The Best of 2019

And here we are, another year rapidly approaching the finish line, a half dozen days left before we close the book on the second decade of the 2000s, the 2020s anxiously awaiting their turn. Will it be another Roaring 20s like the one that happened a decade ago? I don’t know. All I do know is that the older I get, the faster time seems to pass, slipping almost unnoticed until a season change makes you realize another three months slipped away, until another New Year’s moves another bead to the wrong side of the ledger.

All in all 2019 was a pretty great year in music, at least from my perspective. We got some travel in and saw shows in four different countries. We discovered some new favorite artists. We made some new friends through music, and strengthened our bonds with old ones. And I bought a lot of music. A LOT of music. Records, tapes, CDs, downloads… in the era of free and streaming, I’m still a bit of a luddite in preferring the physical, the tangible.

So, without further ado, here it is – the 8th annual Life in the Vinyl Lane “Best Of” post!

Top 5 New Releases in 2019

  1. I Don’t Know How To Be Happy – Deli Girls (US)
  2. Return – Foreign Monkeys (Iceland)
  3. Shlon – Omar Souleyman (Syria)
  4. OHMelectronic – OHMelectronic (Canada)
  5. Blizzard People Compilation (Iceland)

By my count I posted about 51 different 2019 releases this year, excluding re-releases. There were also handful of things from this year I heard but didn’t write about for various reasons, including laziness. While I posted about a few more new releases in 2018, I feel like overall my consumption of new music was about the same as last year.

My favorite release for 2019 is Deli Girls’ I Don’t Know How To Be Happy. This is perhaps an unusual selection for Life in the Vinyl Lane not because of the genre, which is in fact difficult to define, but instead because it never came out, to the best of my knowledge, on any kind of physical medium. Nope. This one was digital only. And I’ve played the hell out of it. A blend of techno, experimental electronica, power electronics, and punk, I Don’t Know How To Be Happy is one of the rawest things I’ve heard in a long time, like a hot spot on your arm that you can’t stop scratching even though you know you should. The music grates on your sanity to create an emotional edginess before the vocals come in and pummel you into paste. I couldn’t get enough of “Officer” and “I’d Rather Die” on my iPod, though that might say as much about my daily commute as it does about anything else.

Next up was the triumphant return of Iceland’s Foreign Monkeys after a decade-long hiatus, the appropriately named Return. We loved their debut , and the follow-up put more emphasis on the garage rock side of their sound, stripping things down to the core elements. For years we regretted that we’d never caught them at our first few Airwaves festivals, but this year we got the chance and jumped at it – and the album captured their live set well. Omar Souleyman tried to sneak one past me late in the year, but I caught wind of Shlon in time to pre-order the vinyl (which comes out in January) and get the digital download. I’m considering this part of 2019 since the download is available now. Shlon definitely sounds like a Souleyman album, but it also shows more range than some of his previous works with some slower and more sonically emotional moments. You can never go wrong with Omar Souleyman.

The Top 5 rounds out with some great EBM/industrial from Canada’s OHMelectronic and a comp out of Iceland called Blizzard People. I debated on whether or not to include Blizzard People, since putting a comp on a list like this seems a bit lazy. But here’s the thing, or more precisely things. These six tracks are all relatively new. And I’m certain I played this album more than any other in 2019. Every song is a burner, and Logitech’s “Leather Forecast” is the best jam I heard all year. Plus it’s my blog so I can do what I want, so there.

Top 5 “New to Me” Bands/Performers

  1. Deli Girls
  2. OHMelectronic
  3. Blóðmör
  4. Hula
  5. Hvörf

I already mentioned the first two artists in my Top 5 New Releases list, so let’s start with Blóðmör. I’ve been in contact with the band’s guitarist/vocalist Haukur for a number of years – we connected online due to our mutual love of the bands HAM and DIMMA. What I didn’t know until this year, though, is that Haukur had his own metal band, and they had a huge 2019, releasing both a demo and the six-song Líkþorn. Plus, you know, they won Iceland’s annual battle of the bands. Pretty killer year. We got to meet Haukur after the Blóðmör show at Gaukurinn during Airwaves, and he couldn’t have been nicer. I’ll be keeping my eyes on these guys in the future.

Hula is a sort of industrial dub band I discovered in the used section of Seattle’s Jive Time Records and over the course of the year I picked up a half dozen of their records, each one of them all-killer-no-filler. There are still some titles I don’t have and I’ll definitely pick them up as I come across them. Last but not least is Hvörf, a new collaboration between two tremendous Icelandic musicians, Jóhannes Birgir Pálmason and Þórir Georg. Their debut, Music Library 01, is an impressive collection of eight tracks in two distinct styles, a more classical-based mood-setter and one that’s a bit more spacey with dialogue sampling. It was an unexpected surprise at the end of the year, and a welcome one.

Top 5 Purchases/Acquisitions

  1. Þagað Í Hel – Þeyr
  2. Soðin – Blóðmör
  3. Nælur Compilation
  4. Artoffact Records Sale
  5. Three Boxes of Free Stuff

It’s a bit odd that of the top three purchases on this list, only one was vinyl. But oh, what a huge one! While I still try to resist describing myself as a “collector”, I do have a handful of items on my “want” list that are probably there as much due to their rarity as they are for the music. And at the number one position for probably the last five years has been Þeyr’s 1980 debut Þagað Í Hel. As part of the first wave of Icelandic punk most of their stuff is hard to find, having been pressed in small quantities and rarely exported. But Þagað Í Hel takes it to a different level, as I’ve been told that much of the print run was returned due to pressing flaws (and my copy has one of these on the B side) and the masters were destroyed so the songs themselves exist only on this vinyl release. I had an alert set on Discogs for it, and the second a copy showed up for sale from Sweden I bought it, no questions asked. That process seemed a bit anti-climactic, but I’m still glad to have the record.

Blóðmör’s super-limited live demo tape Soðin and the Nælur compilation CD both came to me via a good friend of mine in Iceland who always hooks me up with amazing stuff, and these two have been getting a lot of play since our return from Reykjavik. The Artoffact label online sale resulted in a huge box of vinyl and CDs arriving on our doorstep, turning me onto a bunch of new-to-me bands like OHMelectronic, Individual Totem, and Images in Vogue, as well as giving me my first exposure to Die Krupps. The last spot on the list is held down by three massive and heavy boxes of 1960s and 70s rock I got for free from someone at work. A lot of it was stuff I’m not interested in, and quite a few of the jackets were water damaged and moldy, but I still pulled some gems out out there, and even though I had to throw out the jackets of the firs six Sabbath albums, the records inside were pristine, so I can’t complain.

Top 5 Live Shows

  1. A-Ha – Royal Albert Hall, London
  2. Fufanu – Urban Spree, Berlin
  3. Hatari – Reykjavik Art Museum, Reykjavik
  4. Hermigerville – Lucky Records, Reykjavik
  5. Foreign Monkeys – Jörgensen Kitchen & Bar, Reykjavik

We weren’t able to attend Iceland Airwaves in 2018, an absence that broke our nine year run of consecutive visits. And in reflecting on it I realized what I missed the most was not, believe it or not, the music, though that was still a gaping hole in my November. No, what I missed the most was seeing all the people who have become our friends over the course of a decade’s worth of Airwaves. We have an entire crew’s wroth of friends who live in Reykjavik – Ingvar, Mumbi, Gestur, Jóhannes, Einar, Bob, Reynir, Leana, the hilarious shit-talking guy who runs the restaurant Shalimar… plus all our friends who travel in from points all over the globe – Tristen and Andy (US), Matt and Tanya (Canada), the KEXP crew (especially Kevin and Jim), Paul (Scotland)… it takes a village. And this year we extended our Airwaves family even further, spending time with Rob and Olie and Oscar and Sarah… that’s what makes Airwaves so special.

Anyway, now that I’ve waxed poetic about that, the best show was, hands down, A-Ha at Royal Albert Hall (below). When I told people we were going to that show I was surprised by how many people my age did not remember A-Ha at all, and those who did generally only knew them for “Take On Me”. I forget how much of a nerd I am sometimes, as well as how big of an A-Ha fan Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane is. So we made a special effort to see this show, and it was worth it. The first set saw the band playing the entire Hunting High and Low album in order, and after a break they then went into a second set of their other material. The venue was amazing, the sound perfect, and the video work tremendous.

Fufanu playing in Berlin while we were there was an unexpected surprise, one we made sure to take advantage of. Seeing them in a small venue like this was great and they were on top of their game. The other three shows on the list were all from Airwaves, and two of them were off-venue. Hermigerville’s set at Lucky Records was, unquestionably, the most fun I had at Airwaves this year; his joy in playing the music is infectious and the crowd was happy to come along for the ride. The Foreign Monkeys set was in a hotel and there were only a few dozen of us there, but the guys tore it up and even some friends who tend to be a bit more ambivalent about rock clearly enjoyed their energy.

Top 5 Places to Buy Records

North America

  1. Easy Street Records, Seattle
  2. Reckless Records, Chicago
  3. Daybreak Records, Seattle
  4. Ranch Records, Bend (OR)
  5. Silver Platters, Seattle

The Rest of the World

  1. Lucky Records, Reykjavik
  2. Space Hall, Berlin
  3. Sister Ray, London
  4. Rough Trade West, London
  5. Hard Wax, Berlin

The top spots on both lists are pretty much on lockdown, at least on any year we make it to Reykjavik. Easy Street is our local Seattle area go-to, and Lucky is a home-away-from-home in Iceland.

I didn’t do much traveling in the US this year, but a January business trip to Chicago found me in a hotel just a few blocks from Reckless, and I went there every night. We also made it down to Bend, Oregon for a wedding and got to spend some time (and money) at Ranch Records where I found a few intriguing punk titles. Daybreak in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood continues to impress with its variety and good prices, and the massive selection at the Seattle branch of Silver Platters is always worth a visit.

The international list was a bit tougher to narrow down because we went to some outstanding shops in the UK, Germany, Denmark, and Iceland. Berlin’s Space Hall (listening stations – right) is an essential stop, especially if you’re into electronic music. Hard Wax, while not nearly as large as Space Hall, was well-curated and every single thing I flipped past seemed interesting. In London I had my best used buying experiences at Rough Trade West and Sister Ray – I’m pretty sure I could have easily blown my entire vinyl budget for the trip in either of those stores. There were some other great stops as well – London’s Phonica Records and Potsdam’s Silverspeed Records would have probably made the list any other year, but in 2019 the competition was steep.

Top 5 Music Books

  1. Stay Fanatic!!! Vol. 1 by Henry Rollins
  2. Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD by Martin Aston
  3. England’s Hidden Reverse by David Keenan
  4. The 33 1/3 B-Sides by Will Stockton and D. Gilson (eds.)
  5. Revenge of the She Punks by Vivien Goldman

I think I only read six music-related books in 2019, so this list wasn’t too hard to put tighter. Henry Rollins’ Stay Fanatic!!! Vol. 1 just came out in November and it’s basically a journal-format love letter to music and record collecting covering a three year period. It looks like Henry and the team have the next two volumes already in the works, so I’m sure I’ll devour those when they come out as well. Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD was another high point as it opened my eyes to the 4AD label and turned me on to a number of bands I hadn’t heard of before, which is a big plus. Same with England’s Hidden Reverse, which expanded my knowledge of some of the more fringe quasi-industrail performers who later became at least a bit more well-known like Coil, Current 93, and Nurse with Wound.

 

It’s hard to believe 2019 is in the books, but here we are again my friends. We’re already starting to talk about travel plans for 2020 and it looks like the new year may take us to some new places on the planet, which means more new music to discover. I can’t wait.

Sherlock Holmes Box Sets (1970s)

Every generation has their version of “Back when I was your age we didn’t have [fill in the blank]”. With the pace of technological advancement over the past 20 years we’ve now reached the point where the shifts aren’t generational, but sub-generational, as both the pace of innovation and speed of adoption continue to accelerate. It won’t be long until high school sophomores will wax poetic to incoming freshmen about how much easier the new class has it, because a year ago X, which is suddenly ubiquitous, didn’t exist.

I often think about this in the context of entertainment. I was born in the early 1970s. At that point, pretty much every household had a television, if not more than one, and the primary TV was most likely color. Radio was certainly everywhere as well, but generally when it came to “shows” people meant what was on TV. In most markets you were limited to a handful of channels – the three major networks, PBS, and maybe a swap meet calibre local access channel was about all we had. If you wanted to see the new episode of Happy Days or Three’s Company you had to make a point of being in front of your set at the scheduled date and time. Yes, VCRs existed in the 1970s, but who could afford one? I recently saw an add in a 1977 magazine listing VCRs at $1,000, and blank tapes at $100, both of which sound outrageous today. But when you factor in inflation… wow! That 1977 VCR would be the equivalent of about $4,200 in today’s money, with the blank tape costing another $420 (I believe my father was earning $12,000 per year in 1977). And since you couldn’t even buy movies on VHS at that point, could you really justify spending that kind of money? And even if you did, for what? So you could catch Sanford and Son a day after it aired?

By the early 1980s my family had cable and a VCR, and enough indie video rental stores were around that you could at least see movies like Deathstalker and Easy Rider. An ever growing number of cable channels and syndication meant you could catch up on at least some old shows, but it probably wasn’t for another 25 years that things like TiVo made recording shows easier. And now even that seems quaint in the era of streaming. More and more people I know are dropping cable completely and doing everything via streaming services, and people are as likely to watch shows on tablets or phones as they are televisions.

So I’m of the last generation that remembers a time before cable and VCRs, while the generation after mine will recall their life before streaming. But if we go one generation older than me, folks who grew up in the 1950s, most people didn’t have television, and even if you did the few channels that existed didn’t even broadcast all day. In fact, if you were telling someone about a “show” you were looking forward to that night, it was probably a radio show. And likely not one that played music but some kind of radio theater. While I know what it means to have to tune in at a specific day and time to catch your show, the idea of sitting in front of the radio to listen to it seems as foreign to me as having your schedule dictated by TV does to a teenager today.

I got three boxes of free records from someone at work the other day, and included were three box sets of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, all of which I believe were released on vinyl in the 1970s. One, The Hound Of The Baskervilles & The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, consists of the sound from two Sherlock Holmes movies, which you can more or less follow but definitely includes passages where the action is purely visual and you’re left scratching your head. The other two, though, Sherlock Holmes Tales From Baker Street and More Sherlock Holmes Adventures, are comprised of radio show episodes from the 1940s and 50s, each about 25 minutes in length. It’s a trip listening to these and thinking about the role they played – this was the cutting edge of delivering entertainment directly into the home. And they’re kind of fun to play in the evening while you’re chilling out with a cocktail.

You can actually find these from time to time and fairly reasonably priced. So long as the vinyl is in good shape, one of these boxes will give you a good three hours or so of entertainment and a way to travel back in time… even if you can play them any time you want.

Barry Manilow – “Live” (1977)

If you say “Barry Manilow’s music sucks”, people don’t expect you to expound upon that with a reason. They’ll probably just nod in general agreement. Manilow is there alongside Kenny G and Nickelback in being performers that it is perfectly acceptable to hate simply on general principle, as if their existence in the world is all the proof needed to support one’s disdain. But you know what else these artists have in common? All of them have sold an insane amount of albums – Nickelback over 50 million, and Kenny and Barry 75 million… each. Yes, Nickelback, Kenny G, and Barry Manilow have sold more albums than there are people in the UK, France, and Germany… combined. If album sales were people they would be the seventh most populated country in the world, nestled between Brazil and Nigeria.

Challenge someone on their feelings about Nickel-Barry-G with the above and chances are the response will be something along the lines of, “just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s good” and/or “most people have crap taste in music”. But is this true? I mean really true. If the goal of art is to reach people, these guys are doing it about as well as anyone ever has. You can absolutely dislike their music; that’s personal taste. If you want to say Nickelback songs are formulaic, fine. But a lot of people love them. Chuck Klosterman tackled this in a Grantland article in 2012 way more articulately and entertainingly than I ever could, but the one thing that always stuck with me was his description of the band’s sold out show at Madison Square Garden. “More surprising is the degree to which the security staff at MSG clearly loves this music; you don’t often see ushers singing along with the band that’s onstage, but that’s what was happening here. They knew every word to every chorus.”

Now I too at times in my life have been a hater of things, including Barry Manilow and Nickelback. But as I’ve gotten older I find it just makes less and less sense to be this way. I mean, who cares? (♠) Maybe you’re a very casual music fan who buys one or two albums a year, and whenever Kenny G puts out a new CD, you buy it. And you enjoy it. That’s fantastic. Find some music you like and listen to it. And if you don’t like it, don’t listen to it. Generally speaking you can avoid it. And if you happen to hear “Rockstar” or “Copacabana”, it’s four minutes of your life. You’ll probably survive.

As for Live, we snagged a clean copy of this double album from the dollar bin down at Ranch Records on our recent trip to Bend, Oregon. Unfortunately it came out a year before “Copacabana”, so it does not include the story of Tony, Lola, and an unfortunate shooting. But we do get “Looks Like We Made It”, “I Write the Songs”, and a medley of jingles that Manilow was involved in (KFC, McDonalds, State Farm Insurance…). Frankly it sounds like it was a fun show. And for a buck I’m glad to have a copy and become a citizen of Nickel-Barry-G-land.

(♠) That being said, the funniest thing I ever heard someone say at a show was back in 2009 and involved Nickelback. A woman was with her group of 5-6 friends (all guys) and talking shit about everything and everyone for hours, just being annoyingly pretentious. I can’t remember the band that hit the stage at the time, but her dismissive response within 20 seconds of them starting their set was “these guys are the Nickelback of techno”. “Nickelback of Techno” is still a phrase Holly and I use to describe all kinds of things to this day. Anything generic can be dubbed the Nickelback of Techno.

George Abdo and His Flames of Araby Orchestra – “The Art of Belly Dancing” (1973)

Listening to The Art of Belly Dancing, I feel like I should be in some pungent Turkish bar, the kind of place that somehow manages to stay dark even when the sun is at it’s highest, the mingled smells of sweat, strong coffee, and filterless cigarette smoke hanging at about chest height in the completely still air. Oh man, I think I just gave myself a flashback to 1987 when I was 15 and just at the start of a six-week trip to France. When it became clear that the chaperones couldn’t care in the slightest if we smoked, a few of us headed to the bar car on the train and nervously asked the young guy working there if he had any smokes for sale. Mais oui. Awesome! Marlboro Reds, please. Non. Oh, OK. Camels then. Non. Umm… Gitanes. Gitanes? He reached behind him and turned back around with a blue pack of cigs in what seemed to us an oddly fancy package that was wider and flatter than what we were used to. I feel like the dancer on the front was embossed in gold. Can that be right? Oui, Gitanes. So Gitanes it was. And when we opened them it was immediately, “What the…. where are the filters???” This, friends, is how I was introduced to filterless cigarettes, a habit that lasted only as long as we still that pack of Gitanes and couldn’t find a better cigarette anywhere else (so a few weeks).

ANYWAY… back to that bar. Damn it’s hot! How can it be so damn hot wen I’m sitting in the shade? It shouldn’t be possible. It’s the kind of place that Bogey, or James Bond, or Dr. Indiana Jones should walk into, causing every to look up from their newspapers (without moving their heads) to case the new guy. Or maybe Matthew McConaughey’s character in Sahara, who seems like he’d be the most fun to have a drink with. But what’s that sound faintly off in the distance? It sounds like… it is… it’s “Raks Musri”, the clicking of the castanets providing a beat above the percussion. The pace speeds and slows, alternating between ecstasy and simmering desire. Songs with vocals like “Meenie Yaba” remind me if the Persian-infused beats of Syrian artist Omar Souleman; these are the prototypes, the early models that created the base framework that would come to define passionate popular music. “Ranks Pharonic” is another classic, feeling more like something that would welcome in spring than leave you feeling lonely while sitting in that Turkish bar in the middle of the day smoking your Gitanes.

But hang on friends. This isn’t a record intended to titillate or set a romantic mood. Au contraire, mon frère. This is educational. You can see it right there on the front jacket: “Dance Instructions Enclosed”. And in fact they are, glossy inner sheet that provides photos and descriptions of eight belly dancing poses (and also a post-paid postcard you can send to Monitor Records to learn more about what they have for sale; remember kids, no internet in 1973…). So you can’t try to hide this behind the counter at the store – it’s instructional, dammit!

Certainly this falls into the category I often see at record stores and shows known as Exotica. Take Persian music and combine with the seeming campiness of the idea of a belly dancing tutorial (though I suspect that no camp nor snark was originally intended) and you can takel a record you might not have been able to get a quarter for maybe ten years ago and charge $5 or $`10 for it, probably because someone will buy it as a joke. But to be clear, this album is completely earnest. It’s most definitely not a joke. The performers are legit and so is the sound quality. So don’t be afraid to pick up a copy and give it a serious listen.

Record Shopping – Copenhagen, Denmark Style

We arrived in Copenhagen after four days in Berlin, which means that by time we got here my record bag was already pretty full. As a result of that and our limited amount of time in the city I only made it to a few shops.

Beat Bop Pladeforretning
Peder Hvitfeldts Stræde 14, 1173 København

Beat Bop is Michael Denner’s record shop, he of guitar virtuoso fame for his work with Mercyful Fate, King Diamond, and Volbeat. As such you’d probably expect the shop to be dedicated to punk and metal. and while it has some of both, the biggest section may in fact be the one in the back room devoted to jazz. I didn’t spend a ton of time here, but was pleased to see a lot of interesting 1980s European releases in the punk/new wave section, things I’ve never seen before in the US. It’s a confined space, even with there being two rooms, so you probably won’t need a ton of time here. I was primarily focused on trying to find Danish records, and in the end came away with a copy of Alien Force’s 1986 rocker Pain And Pleasure, which seemed like the perfect thing to take away from Beat Bop.

One piece of advice – Beat Bop only takes cash, though Michael was open to currency other than Danish Krone, including Euro. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Dorma 21
Oehlenschlægersgade 70, 1663 København

After Beat Bop we took a bit of a walk down to the meat packing district to visit Dorma 21, a tiny space that specializes 100% in various electronica subgenres. Small but well stocked, every single record features a hand-written sticker tag on it with basic info, and 12″ releases generally ran the equivalent of $15-17 US. The guy working there was very helpful and when I asked for some local stuff pointed me towards two house records by Desos, which I spun on one of the two listening stations and fell for immediately. In a completely opposite scenario than Beat Bop, Dorma 21 actually prefers you pay in plastic, and it was all I could do not to fill up my entire bag with records here – if it wasn’t for the lack of space in my record bag I’d have easily dropped a few hundred dollars here. A can’t miss for the electronica enthusiast.

Route 66
Fælledvej 3, 2200 København

Route 66 focuses on new vinyl – I don’t think I saw anything used packed into its bins and wall displays. The focus is primarily on rock, and as our trip was winding down I didn’t have any expectations about picking up anything here. Then I remembered – hey, there are Europe-only Record Store Day releases, and Route 66 had about six bins of RSD titles. And what did I find? Prügelknaben: Prygl På Vinyl, DK Punk 1979-86, a limited edition release of 500 copies. Any opportunity to get some early punk from a country we’re visiting is a win, even if it’s a re-release

 

Copenhagen actually has quite a few shops, so don’t take this to be any kind of thorough review of the vinyl scene there. We even walked by a few that didn’t show up on any of the research I’d done prior to the trip, so I suspect more and more are popping up all the time.