My Favorite Albums of 2015

Year-end lists are a futile exercise in artifice, encapsulating a chronologically related series of artistic statements in a purely subjective manner…so of course I do one of these every year. As part of the contributing staff of the Columbia Free Times, my votes went into that paper’s just published list here. 

For that, we were asked to submit our own list, with comments. As is my own tradition, I’m posting mine in full here.

Top Ten Albums of 2015

1. Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free

Tasked with furthering the success of 2013’s lauded Southeastern, Jason Isbell delivers on the stately authenticity that has become the trademark of his evocative Americana. His nasal twang and ability to turn a gut-punching lyrical phrase imparts stunning sincerity to songs about how free will and decisions made combine to create our own stories. Add in a backing band on top of its game, and you’ve got something priceless.

2. Adele, 25

The rare moment when massive popularity meets massive talent.

3. John Moreland, High On Tulsa Heat

Songs that are gut-wrenchingly honest and honestly hard to listen to, but also hard to stop listening to.

4. Nora Jane Struthers and the Party Line, Wake

If popular country music was still this swinging and original…but it’s not.

5. Seth Avett and Jessica Lee Mayfield, Seth Avett and Jessica Lee Mayfield

An album full of lovingly rendered versions of the late Elliott Smith’s songs.

6. Murder By Death, Big Dark Love

The carnival band for weird America, Balkans-meet-Barnum & Bailey.

7. Rhiannon Giddens, Tomorrow Is My Turn

Former Carolina Chocolate Drop extending her old-time bona fides into breathtaking new old sounds. (realizing now that this was a late 2014 release, but I listened to it a lot this year so I’ll leave it here)

8. American Aquarium, Wolves

Best bar band in America, with a live show to prove it. The songwriting lifts this above that reputation.

9. Doomtree, All Hands

Hip-hop is either pop-driven or bereft of meaningful content these days, Dessa and the rest of this collective have an all-hands-on-deck approach to making hard-hitting classic rhymes that don’t pull any punches for popularity’s sake.

10. Translator, Sometimes People Forget

Semi-obscure 80’s college rock act from California and a footnote in pop music with “Everywhere That I’m Not,” these live in-studio takes and demos of early and unreleased songs are a raw, unpolished look at what they would become.

25 More 80’s College Rock Songs From the Southeast

Following up my recent, very popular post on this subject (which you can find here) is this guest post and slightly different perspective and list from fellow SC music critic Baker Maultsby:

25 top Southeast college, alternative, indie – just good – songs from the 1980s

This project started as a discussion on Facebook about a couple recent 1980s “Best Of” music lists, including one on the popular and influential Pitchfork.com. The lists almost completely ignored the alternative rock scene of the Southeast. Yes, REM made the cut. Of course. But these writers didn’t appreciate Jason and the Scorchers? How about Let’s Active? The dbs? Evidently, they couldn’t include a song by any of these or other great Southern groups – needed space on the list for another Prince song or morose track by some British art-rockers (with all due respect here…).

It was Columbia, SC-based music writer Kevin Oliver’s idea to put together an all-Southeast 1980s list. My pal Harris King, a real alternative music aficionado who turned me on to much of the music that I love, signed on and came up with his own list. Mine is the last installment.

There is some overlap here with Harris and Kevin’s lists, but enough differences, I hope, to keep things interesting. And it’s obviously subjective. Actually, I don’t really know how one should rank a song as the 22nd best and then another as the 23rd best. Kind of silly, in a way. And I’m sure that I’m missing some plenty of good stuff – dang, I’ll probably think of something obvious tomorrow that I should’ve included. And I have uncertainties: The Silos were maybe the best band of the entire 1980s, and they had a major Gainesville, FL connection – but I think they were mainly based out of New York. What about Lucinda Williams? She doesn’t exactly fit the alternative/college rock mold – and, anyway, was she living in LA when she recorded “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad”? It’s a little maddening.

Anyway, here’s a list of songs I like:

25. “Mammaw Drives the Bus” – Government Cheese. First of all, if you have any interest in the live music scene of the Southeast during the 1980s, I cannot recommend strongly enough “The Cheese Chronicles,” a memoir written by Government Cheese guitarist and songwriter Tommy Womack. It’s a funny, smart, and sometimes harrowing look back at beer-soaked fraternity parties, raunchy bars, sketchy agents, late-night motel rooms, and the insane commitment it takes for a band to achieve even modest commercial success. As Womack explains it, his band was hardworking but not very good for much of its run….until, after so many gigs and much effort put into songwriting, they actually became pretty legitimate. They even got on MTV. This one here is a quality rocker, for sure:

24. “Southside Girl” – Arrogance. This group dates back to the early 70s and attracted loyal fans well into the 80s. Band member Don Dixon earned acclaim for his work as a producer and for the quirky single “Praying Mantis.” I like this tune:

23. “Marlene” – The Killer Whales. Perhaps South Carolina’s most popular and influential original band in the 1980s, Charleston-based Killer Whales put together well-crafted, catchy tunes that reflected inspiration from New Wave favorites such as Talking Heads and Elvis Costello. The band made a run at the big-time, even appearing on TV’s “Star Search.” Here’s one of their most excellent tunes.

 

22. “My Girl Mary Anne” – The Spongetones. Likely the Carolinas’ greatest-ever Merseybeat stylists. Yes, this single is pretty derivative. It’s also really good (and really Beatlesque).

 

21. “Hat’s Off” – The Connells. OK, I kind of disliked the Connells back in college. Their sound was rather mopey and melodramatic to me – and, yet, they were outrageously popular among preppy frat guys (I was in a fraternity in college – maybe not as preppy as some and, anyway, not hip to the Connells). But, maybe I was let my prejudices get in the way a bit. I’m still not fully onboard, but I got to say this track is pretty darn compelling – and a good representation of the band’s ability to craft songs that were smart and serious, but not too edgy to upset the pretty people of the South.

20. “Hard to Say No” – Foster and Lloyd. In terms of alternative music, I admit this might be a stretch: Foster and Lloyd had an actual presence on the country charts in the late 1980s. On the other hand, their sound was groundbreaking, incorporating tasty rock and pop influences. Moreover, Bill Lloyd, who sings lead here, was and is and a top-notch pop guitarist and tunesmith. And, finally, my pal Peter Cooper and I listened to this record a whole lot during our freshman year in college, so it hits a nostalgic nerve for me:

19. “Jenny Says” – Dash Rip Rock. New Orleans-based Dash Rip Rock might be the quintessential party band. Songs: not particularly deep, and might not hold up so well on record (that’s my take at least). But I saw them once live, and it was just outstanding all the way around. Fun!

This one goes back to the line-up that included drummer Fred LeBlanc, who went on to found Cowboy Mouth (my general take on Cowboy Mouth is about the same as DRR). Cowboy Mouth has recorded Jenny Says,” too, and it’s a big hit at their concerts. Seems there are a quite a few folks in or approaching middle age who think “Jenny Says” is about as cool as song as they can imagine. It ain’t that good, in my opinion. But, it is good – really good. Very catchy and sing-a-long-able, which isn’t easy to pull off. And a song that can be smash for two different bands over multiple decades deserves some respect. “Jenny Says” is a winner. Now that I think of it, just to show the excitement “Jenny Says” continues to generate with live audiences, I’ll link to this Cowboy Mouth concert video:

18. “What’s He Got?” – The Producers. I think this band might have played Spring Weekend at Wofford College when I was a freshman in the late 1980s. Or maybe they were over at Converse. Anyway, it was past their commercial peak, but the band’s name was vaguely familiar to me, probably because I’d almost certainly heard this slice of near-perfect 80s pop at parties or blaring from someone’s dorm room or station wagon cassette deck. Maybe my older brother had the record when I was in junior high. I can’t quite put it with a time and place, but I’m guessing that most all of us who grew up in the South during the era have at least some vague awareness of this regional hit. Very good song:

17 “Battleship Chains” – Georgia Satellites. “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” was….well, what can you say? I’ve heard the song covered by the house band at the long-defunct Mickey’s Silver Bullet bar in Spartanburg, SC. There you go. I guess I grew to pretty much hate the song, though when I saw Dan Baird play it at a tribute/fundraiser for the late Jason and the Scorchers’ drummer Perry Baggs in Nashville a few years back, it was quite glorious. Still, I think “Battleship Chains” is probably the better song. And it’s the kind of Stonesy, wide-open rock and roll that isn’t as easy to get right as it might seem.

16. “Crazy Hazy Kisses” – Flat Duo Jets. Oh, how I love some rockabilly music. And Flat Duo Jets, out of North Carolina, got it right. Not slick or even technically “good,” they were raw and rockin’ and righteous. I’ve had a difficult time figuring out exactly when certain tracks of theirs were recorded. This might not actually be from the 80s. I’m not sure I care. It’s terrific:

15. “Are You Insane?” – Popular Mechanics. The impeccably cool Popular Mechanics, from Greenville, SC, soaked up loads of 60s garage rock and cranked out a number of really strong original tunes. I saw them play in Spartanburg a number of times, and I can honestly say that it changed my life. It’s a tough choice here between this track and the flip side of the 45, “Quiet Girl.” But with the driving beat of Jim “the Crusher” McNeely, Fitz Hamrick’s intense vocals, and the groovy Farfisa work of rock hero Russ Morin (who passed away this fall), this track carries the day.

14. “Private Idaho”—The B-52s. This is the B-52s doing their thing: surfy guitars, trashy but spot-on vocals, fluky lyrics. Maybe I’m rating a little low because, well, it isn’t quite “Rock Lobster” or something. Really good track, though:

13. “Do the Method” – The Method Actors. I admit: This project got me to googling 80s Southern music to find stuff I either had not known about before or that I just couldn’t think of. This one is in the former category. I’m glad I found it. Really excellent New Wave tune here with terrific surfy guitars and nervy vocals.

12.  “I Love A Girl Named Donna Epps” – Bad Boy Butch Batson. There were some pretty far out music characters roaming the Upstate of South Carolina in the 1980s: Jim “the Crusher” McNeely played drums in the Popular Mechanics while wearing a gas mask. With McNeely, former Accelerators bassist put together a duo called Homo Factory Workers that played pretty country-folk songs. Roy Moon, of the 70s-era genius Roy Moon and Sonny Focks tapes and Accelerators forerunner Moonpie, was about to emerge in the early 1990s with the excellent Tapered Hedz band and a batch of songs that included the funky “Schizophrenic Man.” But arguably the strangest creative mind in the area was Bad Boy Butch Batson. Real name Earl, Bad Boy was reportedly a humble and rather shy fellow from a rural part of Greenville County who would carry around cassettes of himself singing/talking into a tape recorder. At least that how I recall the legend of Bad Boy Butch being explained to me. In any case, “I’m In Love with a Girl Named Donna Epps” presents Bad Boy Butch as a sincere amateur. The backing band is tight, pretty rockin,’ really – but vocal lines start early, finish too early or too late, just sort of get out of whack; Bad Boy’s sense of meter is reminiscent of the bizarre late 60s family/girl-group the Shaggs. But “Donna Epps” – allegedly about a real girl named Donna Epps – is full of awkward energy and frustrated longing. This is the red clay punk, outsider rock you’ve been waiting for. Bad Boy Butch was the real deal.

 

 

11. “Stop It” – Pylon. Pylon certainly looms large in the history of the Athens, GA music scene: The B-52s were supporters. REM covered one of their songs. I’m not a Pylon aficionado, by any means. And some of their music is a bit on the experimental side for my taste. There are definitely exceptions, but I tend to lean toward more traditional songwriting styles. Still, I appreciate the raw, gutsy approach here, and I can see why Pylon was such an influential band.

10. “I Know How it Feels to Love” – David Ezell. Spartanburg, SC native David Ezell is one of the Southeast’s real musical treasures. He’s a master song interpreter of everything from Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen to Motown and honky-tonk to the Beatles and Van Morrison, Ezell is also an outstanding songwriter. Sadly, he’s one of those musicians whose songs have never received proper treatment in the studio, though he recorded a strong demo of the terrific rootsy pop song “I Know How it Feels to Love” while living in Nashville during the late 80s and early 90s. It’s the top track at this link: https://www.reverbnation.com/davidezell

9. “Fool to Turn Back Now” – Matthew Knights. Matthew was a charged-up, punk-inspired teen sensation in Spartanburg, SC – home to the great but very non-punk rock Marshall Tucker Band – for a time during the 1980s. With industry interest and undeniable talent and charisma, he appeared poised for a real shot at commercial success. For a variety of reasons – and accounts vary somewhat – it never happened. But that has nothing to do with the guy’s talent as a songswriter and rocker. This one is a powerhouse tune that was cut as a demo but unreleased in the 1980s and then appeared on an early 2000s recording project (I like the demo slightly better, but this is still excellent). Big and intense anthematic rock and roll. Great melody, with a real sing-a-long chorus. Matthew is absolutely a major talent, and unlike most on this list, he’s written great songs in every decade since the 80s….no kidding.

8. “(Why You) Hang Up On Me” – The Accelerators. The Accelerators, with ties to the Greenville, SC area but based out of Raleigh, were and are one of my favorite bands. I got to see them as a teenager at the Spartanburg, SC club Dawggone. Really, really top-notch rock and rollers. This is the second track from their self-titled album, which got strong reviews in Rolling Stone and Billboard. It’s a great example of lead songwriter and singer Gerald Duncan’s economical approach to writing and rocking: a hard-driving foundation, but cool restraint and precise control. No YouTube of the song, but you can scroll down and hear it at this link: https://myspace.com/accelerators/music/songs

 

7 “Human Cannonball” – Webb Wilder. I was at an outdoor festival outside of Nashville a few years back, and an Americana band was finishing up on a stage across the field from where Webb Wilder and the Beatnecks were fixing to play. The band that was wrapping things up was good – laidback and melodic and pleasant. I think they had had a semi-hit in the late-90s among people were fans of the Jayhawks and Son Volt, etc. Good stuff. Anyway, former Derailers drummer Mark Horn was standing near me, waiting for Webb and company to get going, and he looked down the way at the group packing up and said to no one in particular, “Those guys are about to get a lesson in Rock and Roll.”

That pretty much sums it up. For riff-heavy, rootsy rock and roll, Webb is the master. I saw a video once in which Webb (he’s great on camera and has done some cool movie work) states, “You are what you eat, and we’ve eaten a lot of music.” Indeed, the Mississippi native has absorbed Delta blues and rockabilly and country, as well as British Invasion pop and a nice dose of AC/DC and other nifty hard rock classics.

And this song – “Human Cannonball” – is Webb at his best. The stop-and-start hooks, the humorous lyrics, the impeccably tight band….it might not be possible to do Rock and Roll any better.

6. “Love is for Lovers” – The dBs. A brilliant quirky pop song by an influential but absurdly underrated North Carolina band.

5. “Katie” – Vulgar Boatmen. If this can be included, as part of the band in Gainesville, FL, though part in Indiana. A great song. Evocative lyrically, musically frail, but beautiful.

4. “Waters Part” – Let’s Active.  Brilliant melody and guitar work by influential North Carolina-based writer and producer Mitch Easter. Artsy as any of the “serious” New Wave stuff of the era, but with a homey Southern feel. Bonus: a favorite band of my old pal and current-day Athens musician Peter Alvanos.

 

3. “Harvest Moon” – Jason and the Scorchers. The Nashville-based Scorchers took classic country and merged it with the Ramones and Sex Pistols – instant greatness, more or less. But they wrote some really great songs, too. This one features a melody rooted in pure country music, but a scruffy, somewhat reckless edge qualifies it as a real rocker. It’s a fine example of everything that’s great about the band. Jason has called his favorite Jason and the Scorchers song, so that’s good enough for me. Southern Rock and Roll.

 

2. “Fall on Me” – R.E.M..  Their masterpiece, in my opinion. A “bigger” sound than on Murmur and other early recordings, but retaining that super-melodic and sort of mysterious quality. And my personal recollection: I was a little late to catching on to REM. I was obsessively into 60s music, but wasn’t cool enough – really – to grab onto some of the great alternative rock stuff coming out in the mid-to-late 80s. I heard this song on the radio and literally thought it was a 60s classic I just hadn’t heard before. I realized that the cool kids I knew were onto something with REM. A truly great song.

  1. “Scarred but Smarter” – Drivin’ ‘n’ Cryin’.  Jangly guitars, vague melodies, and murky lyrics were big among Southern bands in the 80s, seems to me. Kevn Kinney was having none of that. His band put forth a blend of muscular, blue-collar hard rock and folk-influenced writing that was immediately relatable….yet, assuredly alternative (Mellencamp they were not). And even if “Fly Me Courageous” was a bit too much (which I thought it was at the time – later saw them play it live at Magnolia’s club in Spartanburg and was absolutely blown away), this one from their debut of the same name is loud and riffing and anthematic in all the best ways.

All the “Alice’s Restaurant” You Can Eat

As Thanksgiving traditions go, the song and movie “Alice’s Restaurant” is a fairly common one among certain folks, especially the aging counterculture generation the original work by Arlo Guthrie was aimed at. There are different versions and performances out there, I’ve collected several of them below. Any other favorite renditions, please link to them in the comments.

The original song from the album of the same name:

 

The movie, which came out a couple years later:

An early live recording:

A more recent live version in front of a huge crowd:

An unusual but nifty ‘illustrated’ version:

And if you want to learn to play it yourself, there’s this:

 

Happy Thanksgiving!

The 25 Best Southeastern College Rock Songs From the 1980s

File-Keenesongs

So a few weeks back a fellow South Carolina freelancer and I were debating one of those online lists, this one featured the top 100 indie rock songs of the 80’s and we were incensed that it only included one or maybe two songs from the southeast–which was a hotbed of great music in that era. I determined that needed fixing, so here’s my very personal list of the best 25 college radio tunes from the southeast in the 1980s. Feel free to argue with me about the choices in the comments, or add your own.

25. Lava Love, Juke Jubilee: Atlanta beach blanket bubblegum popsters with an irrepressible, helium-driven lead singer.

24. Drivin’ N’ Cryin’, Catch the Wind: Not their best known or most rocking song (that would be the 90’s southern anthem “Straight to Hell” and 1986’s “Scarred But Smarter”, respectively) but one of Kevn Kinney’s first great acoustic/quieter songs.

23. Bachelors of Art, Cut the Ropes: Regionally popular Columbia, SC act that followed the goth-pop trends of the day and did it better than most of the major acts. This version is from a reunion gig a few years ago, where they still sounded great.

22. Flat Duo Jets, Wild Wild Lover: Can’t talk about the southeast in the 80’s without mentioning the crazed rockabilly of Dexter Romweber; they even got to play this one on Letterman.

21. Dreams So Real, Bearing Witness: Criticized (not unfairly, to be honest) at the time for being an R.E.M. ripoff, they still had some pretty good songs like this one.

20. Guadalcanal Diary, Under the Yoke: Atlanta act that never quite broke through despite several major label albums, this is from the excellent 2×4 album.

19. Swimming Pool Q’s, The Bells Ring: Majestic, sweeping power pop and jagged art-rock combined in the best songs from this Atlanta band.

 

18. Chris Stamey, Cara Lee: Half of the songwriting partnership of the original dB’s, this comes from Stamey’s first solo album after leaving the band.

 

17. Jason and the Scorchers, Broken Whiskey Glass: Best live band in the south, maybe in the country, back then…one of many great songs of theirs.

 

16. Government Cheese, C’mon Back to Bowling Green: Tommy Womack’s original band.

 

15. Dash Rip Rock, Endeavor: Their reputation as a great bar band is well deserved, but this is a simple, melodic, great tune.

14. Southern Culture on the Skids, Eight Piece Box: Redneck rockabilly stereotypes abound in this NC band’s songs, but nobody was more fun to see live.

 

13. Fetchin’ Bones, Stray: Hope Nichols was a rock star way before Gwen Stefani, and a much better one.

 

12, Marti Jones, If I Could Love Somebody: One of the best song interpreters in the 80’s, Jones parlayed her association with members of the dB’s, husband Don Dixon, and more into a string of great albums. This one’s a John Hiatt song.

 

11. Let’s Active, Every Word Means No: Mitch Easter has had more influence as a producer than an artist, but this band might balance the two sides out, almost.

10. The Windbreakers, I’ll Be Back: Deep south power pop from the team of Tim Lee (who wrote this one) and Bobby Sutliff.

 

9. The Producers, What’s He Got: Atlanta pop/party band, this was a minor hit on Top 40 radio at the time.

 

8. Will and the Bushmen, 500 Miles: Will Kimbrough is better known now for his tenure with Todd Snider and his own solo singer-songwriter albums, but this was his first band and still one of my favorite songs from him.

 

7. The Primitons, Don’t Go Away: Alabama had a good scene in the 80’s with Carnival Season, The Storm Orphans, and this band topping the list of acts from the region.

 

6. dB’s, She Got Soul: Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey were the American Lennon and McCartney, at least for a few albums. This track is from the first LP without Stamey, which makes it even more impressive that they continued to write and release great material. (Edited per correction in comments–KO)

 

5. Don Dixon, Praying Mantis: Just a fun, crazy song–and the video is a hoot. Speaking of hoots, Hootie and the Blowfish covered this song regularly from their earliest days.

 

4. The Connells, Scotty’s Lament: Most underrated southeastern band of the 80’s? maybe because they were such a  popular act with the frat crowds it scared off the hipper kids, but the Connells had a bunch of great songs including this one.

 

3. The Reivers, In Your Eyes: Going from Zeitgeist to The Reivers for their major label debut, the songs stayed transcendent, soaring masterpieces.

 

2. Tommy Keene, Places That Are Gone: Is there a more perfect power pop tune? I don’t think so.

1. R.E.M., So. Central Rain: The band that everyone in the southeast wanted to be, or the one that inspired them to say ‘hey I want to do that’; this was their best early song.