Friday, February 23, 2024

The Allure of Listening - Chapter 3 - The Mass-Marketing of Underground Sounds

 Remember that 'free-form radio' has almost always been an oxymoron. - 1969-70

Thanks to some stock-theatre bit parts and backstage set design work, I had a little bit of disposable income as early as the summer between sixth and seventh grade, but in 1969, the notion of blowing it all on record albums was still a year away. Nevertheless, innovative trends were afoot in what passed for a Lansing hipster community that would lessen the magnetic appeal of Top 40 radio, give a wider audience to albums from first-time garage bands, yet at the same time, set up the framework for a new conformity that would make album tracks like “Stairway to Heaven” and “Free Bird” all too familiar within five years.

     The independent DJs splitting off from Michigan’s WKAR and other campus-affiliated radio stations gave rise to what was then called “free-form radio,” a term that would seem infused with irony all too soon. Models for the “play what you want” format had been developed in 1966-67 by pioneers like KSAN in San Francisco, and soon spread to every U.S. city with a campus radio license. The fact that most such licenses were in the FM band helped hasten the move of commercial pop stations to the higher fidelity and looser formats of FM.  I learned of such stations relatively early thanks to friends’ older sisters and brothers who were abandoning Top 40 for the new free-form formats, and as long as the stations remained fresh (up until about 1973-74 or so), they became a vehicle for hearing bands like Ten Years After and the early Fleetwood Mac.

     Even in those early days, it was apparent that not all was as randomly unpredictable as the hype suggested. Certain DJs loved to hear Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd over and over again. The short-term result was that musicians chasing other forms of innovation, from Bowie to Slade, got short shrift on such stations. It wasn’t long before coalitions of urban-contemporary production companies complained that the new FM underground was racist. The more astute DJs favored radical Black bands such as Last Poets, Sly & The Family Stone, and Gil Scott-Heron, but as far as such stations avoiding latter-era Motown, the music producers certainly had a point.

    In my later high-school years, I harbored a conspiracy theory that a music market analyst named Lee Abrams was single-handedly responsible for the closing of the American music underground. It certainly was an exaggeration of what happened in the 1970s, but I was on to something. Abrams, a band manager who founded an analytics company called Burkhart/Abrams, was part of a nationwide group called “Young Doctors” who wanted to inject predictability and profitability into free-form radio. By late 1969, the phrase “album-oriented rock” was being bandied about, but Abrams felt that the stoner DJs shouldn’t just play any album track that came to mind – rather, the alleged free-form should be given a format that quickly made FM underground rock as tightly structured as AM Top 40. In the days of 1969 prior to my own album buying, this formatting helped to guide my listening, but it became clear all too soon that stoner-rockers were being sold a bill of goods. (Abrams had a multi-decade career, remaining in programming until 1988, then co-founding XM Satellite Radio and staying until 2008. He jumped to Tribune Co. that year, but resigned in an email scandal in 2010.)

    While the administrators of college FM stations were clamoring for more conformity and predictability in their playlist, by the early 1970s, commercial FM stations were the biggest customers for the Burkhart/Abrams “SuperStars Album Rock” formats. Over the next three or four decades, college-affiliated stations tried to preserve a greater or lesser veneer of free-form. Those at state universities or affiliated with National Public Radio were halfway to AOR, but open enough to help drive punk/new wave, Paisley Underground, OG rap, and 1990s indie rock. Stations at smaller fine arts colleges, like KFJC at Foothills College in Los Altos Hills, CA, were proud of playlists that moved from free-form to dissonant and deranged – in the 1980s, KFJC heavily promoted a morning noise show called “Lose Your Breakfast Club.” There are high-profile stations like KEXP in Seattle that still try to preserve a free-form style in the 21st century, but an astute listener will notice that even these stations favor certain tracks on new albums.

     The struggles for FM conformity were still in their infancy in late 1969. Woodstock took over the media weeks before I entered 7th grade, though it deserves mention that festivals earlier in 1969, like Denver Pop Fest, drew tens of thousands of attendees, but were utterly forgotten in the wake of the coalescing of the half-million denizens of Woodstock Nation. The festival drew my attention at the time, but the greater musical implications only solidified in early 1970, with the release of the documentary film and the publication of Michael Ross’s Rock Beyond Woodstock, which summarized where Woodstock performers and other outsider musicians were heading in the new decade. The book was one of the factors that kicked my LP purchasing into high gear.

     In the fall of 1969, however, I was only a window-shopping underground rock tourist, save the rare exception of purchased seminal albums like The Beatles’ Abbey Road. The long withdrawal from Top 40 radio came concurrent with my transition to middle school, and there were structural similarities. Elementary school was a unified framework under a single educational director. Middle school was a suite of subgenres of education, all taught under different maestros as pre-teen consumers traveled from class to class. In the music realm, the fascinating subgenres of underground rock were so fun to explore, I barely noticed what was happening to Top 40 as the outsiders left the stage.

     Occasionally, one could hear some AM-radio examples of heavy-riffed rock, not only from old familiar acts like The Rolling Stones and The Who, but from newer pop acts like The Guess Who and Three Dog Night. But the Top 40 was infiltrated by greater numbers of syrupy ballads each week, providing a freak-era equivalent of the 1960 dominance of teen ballad acts like Frankie Avalon, through singers such as Engelbert Humperdinck and Frankie Valli. There was also the ever-growing influence of bubble gum, which many seemingly mature pseudo-hippies in moustaches and Edwardian dress appeared to love and promote with inane chewy-chewy-yummy-yummy lyrics. It was evident the manic 1966 days of one new song by an artist every six weeks were long gone. A song like Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” might stay on the charts for months.

    Soul and R&B acts were more prevalent than ever in the charts, but this time it was more than Berry Gordy’s Motown – Motown was entering an expansive and interesting latter period, but there were also labels from outside Detroit, even outside the U.S., introducing the world to Edwin Starr, Peaches and Herb, The Foundations, The Delfonics, Freda Payne, and Peggy Scott & Jo Jo Benson.

    The latter half of 1969 was notable for the cleaving of sides in the much-touted Generation Gap. The young adopted a sense of hubris following the media hype over “Woodstock Nation,” recognizing they could no longer be dismissed as ragtag bums without a purpose. But the later splintering of Students for a Democratic Society into mainstream and Weather Underground components, following October’s farcical Days of Rage in Chicago, showed that there was a dedicated minority of street fighters who were sure America was ripe for revolution.

     We only sensed vague resonances of this in small-town Midwest, but I was well aware at the time that Vice President Spiro Agnew was touting the value of the “silent majority.” It was clear from the number of adults around me who rooted for the cops in Chicago in both 1968 and 1969, and for the National Guard in Ohio in 1970, that there would be no significant revolution of radical youth on the horizon. Thankfully, truly violent talk of an overthrow petered out as rebels moved to the country, focused on academia, or got zoned out on drugs, but the splintering of the music community into “Which side are you on?” was obvious as AOR moved to college radio. Ultimately, it was to the detriment of the underground-rock listener, as there was less appreciation for soul/R&B or many other styles that were outside the rock underground.

    Paradoxically, though, some of the 1969-70 releases with the most explicitly rebellious messages, such as Jefferson Airplane’s Volunteers and The Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed, seemed to have more staying power than standard-issue hard-rock and blues releases from the era. And even if fewer musicians seemed to want to stand on the vanguard of movements as compared to civil-rights pioneers in 1963-64, there were several times when artists went out of their way to flip an oversized middle finger to the music industry and the society at large. Neil Young, for example, worked hard with Reprise to make “Cinnamon Girl” a Top 40 hit in the late spring of 1970, but after the Kent State killings of May 4, Young and his cohorts in CSNY pulled out all stops to make the memorial song “Ohio” a hit to eclipse “Cinnamon Girl.” When some CSNY fans were dumbfounded in the 21st century at the conservative fans who were angry with the quartet for their antiwar message, they had obviously forgotten that the song “Ohio” generated a fair amount of outrage among middle-of-the-road Americans at the time of its release, and even annoyance among some young fans wishing the band could just stick to “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” material.

    Meanwhile, Top 40 label marketers and program planners seemed to go out of their way to alienate music rebels. True, there was some invasion of charts by people like Dave Mason, Derek & The Dominos, Santana, Delaney & Bonnie, and Janis Joplin in early 1970, but the bulk of the upper reaches of the Top 40 was comprised of syrupy hits from Bobby Goldsboro, Dawn, The Partridge Family, and Barbra Streisand. The invasion of Top 40 by MOR easy listening was eerily similar to the bland takeover precisely ten years earlier, when first-wave rock and roll was displaced by Annette Funicello and Fabian. In fact, older purveyors of dreck taught their children well, as 1950s heartthrob Sal Mineo helped Bobby Sherman become the top bubblegum artist of 1970.

    In the summer of 1970, I was experiencing my first growth spurt and trying to contemplate how to listen to music “like a grownup,” which in my case meant snubbing easy listening and adopting hippie-snob mannerisms. Sure, a 13-year-old could (with parental assistance) hit the downtown Lansing “freak mall” of Free Spirit, with its Sounds and Diversions record store, but the wealth of quasi-underground albums was confusing. I had increased disposable income thanks to some summer work, but I needed a spirit guide to steer me into this new mode of listening.

In three weeks - Chapter 4 - Platter Potlatch

Copyright 2024 Loring Wirbel

Friday, February 2, 2024

The Allure of Listening - Chapter 2 - Octagonal Purple Prism Lenses


Destroyed by hippie powers - 1967-68   

If there was a particular personal relevance to The Beatles’ release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band a few days after my tenth birthday, it did not reside in the music itself, nor in the odd fashion and art advances taken by the band. It didn’t reside in the wider cultural tsunami hitting on the eve of the Summer of Love. Instead, it jolted me into realizing that the long-playing album was becoming a statement in its own right, favored by bands that were getting far too ambitious to be contained by two sides of a single.  There was no hint of any imminent death knells for the 45 – the spring had been the era of Aretha’s “Respect,” “The Rascals’ “Groovin’,” Tommy James’ “I Think We’re Alone Now,” Martha and the Vandellas’ “Jimmy Mack,” The Buckinghams’ “Don’t You Care,” The Supremes’ “The Happening,” and songs from dozens of other bands seeking to continue the spirit of ’66.

    But in a sudden flash, the strategy of creating a musical statement midway in length between a 30-minute TV sitcom, and an hour-long TV drama, made perfect sense. The Beatles already had been breaking boundaries aplenty, in the multimedia marketing for the ‘Rain”/”Paperback Writer” single, and particularly in the strange instrumentation and arrangements for both the Rubber Soul and Revolver albums. But fans had not experienced the level of storytelling evident in Sgt. Pepper. The LP suddenly was meant to be taken seriously.

    The purpose of the long-player no longer was to stuff hits and covers into 40 minutes, but to let an artist “say something,” as superfluous as that might often be. While my friends had rushed to buy the first two albums by The Monkees in order to gain maximum hits per dollar, I’d opted for The Monkees’ Headquarters, the first album with no true Top 40 hit. I started ransacking the $1 LP bargain bin at the D&C Store, snaring such puzzling but critical artifacts as Tim Buckley’s Goodbye and Hello, and Donovan’s Sunshine Superman. I wasn’t searching for something to explain the hippies or psychedelia, I was merely graduating from the equivalent of short stories to full-length novels.

    The first good listen and look at Sgt. Pepper came courtesy of my neighbors the Fitzgeralds, who returned from a trip to San Francisco with The Beatles album in tow, along with purple octagonal prism sunglasses for the kids. Early June preceded most of the national news stories on Haight-Ashbury. It represented an era before Scott MacKenzie’s anthem “If You’re Going to San Francisco” had cracked the charts. Yet the Bay Area’s role as hippie central had been marketed in shop windows and TV ads as far back as mid-1966, so it was no surprise to see small-town middle class parents pick up hippie relics to bring the kids back home.

    The era for a true innocence of hippie culture resonated somewhat with the 1966 vs. 1967 debate for pop music’s height. If hallucinogen use was considered a central tenet of the Summer of Love, the good times only extended from Timothy Leary’s early 1960s experiential parties to the first be-ins of 1966 featuring the Grateful Dead and the early Slick-less Jefferson Airplane. Even in that year, many Merry Pranksters were pushing the limits of informed consent in their distribution of LSD. But by mid-1967, the Summer of Love already was exposing its unpleasant side - speed and smack were replacing LSD and pot, at least in the Bay Area.

    Pundits are right in suggesting the West Coast Summer of Love only made a difference to the 100,000-odd teens traipsing to Golden Gate Park that summer, as well as to smaller groups of youth in other large metropolitan areas. Maybe a few middle-American savvy adolescents caught an interview with members of the Jefferson Airplane or the sponsors of various be-ins, but most had more mediocre connections, often sparked by parents bringing home psychedelic relics. Mama showed me Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage [stet] that summer, and although it was fascinating, the only connection that stuck for a pre-teen boy was the photograph of the nude female cello players wrapped in Saran Wrap. I told mom it must be “chello-phane,” and she thought that I was some kind of genius. The pun just seemed obvious.

    My own mecca for that summer was the beach scene west of Mackinac City, where dad’s friend Ozzie had a beach bachelor pad. I got to listen to some longer jazz works just as I was discovering the virtues of LPs. I also satisfied prurient interests with a stack of Ozzie’s Playboy magazines featuring a pictorial for the opening of the latest 007 epic, You Only Live Twice. Since the theme song was sung by Nancy Sinatra, she will always be associated unfairly with soft-core porn in my strange mind.

    I started picking up on snippets of music theory through Alfred d’Auberge piano lessons that began in 1966, augmented with guitar lessons two years later. Such a music education transition was near-cliché for pre-teens at the time, often involving negotiations initiated by parents who demanded piano lessons as a prelude to guitar. I had a particular love for woodwind sounds as well, so I began fooling around with tenor sax long before we had school band classes.

    From midsummer 1967 to the summer a year later, there was a running battle in AM radio over where maturity and bubble-gum would stake respective claims. There was no end to the stream of psychedelic bands with three-minute gems, from Strawberry Alarm Clock to Electric Prunes to Blues Magoos to The Status Quo to The Balloon Farm. Time signatures, keys, and instruments for hits such as “Incense and Peppermints” and “Crimson and Clover” were taking AM singles to places well outside known safety zones. Was it legitimate acid-trip experience that drove expansion of acceptable sounds, or was it marketing? The bands responsible played a schizophrenic dance of making songs palatable enough for the Top 40, while mixing the songs with longer jams that would form the backbone of a (self-declared) serious album. The dual life of Sky Saxon and The Seeds exemplified the path many bands were taking. Ironically, for a band that later defined disco, The Bee Gees during those years struggled to outline what sort of hippies they were.

    Outside AM radio, experiments all but inexplicable to pre-teen minds were under way. Even though both artists eventually produced radio-friendly singles, Jimi Hendrix and Cream both introduced albums that took music well beyond its previous confines. Without Are You Experienced? and Disraeli Gears, it’s safe to say that wilder forays in outsider music like Capt. Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica would never have seen the light of day.

     But what is often forgotten in the reverie for the psychedelic golden era is that many of the bands later defined as bubble-gum – Ohio Express, 1910 Fruitgum Company – also hit the charts for the first time in late 1967/early 1968. A certain percentage of the bands no doubt planned their own careers based on pre-defined agendas pushing what was later known as Sunshine Pop, with Spanky & Our Gang and Friend & Lover being examples of consciously-promoted diatribes for positive thinking. But did the record companies and advertisers play an equal role in pushing bubble-gum music as an antidote to the rebellion breaking out among members of middle-class youth? “Yummy Yummy Yummy I’ve Got Love In My Tummy” never felt like a conscious counter-revolution, it only made identifying cultural referents all the more difficult and surreal for a pre-teen.

    It’s equally fair to point out that, because the LP as a unified art statement was still in its infancy in the latter half of the 1960s, the result was often less than stellar. It’s easy to remember Surrealistic Pillow, Mamas & Papas Deliver, and Buffalo Springfield Again among the era’s highlights, but many LPs of 1967-68 didn’t have the staying power of those recorded and released from 1969 on. Even the best garage bands continued the 1964-65 trend of filling an album with at least 40% covers of songs from other bands. While culturally exciting, the psychedelic 1967 and global-revolution 1968 actually represented two years of a musical trough between the explosive free for all of 1966 and the era of album-oriented rock that really took off around 1969.

    In our precariously overstuffed elementary school, fifth and sixth grades were relegated to temporary trailers in the parking lot. This provided a certain gravity and cachet in moving out of fourth grade and into trailer-trash land. It’s a universal truth (at least in this country) that middle school is a dress rehearsal for high school, but it seemed equally true that fifth and sixth grades prepared the near-tween for practicing cliques and crushes and team sports. Kids were already swapping rings and going steady at 10 years old in my rural environs, so it seemed natural that some were pretending to be adults well before teenage years.

    Radio pop became a slippery mix in the 18 months after Sgt. Pepper. One could choose to survive on a strict diet of Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and Canned Heat hits, crafted for a Top 40 market. But the diet was richer thanks to late-period Motown acts like Temptations and Impressions, as well as R&B coming from way outside Detroit, like The Foundations from the UK. The most puzzling ingredient to fit into the pre-teen diet was bubble gum and other syrupy and frothy goodies, from Bobby Goldsboro to Dion. Sometimes the lite-pop artists surprised us with their gravity, like Dion’s “Abraham and Martin and John,” arriving soon after the dual 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Often though, a new single by The Grass Roots or Gary Puckett and the Union Gap was pure pop and nothing more.

     There was scarcely a long-player I was interested in purchasing between Sgt. Pepper and the The Beatles’ 2-record White Album of December 1968. But there were many album covers that dimly captured my attention in the intervening months, suggesting the existence of a world outside my hometown that was rapidly growing scarier and harder to ignore. News footage from Vietnam was omnipresent in the months leading up to the February 1968 Tet Offensive. New uprisings were bursting out in Prague, Paris, Mexico City, Warsaw, seemingly everywhere at once. Our own country shifted from figurative battlegrounds in late 1967 and early 1968, to the literal horrific scenes at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in August 1968. Yet when New Left boomers look back to this era and claim that a soundtrack of revolution was directly laid out at that time, the reality was more nuanced. A typical musical diet might be centered as much around “Ode to Billie Joe” as any Rolling Stones hit of the time.

     There was one such Stones hit that was a game-changer for me, however. In June 1968, we were getting ready to leave Grand Haven after breakfast at a nearby diner, and came back to find my beloved basset hound Lancelot floating in Shepler’s Marina, where he had drowned after coming loose from his leash on the boat. This trauma spelled a quick end to the family’s boating years, and it put family members in a funk that lasted the summer. A few days after absorbing the loss of Lancelot, I heard “Jumping Jack Flash” for the first time. It was not as explicitly political as “Street Fighting Man,” but it seemed a way to crystallize pre-adolescent sadness and rage. Even at an immature 11 years old, it allowed me to feel I was in the streets of Paris or Chicago, greeting the second half of 1968 with a primal scream.

     The summer of 1968 was ugly following the dual assassinations in the spring, but something was evident pre-Chicago that would come back to bite young revolutionaries a year later, as Students for a Democratic Society was morphing into the ugly aberration of the Weather Underground. If you were 18 and watched the uprisings in Mexico and Czechoslovakia, and read Zap comix and stayed stoned, it seemed evident that the entire world was ready to follow youthful revolution. Yet Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew conducted their summer campaign speaking to the “silent majority,” which Agnew was convinced could obliterate any media-enhanced youth revolution. There was plenty of cultural evidence in the latter half of 1968 that suggested not only that Nixon would win, but that his silent majority concept was right. Plenty of Americans loved to see cops beat the crap out of hippies in Chicago. Plenty of Americans stuck by their country-western and nightclub crooner music, and would have nothing to do with album-oriented rock. It was more than a generation gap. It was millions of people rejecting youth culture. It just wasn’t so evident during the remaining months of the 1960s.

     The early winter months of 1969 carried the distinct memory of a 6th-grade dance, flashing lights and a DJ spinning “Touch Me”, “Crimson and Clover,” and “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man.” No doubt a few parent-chaperones were apoplectic about the age-appropriateness or lack thereof, but I don’t remember extreme touching, even among the cool kids. We were all shy of 12, looking ridiculous in attempts to look hip.

Coming in three weeks - Chapter 3 - The Marketing of Underground Sounds - "Who is Lee Abrams, and why does he want me to eat this Free Bird"?

Copyright Loring Wirbel 2024

Thursday, January 11, 2024

The Allure of Listening - Chapter 1 - Cobbler, Cobbler

 What the transistor radio sees and says - 1964-67

Because the station frequency numbers were embossed in gold along the gear wheel on the right side, the sturdy plastic radio was likely to be a Sony, possibly Philco, or maybe one of the recent knockoffs that seemed to flood the market around 1961. The birthday gift from Grandma and Grandpa Wirbel held no immediate relevance to my ears for the on-air musical content, but solely for the fast-talking disembodied voices. The sturdy construction was tough enough to survive at least three birthdays and then some, in the badass toddler years between four and seven, revived from overnight neglect on dewy lawns, and at least one trip to the Lake Michigan beach. In fact, I often wondered if the capacitors emanated an invincibility aura – our young basset hound puppy gobbled my sister’s entire bright blue plastic dollhouse furniture set (and shat blue settees for weeks), but never touched the white radio nearby.

    The transistor radio was aptly named, since it used a solitary transistor to amplify radio signals, and did it far cheaper, using less power, than tube equivalents. This allowed radios to be portable and affordable to a younger audience for the first time. Even though multi-function boom boxes could take advantage of medium-scale and large-scale integrated chips, which were introduced into consumer markets in the 1970s, the single-transistor radio offered enough advantages for cheap portability that they are still offered in niche markets in the 21st century.

    My own cream-colored transistor radio was there to document vague early rhythmic melodies of The Ventures and The Beach Boys. Every so often, some mysterious juke joint Chuck Berry or Buddy Holly tune might get played on oldies hour. MAD magazine gave us secondary exposure to the sappier side of teen heartthrobs like Fabian, Annette Funicello, Frankie Avalon, and Bobby Rydell, but their songs rarely lasted a measure or two before a quick turn of the dial. In the early JFK years, my music appreciation was limited to Mitch Miller’s cover of “Nick Nack Paddy Whack” and not much else.

   The radio was there while mama at the home entertainment center made the transition from Mario Lanza to Peter, Paul & Mary. (The large and daunting home entertainment center, complete with turntable but no space for a TV, was largely a mystery to my preschool consciousness.) The transistor radio was there when The Beatles made their February 1964 debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, though I have no distinct memory of Beatles music on the radio itself in that early period, nor of my pocket radio making the move in October 1963 to our new Victorian home across town. It was the source of chirping voices selling movie debuts, sonorous baritone voices promising a “music for the middlebrow,” but the music riffs seemed to slide past very young ears not yet tuned to such frequencies.

    As Dar Williams has noted more than once, it’s the babysitters that make all the difference. Cathy and Bettie both introduced me to the concept of the 7” 45 rpm single, the small record with the big center hole, and within a few sessions, my 7-year-old mind was blown. Since I had not the vaguest notion of what constituted a “hit,” I had a democratic proclivity to elevate the B-side of any single to the worth of its better-known partner. And the mixtape in my young brain was a confusing place – Bob Dylan’s “Gates of Eden” alongside Hayley Mills’ “Cobbler, Cobbler.” It was all good, all a feast.

     Maybe it was a desire to hear Christmas carols on the go in the holiday season of 1964 that led me to that a-ha moment, as intense as Helen Keller screaming “wa-wa” in The Miracle Worker. This radio I held in my hand was playing a rock and soul and country mix as diverse as any random 45 rpm thrown on the turntable! And the Top 40 stations kept the party going 24 hours a day! Music did not displace the central role in consciousness occupied by the best of the 1960s TV series – Lost In Space, The Munsters, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., My Favorite Martian – but it was far more portable and at least as loyal as your most constant friend or pet.

     It dawned on me that the best of kid-oriented TV series would usually be sponsored by the likes of Mattel or Hasbro toys, or the new fast-food chains emerging coast to coast. At least a decade would pass before I fully understood that this was the early part of an era of corporations explicitly tailoring ads and content to the “youth market.” Contrary to the popular belief that this trend began mid-decade with flower-power automotive ads and the use of “groovy” in ad scripting, the appeals to a youth market began not long after the first wave of 1950s rock and roll.

    The establishment of Camelot as Kennedy entered the White House convinced Madison Avenue that youth culture was a semi-permanent fixture, and a potentially permanent market. In the case of the Hayley Mills B-side which paired so nicely with Dylan, the primary Mills side was taken from the soundtrack of the original Parent Trap, and featured Hayley singing “Let’s get together, yeah yeah yeah” in 1961, two years before The Beatles paired the three words with “She Loves You.” For cultural critics who assumed Beatlemania was a response to the void left by Kennedy’s assassination, we could accept that as true in part, while realizing that millions of American youth were prepped for “yeah yeah yeah” long before the Cuban missile crisis.

    I wouldn’t learn until far later in life that it was a vast oversimplification to think of one unbroken rock and roll chain that linked the Chuck Berry/Elvis generation with the Beatlemania world. The teens who had grown up with big bands and jitterbug dancing, those who may have served in WWII or the Korean War, did not understand either wave of rock and roll, for the most part, and ended up as the parents of the boomers cheering on the British invasion. Teens who were centric to the mid-1950s’ first wave of rock and roll usually did not find the end-of-decade crooners very interesting. If they were college-bound, they might gravitate to modern jazz or to the many folk revivals that kept hitting campuses between 1940 and 1965. Working-class teens who got jobs in factories often shifted tastes to country music. Only a handful of music-savvy 20-somethings grasped the changes The Beatles were bringing in 1964. Most thought the music simplistic and dreadful, just as many parents of boomers did. A certain percentage of those in their 20s came around by 1966 or so, but the older generation never did. What this indicates is that music generations and the reference points fans use, change every five years or so. This was even true later in the 21st century, when overt styles changed less frequently than in the late 1960s. The drive to push youth marketing in the 1960s was always tricky, because there wasn’t a single Generation Gap, there were several.

     Certain elements of youth marketing were perplexing to the primary-school radio addict, particularly that marketing sector geared specifically to the adolescent teenage girl. What were we to make of The Patty Duke Show, milking town mouse and country mouse for all it was worth, as Brooklyn rocker met globe-trotting identical cousin? For a 7-year-old, it meant a deep dive into the motives of weepy teen women with ironed hair, and a belated appreciation of The Shangri Las, just as Mary Weiss and pals were finishing their run of talk-drama.

     The next step in deciphering music meaning was subjecting children’s LP records to what Pauline Oliveros would later call “deep listening,” with one case in point being Ray Heatherton’s The Merry Mailman’s Songs and Stories for Children. It wasn’t until much later I discovered Ray was Joey Heatherton’s dad, and had been a victim of anti-communist witch hunts just a few years earlier. But the choice cuts of “Weevily Wheat” and “I Don’t Want to Play in Your Yard” made their way into critical films of adult life, Agnes of God and Reds, respectively. It all happened for a reason.

     The Beatles’ management captured the timing for taking advantage of youth marketing when developing concepts for what became the film A Hard Day’s Night – slapstick rapid-fire jokes, quick celebrity cameos, many techniques used in later variety shows like Laugh-In. In secondary movie markets like my Midwestern town of 5000, there had to be some backup alternatives to screen at the Sun Theater other than Elvis (which continued to play well for those in their 20s and 30s, but was seen as largely irrelevant by many tweens). We got our first exposure to British Invasion bands with titillating also-rans like the Dave Clark Five’s Having a Wild Weekend, Herman’s Hermits’ Hold On!, and Freddy and the Dreamers’ Seaside Swingers. Admittedly, for the average primary-school kid, the films had less pull than most Disney fare. But if anyone stumbled into such a film precisely at the time they discovered Top 40 radio, the impact was electrifying.

     If the epiphany moment for many was The Beatles on Ed Sullivan in 1964, for me it was The Supremes singing “Stop in the Name of Love” on The Hollywood Palace a year later. I grew up in a squeaky-white small town bubble, and it suddenly hit me that 40% or more of Top 40 radio was comprised of hits from Motown and its rivals, spotlighting people of color. Admittedly, the generation of white rockers around Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins experienced the same revelation at least a decade earlier, since the first rock and roll tunes were created with help from Wolfman Jack and long-distance AM radio, expanding Black rock-and-jive music to a nerdy white audience in after-midnight broadcasts. But for me, Diana Ross was the entry to realizing that a unifying pop radio now covered a wider cultural sector of the U.S. than had ever been reached. And the violence of Selma and Birmingham could not erase that kind of wave. My grandfather owned a cabin in northern Michigan adjacent to the famous Black summer resort of Idlewild, and trips to the nearby Nah-Tah-Ka roller rink gave me an early insight not only into civil rights and integration, but into R&B and soul hits.

     The summer of 1965 was the first season my parents owned a cabin cruiser on the shore of Lake Michigan, which meant regular trips to Grand Haven in a Buick convertible, though the weekends were often spent pumping bilge rather than making extended trips into Lake Michigan. Skipping along the boardwalk in Spring Lake came with a soundtrack of The Four Tops singing “Sugar pie, honeybunch,” as well as the first in an endless series of Sonny & Cher hits (and how many remember that the couple released as many solo singles in 1965 as singles under their duo name?). There are certain songs from that year, like The Walker Brothers’ “Make it Easy on Yourself,” that will always carry a Great Lakes sunset as a screensaver. By the second year of my parents owning the Two-Lous boat, Every Mother’s Son had crafted the perfect theme song for a young sailor, “Come On Down to My Boat, Baby.”

     Autumn into Christmas in 1965 was a far more sober season, filled with Barry Maguire’s “Eve of Destruction,” Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” new Dylan covers by The Byrds, The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” and that first Simon and Garfunkel appearance on the charts, “Sounds of Silence.” Corporate marketeers tried to assuage the escalating social and political grumbling in the background, long before the launch of “Coming-Home Soldier,” “Billy and Sue,” or “Ballad of the Green Beret,” by promoting a rock-ribbed answer to “Eve of Destruction” in the form of The Spokesmen’s “Dawn of Correction.” Somehow, although The Spokesmen had far fewer sales and far less street cred than Barry Maguire, the former ended up on Shindig and Hullabaloo – perhaps as a way of undercutting Barry Maguire’s message? High school students were getting slightly unnerved with the vast expansion of the draft during that year, but those of us in third grade at Holbrook Elementary School would take another two years to even recognize the name of Vietnam.

    By late the next spring, it was evident that 1966 was the high-water mark for Top 40 chutzpah and diversity, though one could scarcely notice the gestation of the revolution in the first winter months of the year. In fact, the first obvious trend of 1966 was the pandering to under-12 fairy tales (not that different from Broadway in the early 21st century). Suddenly, Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs’ “Little Red Riding Hood,” Dee Jay and the Runaways’ “Peter Rabbit,” and Crispian St. Peters’ “Pied Piper” all were fighting for space at the top of the charts, accompanied by some insipid televised renditions not that different from The Banana Splits or The Wiggles in decades to come.

    Later years in that decade were given defining titles – “Psychedelia and the Summer of Love,” “1968: Year of Revolution” – but in these cases, the events were chewed up and regurgitated by media barons and scene makers. Through a 9-year-old’s eyes, 1966 was the most explicitly radical of the decade because the pace and direction of cultural change could not be predicted. The television shows Batman, Star Trek, Time Tunnel and The Monkees all launched in 1966, and Frito-Lay introduced Doritos the same year. The totality of 1966 pop culture held more relevance than any Haight-Ashbury shenanigans then or since. Journalist Jon Savage, in his survey 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded, pointed to another critical factor that made 1966 unique: the accelerating speed with which change in pop culture occurred. Other years could bear the mantle of international tensions or violent revolutionary rhetoric, but 1966 was the year that culture leaders put the pedal to the metal. Even in elementary school, we could feel the thrill of that speed.

     Just as Savage pointed out that trend-makers in New York, London, and L.A. could feel a certain hesitation and tension at the end of the summer of 1966, something palpable and visceral was happening culturally at the start of fourth grade. Putting the boat up for the winter was accompanied by The Lovin’s Spoonful’s “Summer in the City,” followed by The Happenings’ “See You in September.” It wasn’t as though Mrs. Woodworth’s elementary school class held any special dread. The new episodes of Monkees misadventures and Captain Kirk’s intergalactic stopovers provided plenty of fodder for Larry, Dan, and I to talk about while we traversed the boundaries of the playground after a round of kickball. But in the classroom, there were the first rumblings of pre-adolescent crush and singles going steady, of boys with a mod proclivity turning into dedicated followers of fashion, of the rudimentary awareness that the temporary presence of many Rodriguez and Sanchez families in the class roster had something to do with migrant workers.

    The cut-out collage class project doubling art and civics credits introduced me to the first arresting pictures of that mythical place called Vietnam. In one block of my street alone, there were three older brothers being inducted into the service, and one older brother of my best friend Jamie seeking conscientious objector status. It was a lot to take in, and the details did not coalesce into any kind of coherent whole. It just seemed there was an undercurrent of sadness lingering just behind the cartoon icons and wonderful sounds. In my time at the library, the latter months of 1966 represented a turn in literary tastes to the grownup form of science fiction offered by Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Theodore Sturgeon, whispering the message that even the earliest stages of adolescence would come with a need to recognize disaster – though the related caution to “sober up” would be deliberately ignored in years to come by everyone from age 10 to 30.

     I asked myself in later teen years if there was any inkling in 1966 of what West Coast acid tests or New York Andy Warhol “happening sessions” were all about. It seemed as though we were fed some anti-pot, anti-hallucinogen propaganda long before the Summer of Love. It seemed as though the fringed jackets and ultra-long hair garnered some wide-eyed attention around that time, and I distinctly remember telling mama I “wanted to be a hippie when I grow up” after watching a CBS newsreel. But it all seemed as fantasy-driven as Monkees misadventures on TV. Tension hit closer to home in the November 1966 Sunset Strip riots, since the average age of participants was between 11 and 14, but little of that connected in more than superficial ways. After all, the nearby Michigan cities of Lansing and East Lansing had witnessed separate instances of youth riots in the summer of 1966, and none of it stuck to a pre-pubescent consciousness. Popular music was doing little but fraying the edges of innocence before the hippie upheavals.

In three weeks - Chapter 2 - Octagonal Purple Prism Lenses - 1967-68

Copyright 2024 Loring Wirbel

Saturday, December 30, 2023

The List 2023


        The List – 2023

                             Loring Wirbel


    This was one of those years, rare since 1990 or so, where a bit of ennui and exhaustion moved in, and perhaps even more so than 2007-8 or 2013-14. This can be seen statistically, as 2023 was a year with less than 150 or so significant albums (in my eyes, at least), and also emotionally, as some artists’ works just seemed tired and phoned-in. That’s not to say there weren’t great releases during the year, and stellar live tours as well – Taylor Swift, Death Cab/Postal Service, Caroline Polachek, etc.  But after seeing musicians carry the flag through the pandemic, it seems that many found 2023 a year where recharging was necessary.

    Part of the ~20% drop in streaming or physical releases in 2023 can be attributed to the number of new artists turning to TikTok as their sole platform for introducing new music. Because TikTok’s algorithms are tuned to optimize only certain types of melodies destined to go viral, the method seems too artificial to treat seriously, and will be excluded from this list. But that raises the obvious question, what do we do with music created by generative A.I.? We’ll defer on that question to see if the human world survives long enough in the next couple years to make the question worth answering. As for where streaming-only releases belong, note we included SZA, Sylvan Esso, and Little Simz in this list, even though all three were streaming in 2022, because the physical product came out in 2023. We’ll opt for a similar delay for Andre 3000, but add as a teaser that few have tried to use the flute in such an all-encompassing and exhausting way.


     Deaths came fast and furious in 2023, at least in the first half, and the mortality parade actually began on the last day of 2022, when Jeremiah Green of Modest Mouse died, after the 2022 list was released. Belated condolences to all, as well as those close to both Fred White and Sheldon Reynolds of Earth, Wind & Fire; Overkill guitarist Sebastian Marino, multi-instrumentalist Les Brown; Wrecking Crew guitarist Dennis Budimir; guitar legend Jeff Beck; Elvis’s daughter Lisa Marie Presley; Robbie and Tim Bachman of Bachman-Turner Overdrive; Van Conner, bassist for Screaming Trees; David Crosby of Byrds and CSNY; Top Topham of the Yardbirds; Television founder and guitarist Tom Verlaine; doo-wop singer Lillian Walker; GTR bassist Phil Spalding; legendary pop composer Burt Bacharach; Trugoy the Dove of De La Soul; soul singer Chuck Jackson; saxophonist Wayne Shorter; Pulp bassist Steve Mackey; multi-instrumentalist and Jackson Browne compadre David Lindley; Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Gary Rossington; novelty singer Jerry Samuels/Napoleon XIV; Derek & The Dominos drummer Jim Gordon; singer-songwriter Bobby Caldwell; Mick Slattery of Hawkwind; Fuzzy Haskins of Parliament/Funkadelic; Ryuichi Sakamoto, founder of Yellow Magic Orchestra; Gentle Giant bassist Ray Shulman; Sire Records founder Seymour Stein; Vivian Trimble of Luscious Jackson; S Club 7 singer Paul Cattermole; Kate Bush/Alan Parsons guitarist Ian Bairnson; jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal; April Stevens, pop partner to Nino Temple; Otis Redding III; Mark Stewart, founder of The Pop Group (followed by Pop Group guitarist John Waddington); island crooner and actor Harry Belafonte; Mothers of Invention drummer Ralph Humphrey; Canadian folkie Gordon Lightfoot; Bowie backup singer Linda Lewis; Chieftains fiddler Sean Keane; Os Mutantes singing legend Rita Lee; Jon Povey of Pretty Things; Andy Rourke, bassist for The Smiths; country singer Ed Ames; early-days Beatles bassist Chas Newby; multi-decade soul queen Tina Turner; jazz bassist Bill Lee; New Age pianist George Winston; “Girl from Ipanema” crooner Astrud Gilberto; Groundhogs guitarist Tony McPhee; Urge Overkill drummer Blackie Onassis; Butthole Surfers drummer Teresa Taylor; madcap saxophonist and Heather Leigh collaborator Peter Brotzmann; Megadeth drummer Lee Rauch; Journey guitarist George Tickner; French-English singer and actress Jane Birkin; master crooner Tony Bennett; Irish lifelong rebel Sinead O’Connor; Eagles founder Randy Meisner; Kinks pianist John Gosling; It’s a Beautiful Day founder David LaFlamme; “Cha-cha slide” originator DJ Casper; comeback-kid singer Sixto Rodriguez; Robbie Robertson of The Band; Pavement drummer Gary Young; Whitesnake guitarist Bernie Marsden; Stars of the Lid founder Brian McBride; Chief Parrothead Jimmy Buffett; Smash Mouth vocalist Steve Harwell; dreamweaver and Spooky Tooth vocalist Gary Wright; jazz pianist and saxophonist Charles Gayle; crooner Roger Whittaker; Marvelettes singer Katherine Anderson; The Association singer Terry Kirkman; Meters drummer Russell Batiste Jr.; Isley brother Rudolph Isley; jazz composer and big-band leader Carla Bley; Oklahoma power-popper Dwight Twilley; Angelo Bruschini of Massive Attack; Stone Roses bassist Pete Garner; Dream Theater vocalist Charlie Dominici; Mars Williams of The Psychedelic Furs; Killing Joke guitarist Geordie Walker, soul singer Jean Knight, Pogues singer and bard Shane MacGowan, former Cat Power guitarist Dan Currie, Del-Lords and Dictators founder Scott Kempner, avant-garde minimalist Catherine Christer Hennix, Colorado session guitarist Jim Salestrom, Myles Goodwyn of April Wine, South African singer Zahara, songwriter and occasional Mother of Invention Essra Mohawk,  founding Dixie Chicks member Laura Lynch, older and sillier Smothers Brother Tommy Smothers,  …..     Yes, these lists will keep getting longer.


Regular Studio Albums, 2023


1.    Squid, O, Monolith – Even in a year when big-selling pop artists got deserved attention, look who came out on top! The quietest member of the U.K. manic bands slipped out a sophomore album that redefined hyper jazz-rock. A wonder, start to finish.

2.    boygenius, The Record – North America (and much of the world, apparently) now loves the super-trio of Baker, Bridges, and Dacus, and even if there’s maximum hype, even if the late-fall EP wasn’t all that great, the full-length album deserved all the attention it received.

3.    Arooj Aftab, Vijay Ayer, Shahzad Ismaily, Love In Exile – Even if you never saw the live tour, these three provided an object lesson in chill floaty-jazz. If you did see a live date, you know the album was no fluke.

4.    Caroline Polachek, Desire, I Want to Turn Into You --  The co-founder of Chairlift spent the entire pandemic period assembling this magic piece, and released it streaming on Valentine’s Day, only to see physical copies get delayed until November. Was it worth the wait? Oh yes.

5.    Olivia Rodrigo, Guts – She may be a victim of overexposure, but anyone at her age and experience who can put out a sophomore album stronger than the debut, deserves every bit of hype she receives.

6.    Jeremy Facknitz, Smilin’ at the Future – It’s impressive enough that he sends us up with more of the quality power-pop we’ve come to know and love, but Facknitz also has the audacity in 2023 to write songs of hope – e.g., “Ste. Genevieve.” The nerve of that guy, just when we’re all sulking.

7.    Butterfly Assembly, s/t – Lisa and Shannon McElvaney have been nurturing some of these songs for years, and it shows, as each is a gem. Guest appearances from Joe Johnson, Dylan Teifer, and the Bourgal Brothers guarantees a good time for all.

8.    Mitski, The Land is Inhospitable, and So Are We – Mitski can get lost in angst, and is coming from a good 2022 album, but this one is sad and powerful beyond measure.

9.    Alternative Communication, Afterword – Scottish duo Jeanette and Brian Kidd with old friend David Reid comprise this trio, who make progressive-ambient music one could genuinely call spooky.

10.                    K. Flay, MONO – Flay has bounced between hard pop and hip-hop for more than a decade, and has finally gotten the mix exactly right. Jaw-dropping at times.

11.                    Wednesday, Rat Saw God – The first new band in the U.S. to match the mania and fervor of the British 2020-22 crop of newcomers. Whenever Wednesday appears as an opening act, they blow the crowd away.

12.                    Lankum, False Lankum – I was quite embarrassed to have just discovered this Irish traditionalist band recently, when they’ve been the rage of Mercury Prize and Irish music awards for five years. This new hour-long set dives deep into little-known ballads, but Lankum mixes them all with a Pelt-style drone to give every note a greater significance.

13.                    Sprain, The Lamb as Effigy --  How to even begin to describe Sprain? Avant-classical? Spoken-word mania? Post-rock? Hot mess? In any event, in an era where much of the improvisational noise of the early 2000s has faded, it’s nice to know Sprain is around. (Apparently the band broke up in mid-October, so it was fun while it lasted.)

14.                    The Empty Pockets, Gotta Find the Moon – One of Chicago’s more persistent bar bands went to Abbey Road to record some originals, and damn if the effort didn’t pay off.

15.                    The Kills, God Games – Never thought I’d call a Kills album majestic, but there you go. Those of you who favor Alison’s side projects like Dead Weather, really should go back to her O.G. efforts.

16.                    Paramore, This is Why – O.G. Paramore fans might consider this Hayley Williams’ sellout work, but really, it’s the strongest Paramore album to date. So change my mind.

17.                    SZA, SOS – Yes, it streamed last December, but this was a 2023 album. Vast in its diversity of styles, it’s still more mainstream than experimentalists like Solange or Janelle Monae.

18.                    Jason Isbell, Weathervanes – Jason and Amanda have been hit-or-miss in recent years, but this album starts with “Death Wish” and then keeps on climbing.

19.                    Peter Gabriel, i/o – Gabriel would be the first to tell you that he’s aging, and is not going to pull off another So, at least not lyrically, but he was clever enough to make the album release a slow online process, and to offer “bright-side” and “dark-side” mixes of the same 12 songs. A cool experiment.

20.                    The National, Laugh Track

21.                    The National, The First Two Pages of Frankenstein – Yes, chronologically the albums are supposed to be in the reverse order, but the Laugh Track album released in November is the superior of the two, and actually clarifies and improves the appreciation of the earlier Frankenstein. Call it glum rock or dad rock, there’s still a lot going on in these tracks.

22.                     Circus Devils, Squeeze the Needle – Quite simply the best Robert Pollard release of the year, even with three decent Guided by Voices albums.

23.                    Bill Orcutt/Chris Corsano/Zoh Amba, The Flower School –This might have been Top Ten simply for Orcutt and Corsano seeking out the Tennessee saxophone goddess, but the length was more like an EP. Even in a brief package, though, it’s amazing. The hyper-prolific Orcutt was going to release an album on Christmas Day as a trio with two saxophonists, but we’ll save that one for 2024.

24.                    Pere Ubu, Trouble on Big Beat Street – Given how sick David Thomas was during the recording of the so-called “Goodbye” album, there was no reason to expect this album to exist, and even less reason to expect how silly, joyful, and brilliant it is.

25.                    100 Gecs, 10,000 Gecs – An experiment in Dadaist consumerism, like Shopping or Pink Section, but with more electronic craziness.

26.                    Lana Del Rey, There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Boulevard – More of the fine songs that have characterized all her releases of the last five years. This is Lana’s era.

27.                    Little Simz, No Thank You – This fell through the cracks between 2022 and 2023, another victim of the “streaming first” philosophy, and that should never happen to Little Simz.

28.                    The Aces, I’ve Loved You So Long – These four L.A.-via-Utah women keep polishing their pop to reach this pinnacle where every song on an album is memorable.

29.                    The Rolling Stones, Hackney Diamonds – Believe it! The octogenarians have squeezed out an album of original material that is very good. Still won’t make me pay $1000 for tickets to the 2024 tour, but….

30.                    Smoke Fairies, Carried in Sound – I’ve loved this U.K. duo since seeing them open for a very young Laura Marling, and I’m thrilled they’re still putting out music this good.

31.                    Heavy Diamond Ring, All Out of Angels – Some might say the Denver successor to Paper Bird gave us songs slightly more ethereal than the debut album, but I’d say Ben Wysocki’s production more than makes up for it.

32.                    Anohni and the Johnsons, My Back Was a Bridge – Some may find Anohni/Antony’s composition just too complex to flow smoothly. Anohni’s complexity is a plus.

33.                    Being Dead, When Horses Would Run – This band brings back the spirit of ’66, not so much for the psychedelia or the informal folk-like harmonies, but because it’s such fun pop.

34.                    The Clientele, I Am Not There Any More – The Clientele returns with an album perfecting their Kinks-like sound, and the album nearly disappears from public view. That’s a damned shame.

35.                    Mandy, Indiana, I’ve Seen a Way – This debut album lets listeners experience the noisy, rhythmic presence of Valentine Caulfield, who immediately makes you hope this band will be around for a while.

36.                    Esme Patterson, Notes from Nowhere – Patterson has married and moved to the Tennessee back woods, so you know this album was bound to have a quiet and mystical quality. But the choir effects add a suggestion of Laura Veirs, as well.

37.                    P.J. Harvey, I Inside the Old World Dying – I love spoken-word recordings, and I’ve always been partial to Harvey’s acoustic work, but these poems puzzled me too much to place this album in the Top 10. But hey, that’s largely my fault.

38.                    Cherry Glazrr, I Don’t Want You Anymore – The most moody and haunting of any Cherry Glazrr album, and Clementine Creevy manages to wear that very well. Like The Kills, Creevy is taking her band to another majestic level.

39.                    Fever Ray, Radical Romantics – By far the most fully-realized and interesting of the Fever Ray albums.

40.                    Sylvan Esso, No Rules Sandy – Like SZA and Little Simz, Sylvan Esso got hurt by the “streaming first” marketing mentality. This sort of completes an album trilogy, and should rank higher.

41.                    Mega Bog, The End of Everything – Even if her stylings employ an excess of Broadway from time to time, Erin Birgy is a genius.

42.                    Free Range, Practice – Usually once a year, a singer-songwriter newcomer comes out with an informal, minimalist album that is a hidden gem. Sofia Jensen has given us 2023’s album.

43.                    The Mountain Goats, Jenny from Thebes – Undoubtedly interesting as a sequel of sorts, but still not one of the epics in the Darnielle portfolio.

44.                    Speedy Ortiz, Rabbit Rabbit – Sadie DuPuis finally gets national recognition with a full-page New York Times feature, and her band is back together too. Win-win.

45.                    Nellie McKay, Hey Guys, Watch This! – When you consider that this is McKay’s first album of new work in 13 years, and you think of how monumental she was early in the millenium, it’s sad to see how much she’s snubbed these days – particularly since her live shows are such a pleasure.

46.                    Meg Baird, Furling – More keyboard-centric than in the past, which adds to the ethereal flavor.

47.                    Algiers, Shook – One of their boldest statements yet, particularly in the extended version. And who else is doing gospel-punk-funk these days?

48.                    Guided by Voices, Welshpool Frillies

49.                    Guided by Voices, Nowhere to Go But Up

50.                    Guided by Voices, La La Land – Seems like every year, Pollard gives us three studio albums, which I lump together because I can never decide which is on top. This year, Pollard’s Circus Devils album beat any of the GbV ones. At least for now.

51.                    Iris DeMent, Workin’ On a World – Probably her boldest work since her marriage to Greg Brown, and now that Brown’s no longer touring, she’s got some heavy lifting ahead.

52.                    Margo Price, Strays – This early 2023 work got mixed up with Strays II and Strays at Grimey’s, but in any event, it’s one of Margo’s strongest set of songs.

53.                    Dream Wife, Social Lubrication – The band has optimized and refined its approach to being sardonic and absolutely serious on subjects of feminism and modern empty-culture.

54.                    Kimbra, A Reckoning – As she moves deeper into Oceania rhythms, Kimbra has to be careful to keep her cultural appropriation in check, but there’s no denying this album works well.

55.                    Bully, Lucky for You – Alicia Bognanno makes a great leap forward with this Bully album, maybe a bit poppy, but that’s fine by me. Bonus points for the Soccer Mommy collaboration.

56.                    The Gaslight Anthem, History Books – I might consider this just another Springsteen-esque GA release, but for the presence of “Michigan 1975,” which is so autobiographical for me, it scares me.

57.                    Kesha, Gag Order – I gain more respect for Kesha with each passing release, and this one is no exception.

58.                    Laura Veirs, Phone Orphans – An all-acoustic, voice-and-guitar album for Veirs, that stands out for its minimalism.

59.                    Lucinda Williams, Stories from a Rock and Roll Heart – Lucinda came back out on tour with a revved-up set of new songs, her most inspired in a decade.

60.                    Young Fathers, Heavy Heavy – Vibrant genre-breaking songs borrowing from a hundred styles.

61.                    Carly Rae Jepsen, The Loveliest Time – Jepsen tends to break recording sessions into two studio albums, separated by about a year. Often she saves the best for the second release. This is definitely the case here, as the new one is more powerful than 2022’s The Loneliest Time.

62.                    Tirzah, trip9love…??? – Tirzah Mastin has that kind of floaty, haunting chanteuse voice suggestive of Julee Cruise at a supper club, but Mica Levi adds a faraway-sounding haunted piano and unexpected percussion, to make this a perfect horror soundtrack.

63.                    The Invisible Hands, The Big Minute – This may not have the power of The Invisible Hands’ work in the aftermath of the Egyptian coup, but the mere fact that Alan Bishop still is bringing the band together says a lot.

64.                    The Hold Steady, The Price of Progress – At first it seemed this might be more powerful than 2021’s Open Door Policy, but not really. Wishful thinking.

65.                    Jorja Smith, Falling or Flying – Among R&B divas, Smith is at least as confident and bold as Beyonce, if not more so.

66.                    Bethany Cosentino, Natural Disaster – A strident solo effort from the Best Coast vocalist, maybe stronger than any Best Coast album. I wish she hadn’t gone off on such a tirade in mid-December about releases disappearing into the ether. It happens to everyone, Bethany.

67.                    Be Your Own Pet, Mommy – Great to have our Tennessee punk heroes back, though as they approach middle age, when does it become mom-and-dad rock?

68.                    Rhiannon Giddens, You’re the One – More straightforward simple ballads than her last few, though I find I miss her experimentalist partner Francesco Turrisi.

69.                    Swans, The Beggar – A very strong two-disc set this time around, although Gira has made a 20-year industry of putting out two-disc epics.

70.                    Protomartyr, Formal Growth in the Desert – The album art and music arrangements are as adventurous as ever, though the lyrical content seems to flag at times.

71.                    Depeche Mode, Memento Mori – Gahan and Gore certainly are brave to continue as a duo, and there are impressive tracks here, but a studio release after the death of Andy Fletcher feels like REM did right after Bill Berry left. REM had a significant recovery before splitting up, so Depeche Mode might too.

72.                    Rain Parade, Last Rays of a Dying Sun – Another 1980s revival, this one from the Paisley Underground. These folks age well, to the point where it isn’t just a rehash of what’s come before.

73.                    Yo La Tengo, This Stupid World – Early in 2023, this YLT release seemed like the band’s most strident in decades, though it still is shrouded in mist, gauze, and fog like so much of YLT.

74.                    The New Pornographers, Continue as a Guest – A few really nice songs on this one, though the fact that Neko Case was not touring with them this fall suggests that New Porns may be past their sell-by date.

75.                    Beirut, Hadsel – Zac Condon has been lost in Scandinavia for a while, and the resulting album is heavy on the pipe organ, but still giving us that Beirut sound we all love.

76.                    Feist, Multitudes – This is Leslie Feist’s most straightforward pop effort in a while, though it can drag at times.

77.                    Lydia Loveless, Nothing’s Gonna Stand in My Way Again – Loveless seems to want this album to be a declaration of power, but we already know she is the most badass bitch in country-rock. Somehow this seems superfluous.

78.                    Sparks, The Girl is Crying in Her Latte – I think it’s fantastic the Mael brothers are still producing funny and imaginative albums, though new works tend to get lauded, perhaps too much, because it’s Sparks with new songs.

79.                    Julie Byrne, The Greater Wings – A powerful treatise from a songwriter who’s been missing for five years or so!

80.                    The Kennedys, Headwinds – Maura’s voice is in better shape than ever, and these songs are both interesting and emotional, but the album is missing a bit of The Kennedys’ trademark bounce.

81.                    Califone, Villagers – This is a strong set of songs from Tim Rutili, where the experimental arrangements take a back seat to great storytelling.

82.                    Jenny Lewis, Joy’all – It’s somewhat ironic that Jenny’s ode to middle age is greeted with a collective shrug. It’s a good album, Jenny is still amazing in many ways, but the staying power is lacking.

83.                    Maia Sharp, Reckless Thoughts – Sharp is one of my favorite Nashville songwriters, and this collection is one of her best.

84.                    Beth Bombara, It All Goes Up – I was ready to call this Bombara’s breakthrough release, though the arrangements are a little too overbearing for that. Still, a worthy effort.

85.                    Slowdive, Everything is Alive – Confession: I found the old Slowdive a bit snoozy, so it’s no surprise the return of Slowdive is a little, well, slow for me.

86.                    Kelela, Raven – An intriguing mix of club electronica and R&B. Mesmerizing.

87.                    Kylie Minogue, Tension – Maybe not as dazzling as her recent disco revival, this one still has fun arrangements.

88.                    VirgoTwins, ArtSpace – A very cool hip-hop/experimental pop album.

89.                    Sunny War, Anarchist Anthems – The title says it all. This decade’s sincere Black woman folkie is far more droll and daring than, say, Tracy Chapman.

90.                    Fucked Up, One Day – A decent album from our favorite Toronto growlers, but no new directions.

91.                    Sufjan Stevens, Javelin – This was meant to bring back the feel of Seven Swans or the 50 States Project, and it sort of does, though not enough to put Stevens in the top ten.

92.                    Water From Your Eyes, Everything’s Crushed – This duo likes to make Situationist critiques with electronica effect, very fun at times, though not at the level of say, 100 gecs or Shopping or Bodega.

93.                    Soda Blonde, Dream Big – This is the second album since the former Little Green Cars reconfigured as Soda Blonde. Great to hear Faye O’Rourke’s vocals, though the arrangements are more Broadway-esque.

94.                    Janelle Monae, The Age of Pleasure – Many Monae fans are furious with her about dedicating an album to hot booty, after so many sci-fi classics. Hell, Monae always demonstrated a bit of the sensuous, and I’m not going to criticize her, but the new album simply isn’t as interesting as much of her work.

95.                    Paul Simon, Seven Psalms – Chances are, this simple minimalist work will be his true last studio effort. It has great moments, and is more impressive than recent full-band outings.

96.                    John McCutcheon and Tom Paxton, Together – An inspired pairing, although John’s been the one experiencing a later-life burst of creative energy, Tom is sort of along for the ride.

97.                    Sigur Ros, Atta – Back from a long absence with a work that is mildly interesting, though hardly earth-shattering.

98.                    Lucero, Should’ve Learned By Now – This is actually a pretty strident set of songs from Ben, but the album was sort of sneaked out at the start of a tour.

99.                    Everything But the Girl, Fuse – The duo took a mere 24 years to finally come up with its 11th studio album. A welcome return for fans, though nothing that new.

100.                Sid Simons, Beneath the Brightest Smiles – An intriguing multi-instrumentalist with his second album, after recording earlier work as Girl Skin.

101.                Pile, All Fiction --  The mighty Pile are back, with a pretty decent new bunch of songs.

102.                Ben Folds, What Matters Most – I feel sorry for Ben entering middle age, trying for sincerity but not garnering much attention, even though some tracks within are good.

103.                Xiu Xiu, Ignore Grief – Jamie really wanted to make this release seem more mainstream, but hey, it’s Xiu Xiu.

104.                Post Malone, Austin – Maybe not as good as last year’s outing, at least we can say Post Malone tries to minimize repeating himself.

105.                Teenage Fanclub, Nothing Lasts Forever – The band has shifted from its old vibrant harmonies to a style that sounds like Zombies in good moments, and Moody Blues in others. Pleasant harmonies, but like last year’s album, not that much to stick in the craw.

106.                Jessie Ware, That! Feels! Good! – People swear by Jessie as a disco revivalist, but she always seems to be taking the role of Studio 54 denizen in an unironic sense, and that brings back scarier memories of disco.

107.                U.S. Girls, Bless This Mess – It’s cool to see Meghan Remy take on motherhood, but among experimentalists, Amanda Palmer did the same thing a few years ago in a far more interesting way.

108.                John Cale, Mercy – Probably should have had this higher, but its release at the start of the year made it easy to overlook. As in the case of Mick Jagger, it’s simply good to see Cale in his 80s making music this good.

109.                Bill Orcutt, Jump On It! – The master of weirdness tries to pretend he’s almost normal. I wish I had heard the voice-manipulation album he released this year, but between this, the Amba trio, the new saxophone trio, and the live set from King’s Place, Bill already owns the world.

110.                Bruce Cockburn, O Sun, O Moon – Some fine songs from the timeless Canadian folkie.

111.                Eno, Forever Voiceless – Maybe this should have been in the Specials section, since it’s sort of a remix sans vocals of last year’s Foreverandevernomore.

112.                Public Image Ltd., The End of the World – As annoying as he may be, John Lydon still is cranking out more interesting music than two-thirds of what’s out there.

113.                Wilco, Cousin – The only reason this isn’t further near the bottom is that Cate Le Bon helped in production. But even she couldn’t help Jeff Tweedy’s missing time in ennui. Seems that in the past decade or so, Wilco can’t lift itself out of listlessness.

114.                Blur, Ballad of Darren – Somewhat interesting, but proof once again that Damon Albarn’s best work is with The Good, The Bad, and The Queen – not Blur or Gorillaz.

115.                Skating Polly, Chaos County Line – Punk and poppy in equal measure, it may be SP’s most accessible work.

116.                Charming Disaster, Super Natural History – This duo, with their Vaudeville meets goth zombies shtick, really is charming. And they teach science!

117.                Quasi, Breaking the Balls of History – As glad as I am to see Sam and Janet get back together, the studio album wasn’t all that interesting.

118.                Foo Fighters, But Here We Are – Poor Dave Grohl, even when making a memorial to Taylor Hawkins, he has trouble crafting a Foo Fighters album people will remember.

119.                Lilli Lewis, All is Forgiven – Lilli’s Americana sound is now on Righteous Babe, which seems to fit the singer perfectly.

120.                Queens of the Stone Age, In Times New Roman – Josh Homme has a problem like Quasi or Foo Fighters. His isn’t a PR problem after his personal scandals, but a creativity problem. This is probably the flattest QOTSA album.

121.                Gina Burch, I Play My Bass Loud – As a fan of the 1980s women’s punk band Raincoats, I was primed to like this, but Gina waited too long to finally record a solo album! There’s too much of a feel of forced energy, even with the presence of Thurston Moore.

122.                Silos, Family – Credit Walter Salas-Humara for trying to keep some interesting Silos songwriting alive. He usually tours solo, but it sounds as though the band still exists.

123.                Animal Collective, Isn’t It Now? – I guess Panda Bear and Avey Tare are just trying to keep too steady a stream going, because this one mostly goes nowhere.

124.                Andrew Hung, Deliverance – Great fun, even if a bit narcissist.

125.                Molly Tuttle, City of Gold – I normally appreciate anything Tuttle attempts, but here is an album of traditionalist songs hampered by over-production.

126.                AJJ (formerly Andrew Jackson Jihad), Disposable Everything – As usual with AJJ, there is a righteous intent here, but sort of slow compared to the band’s early work.

127.                Lapsley, Cautionary Tales of Youth – Good subject matter in dealing with troubled youth, although it is wrapped in electronica and gauze.

128.                John Buffalo, s/t – An intriguing new artist/work I’m still trying to decipher.

129.                Ian Jones, Results Not Typical – After a promising EP, Jones comes back with a decent debut full-length.

130.                Darlingside, Everything is Alive – With each album, I hope the Boston-area near-acapella band shifts into high gear. This one seemed sleepy, unfortunately.

131.                Peter Case, Doctor Moan – Sorry this is ranked so low, it really was a good return to form by the always-delightful Case.

132.                Tennis, Pollen – From the beginning, I couldn’t quite figure out what made people adore this Denver duo, but hey, they’re pleasant enough.

133.                Blonde Redhead, Sit Down for Dinner – For those who didn’t notice in the last couple albums, there is little left of the near-Sonic-Youth noisy trio of the late 1990s. Blonde Redhead is now a near-romantic melodic band, which at least pumps up their popularity a notch.

134.                Ric Wilson and Chromeo, Clusterfunk – A cool enough groove session, but not startling.

135.                The Struts, Pretty Vicious – No they’re not. Pretty formulaic, more like it..

136.                Far From Saints, s/t – An interesting new-country debut, lots of predictable moments, but fun enough.

137.                Great Lake Swimmers, Uncertain Country – I’m glad the band is once again more than a Tony Dekker solo outing, and the first couple tracks have an REM sound, but that fades…

138.                Hackedepicciotto, Keepsakes – The oddball duo is back with another round of unusual ramblings. Cool in parts.

139.                Mac DeMarco, Five Easy Hot Dogs – Why make a slow, emotionless album about being slow and emotionless? I don’t get it.

140.                Iggy Pop, Every Loser – You know with certain elder statesmen, you like the idea of xxx (Iggy Pop), without exactly loving their latest work? Yeah, me too.

141.                The Hives, The Death of Randy Fitzsimmons – This sounded like a good conceptual effort, but it was The Hives back at their rock-n-roll stereotype game.

142.                Jack River, Endless Summer – No intent to rank this so low, a nice exuberant offering from a new artist.

143.                Catbells, Partly Cloudy – Ethereal, sweet, and worth a listen.

144.                Noah Kahan, Stick Season – I’m not putting this at the end to give a finger to all the people that love Kahan. Sometimes I find his songwriting clever. But he’s one of those artists people adore for being more mediocre than his peers. In live performance, he displays the worst tendencies of Mumford & Sons and Avett Brothers in over-playing the house. And the fans eat it up.


Special Albums (Live, Compilations, Splits, CD-Rs, MP3, etc.)


1.    Car Seat Headrest, Faces from the Masquerade – A spirited 2022 live set, focused on songs from the deep-pandemic album Making a Door Less Open. Will Toledo triumphant.

2.    Black Country New Road, Live at Bush Hall – People who defined BCNR by Isaac Wood are bound to be ambivalent or even disappointed with this album. The band decided it would not perform Wood-era songs, and BCNR is distinctly a women-dominated band these days. As for me, I like the new tunes, and I saw them in September and was quite impressed. I mean, a live set realized as a high-school prom? Great stuff. So doubters can go snuff off.

3.    Cat Power, Sings Dylan’s 1966 Royal Albert Hall Concert – Many of those who didn’t think it was a sacrilege merely to replicate Albert Hall, still complained that Cat Power didn’t bring enough of the rebellious-electric-Dylan feel to her interpretation. How ridiculous. This is Chan Marshall singing a certain selection of stunning Dylan songs. Bravo.

4.    Matmos, Return to Archive – Matmos is at its most fun when its creative noise has a central theme, and this album, remixing the “non-human sounds” (animal field recordings) from Folkways Records, is one of the best concepts yet.

5.    SPELLLING, SPELLLING and the Mystery School – This one is in Specials because Chrystia Cabral reimagines certain songs from earlier albums. None dare call them remixes.

6.    Various Artists, More Than a Whisper: The Music of Nanci Griffith – A very nice memorial to Griffith’s work, featuring the likes of War and Treaty, Sarah Jarosz, Iris DeMent, and Todd Snider.

7.    Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, These Things Remain Unassigned – Oh ho, the skeptic may say, I already have the deeply-underground three-CD set Duck Duck Chimp of TFUL282 rarities. I certainly don’t need the 2-LP collection. Um, yes you do. There’s almost no overlap. Thinking Fellers left detritus everywhere.

8.    The Selecter, Live at NEC 1980 – Probably my favorite release of Record Store Day, Selecter was always my favorite of the early-1980s ska bands.

9.    Joni Mitchell, Live at Newport – The existence of this album is a blessing, and Joni’s voice is in decent shape, but this is mostly a jam session album of Joni sharing songs with Brandi and other friends.

10.          Taylor Swift, 1989 (Taylor’s Version) – I’ve been uncertain about including the re-recorded TS albums she made to retain artistic ownership of her older works. But this one in particular has plenty of unreleased material. I might have to reconsider the older ones, too.

11.          Taylor Swift, Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions – A lesson in Record Store Day madness. Is the video documentary worth it for understanding Folklore? Of course. Is the vinyl version worth owning if you could get it at a reasonable price? Again, yes. But should you pay more than $200 for it? Of course not.

12.          Midlake, Live at Roundhouse – Another unsung great from Record Store Day, this one is a 2-LP set, recorded in 2022, featuring more recent works.

13.          The Feelies, Feelies Play Velvets – Since The Feelies sound so much like a mumbling Velvet Underground, this live set of 18 songs performed in 2018 may seem superfluous, but it’s really great.

14.          Romeo Void, Live at Mabuhay Gardens – Since Mabuhay was already on a downward stroke by the time Romeo Void got there, this might seem an oddity, but since Romeo Void didn’t make it big until mid-1980s, it’s like hearing the later school of Bay Area punk.

15.          King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Live at Red Rocks 2022, Vols. 1 and 2 – King Gizzard kicks out so much material, it may be hard to pick and choose which live sets to purchase (or you may go bankrupt being a completeist). I focused on the Colorado releases because hey, Red Rocks. The correct answer to “Where do I start with King Gizzard?” is “You start anywhere you like and go over under sideways down, backwards forwards square and round.” All answers are correct.

16.          Nico, Live at the Library Theatre 1980 – Yet another treat from Record Store Day. There simply isn’t enough Nico live material released.

17.          Wye Oak, Every Day Like the Last – Although this is billed as a collection of singles and unreleased material, it displays a certain consistent flow in showing Jenn Wasner in both electronic and guitar-centric sides. A real treat.

18.          Bill Orcutt Quartet, Live at King’s Place – The recorder of this marvelous set was apologetic that there are no recordings of the Café Oto show where Bill had each member offer an improv solo. But really, who can complain? Orcutt’s between-tracks patter make for a very human set.

19.          Rosali, Live at Café 9 – Not to be confused with megastar Rosalia, this Philadelphia singer-songwriter is quietly amazing.

20.          No-Neck Blues Band, Niente Piu Canzoni – It’s been a minute since No-Neck stopped performing together, but new recordings keep getting dredged up from somewhere. Hey, for people like John Coltrane, the trend went on for decades.

21.          Wild Carnation, Tricycle – Continuing the Feelies festival, this album by the band’s Brenda Sauter apparently was released in the 1980s, but no one heard it, so I’m including the 2023 re-release here.

22.          Jackie-O Motherfucker, Bayonet – My comments about No-Neck apply to JOMF, as someone will find an unreleased gem from the early 2000s every once in a while, but in many, Tom has assembled a JOMF version that sounds like weird psychedelic country. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

23.          Laraaji, Segue to Infinity – A massive compilation from a far-gone hippie. Pretty interesting if you like that sort of thing.

24.          Elvis Costello, Bacharach/Costello Complete – With the passing of Burt Bacharach, Elvis wanted to put out a memorial including virtually everything the two worked on together, but most songs have been heard in the original collaboration.

25.          Neil Young, Chrome Dreams

26.          Neil Young, Before and After – These two reinterpretations are different enough from original releases, they deserve to be listed here, but honestly (as I said last year), Young has been releasing so many damned albums from the Neil Young Archives, it’s hard to keep everything straight.

Singles and EPs

                I thought 2022 was slow for singles and EPs. This year, the trend continued.


1.    Luke Combs, “Fast Car”  I don’t want to hear about cultural appropriation. He’s made Tracy Chapman much richer, with a fine and emotional cover of her song. If you can sit through the final part about the collapse of what should have been an ideal relationship without crying like a baby, you’re a stronger person than me.

2.    Brigitte Calls Me Baby, This House is Made of Corners EP – Imagine wandering into an anonymous road house and hearing a honky-tonk band with a lead singer reminiscent of Chris Isaak, who just knocks you off your feet. And he’s backed by Johnny Marr. Yeah, it’s like that.

3.    Jason Isbell, “Death Wish” --  A grim and somewhat appropriate single for 2023. I think we’ve all loved someone like that at some point.

4.    Olivia Rodrigo, Guts Secret Tracks – You have to admire the woman for marketing genius – collect the extra songs from the different vinyl versions of Guts, put ‘em all on a single piece of vinyl released on Record Store Day Black Friday, and watch that vinyl instantly shoot to $200 or so. Maybe not worth it, but the album art is great.

5.    Daneshevskaya, Long is the Tunnel – Even if Anna Daneshevskaya can be a trifle melodramatic at times, there’s plenty of room in the indie world for an angsty Russian Jew. Cool stuff!

6.    Black Mariah Theater, Mean to Be Mean – These two Utah sisters are a rockabilly throwback hybrid and modern punk blunderbuss that are a pleasure to experience.

7.    Little Moon, “Wonder Eye” – The judges from the NPR Tiny Desk Contest, coming from a variety of musical genres, were in unusual consensus about the greatness of Little Moon. I certainly like Emma Hardyman’s vocals and lyrics, but there’s too much hippie sincerity going on for me!

8.    Lankum, Live in Dublin 2023 – A Record Store Day Black Friday special we didn’t get in the U.S. Bonus points for being recorded on my birthday, in Dublin.

9.    The Smile, Europe: Live Recordings 2022 – More often than not, Thom Yorke’s Smile project shows more signs of life than Radiohead. That shouldn’t be a surprise.

10.                    Spiritbox, The Fear of Fear – Another six songs to prove that Courtney LaPlante is the goddess of screamcore, shifting from a raspy howl to soaring melodic presentations suggestive of Caroline Polachek, in tracks like “Too Close/Too Late” and “The Void.”

11.                    Lisa Said, Missed Connections – The sampler of Said’s work represented here will have you calling for more.

12.                    Amanda Shire, Sound Emporium – You have to give Jason Isbell’s wife credit for always being supportive of RSD and independent artists, and she manages to drag Jason in for a few zingers.

13.                    The Beatles, Now and Then – A valiant attempt to give some depth to a mediocre demo from John Lennon, I finally got it when I could buy a CD version for $10. But you want me to spend $20 for 7” vinyl or $22 for 12” vinyl? Highway robbery.

14.                    Boygenius, The Rest – Given what a great debut album our power trio released this year, I was hoping their second EP wouldn’t amount to leftovers from the cutting-room floor. But that’s pretty much what it is. Definitely fans-only.

15.                    Manchester Orchestra, Valley of Vision – Glad we got a touch of Andy this year, although this wasn’t one of the band’s knockout EPs.