Let’s face it. These days, there’s a lot of content out there. I can’t say this is the sole reason that there haven’t been a ton of music, TV, and movie reviews this year on Mildly Pleased, but it certainly doesn’t help. So as we reach the mid-year point and an ensuing podcast at the end of this month, I thought I (and maybe Sean and John?) would take a look at the pop culture from this year that we didn’t get around to reviewing, and believe me, there’s a lot.
First off, I’ll take a look back at the music from 2018 that I never got around to reviewing. We usually do year-end wrap-up reviews in December, but I’m sure there are plenty of albums that might not even stick around in my memory long enough to see the light of late 2018. Which is a shame, because there has been a lot of great music in 2018. The stuff I like the most I’ve most likely already reviewed. But there’s still plenty of good stuff that I just never got around to talking about. Until now.
I’m guessing I never got around to reviewing this album because there isn’t anything terribly remarkable about it. Now, that may sound like a dig at Screaming Females, but it’s really not. They clearly have an established sound, full of sludgy guitars, howling vocals, and a punky persistence that never lets up. On All At Once, they don’t really change up the formula too much. Sure, there are songs like “I’ll Make You Sorry”, that take the band’s unrelenting heaviness, and fuse it with twisting pop hooks. But this band has been flirting with unrestrained catchiness for a while, and once again, they do a bang-up job of it here.
I saw Bat Fangs open for Superchunk at one of my favorite shows I’ve seen in a while, and this project fronted by Ex Hex bassist Betsy Wright is a huge reason for that. I’m pretty sure the indomitable Ex Hex are currently working on a new album, but considering I’ve been starved for the band’s excellent mix of 70s glam, 80s pop, and timeless punk attitude, this more than filled that itch. I didn’t realize until now that this album only runs 26 minutes, which I think definitely works in the album’s favor, as pretty much every track is catchy, rockin’, and gets straight to the point.
I remember planning on writing a Compare/Contrast piece on this album along with the Screaming Females album, considering they’re both 2018 releases by seminal New Jersey indie bands keeping the fire and fury of DIY punk alive. But this album just proved too mildly pleasing for me to feel compelled to write anything in-depth about. As much as I love TA, they always intrigue me more when they’re going for broke with epic concept albums like 2015’s A Most Lamentable Tragedy or 2010’s The Monitor, still one of my favorite rock albums of the decade. But here they go a more modest route. Sure, there are some songs that breach the 8-minute mark. But for the most part things are a little more restrained, and in the process, this album succeeds in living up to its title, perhaps a little too well.
The Breeders have not released a ton of music over their sporadic, nearly 30-year career, so a new release of their’s seemed well worth checking out. The songs on All Nerve don’t stray terribly far from the Breeders’ classic early ’90s sound, but because this band’s discography isn’t exactly brimming, I don’t see anything wrong with that. Kim Deal’s unconventional approach to pop-ish songwriting is still as potent as ever, as is the harmonies between her and her sister Kelley. Which also happened to transfer over quite nicely to their charming stage show, which I caught a few months ago when they stopped in Seattle.
Speaking of ’90s bands I happened to catch live this year, here’s Yo La Tengo. One big takeaway I had from this album, as well as their live show, was that there really isn’t any other band quite like them. They’ve always been comfortable in their own skin and certainly comfortable playing with each other, in a way that feels so effortless and symbiotic, that all you can really do is quietly marvel at it. After 2013’s more concise, rock-oriented Fade, this most current release of originals is more in line with what one would come to expect from a typical Yo La Tengo album – meandering, eclectic, and often quite beautiful. Once again, it’s usually due to the interplay between Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, who’ve been falling in love on record for more than 3 decades and don’t seem intent on stopping any time soon.
In case you were wondering, yes, I did listen to some music this year that wasn’t indie rock. Though, I’m not sure I have anything remarkable to say about Cardi B, as her meteoric rise to cultural ubiquity pretty much speaks for itself. But I nonetheless find her ferocity impossible to deny, and over the course this debut LP, she makes every minute count. Well, almost every minute count. I’ve tended to listen to the first half of this album more than the second. But that might be more indebted to my lack of patience in listening to entire hip-hop albums than any dip in quality. Again, Cardi B doesn’t need my stamp of approval, but Invasion of Privacy does a pretty great job of showcasing what all the hubbub is about.
See! I told you I listened to other stuff than indie rock this year! Though, if I’m being perfectly honest, this was an album I added to my streaming library shortly after it was released and then didn’t start listening to until a week or two ago. Possibly so that this recap post wouldn’t look like one giant piece of indie rock milquetoast. Though I’m really glad I did, since I suppose you could label this as R&B or neo-soul, but the truly captivating thing about Kali Uchis is the way she effortlessly mixes and matches genres. Along with the soul influences, there’s a heavy dose of Latin and hip-hop thrown in, along with a classic ’60s pop buoyancy that rears it’s head most prominently on my favorite track, “In My Dreams”.
Speaking of pop, here’s a band who’ve all but towered over the dream pop genre for the past decade. I think I’d begun to lose a little bit of my enthusiasm for Beach House in their twin LP year of 2015, but they’ve managed to win me back with 7, an album in which they sound as big and bold as ever. I remember the last Beach House album I listened to (Depression Cherry) reminding me a bit of the ’90s shoegaze bands that probably had a considerable influence on their sound. Meanwhile, 7 sees the band turning back the clock one more decade to the synth-heavy ’80s, and sounding absolutely comfortable swimming around in this pop drenched sound. Yet, they still sound unmistakably like Beach House on this record, and therefore still sounding gorgeous in a way that no other band can even come close to imitating.
Man, this thing just keeps going, doesn’t it? As I said, it’s hard to keep up with all the music coming out, which makes a low-key oddity like La Luz’s Floating Features easy to slip through the cracks. As much as I’d like to rag on this former Seattle band for relocating to Los Angeles, I can’t because 1) Seattle seems less and less like a “musician’s city” by the day, and 2) I like this album quite a bit more than their 2015 break-out Weirdo Shrine. Unsurprisingly, La Luz continue to embrace their surf rock influences, while an underlying dark dreaminess keeps them from ever sounding like a mere throwback.
Speaking of “musician’s cities”, here’s yet another really good rock band from Philadelphia. Granted, Low Cut Connie are a little less on the indie side than most of the bands coming out of Philly these days. Instead, they lean a bit more on an old-fashioned kind of rock and roll boogie, which somehow doesn’t sound horrible? I don’t know. A band entrenched this much in the roots of rock doesn’t seem like it should sound this good in 2018. A band of bros this entrenched in good time party rock also doesn’t seem like it should sound this good in 2018, but by god, this album is super fun and super rockin’, and sometimes, isn’t that enough?
I’ve probably talked about it before, but there definitely seems to be an emerging generation of female indie singer-songwriters that seem to fall into a somewhat similar camp. I probably talked about a bit in the piece I wrote about the Soccer Mommy and Lucy Dacus albums that came out this year, this idea of “bedroom indie rock”. A defining factor in these bands, is they always seem to be led by insular young women wise beyond their years. Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan seems to take this to another level, seeing as though she’s only 18 years old, but writes complex indie rock jams like a seasoned veteran. Songs like the stand-out “Heat Wave” aren’t necessarily anthemic, but are instead are content to go in their own winding directions. Her unpandering approach to catchy songwriting makes it a bit surprising that she’s been as buzzed about as she has been, but I suppose her budding talent is just that undeniable.
Being a Seattle music fan, Thunderpussy is a name I’d heard a lot the past few years, but never went to the trouble of seeing them live or really getting to hear much of their music, considering they took a while to finally get signed to a label. But when they did, they went a bit big, getting signed by a major label subsidiary, and rising aptly to the occasion of sounding like a big-time rock band. Clearly, the appeal of this band is the way they so effortlessly appropriate the male-dominated swagger of ’70s classic rock into an all-female band. Which doesn’t seem like an easy thing to pull off, but somehow Thunderpussy lives up to their awesome name by delivery the goods with plenty of big riffs and plenty of bravado.
I liked the last two Lykke Li albums, somewhat surprisingly, because I liked them back when I wasn’t giving much straight-up pop music the time of day. Granted, that’s still usually the case, though I’ve tried to become a little more open towards pop music the past few years. Anyways, I think I always liked Lykke Li because she seemed like such a quintessential pop star, but always remained somewhat unconventional. Her last album seemed to embrace a kind of penchant for power ballads that seemed both a little out-of-step and also weirdly in-step with modern pop music. On this latest album, Lykke seems to be trying a little harder to sound like modern pop, and for whatever reason it rings a little false for me. Fortunately, the album avoids being a complete disappointment with its last two tracks, which have a unique mix of being both minimalist and anthemic that I wish the rest of the album had been able to tap into.
Figured I’d end this (overly long) post on a high note. I don’t know that I have much to say as to why Hell-On is a great record, since I spent a lot of time praising Neko Case’s immense strengths as a singer/songwriter in my recent Retrospecticus. And there isn’t much on this latest record that I didn’t think Case was already capable of, as it’s filled with the kind of heartbreak and wisdom that one can always expect from her.
But at the same time, there are plenty of surprises here. At nearly 7-minutes, “Curse of the I-5 Corridor” is one of the more epic songs in her catalog, which manages to evoke the ghosts of her past in a way that’s both beautiful and haunting. Much of the album follows in this vein, seeing Neko looking back on her past bad decisions, while also assessing the simple trials and tribulations of the here and now. Björn Yttling’s production is somehow polished and loose at the same time, and in the process makes for an album that feels raw and ragged at times, but also like it’s the work of a season pro.