Nov 28, 2015

2014 Year In Review Part III: The Reissues / Compilations

Rolling right along with the 2014 wrap-up, here are via//chicago's ten favorite reissues and compilations of the year.

10. Smashing Pumpkins - Adore [Super Deluxe Edition] (Virgin)
The excellent, expansive Smashing Pumpkins reissue campaign rolls on to what many consider the start of the band's decline. I'd argue strongly against that categorization, because Adore is a much, much stronger album than a lot of people want to acknowledge. This mega package includes six audio discs and a DVD that contains a 1998 concert from the Fox Theatre in Georgia. Besides getting the album in both remastered and mono formats, you get three full discs of odds and sods and a disc of random live appearances and sessions. It's a lot, but Pumpkins diehards (as I am) are nothing if not completists. It's enough to have me anxious for the Machina era reissues too.

9. Various Artists - Warfaring Strangers: Darkscorch Canticles (Numero Group)
If you saw my number 1 reissue from 2013 (the excellent Purple Snow compilation of Minnesota R&B/funk), you'll know I'm already a fan of the deity's work the folks over at Numero Group are doing. This collection features 16 tracks from various proto-metal bands from mid-70s Middle America (plus one from Canada), showing the nascent metal ripples that were rumbling through garages and basements years before even the New Wave of British Heavy Metal helped to break things open wide.

8. David Bowie - Nothing Has Changed (Columbia)
David Bowie is probably one of rock and roll's most repackaged artists. Greatest hits and compilations have flowed out over the years, trying to refocus and reshape the man's chameleonic career or to collect an ever-changing musical vision. Did we need another one? Probably not, but the deluxe 3-disc version comes at a time when it can capture Bowie's resurgence, wrapping in his work on The Next Day comeback album, with even a hint of where things are going with "Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)". It's also structured in reverse chronological order, a tactic I typically detest, but it works really well for this man's evolving career. If you haven't gotten on board yet, this isn't a bad place to start.

7. Game Theory - Blaze of Glory (Omnivore Recordings)
To a select group of Scott Miller acolytes, the praises for his criminally underrated bands Game Theory and Loud Family could never be sung enough. A difficult enough task made even more so by the virtual impossibility of actually finding their records. Omnivore Recordings is starting to remedy that, beginning in the obvious place with Game Theory's 1982 debut full-length. It's a bit of a rough and tumble affair, but Miller's songwriting is already to shine through. Toss in another 15 tracks worth of B-sides, demos and live cuts and you've got a fascinating historical document for a songwriter that deserves much wider recognition.

6. Songs: Ohia - Didn't It Rain (Secretly Canadian)
This album isn't that old, but with the depressing loss of Jason Molina back in 2013, any reason to keep his best music in circulation is fine by me. Didn't It Rain was actually my very first encounter with Molina's music and I was stuck immediately by how powerful his songwriting was. This record helped me through some rough times back in 2002 when it was originally released and I don't think it has lost even an ounce of emotional power. Add in another disc of equally haunting demos and this is a must hear.

5. Captain Beefheart - Sun Zoom Spark 1970-1972 (Rhino/Warner Bros.)
I've had Safe As Milk and Trout Mask Replica for years now, but I've never really delved much more deeply into Don Van Vilet's music, so I was really pleased to be able to make a deep dive into the three year period that followed the release of the seminal Trout Mask. This box contains the albums Lick My Decals Off, Baby, The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot, as well as a fourth disc of rarities. It's a wealth of great material that hasn't always been in print, though be prepared to spend some time really digging in - this is stuff that rewards close listening.

4. Various Artists - Country Funk Volume II: 1967-1974 (Light in the Attic)
Light in the Attic is another label doing great reissue work, particularly when they are able to bring life to a genre that I don't typically spend much time with. This is the label's second dip into a newly defined sub-genre that captures a time when country music was stretching out a bit and taking in heavy, if not always cleanly acknowledged, influence from funk. This volume features some of the bigger names - Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Gene Clark, Townes Van Zandt - but is no less fascinating in documenting an unintentional scene.

3. Wilco - Alpha Mike Foxtrot: Rare Tracks 1994-2014 (Nonesuch)
As part of their year-long 20th anniversary celebration, Wilco released this fantastic four-disc compilation that picks up spare tracks from throughout both decades. Starting with A.M. demos and running right up through outtakes from The Whole Love, this is a wide-ranging and interesting document that helps make the case for Wilco being one of the most interesting rock bands of the last twenty years.

2. Miles Davis - Miles at the Fillmore 1970: The Bootleg Series Vol. 3 (Legacy)
The excellent bootleg campaign from the Miles Davis estate keeps right on rolling, this time gathering up performances from four nights at the Fillmore East from mid-June 1970. Just a few months earlier, Miles had released the boundary smashing and genre creating classic Bitches Brew and much of that album's line-up can be found here (one notable exception being the loss of John McLaughlin's guitar work). It was a fertile period for Miles and this collection captures some really magical moments, capturing the moment when Miles horizons were breaking wide open before he'd even go further out.

1. Bob Dylan & The Band - The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11 (Legacy)
Speaking of a well received bootleg series, the eleventh entry in Bob Dylan's long running campaign could fairly be considered a holy grail for both Dylan obsessives and students of rock and roll history. Dylan's loose and raw sessions with his former backing band, now known as The Band, recorded in 1967 as Dylan was recuperating from a motorcycle accident. was legendary even before it got a somewhat official release in 1975. Rabid Dylan collectors have been trading bootlegs of various scope and quality that claimed to capture more of those sessions, but Dylan's people managed to one-up all of them by releasing this massive six-disc set that collects, allegedly, every scrap of material recorded during this period. Too much? Maybe. But it's an absolute joy to hear how much fun these guys were having and to hear how wide ranging their influences were. A long awaited treasure indeed.

Nov 27, 2015

2014 Year In Review Part II: The EPs

To continue the via//chicago look back on 2014, here are the top ten EPs of the year.

10. Jess and the Ancient Ones - Castaneda (Svart)
Strictly following the rules would mean that this be classified as a two-track single, but I'm so excited to hear new work from these Finns that I'm willing to stretch a little to shine some light on their only 2014 release. Both of these tracks use the blues as a starting point, particularly on the "As to Be With Him" flipside, though the title track incorporates a nice spaghetti-Western vibe that perfectly compliments Jess' soulful voice. Here's hoping the long awaited second full-length comes sooner rather than later.

9. Astral Sea - My Cosmic Asylum (Self-released)
Though I can't remember how I originally got pointed in their direction, I discovered this French stoner trio's debut EP thanks to their Bandcamp site. Over three tracks and roughly 25-minutes, they craft cosmic, instrumental stoner rock journeys that nicely play off the outer space cover art. Great riffs and thunderous drums combine to take the listener on one hell of a trip. I'll be excited to hear what they pull together over the course of a full-length record.

8. Wild Throne - Blood Maker (Brutal Panda)
Wild Throne, a trio from Bellingham, Washington, started life under the name Dog Shredder. After wisely shedding that ill-advised moniker, theses guys worked up with the often divisive (especially when it comes to his production for metal bands) Ross Robinson to produce this EP. Surprisingly, Robinson's over-exacting touch works really well with the particular strain of psych-infused progressive metal Wild Throne trades in. It's a brief 17-minutes, but Wild Throne manages to pack a hell of a punch in such a brief time.

7. Purson - In the Meantime (Machine Elf)
In the Meantime is Purson's 2014 stop-gap release to follow-up on their well-received 2013 debut, The Circle and The Blue Door. More than anything else, In the Meantime serves as an addendum to that record, rather than branching out and hinting at future directions for full-length number two. Still, the band manages to cover quite a bit of ground over these four tracks - ranging from gentle folk to swirling heavy psych. If you were a fan of The Circle and The Blue Door, you'll find plenty to like in these four songs.

6. Godflesh - Decline and Fall (Avalanche Recordings)
After nearly a full decade of inactivity, during which Justin Broadrick concentrated on his Jesu solo project, Godflesh reunited for some live dates in 2010. No one was sure whether or not this would lead to further studio recordings, but the band dove right back in with both this EP and the full-length, A World Lit Only By Fire, in 2014. And, despite the layoff, the band sounds like they never went away. This might be the most consistently stronger of the two releases, but that's likely because their stuff is much more intense in brief bursts. Godflesh become the latest in the long line of metal bands returning from a long hiatus as strong as ever.

5. The Black Angels - Clear Lake Forest (Blue Horizon)
In case you didn't catch the obvious reference in their name, Austin, Texas's The Black Angels have spent their career trawling the valleys and edges of The Velvet Underground's sonic worlds. While I liked the crispness and clarity of 2013's Indigo Meadow, it seems the band listened to the critics and has swung back towards the muddy lo-fi sound of the first two albums on this nice-sized EP. Thankfully, however, they keep the recent influence of bubble-gum psych in place, giving variety to the proceedings and making for another worthy entry in the band's discography.

4. Carcass - Surgical Remission/Surplus Steel (Nuclear Blast)
Carcass bounced back from a 17-year layoff with 2013's Surgical Steel, crafting not only one of 2013's best death metal records but also chalking up another classic in the band's already jam-packed catalog. This EP is nothing but leftovers from the Surgical Steel sessions, but considering how high the bar was for that entire record, even the scraps sound inspired. If you dug Surgical Steel, you need to add this to your collection immediately.

3. Myrkur - Myrkur (Relapse)
I'll be honest, the furor over this EP only made me want to dig into it further and, in doing so, I really found a lot to like. Listening to the metal purists bitch about how a woman (gasp!) that has done some modeling (the horror!) and used to play indie rock (oh no!) dared play black metal reminded me just how annoyingly insular and closed-minded a supposedly accepting scene like metal can be. And, yes, this is still definitely the sound of an artist finding her feet, but the peaks hint at something potentially great and I'm willing to sing her praises if only to keep pissing off those trying to close the gates on her.

2. William Tyler - Lost Colony (Merge)
Over the course of his first two full-length records, Nashville's William Tyler focused on his expert guitar playing, a sparse, finger-picking style that lumped in with contemporaries like Ryley Walker and Steve Gunn. On this latest EP, however, he's amped up his rock band ambitions and focused on his other influences that don't come from the John Fahey roots. Electric guitars and krautrock do the heavy lifting here, one of the track's is a cover of Michael Rother's "Karussel", though, excitingly, none of Tyler's fascinating guitar work is lost in the shift. I'm really anxious to hear what comes next.

1. Inter Arma - The Cavern (Relapse)
Richmond, Virginia's Inter Arma came up among the latest batch of area metal bands, though they quickly departed from the strain of doom and sludge typically heard and moved towards something more heavily influenced by progressive and classic rock. The elements were all in place for 2013's terrific Sky Burial, but for 2014's stop-gap release the band went even further towards prog rock excess by crafting a single 45-minute release. Biggest surprise, however, is how listenable and well it works, the rare 45-minute epic that earns every second. Between this and Sky Burial, Inter Arma is one of the band's I'm most anxious to hear new music from.

2014 Year In Review Part I: The Introduction

Well, the 2014 recap didn't happen on any kind of tight schedule either. It looks like I've hit a rut of not getting the previous year's summary pulled together until it's pretty much time for the latest round of year-end lists popping up. I'd like to make promises about getting the 2015 version done during a more appropriate timeframe but, well, history doesn't really point to that happening.

2014 didn't throw me a lot of huge surprises on any front, I spent the entire year just pushing the same project forward at work, from design and into construction (where, we still sit as of writing this post, I've been working on this same project more than full-time since March of 2013). Otherwise I spent much of the year enjoying my family and getting to know Evanston even more as I got to spend more time exploring. Musically nothing much changed either, I continued to burrow into the myriad of subgenres that fill in the cracks between metal, progressive rock, stoner rock and all things in between.  Looking back, it looks like a bit of an underwhelming year on paper - no huge and obvious future classics, but still plenty of great stuff that I'll be listening over the next few posts.

But, here's a brief look back at past winners...

Albums of the Year
2003: Outkast - Speakerboxx/The Love Below
2004: Modest Mouse - Good News for People Who Love Bad News
2005: Bloc Party - Silent Alarm
2006: Mastodon - Blood Mountain
2007: Battles - Mirrored
2008: Erykah Badu - New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)
2009: The Flaming Lips - Embryonic
2010: Janelle Monae - The ArchAndroid
2011: Fucked Up - David Comes To Life
2012: Goat - World Music
2013: Steven Wilson - The Raven That Refused To Sing (and Other Stories)

Singles of the Year
2003: "Hey Ya" - Outkast
2004: "Take Me Out" - Franz Ferdinand
2005: "Since U Been Gone" - Kelly Clarkson
2006: "When You Were Young" - The Killers
2007: "Stronger" - Kanye West
2008: "Time To Pretend" - MGMT
2009: "My Girls" - Animal Collective
2010: "Fuck You" - Cee-Lo Green
2011: "Super Bass" - Nicki Minaj
2012: "Bad Religion" - Frank Ocean
2013: "The Wire" - Haim