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Never Promised a Tomorrow: A Reflection on David Berman a Year Later

It’s August 7th, 2019 at 11:45 AM, and I’m on lunch break at the high school where I teach in Arizona’s East Valley. The group of baseball players I have coached the past three years, and who eat in my room every day, file in one by one, and I glean bits and pieces of their in-progress conversations. As I get out my lunch and begin eating, I check Twitter, a mindless habit that almost always brings bad news. At the top of the trending topics, I see David Berman is trending. 

Though it’s been less than a month since Berman’s reemergence after a ten-plus year absence from music with the release of his new band Purple Mountains’ debut self-titled record, I know he’s not trending because of the album. My first thought was of the lyrics to “Death of an Heir of Sorrows,” from his previous band Silver Jews’ album Bright Flight: “When I was summoned to the phone, I knew in my heart that you had died alone.” Replace “… was summoned to the phone” with “… saw you trending on Twitter.” I knew I didn’t need to click on his name to find out the awful truth. I clicked anyway. Checking Twitter is a mindless habit that almost always brings bad news. Confirming my immediate suspicion crushes me. I feel an emptiness that carries through lunch and the final two classes I have to teach: Film Studies and AP Research. 

The first time I had heard of David Berman came, like all great moments of musical awakenings, via an off-hand recommendation from a record store clerk in 1998 at Kansas City’s legendary Recycled Sounds. Like I had done dating back to when I was 13 years old, I asked for a recommendation and then tried to appear cool and nonchalant while I rattled off a list of bands I liked. “You know, I like Superchunk and Pavement, Guided by Voices, Yo La Tengo; just cool indie rock stuff.” When he asked if I liked Silver Jews, I defaulted to the stance of someone out of the loop who didn’t want to appear out of the loop and claimed to have heard of them but just hadn’t checked them out yet. I asked where I should start, desperately hoping they had at least a couple of albums. They had three, an EP, and a few 7’’s, so I was safe.

American Water Album Artwork

He handed me the just-released American Water, and I bought it without question because record store clerks were the gatekeepers of cool to me at that age. I will forever owe that guy a debt of gratitude for his recommendation that day.  

Whenever I hear a new song or album, I judge it on the existence of a firework moment, which is to say the part of a song where it seemingly takes off into the stratosphere and explodes in a moment of glory. This could be in a rocking style, like the vocal interchange between David Bowie and Freddie Mercury on “Under Pressure”, or in a more subtle, emotional way, like how Elliott Smith could write a song where the vocals never rose above a whisper but it was emotionally gut-wrenching. What I didn’t count on, or at least never would have expected, was the cleverness of the lyrics. 

Berman, a poet with an MFA from UMASS, was a brilliant lyricist on a level few achieve. From the opening line of “Random Rules”, the first track, I knew that this album and this band were special. “In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection” was a lyric unlike anything that I’d ever heard before. I obsessed over the lyrics, listening to them and writing them down in my college notebooks. Had I not been a year removed from high school, every yearbook I signed would have been a randomly selected lyric, like “We’ve been raised on replicas of fake and winding roads/And day after day up on this beautiful stage/We’ve been playing tambourine for minimum wage/But we are real, I know we are real,” followed by “anyway, take care” and my signature. 

I searched for every release like water in a desert. There was a need in my heart for it. During every low time, Berman’s music gave me comfort and hope. During my deepest battles with depression and anxiety when I felt no hope, I’d sooner play his albums on repeat late at night than take a single pill my doctor prescribed. “When I go downtown, I always wear a corduroy suit because it’s made of a hundred gutters the rain can run right through.” 

I wanted desperately to see them live, but Berman had always resisted touring or even one-off live performances. In that now quaint time of message boards, rumors ran rampant as to the reasons, running the baseless rumor gamut from acute anxiety to drug addiction being the culprit. When they suddenly announced the first ever Jews tour to coincide with the 2005 release of Tanglewood Numbers, the band’s fifth album, and that they would be playing in St. Louis (a short drive from where I worked and wallowed) I snatched up tickets for me and my friend Tim, the other Silver Jews fan I knew. 

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The show took place in the Duck Room at Blueberry Hill, a restaurant and music venue owned by Chuck Berry. The Duck Room was nothing more than the restaurant’s basement with a stage built along one wall, but I would have watched the show if it was in an alley during a thunderstorm. Standing twenty feet from the stage with Tim, just after opener Jennifer O’Connor left the stage, Tim nudged me and pointed to the merch table by the door where David Berman stood carrying a duffel bag, wearing faded jeans, a flannel shirt, and a trucker hat. He started cutting across the crowd who seemed either oblivious out of a hip glibness or because he drew no attention to himself, just moving forward with an even pace. As he drew near, I jumped at a chance I’d wanted to have since I first put on American Water seven years before.

When I made eye contact, he stopped and set down his duffel bag. “Hi,” I stammered, “I just want to thank you for this tour and including St. Louis. I’ve wanted to see you live for so long.” He smiled at me, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, “Thank you for coming tonight. I’m looking forward to being up there tonight.” He gave my shoulder a quick squeeze, smiled again, picked up his bag, and continued on his way, going through a door to the right of the stage. 

The show that night was as great as I’d hoped it would be. At 26, I didn’t own a cell phone, so no pictures exist. I borrowed a matchbook and a pen from the bar and wrote down the set list on the inside cover in the tiniest handwriting I could muster, so I could include all 22 songs. As we left, I bought every shirt they had (a reasonably priced $15, imagine that) and a vinyl copy of Tanglewood Numbers, and I buzzed about the show all the way home. I later wrote him a letter and sent it and the record I’d bought at the show to the P.O. Box address that was always in the liner notes of his albums. A couple of weeks later, Berman returned the record, which he had drawn on the cover and inscribed: “The good friend Ryan. I wish you 34 years of good luck. Love, DCB.” Also in the package was a copy of his poetry book, Actual Air, inscribed and signed, given to me unsolicited. 

Tanglewood Numbers LP signed by David Berman
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Two months after the show, I turned 27 and got a MySpace account and made my first post “In 27 years, I drank 50,000 beers, and they just wash against me, like the sea into a pier,” a lyric from the Silver Jews’ “Trains Across the Sea.” I did it partly as a joke and partly because stupid rock and roll lore taught me 27 was a cryptic and mysterious age. But for me, it was just 27 and nothing more. Still, I thought, if I burned out hard and fast in the coming 365 days, it would make a bitchin’ epitaph. 

Fast forward three years to June 13th, 2008: my 30th birthday. I’m up early to drive ninety miles from the college town where I live to the nondescript small town where I grew up, to see family before returning home to celebrate with friends. I get a text from my boss telling me to come by the record store. When I get there, he hands me two copies of the new Silver Jews album Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea; one on CD and on vinyl. They’re presents for my birthday, gifted to me four days before its formal release date (sorry Drag City Records). 

Lookout Mountain; Lookout Sea Album Artwork

I drive back to the house I’m living in rent-free in the basement, through a thick summer rain that threatens to eliminate visibility altogether. At the house, I leave the CD in the car, planning to listen to it on my drive home, and take the vinyl inside. I have to finish packing and then need to leave. As I reach the bottom of the stairs, I step into knee-high water; the result of a floor drain in the basement backing up while I was gone. I see possessions of mine float by me: books, records, and moves are ruined, and my cat Miss Kitty is perched on a shelf terrified. Also among the destroyed items was a small box that contained among other things, the letter from Berman thanking me for my kind words in a letter I’d sent him that came with a signed copy of his poetry book Actual Air.

I won’t be going home, but would instead spend my 30th birthday trying to salvage my mostly-destroyed possessions, as I listen to the new album on repeat, trying to hold it together, even though I feel like my life is falling apart. The album would turn out to be their last, but it somehow manages to be their most hopeful. It’s that hope that keeps me from crying and wallowing in self-pity. I write Berman a letter telling him the story of the flood and my misery and thanking him for his music saving me. 

Two weeks later, I received a large manila envelope with my name and address written on the front in the scrawl that I’d come to recognize from the liner notes of Silver Jews albums. Inside is a note from Berman expressing that he was sorry to hear of my birthday misfortune.

A few pieces of treasure sent to Ryan Novak by David Berman
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The envelope was filled with a veritable treasure trove of random items: drawings by him, a slip of notebook paper with some chord changes and snippets of lyrics to an unfinished song, a flyer for a shot written in Hebrew from the band’s tour of Israel, a photocopy of a love letter from Abraham Lincoln to Mary Todd, and a stanza pulled from a poem by William Blake that appeared to be typed on a typewriter. It read: 

“It is an easy thing to laugh at wrathful elements

To hear the dog howl at the wintry door, the ox in the slaughterhouse moan;

To see a god on every wind and a blessing on every blast

To hear sounds of love in the thunderstorm that destroys our enemies’ house;

To rejoice in the blight that covers his field and the sickness that cuts off his children

While our olive and vine sing and laugh round our door and our children bring fruits and flowers

Then the groan and the dolour are quite forgotten and the slave grinding at the mill

And the captive in chains and the poor in the prison and the soldier in the field

When the shatter’d bone hath laid him groaning among the happier dead

It is an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity:

Thus could I sing and thus rejoice: but it is not so with me.”

Months later, still reeling and lost, I decide to get out of town and visit my sister. I plan the trip to coincide with the Silver Jews 100th show at The Metro, just blocks from Wrigley Field. My sister and I stand just a few feet from the stage. The set that night spanned every album and featured guest appearances from Dan Koretzky of Drag City Records and Berman’s college friend Bob Nastanovich, the original Silver Jews drummer and legendary Pavement hype man. It eclipsed the St. Louis shows and is still one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. At the close of the show, he retrieved the setlist that was written on a styrofoam plate from his suit jacket and attempted to throw it like a frisbee out into the crowd. Instead of flying out, though, it shot straight up into the air and came back down. I launched my 6’4” frame into the air and snagged it one-handed and pulled it back down with me like an NBA center snagging a defensive rebound on a would-be game-tying final second shot that secures a championship. It’s in a frame above my records to this day, and people who see it and ask, “why do you have a styrofoam plate in a frame?” are in for a longer answer than they anticipated. 

It was also around this time when Berman announced the end of the Silver Jews. In a post to the Drag City Records message board, he detailed a lengthy struggle with his father, Richard Berman, a Washington lobbyist for everything that is horrible in the world. “Now that the Joos are over I can tell you my gravest secret,” Berman wrote on the Silver Jews messageboard. “Worse than suicide, worse than crack addiction: My father.” He said he wanted to dedicate his life to undoing all the damage his father had caused. What followed his announcement, however, was silence.

Nearly a year and a half later and a year after his announcement of the end of his band, I returned home exhausted from student teaching and found a package in the mail, written in his now familiar handwriting. It included his then-new art book The Portable February. I’d moved twice in the time since he had my address but somehow he got the book to me. As shocked as I was at his generosity and that he had thought of me a year and a half after the fact, I was more shocked by what was in the book: a note to me that read “Hang in there, Ryan. I am struggling too. Your friend, DCB.” 

The Portable February and a note sent from David Berman to Ryan Novak
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Reading this note from someone I felt a kinship with but did not actually know made all the stress in my life up to that point come to a head. I was denying how much I was struggling working 40 hours as a student teacher, 35 hours at a large-box store so I would have insurance, and 20 hours at the record store just to have a place where I loved to be. Somehow, all this time later, he knew the perfect time to send me a gift. The book and note still sit together on my shelf, and from time to time, I still get out the note and read it as a reminder to hang in there through the tough times. 

Three years into his self-imposed music exile, his label Drag City Records issued the Early Times compilation that collected his early releases, including the Dime Map of the Reef 7” and the Arizona Record EP. He started a blog called Menthol Mountains, which included a lot of Rabbinic commentary on Judaism. His final post came just days before his death, when he shared “The Lost Princess” parable by Nachman of Breslov, about a princess who is exiled following an angry slip of the tongue by her father, and the viceroy who is sent to find her and bring her home. I don’t know if there was any special significance to it, with regards to what would happen 15 days later. 

The Purple Mountains’ eponymous album was released on July 12th. The album shows that Berman hadn’t lost a step as a songwriter. It stood alongside the great Silver Jews albums and did not suffer from feeling like a pale imitation of previous, better work. No, this was an incredible album, punctuated by obvious heartbreak. Multiple songs alluded to the ending of his marriage (“All My Happiness is Gone,” “Darkness and Cold,” and “She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger”), a song acknowledging his isolation in life (“Maybe I’m The Only One For Me”) and most heartbreakingly, a song grieving the passing of his mother (“I Loved Being My Mother’s Song”). The album was beautiful but still worrisome, as the lyrics seemed to check every box of someone who was headed to a very dark place. 

Reading interviews with him prior to his death and reading about his life leading up to his death, pieces of the puzzle made sense. Knowing his story – that he had been separated from his wife for a while – one can’t hear the songs on Purple Mountains’ self-titled album and not feel his pain. For an outsider like me, regardless of my level of fandom, I saw that he was not with his wife and still reeling from his mother’s passing, losing the two most central figures in his life and no doubt feeling isolated from the world. When you’re struggling with mental health, isolation is the inescapable weight. It doesn’t have to be isolated from people, as he had friends and supporters all around him. To feel true isolation is to feel isolated regardless of your surroundings; to feel alone in a crowded room. In reading what would turn out to be his final interviews, I saw nothing but red flags. As someone who had struggled with many of the same issues, every alert in my brain went up. You never consider that you’ll someday worry about your heroes. 

All of this brings us back to August 7th at 11:45 AM and his name trending on Twitter, not in celebration of his talent, but in mourning of his passing. I was not alone in my deep love of him and his music. My experiences with him, though as deeply personal as they are cherished and loved, were not unique, as reading tweets in the days, weeks, and months after his passing showed that his kindness, generosity, and empathy for those who held his music dear was vast. A simple note in response to a letter or a small gift of a piece of Silver Jews memorabilia was the norm. Fans shared memories or just their favorite lyrics, and even in his passing and the grief felt by his friends, family, and fans worldwide, he drew us all close together one more time. Like a sing-along of “Black and Brown Blues” or “Random Rules” on one of the two Silver Jews tours, strangers were united in these moments of both loss and celebration of his life and career. In the end, his talent and his pain seemed forever entwined, with the x-axis of them being a straight line. 

As I sat there in my classroom, with my baseball boys eating lunch and talking, I felt overwhelmed with grief, but again thought of those Bright Flight album-closing lyrics: “We were never promised there would be a tomorrow,” in “Death of an Heir of Sorrows.” He may have been reminding his long-lost friend, but 18 years after he wrote them, he was also reminding us.

Silver Jews Online:

Bandcamp | Amazon | Spotify

Purple Mountains Online:

Bandcamp | Amazon | Spotify

David Berman Online:

Amazon | Goodreads


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YEAR-END LIST: The Top Ten Albums of 2019, According to Ryan Novak

For 13 years, I worked at a record store. Not only was it the most fun I have ever had at a job, but it also supplied me with a constant flow of new music. Few things could beat the moment when an album would come in from a new artist, and we’d play it in the store. While there were a great many forgettable albums given a chance during those closing shifts, every now and then you hit a glorious moment of paydirt: an incredible album from an emerging artist.

Now, approaching three years removed from my last shift behind the counter and ten years into being a school teacher who is increasingly feeling the generational divide between me and my students (try as I might, I just don’t get their music), it’s harder for me to find new music. Going into 2019, I challenged myself to check out new artists and add some new blood to the usual list of bands that I have loved since college.

1. Purple Mountains:

Purple Mountains

Both a triumphant comeback and tragic swan song, the self-titled debut from David Berman’s post-Silver Jews band Purple Mountains showed that his ten-year hiatus hadn’t caused him to lose a step. As a songwriter, Berman’s greatest gift were always his lyrics. It was nearly impossible to listen to any of his albums, whether the original six Silver Jews albums or the lone Purple Mountains album, and not find a lyric that could cut to the emotional core of the listener. On the eponymously-titled album, Berman reflects on the changes in his life over those ten years, including the separation from his wife and the heartbreak he feels over it. Though several songs deal with his sadness over the separation, the album’s true emotional heartbreaker is “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son,” about the passing of Berman’s mother, with whom he was very close. Though Berman’s own untimely death shortly after the album’s release may hang over it, the work stands on its own as one of the finest of his career. 

Spotify

Standout Tracks: “All My Happiness Is Gone,” “Darkness And Cold,” and “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son”




2. Jenny Lewis:

On the Line

On her fourth solo album, Jenny Lewis has settled into her role as a modern-day torch singer, with songs that would sit perfectly alongside the best work of Carole King, Carly Simon, and Joni Mitchell. A known perfectionist, five years separated On the Line and her previous solo record — 2014’s The Voyager — but the wait was well worth it. 

There is a smokiness and soulfulness to the songs, like wandering into an after-hours bar and hearing someone playing the piano and singing their heart for only themselves to hear. Lewis is at her best when she embraces her troubadour tendencies and eschews the temptation to embrace some of her pop sensibilities. 

The protagonists on her songs are hopeless romantics and daydreamers, and Lewis is the perfect storyteller. Whether it’s her reminiscing about a romance that never quite was on “Heads Gonna Roll” or the poppy dissection of a squandered childhood on “Wasted Youth,” with it’s doo doo doo doo doo doo mid-chorus refrain, she takes the listener on the journey with her, until the truth buried in the emotion is finally reached.  

Spotify

Standout Tracks: “Heads Gonna Roll,” “Wasted Youth,” and “Rabbit Hole” 




3. Dave Hause:

Kick

Since going solo from The Loved Ones, Dave Hause has established himself as punk rock’s all-American singer-songwriter. His music is equal parts early Bruce Springsteen or Tom Petty records mixed with The Replacements. The results of that, though, are uniquely his own. Though his first three albums (2011’s Resolutions, 2013’s Devour, and 2017’s Bury Me in Philly) are all incredible albums in their own right, Kick makes the case for being his most mature album to date. 

Since Bury Me in Philly, Hause has gone through some big life changes, which has led to his growth as a songwriter (he found love, moved west, and became a father to twin boys) and resulted in songs of aching beauty of a life recovered from a period of wandering in the dark. On “Fireflies,” the song’s protagonist thinks back on the beginning of the love of his life and those early days of the relationship when everything was new and exciting, but it’s sung with the tone of someone who remembers those days fondly because they led into the deeper love that’s formed over time, as both partners survive life’s challenges together. Dave Hause has always been in incredible songwriter, but on Kick, he’s finally grown up.

Spotify

Standout Tracks: “Saboteurs,” “The Ditch,” and “Fireflies” 


4. Laura Stevenson:

The Big Freeze

My introduction to New York singer-songwriter Laura Stevenson came via her duet with Matt Pond “The Ballad of Laura and Mike” from the final Matt Pond PA album, 2017’s Still Summer. Though all of her albums impress upon the listener that she is a talent worthy of wider attention, The Big Freeze, released in March, represents a huge step forward sonically. 

Recorded without a proper studio in her childhood home in Long Island, Stevenson’s vocals and guitar are at the forefront, as her lyrics seem to allow her to dissect the pain of her past. To that degree, the album serves as a therapeutic song-cycle, as she processes so much of her life’s experiences as a form of reckoning with where they’ve led her as an adult. “Living Room, NY,” is an ode to someone who is exhausted from travel and being everywhere but a home and longs for nothing more than a simple life. Stevenson has found that from all of life’s struggles, peace is found in the sanctuary of love and a quiet life. 

Spotify

Standout Tracks: “Lay Back, Arms Out,” “Living Room, NY,” and “Dermatillomania” 


5. The Mountain Goats:


In League with Dragons

John Darnielle, the primary songwriter and sole original member of the band, has a way of writing songs that are built around a specific concept (the band’s 2015 album Beat the Champ featured songs about professional wrestling) and yet they are written in a way that the audience can still emotionally connect to the song’s protagonists and their respective struggles. 

On In League with Dragons, inspired by Dungeons and Dragons (and other role-playing games), the band uses the concept of the old wizard to stretch beyond the initial images of Gandalf the Grey to reach anyone who once was magical but has since lost their touch. While four of the songs on the album do connect to the album’s cover art, which looks like it could have been lifted from a dungeon-master’s guide, Darnielle’s wizards range from baseball players (“Doc Gooden,” about the legendary New York Mets’ pitcher, as he remembers his glory days) to mythical rock stars (“Passaic 1975,” sung from the perspective of Ozzy Osborne). 

Musically, as with each subsequent album, Darnielle moves the band farther and farther away from the early albums that leaned heavily on acoustic guitar to produce some of the most lush arrangements on any Mountain Goats album. The message of course is that even the greats lose their touch and fade away and therein lies the heartbreak. 

Spotify

Standout Tracks: “Younger,” Passaic 1975,” and “Doc Gooden”


6. Alex Lahey:

The Best of Luck Club

In the last few years, there seems to be a wave of female singer-songwriters and female-fronted bands that are generating all the excitement. At the forefront of that movement is Australian-born singer-songwriter Alex Lahey. For as incredible as her 2016 EP B-Grade University and 2017 full-length debut I Love You Like a Brother were, she raised the bar for herself with The Best of Luck Club, which proved to be a huge step forward from the already immensely talented Lahey. 

The piano-driven “Unspoken History” features a protagonist making a last-ditch broken-hearted plea for a love to stay; one that is made knowing the person has plans that have nothing to do with them. On an album that almost feels like a thematic song cycle about figuring out your life in your mid-twenties, “Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself” stands out as the anthem we all could have used at that time in our lives. The song is also notable for including saxophones, as Lahey starts creatively spreading her wings on the track. With a stellar sophomore album now under her belt, Lahey continues to solidify her position as the songwriter of the moment, as she lives her life out loud. 

Spotify

Standout Tracks: “Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself,” “Let’s Go Out,” and “Unspoken History” 




7. New Pornographers:

In the Morse Code of Break Lights

With what may have originally seemed like a one-off side project from its participants with their 2001 debut Mass Romantic, The New Pornographers, a sort of indie rock answer to the Traveling Wilburys, have carried on now for 18 years; producing 8 albums in that span. 

With In the Morse Code of Break Lights, the Candian supergroup continues with their particular brand of power-pop, but with a noticeably darker turn. With Carl Newman now the primary songwriter on all the tracks, the group has embraced what Newman has always done so well, both with the group and on his solo albums: present the sorrow of life through the poppiest of filters. 

On “Falling Down the Stairs of Your Smile,” Newman laments, “Too many soapboxes, not enough violins/Too many shipwrecks, not enough sirens”, and you can feel his disappointment in the turn the world is taking where everyone has an opinion but not the motivation for action. Regardless of the darker tone, The New Pornographers are still anchored by Newman’s songwriting and vocalist Neko Case, a once-in-a-generation singer who could sing my spam emails to me with such power and conviction that by the end I’d be compelled to give up my checking account and social security number. That’s a one-two punch few groups can boast. 

Spotify

Standout Tracks: “Falling Down the Stairs of Your Smile,” “The Surprise Knock,” and “You’ll Need a New Backseat Driver”




8. Wilco:

Ode to Joy

A band nearing their 25th anniversary, who have released 10 albums in that time, could be forgiven for settling into a place of serving their fan’s expectations to stick to the same old same old. Wilco, on the contrary, has made a career out of defying expectations, avoiding easy categorization, and following their own muse with each album. 

On Ode to Joy, the band is still experimenting and not afraid to take changes, but more than ever, they embrace the quieter moments of life. Perhaps it was from writing his memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back) last year, but frontman and principal songwriter Jeff Tweedy seems to be reflecting on his life and enjoying the beauty of it as he grows older. While the lyrics find beauty and reflection on a life lived through pain and struggle, the band, unchanged since 2007’s Sky Blue Sky, has never sounded tighter. Each member is confident and talented enough to know when to let loose on a track and when to reel it in, and they all shine on the album.  

They are capable of letting a song build to a gorgeous crescendo before collapsing onto itself, like the music is imploding, such as on “Quiet Amplifier” and “We Were Lucky.” As the band heads into their 25th anniversary in 2020, they have managed to go from the rowdiness of youth on their debut A.M., to appreciating the quieter moments, even when they are found amongst the chaos of life. 

Spotify

Standout Tracks: “Before Us,” “Everyone Hides,” and “Love is Everywhere (Beware)” 


9. Control Top:

Covert Contracts

I grew up a punk-loving kid, but at a certain point, there was a paradigm shift in punk music and suddenly punk meant something different and became about being funny or cutesy. Punk became more about a style aesthetic than it became about an attitude. That’s what makes Control Top and their debut Cover Contracts so special: it’s a callback to an era of punk long gone but dearly missed. To put it in terms easily digestible, Covert Contracts feels like the best vocal moments of Corin Tucker on early Sleater-Kinney or Kathleen Hanna at the peak of Bikini Kill fronting a Damaged-era Black Flag. Like the best of punk’s bygone era, Control Top has targets for each of its songs. 

On “Office Rage,” the frustrations of the working class expressed through the growing frustration of anyone making it paycheck to paycheck, and the title track locks in on the anger that comes with having too much information in a world where no one wants to do anything with it or about it. On “Betrayal,” they show that no one is exempt from scrutiny and that both sides shoulder some of the blame. Punk may have long ago turned pop, but Control Top’s debut reminds us that we have a lot left to still be pissed off about. 

Spotify

Standout Tracks: “Chain Reaction,” “Type A,” and “Office Rage”




10. Spiral Stairs:

We Wanna Be Hyp-No-Tized

As the term indie rock continues to evolve and change with each passing year, the heyday of the term seems lost to the history books or at least record guides. One of the era’s last true vanguards, however, has been Pavement founding member Spiral Stairs. After the band broke up in ‘99, Spiral formed a new group (Preston School of Industry) and released two great albums (All This Sounds Gas and Monsoon), but when that chapter came to a close, he finally stepped out on his own and began releasing solo albums that produced his strongest songs to date: The Real Feel and Doris & The Daggers

Like all of his output since the early days of Pavement, Spiral wears his influences proudly, ranging from Echo & The Bunnymen to The Fall to Swell Maps, and his latest effort is no different, save for that it couples those with his position now as an indie rock elder statesmen in our current political landscape on tracks like “Swampland” and “Fingerprintz.” He’s at his best, though, with the psychedelic “Hyp-No-Tized,” the jaunty “The Fool,” and the reflective “Diario.” Therein lies the strength of the album: the songs speak to a time in music long past as a place of comfort in an increasingly polarizing political and social world. 

Spotify

Standout Tracks: “Hyp-No-Tized,” “The Fool,” and “Diario”