’s stamp on the song.  And just when you’re expecting the release from another chorus, the song abruptly cuts out.  For years, I thought I was the victim of a shitty version of the album, but I later found out that no, everyone had the same problem; the story is that the tape ran out while they were recording the song, but they liked the take so much they shipped it as is.  To this day, the band plays it the same way, abrupt ending and all.

For a long time, the Dinosaur Jr. version was the only one I knew; I had known it was a cover, but I never felt like seeking out the original since it was rare that I was in a mood to listen to The Cure.  So it may appear that my opinion is tainted, but no less of an authority than Robert Smith himself has proclaimed himself a fan of the cover, going so far as to say that it now influences how his band plays the song live.  I like the original, but I’ll agree with Mr. Smith on this one.

BONUS TRIVIA: In the Dinosaur Jr. video, the green puppet is wearing a “Deep Wound” t-shirt, which is the hardcore band that J and Lou were in before starting up Dinosaur Jr.

Catching Up On The Week (Apr. 18 Edition)

We’ve got some great #longreads for you this weekend, so try to fit these in as you enjoy Record Store Day.

Many music fans were excited for the reunion of OutKast at Coachella last weekend (this one included), but unfortunately it wasn’t the joyous celebration that we were hoping would occur.  There’s a lot to be said about the general shittiness of festivals, and Coachella specifically, but even that doesn’t account for some of the disappointment that many OutKast fans felt (personally, as a viewer watching things on my couch, I was able to enjoy it, album-plug for Future notwithstanding).  Rembert Browne at Grantland does a great job of expounding on this sentiment.  And if you’re wondering why the OutKast reunion was such a big deal in the first place, Andrea Battleground at the AVClub can help get you up to speed.

Last weekend I engaged in a scavenger hunt across Portland with some friends, and one of the items that we procured was an 8-Track of Bob Seger’s Night Moves.  It is now one of my most valued possessions.  Coincidentally enough, Steven Hyden wrote a piece this week why you shouldn’t scoff at this notion.  Behold, in all its glory:

My new most valued possession

My new most valued possession

SPIN has an excerpt from the recently released oral history of Dinosaur Jr.  You get a look at the early, early days of the band, as they toured around Massachusetts and their early ventures into New York, as well as their first tour as they opened for Sonic Youth.

Pitchfork has a couple of excellent features this week, both analyzing more the business side of music, and specifically the use and accumulation of data.  First, there was an article outlining the evolution of the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop chart, and how its current format leads to problems in tracking songs.  It raises some interesting points, but to dismiss the impact on how the specific genre has had an impact on Top 40 is a bit of a mistake, and maybe a solution that is more in line with how Billboard charts Alternative Rock may be one way to go.  The other piece looks at the history of streaming and its future, finding analogues in prior devices like the jukebox and looking at how data is processed to give a better idea for programs in dispensing recommendations.  Both are great and worth the time to read.

Over the Weekend (Apr. 7 Edition)

This is a Monday that should be especially easy to handle, because there are a ton of new videos to watch and aid in your quest to find the best ways to procrastinate.

It wasn’t a bad weekend to stay at home, because Nine Inch Nails made a rare television appearance in performing for the legendary Austin City Limits.  SPIN has the video of the almost hour-long performance, but I’m not sure how long it will be up, so better watch this one as soon as you can.

Continuing a week full of Nirvana tributes, here’s a roundup of a few from various artists from this past weekend, including covers from St. Vincent and Muse.  Lost in the (understandable) fuss over Nirvana, is the fact that this weekend marked another terrible anniversary, that of the death of Layne Staley.  The Everybody Loves Our Town Tumblr has a link to his last performance with Alice in Chains.  And here is another strange way in which the stories have been combined, thanks to the use of Photoshop.

Lots of news for fans of Jack White (which includes us, of course), as he announced the upcoming release of his solo follow-up to Blunderbuss, with Lazaretto scheduled to hit stores on June 10.  In addition, he’s announced a string of tour dates and released the “liquidy” video of the instrumental track “High Ball Stepper” (embedded above), a great please of ragged blues-rock.

Speaking of Jack White, Weezer stopped by the headquarters of Jack’s Third Man Records to record an acoustic version of fan-favorite “Susanne”.  Hey, remember when Weezer not only wasn’t awful, but actually pretty great?  That song is from that era, and along with “Jamie” is the reason why I bought the expensive Deluxe Edition reissue of the Blue Album.

J Mascis always seems to be having something going on, from his work in his main band Dinosaur Jr. to his solo work to even his acting (he’s been a guest on Portlandia and will be in the upcoming film The Doublehere’s a clip of Richard Ayoade talking about casting J).  J also has a side project with Sweet Apple, and you can find the debut video “Wish You Could Stay” (with guest vocals from the great Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees, Queens of the Stone Age, and more)), as well as a stream of the entire album, The Golden Age of Glitter, on Stereogum.  The single is a pleasant, shimmery piece of guitar pop, so please click if that description intrigues you.

Coldplay has released a music video for their latest single, “Magic”, and it’s rather good.  It’s made in the style of a silent film (with Coldplay being the backing music, of course), and involves a storyline with Zhang Ziyi and, well, magicians.  It’s nice to have some visual flair to a song that’s going to be pretty omnipresent on radio for a few months.

And because we publish this pretty late in the day, this allows us to catch some news just as its breaking–like the fact that The Roots are releasing a new album next month.  …And Then They Shoot Your Cousin will be out May 13, and Pitchfork has the first single “The People Cheer”.

Feats of Strength: Dinosaur Jr.

Dinosaur Jr. is one of the greatest bands to come out of the American underground in the last thirty years, first rising up as some of the first heroes of Alternative Nation, and then years later defying convention by mounting a comeback that has seen their recent output matching (and in some cases surpassing) their work from their early golden years.  Over the course of their career, most of the attention has understandably been given to guitarist and lead singer J Mascis, as his incredible guitar playing convinced a generation of punks that hey, it’s cool to know how to play your instrument, and his slacker-ish whine was imitated by scores of other bands.  Bassist Lou Barlow also received a share of the spotlight, both for his unique and innovative bass playing as well as his engaging and combative personality.  In addition, Barlow has been recognized for his notable post-Dinosaur Jr. career, with his work in Sebadoh and Folk Implosion providing the spark for the lo-fi revolution in the 90’s.

Today, however, we’re going to highlight an under-appreciated aspect of the Dinosaur Jr. sound with our focus on the contribution of long-time drummer Murph.  Though he has begun to receive more credit through the years, and is rightfully considered one of the primary reasons why Dinosaur Jr.’s recent work has been so strong, his earlier work has not received as much attention.  To an extent, that was reflected within the band itself, as Green Thumb only had Murph drumming on a couple of tracks–a sign of the future when J would take over full-time for a couple of albums.

“Thumb” is one of the few ballads in the Dino catalog, with a memorable mellotron riff that flutters above the melody for the duration of the song.  It has a nice elliptical chord progression, and J’s trademark plaintive whine fits the longing nature of the lyrics.  But for me, the real key to this song is the pure power from the kick and snare drum, which give an extra bitterness to J’s lyrics.  Lines like “an excuse is all you’re in for, the abuse is all you crave” take on an extra snarl when it’s emphasized with those syncopated big hits.  Murph switches the rhythm for the chorus, and by throwing in a couple of either unexpected hits or rests, it complements the ambivalent sentiment of lines like “Pretty good, not feeling that fine–getting up most every day”.

But for the most part it’s the simple force behind the drums that make the song truly stand out, making it an organic version of a “power ballad”.  You can feel the intensity through the speakers, especially in lines like the fill that leads into the second chorus.  As a result, “Thumb” is one of the few Dinosaur Jr. songs that I’ll air drum instead of air guitar–though when the solo kicks in at the end, I try to do both.

Review: Solids – Blame Confusion

I’ve had a fascination with two-person bands for some time now, and I count many of them among my favorites.  It’s great to see bands like The White Stripes, Death From Above 1979, and The Black Keys attain success over the years and inspire others to start making music even if they can’t find a bass player (or in the case of DFA 1979, stick with the bass and abandon the guitar).  I’ve considered some theories as to why these two-person groups work so well.  One possibility is that it may be that it’s easier to reach consensus as to which musical direction to take with two people (though the lack of a third mediating party may be the reason why after the initial spark of incredible inventiveness these partnerships tend to fizzle out, Local H being a notable exception (though there was a lineup change at one point)).  Another might be that, as I’ve heard Jack White explain, that imposing certain limits allows creativity to flourish.  One can be paralyzed by infinite possibilities, so by setting boundaries you at least are able to realize your limits.  And once you know your limits, you can focus attention on challenging them.  It’s in those attempts to challenge that great music can result, as seen with bands like Japandroids and No Age.

I mention those two bands in particular, because they seem to be the most significant inspirations behind the debut album Blame Confusion from another two-man group, Solids.  Solids follow in the footsteps of their Canadian brethren Japandroids by focusing on energetic, driving rock songs with a guitar that seamlessly blends rhythm chords and inventive leads.  The haziness of the vocals and general attitude bring to mind No Age, though Solids don’t take any of their trademark left turn forays into ambient noise.  The result is a lot of distortion, a lot of riffs, and a lot of fun.

Solids definitely did a great job in choosing their influences, but the question remains if they add anything to the equation themselves.  I’ll give a group a listen if they remind me of some of my other favorite bands, but in order for me to keep listening to their album, they need to offer something up themselves, or else I’m going back to the tried-and-true.  Fortunately, Solids seems to have pulled off this task.  I find myself singing along to the great lead melodies, usually making up my own words because a lot of the vocals are pretty indecipherable.  I’ve read more than a few comparisons to Dinosaur Jr, which makes a certain amount of sense especially considering the guitar tones on the record, but you won’t find any of J. Mascis’s trademark solos on Blame Confusion.  That’s not to diminish the guitar playing on the record at all–there are ton of great riffs to be found.  The drums also do a great job of driving the beat when needed (like in “Traces”) or providing a rhythmic counterpoint to the caterwauling guitar.  And sometimes it helps when Solids throws in the traits of another band to the mix, like …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead in “Cold Hands”.

Blame Confusion is a very good debut, and it’s easy to see that it would be a lot of fun to see Solids live.  I’ll definitely be looking forward to seeing what these guys do next, and hopefully we’ll see an artistic leap forward like the Japandroids did with Celebration Rock.

*Note: In a perfect bit of symmetry, famous two-man band Suicide came up on my iTunes as I was writing this review.  So this review comes courtesy of their 1977 performance live at CBGB’s.