We’ve Got Five Years

Antisocialites, Alvvays, 2017

For my money, 2017 was an outrageous year for music. Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., Tyler the Creator’s Flower Boy, Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy, LCD Soundsystem’s American Dream, Jason Isbell’s The Nashville Sound, Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile’s Lotta Sea Lice, and Vince Staples’ Big Fish Theory were all released in 2017. And I’ve already published my thoughts about two other incredible 2017 albums, Fleet Foxes’ Crack-Up and War on Drugs’ A Deeper Understanding. All of this is to say that my music world expanded tenfold as a sophomore in college, and five years later I’ve yet to experience another year-long barrage of albums that blow me away quite like that one.

Which album from 2017 have I listened to the most in the last few years now that they’ve all had the opportunity to live in my head for five full years? The answer is actually none of them. The 2017 album I’ve let run the most circles around my brain is Alvvays’ Antisocialites. Chalk another one up for the Canadians.

There’s a pretty simple reason I revisit Antisocialites so much, I think. I like it when people sing well, and I like it when guitars sound cool. That’s about as artful as I can be about this. Listening to music doesn’t have to be complicated. Alvvays deploys a combination of addictive vocal melodies and reverb-drenched guitar sounds to such great effect that you’d be forgiven for thinking there was a lot more going on song-structure wise than the typical verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/solo/chorus/out.

When People Sing Well

“I guess my voice sounds pretty close to a coyote or something.”

Bob Dylan

I think I’ve mentioned it a couple other times on this blog, but in the unlikely event you don’t remember every single word I’ve ever written, I feel very strongly that there is no connection between “good singing” and “hitting notes/staying in tune.” Bob Dylan’s self-proclaimed resemblance to a coyote is endearing to me, and I just read a passage in a book about soul music where the engineer for the legendary Percy Sledge song “When a Man Loves a Woman” notes that Sledge was so out of tune during the sessions he thought the windows of the recording studio were going to shatter. If you had to hit notes perfectly and stay in tune to be a good vocalist, I am confident that rock music would simply not exist.

As it turns out, though, Alvvays has a lead singer, Molly Rankin, who does have an incredible voice in the conventional sense of the term. Rankin accomplishes a rare vocal feat: her songs have catchy, memorable verses, some of them even more memorable to my ears than her choruses. And I don’t mean sometimes. I mean that every single song on Antisocialites has a catchy, hook-laden verse that would rival most bands’ best choruses.

“Not My Baby” is a prime example of Rankin’s gift. The song’s de facto chorus “because I’m really not there/I’m really not there” is catchy, no doubt, but it’s the way Rankin sings “no need to turn around to see what’s behind me/I don’t care” or “no need to sit at home with the dial tone/’cause I don’t care” in the verses that play in my head when I think about the song. And in case you thought Rankin would only provide one memorable hook in the verses, she breaks out a second melody in the third verse when she sings “the night is like a fading radio,” and a third melody in the final verse when she sings “you sought an eye/so did I for an island.” That’s three separate catchy vocal melodies that are not the chorus if you were playing along at home. And the song doesn’t sound like it’s shifting modes the entire time, either. It’s simply drifting along in verse/chorus structure, but Rankin is so good at changing her voice around that she’s able to fit all that into a 4-minute pop song.

“Already Gone” might be even more impressive on Rankin’s part, seeing as there’s only one bridge, three verses, and no chorus. And still, Rankin provides four separate vocal hooks: the “main” one on “if there were an ocean”; a truly weird digression on “a vat of chlorine’s close enough I guess,” which is somehow in the same verse as the first hook; a third one during the bridge on “I arrived at the scene…”; and a fourth during that same bridge on “appetite minuscule/middle of the night, drain the pool.” And again, that’s a song that changes chords once. To pull all that off on such a simple song is uncommon to say the least, and very uncommon to say the most.

When Guitars Sound Cool

“It’s a guitar pedal. I know you like them. I’m not sure what they do, I guess they make the guitar sound cool.”

Nathan Fielder

Rankin’s voice definitely lends itself to a pop style, and the songs on Antisocialites themselves lend themselves to a pop style, too. So why is Antisocialites an “indie rock” album (whatever that means) instead of a “pop” album (whatever that means)? It’s the guitars, of course. They’re noisy, and they’re aided by a lot of really cool synthesizer work to essentially cover Rankin’s vocals in waves of fuzz. Waves is actually an apt descriptor right off the bat, as the opening track, “In Undertow,” evokes waves lyrically and sonically. The synths open the album, but for most of the song the synths and the guitar are creating one noise, and it’s hard to separate the two from each other. Eventually, the guitar takes over for a solo around the two minute mark, and the synth joins back in for a nice rave-up into the last chorus. “In Undertow” is likely my favorite song on the album, and the guitars have the most to do with that. Rankin’s voice set against clean guitars would be cool, but her voice set against the blown-out guitar is a far cooler juxtaposition, and it sets the tone for the rest of the album.

The guitars and synths take the lead on “Plimsoll Punks,” too. The guitar see-saws between clean arpeggios and fuzzy chords that change the tone of the song multiple times. This tone change happens most notably starting around the 2:20 mark, when a pulsating guitar is added to the back of one of the verses that was not there in the other verses. That leads to an angular solo around 2:45 that’s cut short by a strange 20-second synth interlude, until the full band jumps back in for the last chorus and outro. It’s a really cool song that could have just been fine, but instead is one of the best on the album with the help of a lot of noise.

The final guitar and synth show-off is “Saved By A Waif,” which opens on a church organ synth and then adds a Smiths-indebted guitar riff. The rest of the song uses so many different synth and guitar sounds that it’s hard to keep up. The guitar has some regular chord strumming, some feedback scratching, and some clean riffs, and that’s all in the first minute of the song. The synths, on the other hand, sound like a cheap toy keyboard during the first verse and then take on this intense ’80s sound only five seconds later. The dueling instruments make for the most upbeat song on the album, which is necessary on the heels of “Already Gone,” the album’s slowest track. Good sequencing.

Your Type

Like I said earlier, music doesn’t really have to be complicated. Antisocialites succeeds on the basis of a straightforward formula of really nice, talented vocals accompanied by hazy, atmospheric guitars and synths. There aren’t many tricks at play, and why should there be? 2017 was a year where artists I love made some of their most ambitious and complex music. Alvvays may have outdone them all in a mere 33 minutes.

Thinking of a Place

Live Drugs, The War on Drugs, 2020

My relationship to a band I love isn’t entirely solidified until I see them play live. I want to obsess over the band for a week before the show, I want to talk about possible setlists with the people who are going with me to the show, I want to chat with strangers standing near me at the show, I want to see what guitars are on stage.

More importantly, though, I think it’s obvious when a band is passionate about the music they make, and seeing that passion in person affirms my love of the music in some way. I saw The War on Drugs a few months ago, and they did exactly what I want a band to do at a live show. The songs weren’t rote copies of their studio counterparts, and it was clear Adam Granduciel and company cared deeply about the music they were playing. Live Drugs, their 2020 live album, presents (in abbreviated form–the album is only about 75 minutes, and the show I saw was about 2 hours 15 minutes) everything that makes The War on Drugs a live band that will keep someone who’s seen them a fan for a very long time.

The first thing that you notice while listening to Live Drugs is that everyone involved in The War on Drugs is extremely good at playing their instruments, and they’re particularly good at playing them together. There’s 7 people on stage at a War on Drugs show, but they are making 1 sound. Each member knows exactly when to provide ambience and color and exactly when to kick it into high gear. “An Ocean In Between the Waves” starts the album by showcasing drummer Charlie Hall’s propulsive nature, but Granduciel and the keyboard players are working in complete tandem with Hall, too. The keyboards sort of swirl around over the verses, and Granduciel’s voice goes from a mumble to a shout just as Hall starts hitting the snare a bit harder. Everything is timed so perfectly. I think it was a good choice to open the live album with “An Ocean” even though the song doesn’t normally open their shows. To someone unacquainted with the band, “An Ocean” lets you know immediately what The War on Drugs is about. They’re a locomotive train that rarely stops to refuel.

So, The War on Drugs is a 7-piece wrecking crew, sure, but it’s also very much Adam Granduciel’s Band. And, like many great rock singers, Granduciel is not very good at singing. Not if you think singing is about hitting notes. But Granduciel absolutely knows how to deliver his songs in a way that makes them compelling, which makes him a better vocalist than most in my eyes. Granduciel, in the Bob Dylan/Bob Weir spirit, does not deliver a line the same way twice, and thank god for that. If I wanted to hear him adhere note for note to the studio version of “Pain,” I would just listen to the studio version of “Pain.” Instead, Granduciel changes his vocal inflections like a pitcher changing arm slots. “Pain” has the line: “I met a man with a broken back/he had a fear in his eyes that I could understand.” On the studio version, “he had a fear in his eyes that I could understand” is all delivered at a lower register. On the Live Drugs version, “he had a fear in his eyes” is up higher, and the second half goes back down to the lower register. On the version of “Pain” I saw in DC, the whole line is delivered at a higher register. Which one sounds the best to my ears? It would probably depend on the day.

The War on Drugs pull another one of my favorite live band tricks, which is cover a song and play it so well it sounds like an original. The War on Drugs has no interest in playing a cover to elicit an easy singalong, either. When I saw them, they played “Born in Time,” a Bob Dylan song from his 1990 album Under the Red Sky, which many critics say is his worst. On Live Drugs, the band covers Warren Zevon’s “Accidentally Like a Martyr,” a ballad that’s also the second least played song on Spotify from Zevon’s album Excitable Boy. Granduciel likes the songs, though, and that comes through loud and clear from the covers. Granduciel gives “Accidentally Like a Martyr” two weird, unsettling guitar solos and trades the Zevon song’s piano fills for twinkling guitar licks. What could have been a weak point on the live album instead both introduced me to a great song and set up a ridiculous three-song stretch to end the album of “Eyes to the Wind,” “Under the Pressure,” and “In Reverse.”

“An Ocean in Between the Waves” is a perfect encapsulation of The War on Drugs Live, but “Under the Pressure” is the pinnacle of War on Drugs Live. It’s a revelation what the band pulls off in 12 minutes. The obvious downside of a live album is that it’s not a video, so I guess it’s possible to miss the intensity that the band gives to “Under the Pressure.” But I think they know it’s their best live song, and they give it the attention and drama it deserves. The studio version features about 30 seconds of ambient build-up to the first piano riff; the live versions provide 3+ minutes of that build-up. Same goes for the break mid-song, which lasts about a minute in the studio and goes on for about 3 minutes live, as well. All this anticipation makes the moment when the drums come in feel infinitely more satisfying. Granduciel understands that too–on the last verse on live versions of “Under the Pressure,” he’s literally shouting over the rest of the band.

I think it’s extraordinarily easy to have a good time at a concert. I’ve enjoyed 99.9 percent of concerts I’ve been to. A lot of times, though, the fun I had at a show had more to do with the people I went with, the drinks I had, etc. With The War on Drugs, the music alone will keep me coming back regardless of the setting or the context.

It’s Bigger Than You, and You Are Not Me

Reckoning, R.E.M., 1984

For several reasons (the Get Back documentary, a couple concerts I’ve been to recently, etc.), I’ve been obsessed for weeks with the idea of a band and how insane it is that anyone would be able to sustain a relationship like that for an extended period of time. It’s impressive to me that a band that’s truly built on collaboration could create one successful album together, much less several albums over a decade plus.

That’s why this show I just watched about R.E.M. blew my mind. The show is called “Song Exploder.” Song Exploder is a podcast I listen to sometimes, but they also put out a few documentary-style episodes on Netflix. The gist of the podcast/show is they bring an artist on to discuss one song in their discography, and the artist talks about how the song got made and what went in to creating each constituent part. Normally, the “bandleader” or “principal songwriter” or whatever is the main speaker, and any contribution from anyone else who worked on the song is secondary to the head honcho.

R.E.M. went on the show to talk about “Losing My Religion,” no doubt their most famous song. If you know a decent amount about R.E.M., you know that Michael Stipe is the lead singer and lyricist, and it would make sense to assume Stipe has “control” of the band in some way. Every band has someone in “control.” After watching the Song Exploder episode, I’m not convinced R.E.M. operated in that way at all.

Losing My Religion

The song was built around a mandolin riff that guitarist Peter Buck came up with while fiddling around at his house. Once the riff was built, I would imagine most documentaries would cut to the “bandleader” saying how much they liked the riff and how they then took it and ran with it. Song Exploder instead talks next to drummer Bill Berry, who says he is the one who knew they had to make a song out of the riff. He says he tried to play congas to give the song a “latin feel,” because the riff itself should be the standout. But the “general consensus was” that “we” felt the song needed a bit more power, so Berry switched to some straight up drumming. Song Exploder cuts back to Peter Buck, who explains that all his drummer friends beg him to explain how Bill Berry is such a good drummer.

I guess that’s a relatively mundane sequence of events, but to me it was revelatory. This Song Exploder episode was filmed while these guys were all in their 60s. They have not made music together in over a decade. And yet, all they can talk about the entire time is how good the other band members are, and how the band as a whole decided to change the direction of the song. This is not how broken up 60-year-old bandmates speak about each other. A lot of bandmates who broke up would get on something like Song Exploder and distort history to make themselves look like the hero behind “Losing My Religion.” Instead, Peter Buck goes on to say that bassist Mike Mills’ bassline made Buck’s own mundane mandolin part stand out.

Maybe all this socialist harmony is undercut when Mills says a song doesn’t go anywhere unless Stipe is inspired to write lyrics for it. But that doesn’t feel like Mills saying Stipe is the ultimate one who decides if an R.E.M. song gets made. It feels more like Mills saying that they are not an instrumental band, and Stipe’s part is just one-fourth of the necessary components for R.E.M. to decide if an R.E.M. song gets made.

R.E.M. seemed to operate under the idea that each band member had total autonomy to create their own part, and it seems as though they never undermined this idea in the way that, say, Paul McCartney appeared to in the Get Back documentary. R.E.M. appears to take this idea so seriously that when the Song Exploder host asks Peter Buck what he thinks Stipe’s lyrics mean, he says he has his own ideas, but it is not his place to say. In fact, he says he and Stipe would never even talk about what Stipe’s lyrics meant.

If anyone in the band were to have a huge ego about “Losing My Religion,” I guess it would be Stipe himself. He’s the lyricist and lead singer of a song that has been streamed over 750,000,000 times on Spotify. Instead, when Stipe listens to the isolated vocal track, his only comment is about Mills’ and Berry’s backing vocals. “Fuck, they’re so good,” he says.


I think R.E.M.’s penchant for collaboration is obvious even if you listen to their music stripped of the band’s commentary. The first three songs on their second album Reckoning paints a clear picture of R.E.M. as “Band” with a capital B.

The opening track, “Harborcoat,” is driven by Bill Berry’s drums without a doubt. The song begins with snare hits like gunshots. From there Berry drives the verses with fast, sharp cymbal hits. The chorus has overlaying vocals and background vocals, strummed guitar, and a quiet bass part, but Berry continues his propulsive drumming. The guitar riff in the pre-chorus is awesome, and Stipe sounds great, but I’d call the song a show for Bill Berry.

The second song allows Berry to take somewhat of a backseat. I don’t mean to say Berry’s drum part isn’t great here; what I really mean is his drum part is opening up space for Buck and Mills to do some crazy stuff with their guitar and bass. Mills’ bass part is much louder than it is on “Harborcoat,” and Buck creates four separate guitar parts that work in very different ways. One strummed part controls the verses, which is backed up by a lower part that is essentially mimicking the main part. The chorus has two parts, as well: one arpeggio part and a part with a separate effect take turns leading the way. Once again, Stipe is great, but the song is an engine for Buck and Mills.

And then Stipe finally gets to shine on “So. Central Rain.” Mills, Buck, and Berry all do their part here, but Stipe’s calm delivery of the verses and his surprising shouts of “I’m Sorry” in the chorus are the highlights of the song, and create one of the highlights of the whole album.

Wrapping Up

There are a million ways for a band to make great music. But this has to be the best way, yeah? R.E.M. made music together for 32 years, stopped making music on their own terms because they just didn’t feel like making music anymore, and have sworn ever since that they don’t have any intention of making more music together. Interestingly enough, though, Buck mentions in the Song Exploder episode that the four of them still talk and hang out regularly. “It’s not as if the band is broken up, we just don’t make music anymore,” he says.

Listening to R.E.M., it makes sense to me that they operated in this collaborative way. Music can be incredible when the creative engine is driven by one person (Todd Rundgren, Stevie Wonder, Adam Granduciel, Paul McCartney, millions of others). And I used to think it was the most impressive thing when someone could get in a studio, play every instrument themselves, and release an album with a one-person credit list. But I actually think what R.E.M. did is even more impressive. They managed to listen to each other and allow each other enough space to create music that was undoubtedly better than the sum of its parts. Michael Stipe is not Michael Jackson. Bill Berry is not Neil Peart. Mike Mills is not Jaco Pastorius. Peter Buck is not Jimi Hendrix. But together, the four of them were R.E.M., and I guess they still are.

The Special Relationship

A Dumb Comparison

In April of 1989, Pixies released their second LP Doolittle. In May of 1989, The Stone Roses released their self-titled album The Stone Roses. Some would say the similarities between the two end there. Their sounds are extremely different, which I suppose makes sense. The Stone Roses are from the UK, and their influences are pretty clearly based in the UK, as well. Most people would probably hear The Beatles, The Smiths, Primal Scream, and The Jesus and Mary Chain in The Stone Roses. Pixies formed in Boston, and their influences were naturally all American–The Cars, surf rock like The Ventures, and then American hardcore bands like Hüsker Dü and Black Flag.

So, The Stone Roses and Doolittle sound nothing like each other, the bands in general take their influences from entirely different sources, and they formed on different continents. And yet, whenever I listen to The Stone Roses, I think about Doolittle, and whenever I listen to Doolittle, I think about The Stone Roses.

Leaving aside the fact that the albums came out a month apart from each other, I think I make the comparison because both albums sum up what I love about each country’s indie rock tendencies in under an hour. That’s probably a dumb and simplified way to look at the two albums, but I’m pretty sure being dumb and simple is only a bad idea if you’re being negative. And I could never find a reason to be negative about Doolittle or The Stone Roses.

The Stone Roses

Might as well start with the album that came out second. My favorite part about British indie is how big it all sounds. The Smiths, The Cure, The Chameleons, etc., all drenched everything in reverb, and each instrument sounded like it was jumping out of the speakers. The Stone Roses took that idea and sprinted with it. It’s easy to hear in the opening of “She Bangs the Drums.” The cymbals and bass immediately start driving the song, and then the guitar comes in like a wave. It seems impossible that anything could sound bigger after that, but the chorus adds double-tracked vocals and a guitar line that completely seal the deal.

The next song, “Waterfall,” begins with just an echoey guitar line. The drums don’t come in until beyond the :30 mark, but again the sound is so huge that you barely even notice there aren’t drums. “Waterfall” is an apt name for the song, because the whole thing–particularly the rave-up outro–drowns the speakers in bright-sounding guitars and drums. This album is so bright that even when lead singer Ian Brown gets dark lyrically, there’s still a pop hit going on in the background. The 8th track, “Made of Stone,” starts out much moodier than the rest of the album. The band can’t help themselves, though, and the chorus breaks the tension and provides one of the catchier moments on the album. And when I say they can’t help themselves, I really think that’s true. Allegedly, “Made of Stone” is about a car crash, and the cover of the single is in black and white to indicate the song is dark. But the chorus is a legitimate sing-along.

Ultimately, The Stone Roses is a completely over-the-top, hook-filled marvel that took the best of so much British music and mixed it all together to create a sound as bright as its album cover. “She Bangs the Drums” notes that “the past was yours/but the future’s mine.” I’d say Ian Brown was spot on about that; his band set the formula for British indie rock for the next decade plus.


If the defining element of British indie was its expansiveness, then the defining element of American indie was its aggression. The Replacements, Minutemen, Minor Threat, etc., played music that was purposely confrontational. Pixies took that sound to its logical conclusion a lot like The Stone Roses did with their country’s sound, but while The Stone Roses accomplished that by adding layers, Pixies accomplished it by carefully stripping layers away. Doolittle is famous for its “soft-loud-soft” sound, where the verses are pretty quiet, and then the choruses are laughably loud. Minor Threat, an American indie band pre-Pixies, were extremely loud right away, didn’t let up for about a minute, and then moved on to the next song. Pixies were content to let their aggression simmer for a while, which made their outbursts even more shocking by comparison.

A good example would be the second track, “Tame.” Lead singer Black Francis literally whispers the first verse, and legendary bassist Kim Deal and drummer David Lovering play a steady rhythm. At around :20, chaos strikes, and Black Francis screams at the top of his lungs for a good ten seconds while a guitar comes in that sounds like factory equipment. By the :35 mark, the guitar falls out and Black Francis is back to whispering.

“Gouge Away” closes the album, and follows pretty much the exact same formula as “Tame.” I think “Gouge Away” works even better, though, because if you’ve listened to the album all the way through, you’re not tricked by the opening quiet verse. You know the explosion of the chorus is coming, which somehow makes the verse more exciting. Every song on Doolittle seems like a game: how will the band wind up at a point where they all sound like they’re participating in an exorcism?

What I like most about Doolittle is that it sounds menacing and angry, but the lyrics don’t reflect that at all. American indie in the ’80s involved a lot of screaming about the government and drug abuse and alienation. Here’s a non-comprehensive list of topics Pixies yell about on Doolittle: a Spanish movie from the 1920s, Samson and Delilah, Hebrew Numerology, College Roommates. There’s plenty of politics on the album, too, but you have to look hard to find it. Pixies were way more oblique than most American indie at the time, and helped usher in more surreal bands like Pavement into the scene.

Doolittle completely changed the landscape of American indie rock. Essentially every indie band in the 1980s started as a pure hardcore punk band, and that style was reflected even if they ultimately abandoned that style. Just like The Stone Roses, Pixies were a primary influence for nearly every other indie band in their country for over a decade.

Wrapping It Up

I wouldn’t say that The Stone Roses and Doolittle are necessarily my favorite British/American indie albums. I don’t really like ranking music in that way. But I’m willing to say that the two albums defined the sounds I associate with indie rock, and a lot of my favorite guitar-based music that came out in the 1990s and 2000s are indebted to them in a huge way. Again, this is way too simple of a statement, but to me, The Stone Roses are the British indie band and Pixies are the American indie band. How crazy is it that they both released their best albums within a month of each other? Music’s cool.

Alien and Yet Familiar

This post is about side projects. It’s going to seem like it’s about live music, but it’s really not. Were I a better writer, I would be able to figure out how to weave the two topics together more elegantly. I’m not a better writer though, so just remember this is about side projects.

I have seen a pretty good amount of live music in my life. Mostly rock shows, but other genres, too. I have watched all types of people put on all types of concerts, and the only thing I can say that was common to every single concert was that it looked exhausting.

Touring musicians play for anywhere from one to four hours, scream and sweat all over the stage, thank the audience, and then do it again and again and again and again for months. If I were a touring musician, I think I would last maybe a month before the whole thing felt like work instead of fun. I would quit so quickly. By contrast, there are artists who have been sleeping on a bus for 50 years and still find the energy to make thousands of other people happy every single night.

Here’s a good example of how “the road” would ruin me. About a month and a half ago, I went to Asheville, North Carolina with a friend to see a Wilco/Sleater-Kinney double bill. The plan was to see that show on August 17th, hang out in Charlotte, North Carolina for a couple days, and then drive to Baltimore on the weekend to see the same Wilco/Sleater-Kinney double bill again on August 20th. There was a heavy storm in Asheville on the night of the 17th, though, so the show was rescheduled for August 19th, the day before the Baltimore show.

My friend and I were determined not to waste either of our tickets, so we rearranged our Airbnb, saw the show in Asheville on the 19th, woke up early on the 20th, dragged our hungover carcasses into the car, and hoofed it 7 hours or so back to Baltimore. We were completely burnt out and delirious by the time we made it to my Baltimore apartment, but we got to the next show successfully.

You know who else had to wake up early and drive 7 hours or so from Asheville to Baltimore for the Wilco/Sleater-Kinney double bill? Wilco and Sleater-Kinney! And they were actually playing the show. The whole thing struck me as insane. Our experience felt like a saga in and of itself, and it was just 5 percent of what those bands would go through on their tour. Not only did they not seem tired in the slightest on stage, they actually seemed to have way more energy than my friend and I did. Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney actually watched the Wilco show from the side of the stage after their set, even though they had already been on tour with them for over two weeks at that point. Incredible. I would have been asleep on the tour bus.

I said about 450 words ago that this post was about side projects, and it still is. For the unacquainted, a side project is when a musician is still in their primary band, but puts out an album under a different name anyway. Normally artists don’t tour behind these projects. They are usually created between tours of the main band, or while the main band is recording a new project, too. They are also generally less successful than their main band’s albums in terms of pure sales. Unfortunately, fewer people hear them.

Here’s what I love so much about side projects: these musicians, frankly, have a more physically demanding job than any of us will have in our entire lives, and in between that they still find time to explore new creative outlets. Doing so can only mean that they love music so much that their job is also their hobby. I think that comes out in the music, too, and listening to side projects is a reminder that music is supposed to make everyone involved happy, and it’s pretty cool when it does.

Jerry Garcia, in his 30 years as founder and frontman of the Grateful Dead, made songs that quite literally inspired people to live their entire lives following a music act. What’s his favorite album he ever released? His Jerry Garcia Band side project album, Cats Under the Stars. “As far as I’m concerned, Cats Under the Stars is my most successful record–even though it’s my least successful record!” Garcia said. “I’ve always loved it an it just never went anywhere.”

That’s what the side project is all about.

Here are six side projects you should check out.

Martin Courtney- Many Moons (2015)

Main Band: Real Estate

Martin Courtney is a founder of Real Estate, who are known for their jangly, arpeggiated guitars. They’re almost uncommonly pleasant to listen to. Courtney keeps that trend up with Many Moons, which has guitar lines and layered harmonies that are every bit as good as Real Estate’s best songs.

Three Tracks to Check Out: “Vestiges”; “Northern Highway”; “Little Blue”

Lotus Plaza- Spooky Action at a Distance (2012)

Main Band: Deerhunter

Deerhunter is definitely a collaborative effort, but if someone were to ask whose band it is, the answer would invariably be lead singer and primary songwriter Bradford Cox. Lotus Plaza is not a side project of Bradford Cox, but rather a side project of Lockett Pundt, Deerhunter’s lead guitarist. Pundt takes a more direct approach on “Spooky Action at a Distance” than Deerhunter ever had to this point in their career. Deerhunter, along with a band soon to be mentioned, were the forerunners of the 2000s psychedelic movement, and their music was extremely catchy but also fairly esoteric. Pundt keeps the reverb and the interesting outros from Deerhunter’s catalog but creates a brighter and less nocturnal sound.

Three Tracks to Check Out: “Strangers”; “Jet Out of the Tundra”; “Eveningness”

Deakin- Sleep Cycle (2016)

Main Band: Animal Collective

Here’s that other band that was a 2000s psychedelic pioneer. Animal Collective’s two most famous members–by far–are Avey Tare and Panda Bear, each of whom have had wildly successful solo careers outside of Animal Collective. Deakin is neither of those people, but for my money this is the best Animal Collective side project. It’s a perfect blend of acoustic folk music and psychedelic synthesizer atmosphere. The songs, most of which are over 6 minutes, seamlessly change shape and form, and they end up feeling much shorter than they are as a result.

Three Tracks to Check Out: “Golden Chords”; “Just Am”; “Good House”

Dukes of Stratosphear- Chips From the Chocolate Fireball (1987)

Main Band: XTC

Is this a proper side project? I’m unsure. The situation is this: all the members of XTC created this album under a different band name in order to explore a different musical style than they usually did. I think that counts, actually. XTC makes very weird, very catchy new wave music, and Dukes of Stratosphear make very weird, very catchy psychedelic music. XTC said their idea was to recreate the psych records of the 1960s that they loved so much, and for the most part they used vintage recording equipment to get the sound as close to the 60s as possible. It worked and then some, as this is a perfect combination of 7 or 8 different psych-pop legends. Try to tell me “Brainiac’s Daughter” doesn’t sound like a lost Paul McCartney song.

Three Tracks to Check Out: “Vanishing Girl”; “Collideascope”; “Brainiac’s Daughter”

Loose Fur- Loose Fur (2003)

Main Bands: Wilco and Jim O’Rourke

Sorry to talk about Wilco so much. That’s two posts in a row. Next time, no Wilco (maybe). Anyway, Loose Fur is a cool side project from Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, and Jim O’Rourke, who is a multi-instrumentalist who’s been involved in a million different bands. He played instruments and helped produce Wilco’s most experimental and critically acclaimed albums “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and “A Ghost is Born,” and Loose Fur is definitely in the mold of those two albums. The songs have a looser feel than the songs on those albums, though, which is fitting given the name of the band.

Three Tracks to Check Out: “Laminated Cat”; “You Were Wrong”; “Chinese Apple”

Traveling Wilburys- The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1 (1988)

Main Bands (Really Main Artists): George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison

I guess this is more of a supergroup than a side project, but I’m going to count it, because the existence of The Traveling Wilburys is proof of my argument that side projects are awesome because they show how much musicians love making music. All five of these guys had very lengthy careers at the time this album came out. The “newest” guy, Petty, had been putting out albums for over a decade. I don’t think anyone would have blamed any of these guys for hanging up their rock n’ roll shoes and retiring from the life completely. Instead, they made this album, and frankly they sound like they’re having more fun than they’d had in years. I can’t confirm that, but Harrison’s main criterion for adding a band member is he had to enjoy hanging out with them. They also gave each other fake nicknames: Petty was Charlie T. Wilbury, Orbison was Lefty Wilbury, etc. These guys should have been grumpy, over the hill old men, but that doesn’t sound grumpy to me. Long live the side project.

Three Tracks to Check Out: “End of the Line”; “Handle With Care”; “Tweeter and the Monkey Man”

All I Know is All I Know

“Bandwagonesque” by Teenage Fanclub, 1991


Someone please let Bandwagonesque stand on its own merits.

This album is unfortunately doomed to be compared to other albums. The first album mentioned in connection with Bandwagonesque is Nirvana’s Nevermind. SPIN Magazine named Bandwagonesque its “Best Album of 1991” ahead of Nevermind, and the world seemingly never let the poor magazine hear the end of it. Is it Teenage Fanclub’s fault that SPIN preferred the Scots over the Seattleites? Not really, so let’s go ahead and make this the last mention of Nirvana for now.

The second album mentioned in connection with Bandwagonesque is Big Star’s Third. Bandwagonesque is purportedly so similar in sound to the Memphis band that critics labeled it “Big Star’s Fourth.” To be clear, Teenage Fanclub are outspoken Big Star fans, and would never deny being influenced by the band if asked about it. But, again, is it fair to Norman Blake, Gerard Love, Raymond Mcginley, and Brendan O’Hare that rock media is obsessed with discussing influences? Not really. I’ll be done with the words Big Star for now, as well.

The truth is Bandwagonesque is a noisy, melodic, beautifully sloppy set of songs that deserves to be mentioned by itself, in its own catchy and clever universe.

The Tunes

A debate I’ve had many times with a friend: what’s the best opening track on an album? For me, the answer could very well be “The Concept.” It’s such a complete statement on what Teenage Fanclub is all about that you almost don’t need to listen to the rest of the album. Some heavy feedback leads to some funny lyrics about The Pill and the 60s band Status Quo and then the chorus provides some awesome harmonies. Around the 2-minute mark, there is a guitar solo for the ages, one more chorus, and a lesser band would have just stopped there. Instead, Teenage Fanclub breaks out a three-minute outro filled with harmonies, chiming guitars, and a slow but powerful bassline. It’s evident the band knows “The Concept” is transcendent–they go so far as to give listeners a quick cool down with the 1-minute noisy interlude “Satan” before returning to the rest of the record.

The rest of the album proves that Teenage Fanclub are masters of songwriting conventions. “December” makes great use of a violin in the chorus which plays nicely off a bright guitar riff. “What You Do To Me” is two-minutes flat and contains only twenty words, but the drum fills and the stop-and-start nature of verses and choruses makes it one of the catchiest songs on the whole album. It’s the little things with these guys.

“Metal Baby” is about a guy who takes a girl to a metal concert, and she promptly ditches him and takes off to a new city with members of the band after the show. Is she at fault here, or is he truly that boring? He is, after all, “not ready to be party to her plan.” It’s a tough call, but I think she might be in the right on this one.

As “The Concept” already proved, Teenage Fanclub are masters at the outro. It’s sort of a classic rock idea, the outro. But Teenage Fanclub make it their own, and “Pet Rock” and “Alcoholiday” are better as a result. “Pet Rock” spends most of its runtime on an outro that adds horns into the mix. All the song needs is one verse and an outro. There really is no chorus required when you can make guitars and drums sound as catchy as Teenage Fanclub can. “Alocholiday” is similar in structure to “The Concept,” but instead of the “oohs” of “The Concept,” this outro provides the band’s best lyrics of the whole album. “All I know is all I know/what I’ve done I leave behind me/I don’t want my soul to find me.” Great stuff.

“Is This Music?” is an instrumental that closes the album, and has an ’80s style guitar sound that contrasts really well with the rest of the record. The effect placed on the guitar adds the perfect amount of melancholy to bookend everything.

But Who Cares?

Here’s a dumb generalization: the 1980s and 1990s indie music scene worked to deny the things they thought had hampered the rock industry for the previous two decades. They hated guitar solos, they hated groupies, they hated unnecessarily long tracks, they hated it all.

For me, though, the best bands of the indie scene, the ones that are still talked about with reverence, managed to alter the rock landscape and play outside the lines without a condescending disdain about them. Teenage Fanclub were among the least condescending bands of the era because they understood it was the sound, not the scene, that would have staying power. They loved guitar solos. There’s a solo on most of the tracks on this album. Whatever their personal relationship to the “groupie” concept was, they still wrote a funny and potentially self-deprecating song about one. They loved unnecessarily long tracks. They knew the truth about them, which is it’s not unnecessary if it’s really catchy. Teenage Fanclub took the good things about rock music and made them their own, which is all that any band could ever hope to strive for.

So does Bandwagonesque deserve to be called 1991’s best album instead of Nevermind? I’m not sure. I’m not a rock critic. What I will say definitively about Bandwagonesque’s relationship to Nevermind is the former has no business serving as a footnote to discuss the latter’s place in music history. It’s all good music. Teenage Fanclub knew that better than anyone.