Recs

Rust Is Just Right’s Best Albums of 2021

Today is April 18, and it is time once again for us here at Rust Is Just Right to release our best-of list of albums from the past year.  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 and 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.  The pandemic has been rough on musicians everywhere, so please consider purchasing some of these great albums to help support them (because we all know the .003 cents your streams will generate won’t do all that much).

The process that is used to determine this list is highly rigorous and hardly scientific, but that is the charm and the benefit of The Process. Sure, it may look like a simple tally of the number of times we play each album, but believe us, there are plenty of working parts that contribute behind the scenes that help generate the results (and will be documented when we officially submit our eventual patent application).  It has served us well in years past, and we’re too tired to change systems now.

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.

10. The Armed – Ultrapop; Armand Hammer & the Alchemist – Haram; Madlib – Sound Ancestors; Grouper – Shade; Hovvdy – True Love; Boldy James & the Alchemist – Bo Jackson; Yves Tumor – The Asymptotical World; The Weather Station – Ignorance; SMILE MACHINE – Bye For Now EP; Mannequin Pussy – Perfect EP; BADBADNOTGOOD – Talk Memory. (5 plays) In most years, these albums would probably constitute our “Honorable Mention” list, but there’s still a lot of gold to be found here. We got some catchy garage rock/punk with EPs from SMILE MACHINE and Mannequin Pussy as well as some gentle mood music from Grouper, Hovvdy, and The Weather Station. We see a return of BADBADNOTGOOD with their free-form modern jazz, as well as the newest musical experiments of the impossible-to-pigeonhole Yves Tumor. And we simply cannot resist any album with The Alchemist behind the boards, so we get a double-dip of collaborations with him.

9. IDLES – Crawler; Godspeed You! Black Emperor – G_d’s Pee at State’s End; Tyler, the Creator – Call Me If You Get Lost; Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg; black midi – Cavalcade; Amyl and The Sniffers – Comfort to Me. (6 plays) Probably the most diverse group, we’ve got the snarling post-punk of Idles fitting nicely with the bratty punk of Amyl and the Sniffers, and Tyler reminding us he still has bars to go along with his ever-evolving production skills. Dry Cleaning gives us a vision of what a sedate version of Protomartyr would sound with a female vocalist (yes everyone mentions The Fall when talking about this band, but let’s get a more modern (and RIJR-specific) reference here). black midi throws everything at the wall to see what sticks–and the answer is a surprising amount. Godspeed is practically grandfathered into our lists at this point, but we’re suckers to their late-career run.

8. Lou Barlow – Reason to Live; Ovlov – Buds; Low – HEY WHAT; Lucy Dacus – Home Video. (7 plays) Ovlov joins “The L’s” with a quick and catchy indie rock release that probably flew under your radar. Low got some of the best reviews in their already illustrious career with their adventurous new album, their first as a duo, but we still prefer the first album of their “trilogy” with engineer BJ Burton, Ones and Sixes. That said, “Days Like These” is one of the best songs Low has done and a contender for song of the year. Lucy Dacus follows up her breakthrough Historian with another example of achingly beautiful confessional work, and pairs up nicely with Lou Barlow’s newest solo release. This won’t be the last time Lou will show up on this list.

7. Ka – A Martyr’s Reward; Parquet Courts – Sympathy for Life; Deafheaven – Infinite Granite; Cloud Nothings – The Shadow I Remember. (8 plays) Ka is a rapper we discovered based on recommendations from Twitter users we follow, proving that despite the general shittiness of their operation there is still potentially some benefit to the service; it’s unlikely we otherwise would have heard his compelling narratives. The other groups here are stalwarts of The Process: we’ve got another blistering attack from Cloud Nothings, mixing some of the rawness of Attack on Memory with the catchiness of their most recent work, a solid follow up to our Album of the Year (Wide Awake!) from Parquet Courts, and a Deafheaven record for those who don’t really like the screaming (so, like a typical Alcest album). At this point though, we love the screams, so we appreciate the few chances we get to hear them on this record–which is why the climax of the closer “Mombasa” is on the short list for “Best Musical Moments of the Year”; but we understand the desire to diversify the setlist (and save the voice for future releases).

6. Turnstile – Glow On; Vince Staples – Vince Staples. (9 plays) We got downbeat Vince this time around, which matches the rest of our favorite hip-hop releases from the past year, but the songs themselves weren’t downers. Turnstile is probably the best of the post-genre rock bands going right now, and at their best they sound like a version of At the Drive-In with all the kinks straightened-out–with all the good and bad that description implies. But we do appreciate the diversity in sound, and the songs got catchier each time we listened to the album.

5. The War on Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore. (10 plays) These days the band infuriates us objectively, yet we can’t stop listening to their albums despite our complaints. We can keep asking why can’t they institute some degree of rhythmic diversity (please just play song that isn’t just straight eighth notes), or feel some degree of being cheated as they mine even more 80s soft-rock radio hits into their sound (we are pretty positive the backing drum track (minus the solo) from “In the Air Tonight” is used at some point), and we feel there really can’t be anyone who can dance to “Desolation Row”, at least not well, but fuck it. It still sounds good, and the solos still rip, and we want to play the songs again and again.

4. Illuminati Hotties – Let Me Do One More. (11 plays) We loved our hip-hop downbeat, but our indie rock catchy and full of hooks. And few albums were as packed with hooks as this one–we challenge you to listen to “Pool Hopping” or “Cheap Shoes” without bobbing your head or tapping your fingers or just totally cutting loose. It’s impossible.

3. Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee. (12 plays). This album has something for everyone, but it’s still a cohesive vision. And again, catchy as hell. You’ll dance, you’ll cry, and you’ll love every minute of it. And the guitar solo in “Posing for Cars” that closes the album will have you wishing for more (or pushing repeat–a convenient solution to your problem).

2. Dinosaur Jr. – Sweep It Into Space. (13 plays) Look, we understand your skepticism–this late-career album which didn’t get much buzz is not your typical album-of-the-year candidate. But J, Lou, and Murph put together a set of all-killer/no-filler tunes to constitute probably the most consistent album of their legendary careers, with Lou’s usual two contributions easily rank as some of his best work with the group. Sure you get your usual fill of fiery solos from the Guitar Wizard himself, but it’s the melodies and hooks that will keep you coming back to this album.

1. Pom Pom Squad – Death of a Cheerleader. (14 plays) Simply put, we could not stop listening to this album once we picked it up. All it took was the vocal melody from the first chorus, and we were hooked. Deceptively simple garage rock sprinkled in with the appropriate amount of tender ballads (including a cover of the classic “Crimson and Clover”), this album is a 30 minute blast that gives you a sugar rush but keeps your attention with each subsequent listen. We simply can’t stop raving about it, and can’t wait for their follow-up.

Oh, and for fun, here’s Pom Pom Squad with their cover of Nada Surf’s “Popular”.

Low, Live at the Doug Fir

Before we went on our holiday break, we were fortunate enough to catch one of our longtime favorites at Portland’s best venue, when Low came to town to play the Doug Fir basement.  It is always a treat to see Low play a show, but we were especially eager to witness one of the best albums of the year performed live.  The band indulged us by performing a setlist that heavily featured their latest album, Ones and Sixes, and we are glad to report that the new material sounds just as great live as it does on record.

Taking advantage of a break in the crowd.

Taking advantage of a break in the crowd.

The show started off with the one-two punch of the glitchy “Gentle” and the deliberate “No Comprende” that kick off their latest release, which segued nicely into the menacing and electric “Monkey” from The Great Destroyer.  While it seems that most critics had forgotten about Low’s previous album, it was nice to see that the band had not.  The main set included a run of The Invisible Way tracks that showed off many of the band’s best assets, from Mimi Parker’s gorgeous vocals on “Holy Ghost” to the distorted dissonance of Alan Sparhawk’s fiery guitar on “On My Own” to the group’s sense of irony and humor in “Plastic Cup” (with Steve Garrington ably shuffling between bass and keys throughout, a key if underrated part of the band’s sound).

The group held off from any stage banter for most of the night, before Alan praised the city near the end of the show.  At one point, the crowd began to clap when only the slightest shuffle could be heard from Mimi’s drums, and those close enough to the stage could hear her remark to Alan that “they don’t even know what song it is yet”, but on the whole the band let their music speak for itself.  The main set ended with the epic “Landslide”, just as we had predicted from our review of the album, and it was just as amazing as we had hoped.  Though the encore did not end up including a couple of our old favorites, many in the crowd were ecstatic to hear “Words” from their early album I Could Live In Hope, while “Murderer” from Drums and Guns proved to be a perfect closer.

A colorful view of the band

A colorful view of the band

Unfortunately, we missed nearly all of opener Andy Shauf’s set, due to Portland’s complete stupidity when it comes to creating a reasonable parking system.  It is difficult enough parking on the East Side on a Friday night, but with many spots blocked off for the shooting of the television show Grimm, it made it impossible to find a spot anywhere near the venue.  However, from the one song I heard, it seems that Shauf’s spare and haunting sound was a good fit for the main act.

Everclear, Live at the Wonder Ballroom

There needed to be the right set of circumstances to drag my ass to Portland to see an Everclear show, and Wednesday night at the Wonder Ballroom provided those exact requirements.  The group returned to their hometown to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of their breakthrough album, Sparkle and Fade, and would play the record in its entirety.  Though I have ignored Everclear’s more recent output for a number of years, I still have fond memories of listening to Sparkle and Fade in my high school years, and continue to insist that it is one of the best top-to-bottom alternative rock albums of the 90’s.   I was more than glad to relive those days, aided by the guarantee that I would see all my favorite songs performed live.

Sparkle...

Sparkle…

This was more of an “Everclear” performance than an Everclear performance, with Art Alexakis having long shuffled out the “classic” lineup of Greg Eklund on drums and Craig Montoya on bass for a rotating cast of supporting players.   To be fair, the band was always the manifestation of Art’s vision, and one would be hard-pressed to come up with many memorable contributions from either former member (though I have always loved Eklund’s signature drawn-out single-stroke rolls).  As long as it is Art singing and playing his songs, fans are going to be happy, as they were on Wednesday night.

The band threw a number of curveballs in the usual Album Anniversary show, including opening with “I Will Buy You A New Life” from Sparkle and Fade‘s follow-up, So Much for the Afterglow.  The choice initially threw the crowd for a loop, but soon they were singing along to every word; Art explained the decision at the conclusion of the song, noting that it was the success of Sparkle that would allow him to promise that house “way up in the West Hills” from the chorus (and to which many fans recognized, pointing in the direction of that part of town during the performance).  The band then launched into the familiar strains of “Electra Made Me Blind”, and the crowd went wild.

You might actually be crazy for leaving Nehalem

You might actually be crazy for leaving Nehalem

It was not a perfect performance, with the band often dragging through some of the slower parts, and Art tending to give off a frustrated vibe when the crowd failed to remember all the lyrics for sing-along portions.  However, the highlights made up for any perceived shortcomings, including rousing versions of “You Make Me Feel Like A Whore” and “Heartspark Dollarsign”, and a touching performance of “Queen of the Air”.  The decision to insert the old favorite “Fire Maple Song” from their debut World of Noise in a mid-set break to mark the divide between Side A and Side B of the album was brilliant, as was giving the crowd a brief taste of their huge hit “Santa Monica” before saving it for the last song of the night, ending the evening on a high note.

There were many who questioned what kind of reaction Art would receive in his hometown show, since there was a significant subset that never accepted Everclear as a true Portland band.  It was an uncertainty that even Art acknowledged early in the night, but the Wonder Ballroom was packed with fans who showed their love for the band with great volume throughout the show.  The snide hipsters were unable to get a ticket to the sold-out show, and the night was the better for it.  We loved Sparkle and Fade and the man that created it, and we did not need to hear any dissenting opinions that night.

...and Fade

…and Fade

Openers Hydra Melody had to be the slickest opening act I have ever seen, an impressive feat since I understood that they were touring in support of their first full-length album.  There was a confidence to their performance that was admirable, as they often acted as if the crowd had paid their tickets to see them instead of the headliner (though this is not to say that they dismissed the presence of Everclear, when in fact it was quite the opposite).  Their style did not quite align with my preferences, though they never bored me.  However, I am sure at least one of our readers will enjoy the fact that they featured a cover of Toto’s “Africa”–perhaps this will cause him to almost buy their album!

Review: EL VY – Return to the Moon

Side-projects are best experienced with an open mind, with little-to-no expectations based on the previous work of its members.  They are often useful for musicians, in that they provide an outlet for previously unused musical ideas or allow them to express different aspects of their personalities, but they can prove disappointing to the audience when the work does not match the quality of previous results.  So while it may be initially tempting to have high hopes for a collaboration between members of The National and Menomena, two of the best bands in indie rock from the past decade, it is probably in the listener’s best interests to approach their work with caution.

Then again, EL VY’s Return to the Moon is a thoroughly enjoyable lark, and fans of the other bands of Brent Knopf and Matt Berninger should find plenty to love with this project.

In many ways, Return to the Moon is a side-project that lives up to the expectations of a supergroup, since in many ways it does sound like a more experimental Menomena record with guest vocals from The National.  Knopf brings the cut-and-paste approach of his former group, offering up hundreds of quick musical ideas over the album’s eleven tracks; careful listeners may be able to pick out variations of the piano riff and acoustic guitar chords from “Wet and Rusting” sprinkled into a couple of tracks.  The music generally sticks to that intimate indie rock style, but there are quick forays into funk and other left-field genres that keeps the listener guessing.

Berninger seems to relish the chance to step outside the seriousness of his regular gig, and reveals a more playful part of his personality.  This is most apparent in the playful and profane “I’m the Man to Be”, which includes a line in the chorus about his “person”.  For the most part, Berninger is content to deliver his vocals with that trademark soothing baritone, which fits in nicely with Knopf’s compositions.

The album tends to lose momentum as it progresses, though the blend of the harder-hitting “Sad Case” and “Happiness, Missouri” is a highlight of the second half.  However, the opening title track is one of the catchiest singles of the year, and had me humming along for the past few weeks, and there are several other pleasant songs that are nearly its equal.

EL VY, Live at the Doug Fir

The show on Tuesday night had the atmosphere of a homecoming, even though it was only EL VY’s second show.  Even the tickets reflected the casual nature of the evening, as it described the group as “a collaboration between The National’s Matt Berninger and Me.”  The “Me” of course refers to local musician Brent Knopf, who has previously delighted Portland music fans with his previous work in Menomena as well as his solo effort as Ramona Falls, and now makes up the other half of this indie rock “supergroup”.  While there were a couple of issues in making the transition from recording project to a functioning live act, they were only minor speed bumps during an otherwise entertaining show.

One of the coolest concert posters ever.

One of the coolest concert posters ever.

The band’s debut album Return to the Moon had only been released on Friday, and I am sure there were many in the crowd that had not been able to listen to it in its entirety before the show (my copy only arrived the afternoon of the show, so I was only able to get through it once).  Nevertheless, the audience remained enthusiastic throughout the night, even if they had no idea what to expect.   The crowd did show their appreciation for the few songs that they did know, with a few even having learned enough of the lyrics to sing along for a bit.  Songs like “Return to the Moon” and “I’m the Man to Be” had an extra pop to them and were highlights of the set, and one could easily see why they were shared in advance of the album.

The tone of the evening was very light and informal, and one could see that Matt enjoyed the break from the usual seriousness associated with his main gig.  Matt had fun with Brent as he spent some time in-between songs trying to diagnose what exactly went wrong for a couple of measures, citing his own inability to remember his cue to sing for one and playfully arguing with Brent about how one of his chords caused him to overshoot on a vocal jump in another (and in the process showing the difference between recording alone to a track and singing with a live group).  But for the most part, everything went as seamless as one could expect from a brand new group playing one of their first shows.

EL VY also enjoyed the opportunity to play with some of their friends, as local musician Ural Thomas joined in to help fill in some of the background vocals he provided on the album, along with opening act Moorea Masa.  But perhaps the best moment of the night was when the group selected an out-of-leftfield cover, the massive Fine Young Cannibals hit “She Drives Me Crazy”.  Matt opted to bring Roland Gift’s falsetto down a couple of octaves, but otherwise the band captured the song perfectly, to the delight of many in the crowd.

The lighting makes it seem so dramatic.

The lighting makes it seem so dramatic.

Opening act Hibou were quite impressive, veering from the quiet and languid music that recalled Deerhunter to more epic, bombastic rock that would fit in perfectly fine at an arena and not a basement club.  Moorea Masa has a beautiful voice, and the delicate harmonies that she produced with her fellow vocalists brought to mind a female version of Fleet Foxes.  I am looking forward to seeing both of these acts swing through town again.

Review: Protomartyr – The Agent Intellect

With The Agent Intellect, Protomartyr have crafted one of the most alluring and captivating albums of the year, one that provokes visceral and thoughtful reactions in equal measure.  Joe Casey’s straight-forward vocal delivery and the gloomy atmosphere produced by the rest of the band are an unusual combination that nevertheless leads to songs that are undeniably catchy, if unorthodox in nature.  The propulsive drive of the songs as well as the air of mystery in the lyrics help make The Agent Intellect one of the most gripping and entertaining albums of the year.

That is not to say that you should expect to see Protomartyr battling for a spot atop the Billboard charts.  Casey’s vocals are closer to the spoken-word screeds of Mark E. Smith of The Fall than traditional singing, and will probably turn off some of their potential audience.  Casey is more concerned with delivering his lyrics with just the right touch of dramatic flair, and he easily succeeds on that count.

The other members of the band provide an intriguing contrast to the vocals, often locking into melodies and patterns that do not necessarily line up with the vocals.  Instead, the focus is on creating a suitable ambiance, and it is here where their take on post-punk matches up with Casey’s work.  Greg Ahee’s guitars often bear the same trebly and reverb-soaked quality of The Walkmen, while Scott Davidson on bass and Alex Leonard on drums help drive the songs while also creating intriguing countermelodies and rhythms.  Together, they create a furious yet wonderful racket.

Protomartyr has solidified the promise that was present on last year’s Under Color of Official Right, and crystallizing many of that record’s ideas.  Each listen of The Agent Intellect reveals new standout tracks, but the album really works best as a cohesive whole, with one song leading into the next, with natural rises and falls.  Its best quality may be the fact that the record works great as both the subject of devoted listening as well as mere background music, which means you can enjoy repeated spins of the album without ever getting in danger of tiring of it.

Review: Ought – Sun Coming Down

We were a little late on the bandwagon, but Ought’s debut album eventually became one of our favorite releases from last year.  More Than Any Other Day ended up securing a spot on our Best Albums of 2014 list on the strength of the band’s fresh and energetic approach to post-punk, with Ought showing a deft touch in their ability to combine several disparate influences into a coherent and unique style.  Their follow-up finds the group settling into their sound, resulting in what initially seems like a more subdued effort.  Though Sun Coming Down does not immediately grab the listener like its predecessor, there are enough intriguing elements to compel repeated spins to discover the album’s charms and nuances.

While More Than Any Other Day was characterized by its barely-restrained chaos and the ability to shift gears at a moment’s notice, Sun Coming Down finds that restless energy pushed to just below the surface.  There are not as many sudden left-turns and fewer freakouts (and the ones that occur are pushed to the margins), as the band locks into grooves for extended stretches of time.  The two tracks that form the centerpiece of the album, “Sun’s Coming Down” and “Beautiful Blue Sky”, are perfect examples of this new approach.  The former is content to ride a slow burn and never fully release the tension created by its deliberate but incessant drive, while the latter floats over a more melodic version of the bassline of Television’s “Little Johnny Jewel”.

However, for many listeners, these are only subtle points of distinction–the band still features trebly guitars belting out dissonant chords and angular melodies that float over the top of the intricate interplay of the rhythm section.  Oh, and of course there is still Tim Beeler’s unique voice and his dramatic approach to singing, though he is now credited as Tim Darcy.  He still drops several brilliant non sequiturs that drip with irony and wit, such as the efforts to ape the banality of small talk in “Beautiful Blue Sky” with the repeated mentions of “Beautiful weather today”, “fancy seeing you here”, “how’s the family”, etc.  When juxtaposed against the chorus of “I’m no longer afraid to die, because that is all I have left”, the emptiness of the platitudes are even more evident, and Darcy’s ebullient reaction of drawing out the word “yes” in response enhances the effect even more.

But that may be just because “I’m talking out of my ass, because my heart is not open.”

Bully, Live at Mississippi Studios

We here at Rust Is Just Right are big fans of Bully’s debut album, Feels Like, and we jumped at the opportunity to catch this exciting young group in action.  They stopped by one of our favorite Portland venues over the weekend, delivering a tight and energetic set at Mississippi Studios this past Saturday night.

Bully, in the middle of "Trying"

Bully, in the middle of “Trying”

It is always strange when you see a headliner touring behind a single album, since you already know what the set will be.  There are only a few potential variables, namely whether or not any songs will be stretched out or whether any covers will be thrown into the mix, but beyond that everything else is known.  Considering Bully’s quick and punchy songs, there was almost no chance that we would see an extended jam session, but we did witness a couple of covers (which after some research seems to be “Black and White” from the dB’s and “Who Was in My Room Last Night?” from the Butthole Surfers), plus an impromptu “Happy Birthday” sing-along with the aid of the crowd for a member of the opening band.

As for the regular set, the band faithfully recreated what we heard on the record, and captured the spirit of the album.  Leader Alicia Bognanno’s yell was in perfect condition, and she also showed a nice delicate touch with her vocals during some of the softer moments.  Though they have only been touring behind this album for a few months, Bully sounded like a group of old pros.

Seems like a good motto.

Seems like a good motto.

Openers Dead Soft were a perfect fit for the bill, with their sound covering similar 90’s indie rock territory as Bully.  Heat was an intriguing second band, as they mixed several different influences from various eras of rock (including a strong Velvet Underground vibe in their first song).  However, their frontman could use a little more practice in doing some crowdwork, as he came off a bit standoffish when there was little reason for it.

Review: Wavves – V

Belying his slacker persona, Nathan Williams has been remarkably busy since the release of the last Wavves album two years ago.  Afraid of Heights was one of our favorite records of 2013, and reached the third spot in our inaugural Best Albums list; since then, Williams has formed an electronic side project with his brother (Sweet Valley) and released a collaborative album with Cloud Nothing’s Dylan Baldi (No Life For Me), and after the release of several extra Wavves tracks for various projects, was able to find some time to record a proper follow-up.  It seems that by dividing up his attention into pursuing all these different projects has allowed Williams to focus on a singular approach for Wavves, as V is the most streamlined album the band has released in years.

V is a giddy rush, blasting through eleven tracks in half an hour, but by relying on a particular formula leads to some diminishing returns as the album progresses.  Each song is amped up to eleven and played at a breakneck speed, and while individually each song is great and could be selected for a single, it can result in a numbing effect when listened to as a whole.  The album is missing some of those excellent mid-tempo numbers like “Demon to Lean On” or “Afraid of Heights” from their previous album, or those crazy studio experiments like “Baseball Cards” and “Convertible Balloon” from King of the Beach, both of which helped make for more cohesive records.

However, Williams shows once again that he can write a great hook, as V is absolutely stuffed with earworms that will immediately grab your attention.  As fans should expect at this point, all those sunny melodies and cheerful musical background serve as an excellent foil to lyrics that revel in self-loathing, though even in the wake of an apparent breakup the mood is a tad merrier than on Afraid.  The group also displays a remarkable capability to create the most artificial sounds possible with traditional rock instruments, and careful listening reveals a wealth of material lurking in the background of each track.

For a band that has a long history with the letter “v”, it is a fitting gesture to name the group’s fifth album with the Roman Numeral, and the record recaptures the energy of the band’s early years, but with a much better recording budget.  V may not reach the heights of its predecessors, but it can serve as a welcome shot of adrenaline or as a palette cleanser after some other more dour and serious records.