Best Albums of 2020

In a year full of Orwellian/Atwoodian/Huxleyan stereotypes, I sought out music that was comforting, transcendent, or required me to think. The songs that piqued my interest both moved me and helped me to move past the challenges presented by 2020. As a result, here are the best and most important albums of the year (according to a recovering music addict).

Listen to the Best Songs (Standout Tracks) of 2020: Apple Music Spotify

Listen to all the Best Albums of 2020: Apple Music | Spotify

1) Sault – Untitled (Black Is) / Untitled (Rise)

Standout tracks:

  • Wildfires
  • I Just Want to Dance
  • Hard Life

What it sounds like: First on this list are two sister/brother albums from the mysterious and nearly unknown musical collective known as Sault, exploring an infusion of ’70s soul, funk, R&B, rock, neo-soul, hip-hop and Motown. The Untitled albums counterbalance conviction with celebration, encasing poignant storylines among dance floor ready jams and gospel sounds to create powerful protest anthems. Black Is and Rise are companion albums that combine to create a challenging and enlightening end-to-end experience, with a message that’s as strong as the music. This should be required listening for all Americans.

Why I love it: If there was an artist who captured the breadth of complexities related to racial injustice in 2020, it was Sault—at least that’s how I’ve interpreted their work coming from the perspective of an outsider, a privileged 30-something white male. No music challenged me more this year with deeply moving lyrics, tense poems, and  critical prose addressing the dynamics of being black in America. From the tribulations (Black Is) to the triumphs (Rise), this music drove me to search deeper to try and understand the complicated issues related to racism in America, eventually leading me to read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Two quotes from this book, told from the perspective of a father speaking directly to his black son, remind me of how Sault forced me to confront my own preconceived beliefs regarding racism in America.

“I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.”

“The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant ‘government of the people’ but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term ‘people’ to actually mean.”

2) Mystery Jets – A Billion Heartbeats

Standout tracks:

  • A Billion Heartbeats
  • History Has Its Eyes On You
  • Hospital Radio

What it sounds like: Blaine Harrison has an extraordinary cache of songs in the Mystery Jets back catalog but on A Billion Heartbeats, he and the Jets have perfected their powerful triad of rock/pop/prog to help escalate their socially conscious lyricism. Inventive drumming lays the groundwork for intricate guitars and carefully placed keys to create one of the best sounding/most important records to be unleashed into the 2020 zeitgeist.

Why I love it: A Billion Heartbeats is a helpful reminder that the issues we face as humans extend far beyond the limitations presented by our country’s borders. Realizing this concept as a truth enables us to better empathize with others around the world. The Jets cover a wide-range of humanitarian-charged topics, such as the rise of alt-right politics in the UK, global racism, and ineffable benefits of having a government-funded health system when you are seriously ill. As a long-time Mystery Jets listener I can recommend their entire discography, but please start here.

3) Hamilton Leithauser – The Loves of Your Life

Standout tracks:

  • Isabella
  • Here They Come
  • Wack Jack

What it sounds like: Hamilton’s juke-joint delivery has a haunting nostalgia to it. The skilled frontman can howl, croon, and twist his vocals like a tornado tearing through a mid-western town—but there’s still plenty of his signature falsetto to comfort the listener throughout. Lest we forget the bombastic work by his band of musical masters including Jon Batiste (Prince, Willie Nelson, Stevie Wonder) and Jonathan Gregg (pedal steel aficionado).

Why I love it: On his second solo album, The Walkmen leader has realized full potential of his writing abilities–talks of ferries, dancing, old movie theaters, and creaking floorboards help to create a wild, enlivening, dramatic, and fun record. Each of the songs on The Loves of Your Life transport you into a story about a different person from Leithauser’s past, but one could easily mistaken these experiences as tales from their own lives. 

4) Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Standout tracks:

  • Shameika
  • Rack of His
  • Heavy Balloon

What it sounds like: This is the rawest, most playful, and outwardly wicked of Fiona’s records (if you can believe it). She’s pissed off, funny and warm, or at least that’s how Apple describes the character in the indelible track “Shemeika.” There’s something about the minimalist instrumentation that feels more Fiona than anything before, letting her explosive voice scream directly into your eardrums, sending your synapses into a firing frenzy. 

Why I love it:  The album title, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, is a fantastic metaphor that paints a vivid scene. Interpret as you wish, but to me it’s a mantra for taking back control of the hellish year that was 2020 by figuring out what you need in order to cut yourself free from the binds of isolation, frustration, and fear. There’s a sharpness in Apple’s growl, a feeling that she’s on the brink of insanity at any moment, but always has the wherewithal and strength to stabilize her well-being.

5) Fleet Foxes – Shore

Standout tracks:

  • Sunblind
  • Can I Believe You
  • Featherweight

What it sounds like: Fleet Foxes’ sound has been described many times, but probably most accurately as “harmony-drenched folk songs…folding in British folk traditions, baroque pop, and even Laurel Canyon’s ’70s sensibility.” On the surface, Shore is no different but deep down there’s a new positivity, a fusion of hopefulness that outweighs the heaviness heard in other Foxes releases. Massed vocal arrangements flutter around glittering guitars, incredible production, and near-perfect performances by the 20+ musicians who contributed to this release. 

Why I love it: Shore caught me off guard this year. I expected another emotional rollercoaster from Robin Pecknold, who previously used his sharp-tongued wit to pummel piercing anguish at his listeners. Shore instead finds the Foxes frontman now capable of using his brilliant compositional mind to fill your soul with the warmth of a winter fire–like a shot of whiskey on an empty stomach–or the antidote needed to expel this year from your memory banks. 

6) Phantom Planet – Devastator

Standout tracks:

  • Waiting for the Lights to Change
  • Dear Dead End
  • Through the Trees

What it sounds like: The influences of The Zombie’s Odessey & Oracle, Fugazi, Ok ComputerPet Sounds, and early Elvis Costello can’t be ignored. However, on Devastator there’s something buoyantly unique about how Phantom Planet deconstructed the sounds of their record collections to build an explosive array of songs that range from beautiful (“Time Moves On”) to devastating (“Torture Me”) and even, devouring (“BALISONG”).  

Why I love it: Devastator still brings the heavy hooks they’re known for, but in the 12 years since their last release, Phantom Planet have learned how to articulate fury with fervor. This is a baroque-pop masterpiece in 2020 and one can only hope it influences generations of kids to pick up guitars, find a garage, and start a band.

7) Bright Eyes – Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was

Standout tracks:

  • Dance and Sing
  • Mariana Trench
  • Comet Song

What it sounds like: There’s a significant evolution and range in the work of Bright Eyes over the past 15 years—Wide Awake (2005) was a mostly acoustic-driven bombast of emotive ramshackleness, Digital Ash the more experimental electronic siamese twin released the same year, Cassadaga (2007) channeled Dylan and The Band, and The People’s Key (2011) introduced technical synth into their discography. Down in the Weeds combines the best of the Bright Eyes cannon with a heavy hand on the alt-country tinges of Wide Awake/Cassadaga. 

Why I love it: It’s a bit weirder and frustrated than other Bright Eyes releases but somehow, Conor and co. seem to have gained a better understanding of what makes them really tick. Oberst’s ability to articulate the contradictions of life via song is more apparent than ever before (the highs/lows are more extreme, pleasure/pain hit harder, and life/death are around every turn). Here’s 2020 served in a can. 

8) Washed Out – Purple Noon

Standout tracks:

  • Paralyzed
  • Face Up
  • Haunt

What it sounds like: Purple Noon is a roaring headphone record that creates a lush blanket of comfort around your body, calming your mood with haunting melodic tones, gripping beats, and effusive vocals. This is Washed Out floating between misery and the mystical, giving us the soundtrack to your next late-night drive or existential crisis. 

Why I love it: We’ve all needed something to take the edge off this year, whether to overcome the daily challenges of living through a global pandemic or working through the stresses caused by a tense political environment. This was my go-to record during summer outings on the lake, reading by the windowsill, or dancing in the dark late at night. Purple Noon is capable of sending you to cosmic dimensions for 40+ minutes. 

9) Richard Edwards and the Velvet Ocean – The Soft Ache and the Moon

Standout tracks:

  • Inchyra Blue
  • Cruel and Uncomplicated
  • Monkey

What it sounds like: Richard Edwards stretches his melodic muscles on The Soft Ache and the Moon, tugging at tension with surgical precision. You never really know if the songs will hit a big pop chorus or drop down into a tender moment of beautiful melancholy (lucky for the listener, you usually get both). Even so, the real gift is in Edwards’ heartbreaking language that hits you right where it counts. 

Why I love it: Here’s a new career arch, especially thanks to the backing of a dream group of musicians. With drums by Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello), Dave Palmer on keys (Fiona Apple), and Mike Bloom on guitar (Jenny Lewis), here’s an album with the potential to influence musicians for years to come as a showcase in how great indie singer-songwriter rock is done right. 

10) Yukon Blonde – Vindicator

Standout tracks:

  • It’s What You Are
  • YGTT
  • Good Times

What it sounds like: There’s something for nearly everyone here as Vindicator fuses indie-rock and dance-pop, seemingly also drawing inspiration from ’90s hip-hop. Airy guitars and hazy vocals flow freely over a steady, forceful rhythm section. 

Why I love it: The key to Yukon Blonde is their ability to make you feel like you’re gliding from song to song, letting you escape from reality into a heavy cloud of echo-drenched anthems. Vindicator delivers moody pop that’s easy to love from the start, but gets better as you realize just how astonishing the songs truly are. 

About “The Best Albums of 2020” List:

The above list was developed to help readers find new music via the music service of their choice. I try to keep the commentary concise, only including the elements that I find most helpful when receiving a recommendation: brief list of my favorite songs, how each record compares to other artists/albums folks may know, and what’s unique (or what do I love) about these albums in particular. – Kenny Bringelson

Best Albums of 2018

While we are all ready for 2019 to start, not all of 2018 should be forgotten about. It was an excellent year for some shining new artists and some veterans who produced their best work to date. As a result, here are the best albums of the year (according to a recovering music addict):

Listen to all the Best Albums of 2018: Apple Music | Spotify

Listen to the Best Songs of 2018: Apple Music | Spotify

10) Mitski – Be The Cowboy

Standout Tracks

  • Nobody
  • Lonesome Love
  • Washing Machine Heart

What it sounds like: carefully crafted songs that get fired into your cortex like a slap shot taken with hyper-accurate succinctness (most clocking in at less than three minutes each). Hard to classify as straightforward pop, the prominent bits and hooks get locked into your unconsciousness right out the gate.

Why I love it: punchy anthems that grab you by the shirt collar, toss you to the floor, and carefully dust you off–all before you can realize what just happened. This is suave and cheeky artistry worth assimilating.

9) The Magic Gang – The Magic Gang

Standout Tracks

  • All That I Want Is You
  • Jasmine
  • Fade Away

What it sounds like: the most earworm-worthy and addicting release on this list (hard to believe it’s a debut effort), The Magic Gang give a thoughtful nod to clean-shaven Beach Boys, early Weezer and even minor tinges of guitar influence from Strokes era stalwarts. But there’s a uniquely refreshing hint of British snark and maturity that will likely help their self-titled debut sound even better for summers to come.

Why I love it: the nerd rock torch was dropped a while ago (at least in regards to front-to-back albums worth mentioning). The Magic Gang somehow reignite the flame with hook, fuzz and harmony for one of the best straightforward rock records of the year.

8) Death Cab for Cutie – Thank You For Today

Standout Tracks

  • Autumn Love
  • Your Hurricane
  • Northern Lights

What it sounds like: Gibbard’s airy crooning prospers from gentle guitar melodies and atmospheric electronic tones. Thank You For Today borrows elements from the classic Death Cab rulebook, but also expands into different sonic territories, thanks to the addition of two new band members.

Why I love it: I have a special relationship with Ben Gibbard’s catalog–various projects have been in fairly constant rotation throughout the years–and Thank You For Today is destined to sit alongside their best work. It’s been both a challenge and blessing to be a dedicated Death Cab fan due to how easily they can become attached to dramatic real life experiences. Instead, Thank You For Today feels more like a dreamy serenade than a somber soliloquy.

7) Tash Sultana – Flow State

Standout Tracks

  • Murder To The Mind
  • Salvation
  • Big Smoke

What it sounds like: we wouldn’t have Tash Sultana without 90s R&B or Hip-Hop, but equally important are the flashes of Hendrix, Buckingham and a pantheon of jazz guitarists crawling through Flow State. This musical virtuoso can pick up and play over twenty instruments, but has the insight to leave space in compositions so listeners can enjoy each masterfully crafted moment.

Why I love it: bluesy and breathy narrative carries you through intricate guitar work and powerful beats, all written and beautifully performed by Tash. This is the cure for your Sunday morning hangover, an elixir of subtly lush yearning and provocative confidence.

6) Soccer Mommy – Clean

Standout Tracks

  • Your Dog
  • Cool
  • Last Girl

What it sounds like: with a vulnerable intensity that’s fueled by punchy guitars, Clean has finite pure moments but more often penetrates through your ears with a carefully disguised acid tongue. This is angsty guitar rock that rotates between impressive production and performance, both techniques used to highlight Clean’s dynamic elements.

Why I love it: there’s no doubting how well Soccer Mommy can sing with blunt honesty. As you dive into this album, you’ll think you’re feeling empathy for the authors long-lost love, when in reality she’s helping you look more closely into the mirror of your own failed romances. Label this one pre/post break-up album of the year and one that’s guaranteed to inspire a new generation of singer-songwriters, locked away in bedrooms for hours on end.

5) Israel Nash – Lifted

Standout Tracks

  • Rolling On
  • SpiritFalls
  • Looking Glass

What it sounds like: reflections of Neil Young, Wilco and Gram Parsons with luscious three-part harmonies lurking below a layer of Israel’s tender lead vocals. Slide guitar and pedal steel help bridge a path between the vibrant acoustic work and splashes of piano.

Why I love it: Lifted is the perfect album to put on while sitting by a warm fire, savoring a glass of whisky and taking in the mountain air. But it’s just as enticing through the trials and tribulations of everyday life–here’s a record that has the ability to lift your spirits and cleanse your soul.

4) Leon Bridges – Good Thing

Standout Tracks

  • Shy
  • Bad Bad News
  • Bet Ain’t Worth The Hand

What it sounds like: smooth as ever, Leon on Good Thing isn’t quite as distant as the one found on Coming Home like some reviews may lead you to believe–but this certainly is a new phase of Bridges’ career. Leon moves past the innocence of 50s/60s Motown and starts tipping his hat to other R&B influences more closely traced back to the 70s/90s.

Why I love it: Bridges found even more groove and control while creating this example of neo soul perfection. Recognition must be granted to the ultra talented backing group, with extra accolades directed at the rhythm section on tracks like “ Bad Bad News” and “Shy”. Good Thing is like a two ingredient cocktail—one part will make you move, the other will move you.

3) Franz Ferdinand – Always Ascending

Standout Tracks

  • Paper Cages
  • Feel The Love Go
  • Always Ascending

What it sounds like: pronouncing guitars battle against seismic choruses, loaded with tranquilizing backing vocals that slide in between Kapranos’ trademark howls. This one’s a party of snappy indie rock.

Why I love it: while the rest of us are doing our best to forget 2018, Alex Kapranos and co. are already looking forward to 2020 and beyond. Most may pass over this album while thinking it’s the same old mid-2000s indie marketed to meet the needs of today’s listeners. Instead, we’ve been graced with a band gravitating towards new heights and leaving behind the disciples who didn’t make it into the music streaming stratosphere.

2) Father John Misty – God’s Favorite Customer

Standout Tracks

  • Just Dumb Enough To Try
  • Please Don’t Die
  • God’s Favorite Customer

What it sounds like: Misty gets down to brass tacks on God’s Favorite Customer. There’s fewer quips than Fear Fun, more heartfelt memoirs than we heard on Honeybear, and a near-complete removal of the dismal world view found on Pure Comedy. These songs are concisely-constructed and calculated attacks on his own personal relationship fumbles.

Why I love it: Father John’s snarkier songs are undeniably enjoyable, but it’s always been the more sincere cuts that convey his full potential. Luckily, that’s exactly what we get here. On “Just Dumb Enough To Try” we get full-blown ballad Elton meets Nilsson, while “Please Don’t Die” begs to be played on repeat with the most impressive falsetto vocals we’ve heard from Father Josh. This might be his best yet (noting this is just the type of commentary he’d hate to read, and that makes it ever more important to write since it’s guaranteed to fuel his next effort).

1) Jump Little Children – Sparrow

Standout Tracks

  • X-Raying Flowers
  • Euphoria Designed
  • White Buffalo

What it sounds like: an elegant endeavor into infectious melodies and exciting musical arrangements. Jay Clifford’s soothing vocals glide across the speakers, pushing through with breathy undertones earmarked with gusto. The production and execution supersedes even heftier budgeted work from major league-level recording studios.

Why I love it: Sparrow is a valiant return to recorded music where Jump Little Children twist between variances of folk, jazz and orchestral rock. They’ve combined veracious lyrics with vital musicianship and tenacious rhythms to somehow breed an inspiring new form of baroque pop. If this your first foray into JLC’s catalog, you’ll quickly understand why you’ve been missing out.

Honorable Mentions:

Thomas Dybdahl – All These Things, Muse – Simulation Theory, The Coral – Moving Through The Dawn, The Vines – Miracle Land

About “The Best Albums of 2018” List:

The above list was developed to help readers find new music via the music service of their choice. I try to keep the commentary concise, only including the elements that I find most helpful when receiving a recommendation: brief list of my favorite songs, how each record compares to other artists/albums folks may know, and what’s unique (or what do I love) about these albums in particular. 

– Kenny Bringelson

Brand New Feet

To Our Unborn Daughter,

Very soon, you’ll be exploring this world with brand new feet. One day you’ll stretch out your beautifully tiny toes, and reach them down onto a path that’s been paved by generations before you. Over the last few years, great people have worked together to soften the ground to ensure that any person can walk around freely, regardless of who they are, what they look like, or what they believe in. Because of this, we’ve been able to take big strides forward–in a world full of roads changed by understanding, repair and reformation. 

We hope that you’ll get to take your first steps on this same enlightened road, but you never know when this could change; either overnight, over 10 years, or over a lifetime. These paths might start to feel like they are shifting from under your feet, sending you back through the cracks and bumps of times we thought were behind us. The road may have toughened due to decisions beyond our control…but for that, we still must apologize to you. 

We are fundamentally reminded that there are dark roads of disagreement with endless twists and turns. Anger, grief and fear may haunt these passages. There may be men in monster suits hiding in the shadows with false claims to make these roads even greater than before. But be wary, they will challenge you beyond your wildest imagination, trying to shift your every step in their favor.

In spite of this, you will crawl, then walk, and eventually run through the darkness with endearment guiding your way. You’ll be timid and anxious at times, worried and afraid of this ever-changing path; but your mom and I will be right there beside you, gently lifting you up by your delicate hands if you should fall, and teaching you how to find your own steady grounding. Always remember, the roads don’t actually move before us, we are the ones that move along the roads. 

To get you through this journey with your brand new feet, we will pick out your first few pairs of shoes. But soon you’ll learn how to choose the right ‘Chucks’, ‘Toms’ or ‘Crocs’ to get you where you need to go. You will “loop, swoop and pull” yourself up, as you mend the ruptured concrete alongside future friends, schoolmates and colleagues. 

As your tiny feet grow, your mom and I will fight to take down any walls blocking your path, to give you the freedom to learn from any oversights of the past. 

We know that someday, you and your generation will have the strength to endure this battle, maybe even better than we ever could–to continue pushing forward with those steadfast, prevailing, and not so brand new feet. 


Dad (and Mom)

Best Kept Secrets of (Indie) Rock in the 2000s

Author’s note: This is my personal guide to all the nerdy insights and forgotten lore of indie rock from the 2000s. I have tried to omit personal opinions in order to keep the article as factual as possible. Of course, some snuck through (it’s tough when writing about the music you love). Make sure to click on the links in each section to see the videos, hears the songs and experience each fact firsthand.

21. Chris WallaMany albums by The Decemberists (The Crane Wife, Picaresque, The Tain EP) Nada Surf (Lucky, The Weight is a Gift, Let Go) and Tegan and Sara (Sainthood, The Con), along with countless others, are produced by Death Cab For Cutie’s CHRIS WALLA. The multi-talented guitar player has also produced almost every Death Cab song ever recorded.

20. jason schwartzmanPHANTOM PLANET‘s hit single “California” was co-written by then drummer Jason Schwartzman – the now famous actor starring in Wes Anderson films like The Darjeerling Limited, Moonrise Kingdom, Fantastic Mr. Fox and Rushmore. The other writer, lead singer Alex Greenwald, was in a few Gap commercials (that cheesy everyone in vests one) and starred as antagonist Seth Devlin beside Jake Gyllenhal in the 2001 film Donny Darko.

19. rogue waveROGUE WAVE‘s drummer, Pat Spurgeon, only has one kidney. But there’s a bigger problem, this kidney doesn’t function too well. Pat goes through a rigorous process to give himself dialysis on the road (hotel rooms – not a big deal, back of rock clubs – sorta a deal, on a moving tour bus – major deal). Dialysis under the right conditions is tricky enough – doing it on tour is a whole different ball game.

18. john nolanThe biggest love triangle in indie rock comes straight from the post-hardcore roots of New Jersey – but J-Wow and Snooki are not involved. When TAKING BACK SUNDAY was first starting out, Jesse Lacey was in the band (now of Brand New fame). At the time, he was dating Michelle Nolan, sister of guitar player John Nolan. Taking Back Sunday recruited lead singer Adam Lazarra – who then began dating the sister – causing Jesse to leave the band and start alt-rockers Brand New. Adam eventually ended the relationship, causing John to leave the band and pursue his own creative outlets with his broken hearted sister. Cue John Nolan and his sister (“the girlfriend”) starting Straylight Run. This three-for-one deal worked out poorly for those immediately involved (heartache) but great for us on the outside (three exciting bands).

17. tumblr_lm5u4yyB8n1qzx2tpo1_500At the end of the video Sic Transit Gloria Fades, Jesse Lacey of BRAND NEW faces a silhouette figure who mimics his hand gestures. It was long rumored to be Geoff Rickley from Thursday but is actually Justin Beck, guitarist for Glassjaw.

Johnny+Marr+marr316. JOHNNY MARR, guitar player from The Smith’s, will probably never reunite with Morrissey for a reunion show. Instead, he returned to the music world in a new form while joining up with indie poppers Modest Mouse. He toured rigorously with the band from 2006 – 2009 and can be heard on 2007 album We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank.

15. ringo zak OASIS‘ dueling brothers, Liam and Noel, are known Beatle fanatics (Liam even named his son Lennon). So it makes sense that Ringo Starr’s son, Zak Starkey , joined Oasis as full-time touring drummer in 2004. Zak also stepped in behind the kit to record for Oasis and can be heard on the albums Don’t Believe the Truth and Dig Out Your Soul. Zak has kept busy since the demise of Oasis and continues to rock out with The Who.

large_092303 GUSTERjc14. You could say that GUSTER‘s drummer marches to the beat of a different drum. Or perhaps, just learned how to play drums a little differently than most other people. Brian Rosenworcel didn’t pick up a drum stick until Guster’s fourth album – playing live shows and recordings with his bare hands (bongos, cymbals, etc.). His unique style has even earned him the nickname “Thundergod” by adoring fans.

jayclifford213. Jay Clifford of JUMP, LITTLE CHILDREN knows pop extremely well. So well that in 2003 singer-songwriter (and long time friend) Howie Day asked Jay to play on his album Stop All The World Now. Jay’s guitar playing and vocals can be heard on most of the album, including the massive hit “Collide“. Clifford is also given co-writing credits for four of the album’s tracks.

936full-leslie-feist12. Before FEIST was making addictive indie pop and some infectious videos with fully choreographed dance sequences (see “1234”), Leslie Feist contributed her talents to two songs on the album Riot on an Empty Street by Kings of Convenience. Side note: Feist was also a member of the indie rock group Broken Social Scene before her solo efforts.

blake-sennett-split11. Rilo Kiley’s talented guitar player (and sometimes singer), BLAKE SENNETT, may look extremely familiar to people who grew up in the ’90s. Reason being…Blake has graced our color TV sets with some very memorable characters. Sennett stared as the silly Ronnie Pinsky on Nickelodeon’s Salute Your Shorts and the notable swirly-giving bully, “Joey The Rat” Epstein, on Boy Meets World. Take that Jenny Lewis’ acting career!

fun-band110. FUN. has seen some pretty stellar success over the past twelve months. Years before the group had started this small SIDE PROJECT (yes, fun. is a side project) each member of fun. traveled the world with their own successful indie rock bands. Multi-instrumentalist Andrew Dost began his musical career as a member of the Michigan band Anathallo. Guitar player and backup vocalist, Jack Antonoff, was the afro-sporting frontman of New Jersey jam band indie rockers Steel Train. Lead singer Nate Ruess could be found belting out infectious indie pop in Arizona favorite The Format. Before tearing through solos with indie poppers fun., lead guitar player Jack Antonoff wrote infectious rock gems about heartache, death, life and everything in between. Jack’s debut album with the band STEEL TRAIN (Twilight Tales from the Prairies of the Sun) was written almost entirely about his experiences and heartache with high school sweetheart Scarlett Johansson. The album is littered with not-so-cryptic references about Scarlett (see “Better Love“: Scars are in her name/And she scars me with blame/Hey Scarlet, you’re not the same).

awol8. “Sail” has become an electro-hard rock hit for Los Angeles band AWOLNATION. Let’s not hold our breathe too long for another full length album from AWOL though. The band name is really a moniker for lead singer/songwriter/instrumentalist Aaron Bruno. The Westlake Village native has fronted two other successful bands with some major radio singles, always suffering the same demise – one album and done. Bruno was lead singer of the band Under the Influence of Giants (churning out the smooth 1970s influenced anthem “Mama’s Room“) and Hometown Hero (belting out the high school rocker “Eighteen“).

atthedrivein7. Drama and post-hardcore don’t usually go hand-in-hand. Being punk, being loud and being heard seem to be the fuels behind the fire. But things happen – people change – and soap operas are sometimes born. AT THE DRIVE-IN had just released it’s most critically claimed album to date (Relationship of Command) when the band decided to call it quits. From the ashes of the phoenix arose two bands, separated by hair styles. Prog-rockers The Mars Volta grew from the minds of afro-toting Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala. On the other (less hairy) side came post-rock thrashers Sparta – with ATDI alums Jim Ward, Tony Hajjar and Paul Hinojos.

220px-Greg_Graffin-Starland_BallRoom-20076. BAD RELIGION have been making intelligent punk rock since 1979. Lead singer Greg Graffin’s smart-punk doesn’t halt when the record stops spinning. The Bad Religion co-founder earned a PhD from Cornell University where he teaches evolution and has taught lectures in the life sciences and palentology at UCLA. Oh yea, and he wrote a book. Chalk up a few marks for punk rockers around the world.

Chris Wall Field Manual5. The always busy CHRIS WALLA (see #21) won’t let anything stop him from doing what he loves. Even the U.S. government can’t foil Chris’ musical destiny. In 2007, U.S. Border Patrol agents seized a hard drive containing the master tracks for his first solo album. Reason being: the album was titled “Field Manual“. Chris didn’t let a little armed response keep him down – the album was re-recorded and released in 2008 on Barsuk Records.

Jimmy Eat World Bleed American4. JIMMY EAT WORLD‘s Bleed American album from 2001 made the Arizona alt-rockers into household names with the “The Middle“. After the first single was released (also titled “Bleed American”) with support from the energetic anthem “Sweetness”, the band decided to change the album name to Jimmy Eat World as they became concerned that the album title could somehow be misinterpreted post 9/11.

OKComputer-InRainbows3. A decade may seem like a long time, but really it’s just a decade. Ten years, 521 weeks, 3,652 days. Ok – it IS a long time. But not so long that RADIOHEAD can’t make two albums, 10 years apart, that go together like twins separated at birth. By following these fairly simple instructions, listeners can mix together 1997’s OK Computer and 2007’s In Rainbows to make a seamless listening experience. Basically, when sequenced properly, track 1 from OK Computer leads perfectly into track 1 from In Rainbows, track 2 from both albums match up, etc. – so that the time and key signatures are in almost in perfect sync. That’s some serious future-planning Mr. Yorke.

The-Vines-Interior2. Australian rockers THE VINES have had their share of godlike comparisons in their 10+ year career with some major hits like “Get Free” and “Ride”. Popularity aside, The Vines have recorded consistently diverse albums successfully drawing from respected predecessors like The Kinks, The Beatles, The Clash and even Nirvana. All the while, lead singer Craig Nicholls has been plagued with well-known negative reviews of live performances due to his spastic stage behavior (see meltdown on Letterman). Craig’s erratic behavior was eventually explained through a diagnosis of Aspergers Syndrome (a form of Autism). Post-diagnosis, Craig continues to produce hit songs and some of the best albums of the decade.

postal-service1. The POSTAL SERVICE name (cult collaboration between Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard and Dntel’s Jimmy Tamborello) was inspired by a very reasonable situation. Tamborello, living in Los Angeles and Gibbard, living in Seattle made music by sharing songs bit-by-bit via one of the oldest communication methods in modern American history – The U.S. Postal Service. Long after the hit song “Such Great Heights” helped to earn them 400,000 album sales, only one Postal Service is moving on with full strength hint: the winner still sees success while working on the weekend). The Postal Service recently played a ten year reunion show at Coachella to an insanely large crowd.

*some of the bands in this article may not be considered “indie rock” by typical genre standards (i.e. Oasis) but are included because at some point in their career they released an album on an independent label.

Reading Makes My World Go ‘Round

Books vs. Television (can't we all just get along)
Books vs. Television (can’t we all just get along)

Reading is a strange thing.  I find it completely different than anything else in life.  That’s a pretty profound statement because well, EVERYTHING is different than EVERYTHING else.  But what I mean is that reading makes me feel, think and act in a way that can’t be mimicked by any other activity.

Time Moves At The Speed Of…Well, Time:

I am currently reading “Darker Than the Deepest Sea: The Search for Nick Drake” on my lunch breaks at work.  There’s something about reading during these 30 minutes that just makes the pace of time feel so natural.  Let me explain: I consider 30 minutes to be a pretty short period of time. While getting engulfed into the life of an enigmatic character like Nick Drake, those 1800 seconds feel like they are over before they started.  Compare this experience to 30 minutes of sitting at a computer and working and I think you get what I mean.

My Brain Feels Like It’s Working:

Goooooooeeeyyy Brain Cupcakes
Goooooooeeeyyy Brain Cupcakes

I picture my brain as this gooey ball that sometimes lets in some new stuff, but mostly forgets the things I have learned throughout my life (probably looks something like the gooey brain cupcakes shown here to the right).  Most of the time the gooey ball just kinda sits there while I watch TV or listen to music and grooves along with the frequencies traveling through the air.  But when I am reading, I feel like the words and messages being communicated to me are actually flying off the page, into the goo, and giving my brain some sort of structure.  The words from books actually stick around and more often than not, make it into sentences or my writing.

Side note: I actually enjoyed readying during my graduate studies.  I would be watching TV and thinking “hey, I’m looking forward to reading after this show is over.”  My brain is one weird specimen.

Feeding My Feelings Through Fact:

Ok, I’m pretty nerdy.  I am currently also reading “A Short History of Nearly Everything” on my iPad.  This book is 900 pages of everything you learned in elementary, middle and high school but didn’t really care about at the time.  I’m getting a second chance to learn about the history of dinosaurs, the solar system, elements, geography, atoms, gravity, etc.  The weird thing is that as I am learning about the evolution of Earth and on a larger scale life in the Universe, I start to really have feelings and thoughts about my own existence.  I have laughed out loud, felt sorrow and concern, related with researchers and been angered by outrageous scientific claims. Nerd facts bringing out emotion? That’s just not right.  But it’s an experience that is more powerful than any drama on TV or comedy I see in the movies.

How? What? Huh?

Here’s my take on the whole thing: reading leaves room for imagination.  Two people sitting ten feet away from each other are reading the same chapter in the same book.  But both of them are having completely different experiences.  No matter how descriptive a story may be, each person is still going to have a different illustration playing out in their head.  Think about book clubs or even English classrooms – the purpose of discussions are to get everyone on the same page and understanding because of the “fill in the blank” nature of reading.

TV, movies and other media rich mediums don’t leave much room for interpretation.  It doesn’t take much effort for your brain to absorb the information so the goo just kind of goes with the flow.  The conscious effort required to understand a piece of text enriches and livens your senses.

So as I said, reading makes the world go ’round.  But round for me is probably different than what round is for you.  I think of round as a baseball, with seams, and printed logos.  You probably think of round like a globe, or a doughnut, or the Pillsbury dough boy, or…you get it.