Good Things Come In 3’s: My Top 10 Musical [re]Discoveries Of 2013

I’m not one of those “TOP 50 JAMZ NOW THAT’S WHAT I CALL MUSIC” compilation fiends, but having left my job of nearly 8 years to start my own business and pursue my artistic dreamz, has me taking stock of life in these waning weeks of 2013. Oh, and heck, I just have more time and energy on my hands now too to do pointless stuff like this, whereas in the past, I probably would’ve thought, “Oh, that’s a good idea,” or gotten halfway through the post and abandoned it because I was too busy.

Anyways, I came across some chestnuts this year I thought I’d share. As I scrolled through my catalog of tunes downloaded, YouTubed and Tumblred this year, I noticed most heavy-rotation favorites were released in years ending in “3”: 1973, 1983, 1993, etc., hence the title, “Good things…”

10. Sui Generis – Confesiones de invierno [1973]

sui-generis-confesiones-de-invierno-1973You don’t have to be bilingual to understand when music is saying something important and/or poetic. Of course, I could just be a clueless American – perhaps Sui Generis are huge sellouts who made terrible folky songs. I lack the language skills to understand what people have to say about them on the interwebz. Although what I can parse through Google-translating their lyrics and my own limited comprehension tells me this is not so. I’d love to hear the POV of my Spanish-speaking friends.


9. Masters at Work feat. India – “I Can’t Get No Sleep” [1993]

Can I travel back in time to ’93, only not as myself, but as the models in this video? This was one of those that randomly popped into my head, and I spent an hour or so tracking down. I had no idea who the artist was because it was from a mixtape I recorded from the BBC late at night in 1995 or 6. Searching was a bit complicated because the version I remember on my tape was actually the “Choice Hip Hop” mix released in 1995, not the original. MAW‘s particular flavor of house epitomizes a good chunk of my musical obsessions, when I first discovered Friday and Saturday late-night radio DJ broadcasts from local clubs in the early 90s. Sure, we had Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and god, where do I begin with hip hop?, etc., but I imagine this epitomizes the sound of the 90s for a lot of other folks in my generation too.

8. Ella Mae Morse – “40 Cups of Coffee” [1953]

4900-001ellaThis selection represents a personal habit, not necessarily a particular song. I periodically sing the praises of the local radio show Big Band “Sundy” on social media (you can stream from anywhere). A couple of years ago, I’d get irritated when the station switched formats on Sundays from (Ch)Easy Listening to tooting, trumpeting Big Band. Now, my weekend isn’t complete without it. “40 Cups of Coffee” leans more towards the Rock ‘n’ Roll era, but the host will play it every once in awhile, and it’s just such a damn catchy tune by a great vocalist, Ella Mae Morse. Ella Mae was born in Mansfield, Texas, a town in the rolling grassy plains just south of DFW, and after winning a talent competition in Dallas, lied about her age at only 14 years old so she could sing with Tommy Dorsey’s band. She then went on to produce a string of hits in the 40’s and 50’s. I’m kind of surprised Texas music folklorists haven’t “discovered” her yet, they seem to latch on to anyone remotely famous or influential who ever passed through our borders and claim them as a “Texas artist.”

7. Beck – Sea Change [2002]

beckseachangeYeah, I know this was released technically 2002, but in my memory, it’s firmly implanted in 2003. I went out and purchased the CD (one of the few I bought brand new during those years) after hearing the clerk at Asel Art Supply play it over the speaker system. It fit the post-college anxious funk I was going through – a directionless phase, like driving endlessly through an insulating night down a deserted highway. After I started feeling better a few months later, I stowed the disc away and haven’t listened to it much in the ensuing decade. I re-discovered Sea Change while researching my Land Yacht mix earlier this year. Now I’m able to appreciate the sound for itself – sublime, honest, brilliant-dark – rather than attached to my own mood. The album visuals still look fresh too.

6. Belle – “We Once Were*” from Lapwing EP [2013]

I started catching up on my beloved Basic Soul podcasts recently, and this track instantly stood out – which says a lot, as host Simon Harrison possesses both broad and impeccable taste. I don’t keep up with current music, but it seems that the UK keeps slinging out amazing female vocal artistes, and Belle is no exception. As I write, I can see a connection between this, “I Can’t Get No Sleep,” and a lengthy documentary  I watched earlier this year about the history of the “Amen Break” in hip hop, jungle, and drum & bass. The lushly produced “We Once Were” is, to me, quintessentially electro. What the heck do I mean by that? It’s a sonic atmosphere that’s both immediate and distant, real and unobtainably fantastic, not tied to any particular genre. Instead of being rooted in reality (which imparts its own sense of wonder – see #10), it lets you experience the secrets of your heart and a distant galaxy at the same time. (*Embed from Soundcloud is a preview of the whole EP, link goes to the actual track, which was not embeddable.)

5. VA – Zoo Rave II [1993]

Surfer dude: “I’m walkin’ down the beach, and I see this, like, brass lamp. I pick it up, and suddenly, there’s the big F’in’ cloud of smoke.”

Mystery voice: “U got 3 wishes, MF’er.”

SD: “I wanna be the DJinni.”

51lhg88-e1L._SY300_“What did my parents just pay for me from BMG Music Club? This has swearing! And it’s so weird!” my freaked-out 13-year-old self thought when I played the first track on this compilation. Remember when you purchased music and you had no idea what you were getting yourself into? I thought, based on the cover thumbnail and brief description in the catalog, Zoo Rave was going to be MAW-style house, not – what was it called again? – acid. I mean, they played the same music at raves AND clubs, didn’t they? If you were a kid living in a bedroom community outside of Dallas, the very buckle of the Bible Belt (Fort Worth is the prong – ha!), you had no way of finding any of this out. I was so taken aback that I didn’t listen to it all that often. But when I took up running this spring, I needed something faced-paced and interesting to keep me going, and Zoo Rave came to mind. During my runs, I enjoyed the structural progression of the music, it’s not really repetitive at all like one would assume. Under the surface of trance it takes you on a journey. I also think the tracks on Zoo Rave utilize found vocals really well (“Mystery Cafe” by Texas Audio uses a clip from an episode of Star Trek, e.g.).  I’ve already been listening to 808 State and enjoying acid mixes here and there for the past couple of years, and now I think I’ve come full circle to appreciate this compilation.

4. Vangelis Papathanasiou – Earth [1973]

MI0002160950Certain types of music sound better depending on the season. Summer and winter require distinctly different sounds; whereas you can listen to similar things in the spring and fall transitions. I think it has something to do with light. True, spring is forward-looking, but the mutable weather makes gloomy days in both seasons equally dreary. Even though I’ve only been listening to Earth since October, it’s one of those that’s risen in the ranks simply because the season is apprpriate. A proto-Enya-esque mixture of non-Western musical styles, prog and pop, the sountrack-y feel of this album creates the perfect atmosphere for staring out the window on a cloudy day, even if your’e only dreaming of doing so.


3. Silverhead – 16 And Savaged [1973]

tpsa7511-frontWhy the hell Purple Records the pulled the plug on these guys is beyond me. They had the swagger, the work ethic, and chops to be a legendary glam rock band. It’s unfortunate to say, but well, it’s true: a lot of Brit pop rock from the early 70’s hasn’t aged well. It’s best kept in period movie soundtracks, although you have to give it credit for not trying to present as anything else than what it is — fluff. But Silverhead has well-written songs that also totally rawk, especially the title track, “Heavy Hammer,” and “Cartoon Princess.” There’s not one clunker, or anything even edging clunker territory, on 16 and Savaged or their self-titled album released the previous year. So they’re definitely one of those “Whatever happened to…?” bands worth looking up. I won’t go into the members’ storied careers thereafter, but you should listen to this album, watch the documentary, Mayor Of The Sunset Strip, and then listen to more Silverhead for a fuller experience.

2. Brett Smiley – Breathlessly Brett [1974/2003]

BrettSmileyUnlike Silverhead, who fate seemed to will a crappy hand, Brett Smiley is just another promising talent who lost his shit on drugs and alcohol. Still, he fell exceptionally hard. Rising from the ranks of child stardom on Broadway, he went on to work with Andrew Oldham – the producer who made the Stones famous. Oldham and the whole team were equally screwed up on various substances, impacting the production and release of the album for three years. Smiley’s deal with Columbia Records was shelved. He started acting in B-movies, spent some years in prison, only to find out he was HIV positive. Miraculously, he’s lived to tell the tale and still performs.  Breathlessly Brett is a joy to listen to, a glorious lipstick-smeared flaming wreck, and was only released in 2003.

1. Cleaners from Venus – In The Golden Autumn [1983]

cfvgoldenautumnThe best discoveries are the ones that lead you down winding passages, in a maze you don’t even remember entering, when all of a sudden, you realize you’ve arrived at something wonderful. That’s how I found The Cleaners from Venus, via a muddle of Tumblrs and Blogspots, starting with this album. While it’s not my favorite one out of their catalog, it was the first one I was introduced to. The Cleaners were a rotating cast of musicians centered around singer/songwriter Martin Newell who recorded in England from 1979-ish through the 80s.

While it’s unfortunate that such talent never found footing on a broader scale when the group was active, their music doesn’t really have an aspirational, “trying-too-hard” feel – but they’re not anti-establishment anarchists either. It just sounds like a bunch of friends came up with the idea of making music that takes up where The Beatles left off with The White Album: a sound that is essentially guitar-driven pop while straying all over the map in terms of style depending on which album you listen to, from post-punk to to jazz to weirdly experimental (Speak & Spell intros, song blocks hosted by a disturbingly exuberant Woody Woodpecker-ish cartoon character named Mr Cutie Patootie, soundbites of humans making barnyard animal noises).

Lyrically, The Beatles-esque legacy continues with a mixture of storytelling (“East Street, 8:35 / There by the factory gate / just as the day is coming alive / two kids kiss as they wait”), evocative dreamlike associations (“Wearing a greatcoat, shuffling ’round in my Cuban heels”), playful consonance (“Ilya Kuryakin looked at me”), political and cultural criticism (“Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol, and London / Burning like crazy in the middle of summer / The ministry man could only sit there and wonder / with a salary looking like a telephone number”; “Say hello to money and good-bye to reality: be an idiot popstar”), humor (“Major Mandy: people said he was a dandy / but he led a double life”), relationships (“She’s staying around or else she’s going away / it could be tomorrow, or it might be today, or maybe forever / I call her a mercury girl”) and an unsettling melancholy underlying the whole thing, if not surfacing outright from time to time (“The loudmouthed summer sun that tells you the good is on the run and the golden age is not the present one”).

The extent of the whole project seems to be: craft some songs about whatever is interesting at the moment, hang out in someone’s living room or garage, and hit “record” on the cassette deck, as attested by the sound quality on some albums. Sadly, many of these great talents stay active long enough in their eras to produce only a handful of songs (hello, The Delmontes). But lucky for us, The Cleaners kept on going, producing one or two albums a year for several consecutive years. Even the songs that were covered again on later albums are interpreted differently and better recorded so that they sound fresh, or at least give a sense of a live band’s evolving sound from performance to performance.

Anyways, my entry for CFV is getting long, so I’ll sum up by saying that, as you age, it’s a comfort to find new music that you know you’ll be returning to again and again for years to come.

Honorable mentions:

TEEN – “Carolina” [2013]

The video is kinda weird and not that great, so I’m not linking to it.  This catchy little ditty falls electro-psych-pop umbrella – the singer’s voice reminds me of Lena Karlsson from Komeda, and the intricate looping and multi-tracking is quite similar to Kitty Craft, which brings me to another honorable mention…

Kitty Craft – Catskills [2000]

I’m bummed that I can’t find audio of this album anywhere online. I used to have the CD (randomly bought used at Cheapo’s, natch) but apparently it’s since been purged. It wasn’t a magnum opus or anything, just makes me nostalgic for that time. DJ Pamela Valfer loops found beats and hooks, weaving vocals and synths on top à la Juana Molina. Think embroidered samplers in grandma’s house, frosted cake decorations, a kitten playing with a ball of yarn: the very definition of quaint, yet the maker’s mastery of a tricky process: a hidden game, making it look deceptively simple, humble.  None of this is evident on the finished surface – the mark of a true virtuoso.

Dust – Dust [1971]

“Well you turn to me, with a look on your face like a gypsy.” Hard rock from future Marky Ramone, and Kenny Aaronson, who went on to be a successful session and touring player with a ton of famous 70s acts. Would’ve easily booted someone else off the top 10 but the release year didn’t end in “3.” Hot stuff.

Kano – Kano [1980]

Italo Disco. Need I say more? Y’all know I eat this shit up!

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