Alternative and Indie

Mission of Burma “Signals, Calls, and Marches” (1981)

Along with early Pere Ubu, Wire, and the Fall, Mission of Burma are on top of the post-punk heap anticipating Husker Du, Sonic Youth, Fugazi, and a whole lotta other stuff that’s made music worthwhile in the last 30 years. Harnessing arty punk noise abandon to a firmly footed garage rawk, and throwing in enough hooks to snare your pop instincts and sonic left-turns to keep you guessing, there are few groups I can think of who made more bracing music in this very bracing period: the aforementioned luminaries rarely topped ’em, if ever. In fact, I’m not sure anyone can top the opening track on this record: it’s been covered to death, but the original is timeless. Fortunately, their well-received reunion has resurrected their two essential early releases from obscurity. Get them both today. –Will

Guided by Voices “Alien Lanes” (1995)

Arguably better than Bee Thousand for its sequencing alone, Alien Lanes runs at breakneck speed and nestles the tiniest fragments of the group’s highly fragmentary career in among some of their (his) all-time best cuts (“Watch Me Jumpstart,” “(I Wanna Be a) Dumbcharger,” “Game of Pricks,” “Closer You Are,” “Motor Away,” “Striped White Jets”), which appear in a particularly high ratio over the course of what, at nearly 42 minutes, must qualify as a lengthy record by GBV standards. There’s the rub, though: it may be a little too long; even at what seems a comparatively more languid pace, Bee doesn’t have any downtime like “Auditorium” or “King and Caroline:” before this one’s 28-song onslaught has come to a close, I get the feeling it wouldn’t have suffered from a six or seven cut grooming. So it’s only the second best of their four or five classics. Blame Bob’s usual lack of quality control. –Will

Back “Sea Change” (2002)

Covering The Zombies, John Martyn, and Nick Drake during his sessions and tour of Sea change, Beck’s influences are ly heard and channeled this time around. While Mutations was all over the place, here Beck works on a very focused playing ground yet stretching some songs to the limit like the bare “Paper Tiger” or very solemn “It’s All in Your Mind”. His voice reaches such a level of power and beauty that could never have been foreseen coming from Mr.MTV Makes Me Wanna Smoke Crack, especially in the country tinged “Guess I’m Doing Fine”. There is just such a chilling yet peaceful tone to Beck’s voice and overall melodies that fully captures what the man must’ve felt to put out such an unpredictable yet honest record.

Beck has always channeled his place in life and views throughout his albums, whether people could see it through his bizzare language and theatrics is something less debatable. Mutations was his Moon & Antarctica (read: Hopeless, disenchanted sad sack record) but you would have never known, but here we see the most straightforward lyricism yet from Beck. The bitterness (“Is that what you thought love was for?”), the one sided love (“I can’t cry them anymore/I can’t think of what they’re for”), and hopeful hopelessness (“Let it pass on the side of the road/What a friend could tell me now”); Everything here is easy to read into yet nonetheless powerful or mysterious.

As much of a downer Sea Change was in 2002, it gave me a real sense that Beck went on this sorrowful, soul-draining spiritual journey so I wouldn’t have to. It was quite the opposite but Sea Change turned out to become one of the best friends I’ve had. Life’s turned out to be less of my own private award show of Mr. Holland’s Opus and more of a grim train ride passing by everyone I’ve hurt and everyone that’s failed to see how I’ve helped them. I guess I’m at the “Already Dead” part of my life working up to “Side of the Road”, so it makes sense that the 2nd half of the album has began to click with me. It’s also has begun to make sense how strangely beautiful the most awful moments of your life can be, especially when Sea Change is your soundtrack. –Allistair

The La’s “The La’s” (1990)

Even though John Power was an essential member of The La’s, I’m loathe to label the band the forerunner of Cast. There are some similarities in the homogeneous nature of the pop music but Power had little to do with writing anything for The La’s. The band was almost the private property of Lee Mavers who, if proof were needed of that fact, took it upon himself to destroy the only copy of the master tapes for the proposed second album because he was dissatisfied with the results. An action which ensured the self-destruction of the band.  On the one hand the band’s demise was a cause for pity. The timeless nature of some of the songs, particularly “There She Goes”, hinted at them being around for some time to come. However, on the other hand, the perfectionist disposition of Mavers would probably result in interminable periods of time between albums during which the fickle music fan would have moved on to pastures new. Whilst the songs smack of a long Merseyside tradition for producing enduring pop, Mavers almost hypnotises the listener by repeating the same word or phonetic sounds throughout. The effect lulls you into a trance-like state and the music carries you with it. It really is quite an amazing album and one for which a follow-up would have been eagerly awaited. –Ian

Royal Trux “Cats and Dogs” (1993)

At a time when punk and indie were well into the mainstream, and everyone involved was flexing their love for all the classic rock heavies, little seemed to hit the target. Too much irony, too much 90’s production, no balance. It’s like punk was stuck in some kind of endless halloween. Royal Trux by all means should have blended right in; Stones worshiping hipster junkies playing dress up while kind of fumbling around with 70’s licks. Yet, somehow, they’re just so fucking cool that you cant deny their magnetic draw. Their vibe is smeared all over their sound and look and record covers in a way that makes up for EXTREME looseness at some points, by glorifying the superficial and criminal side of rock. “Cats and Dogs” is RTX at their peak of form, blending an avant-punk aesthetic with early 70’s rock grooves. The end result is a sort of 4-track collaged mess of vocals and guitars rolling all over the place like you’re listening to “Tonight’s the Night”, “White Light, White Heat”, and “Maggot Brain” at the same time. Shit is loose, man. Perfect for stoned chillin’ with the lights down. A great homage to rock history, check out this LP. –Alex

Jellyfish “Bellybutton” (1990)

From The Beatles right through to the likes of The Lightning Seeds, Britain has a knack of producing bands who deliver a brand of pure, polished pop. The content may have dark or serious overtones but the melody and vocals carry a rare, unblemished character. When a band is lauded as new pop sensations in America don’t expect the same characteristics. In some respects our pop is their AOR whilst their pop arrives way over from left field. They Might Be Giants and Eels are good illustrations of this idiosyncrasy and Jellyfish can be added to that list. They may have more rounded edges than the others but, underneath, they are equally strange. Vocally the closest comparison to Jellyfish is Crowded House (Andy Sturmer even sounds like Neil Finn), but when it comes to lyrical content they are a mile apart. Absent fathers (“The Man I Used To Be”), prostitution (“The King Is Half Undressed”), marital abuse (“She Still Loves Him”), rampant consumerism and parental neglect (“All I Want Is Everything”) are all covered. It’s testimony to the skill of the band that, no matter how heavy the subject, the music retains a lightness of touch to stop proceedings becoming too maudlin. Special mention should also be given to “I Wanna Stay Home” and “Baby’s Coming Back” which, on their own, prove that Jellyfish was definitely a band that got away. –Ian

Replacements “Let It be” (1984)

For me this is far and away the best album The Replacements ever made. Some people say that they wish rock and roll was always imbued with the spirit that The Clash brought to it on “London Calling”. I could easily say the same thing about “Let it Be”. This is the perfect synthesis of rock aggression and songwriting finesse. A song like “Androgynous” probably wouldn’t move me so much if it had been more slickly produced. The raw beauty of these songs makes me believe in them. There have been a million songs written about adolescence but “Sixteen Blue” is one of the only ones that really feels like it. The painful yearning and confusion of being sixteen is captured perfectly in those crunching guitar chords and especially the guitar solo with which the song closes. Rather than offering release, the end of the song raises the unresolved tension higher and higher. It is full of beauty and sadness. And then we have the album closer, “Answering Machine”, with its fabulous, tight guitar playing, its earnest, pleading vocal and gorgeous melodicism. This is one of the best songs ever written about romantic obsession. Indeed this is one of the best rock songs period. In its rawness, energy and its dual loyalties to grunge and melody, in 1984 this album sounded like the future itself. –Javasean

The Modern Lovers “The Modern Lovers” (1976)

This albums flawlessness is unparalleled. Jonathan Richman has crafted an ideal record that is filled with exceptional songs. “Pablo Picasso” has to be one of my favorites. I can never get enough of it and “Hospital” is right there alongside it. Just beautiful love stories told with such panache and Richman’s voice is perfectly suited with each spoken word. Listening to “Hospital” is heartrending, but when reading the lyrics it’s almost like a six year old wrote it. But, this album is anything but ordinary. It’s a candid masterpiece that ranks at the top of all my lists. –Jason

They Might Be Giants “They Might Be Giants” (1986)

Quite the mixed bag, but the goodness is really good (“Don’t Lets Start”, “Youth Culture Killed My Dog”, “Boat of Car”) and the badness is gone before you know it (“Rabid Child”, “(She Was) A Hotel Detective”, “Chess Piece Face”), washed away in the swift flow of quirky tunes and strange ideas that make up TMBG’s debut album. And you’ll likely disagree with my choices for good and bad, as well, since everything here is so eclectic. It’s hard for me to take any of this too seriously, because the band ly doesn’t, but as usual, they always sprinkle in enough food for thought and maybe-profound lyrics that it doesn’t desolve into complete camp. In this early stage of their career, they kind of sound like a mix between the Residents and Weird Al. Only better than that description sounds. Soon, they would refine their aesthetic and make more fully realized statements. –Lucas

The Replacements “Tim” (1985)

After the skillful Let It Be, Paul Westerberg and the boys decided to make another essential classic rock album, only this time they got even better. Tim is loaded up with first-rate tunes such as the lasting “Bastards of Young” accompanied with the sweet “Kiss Me on the Bus.” Let’s not forget the sacred “Left of the Dial” and the touching “Here Comes a Regular.” One of my personal favorites is “Swingin’ Party,” it’s so catchy and complete with solitude that it’s one of the very few songs I never get tired of. “Hold My Life” is terrific and “Little Mascara” is compelling at times. Every last song on this disc is superlative rock ‘n’ roll. If I was pressed to make a pick for the must hear Replacements album, it just might have to go to Tim. How this wasn’t one of the best selling albums of the 80’s is beyond me. –Jason

Talk Talk “Laughing Stock” (1991)

They started [in 1982] with “The Party’s Over” – that’s precisely how ten years later, Talk Talk’s last album sounds – the party’s over. Their music always contained elements of what Talk Talk would eventually develop into on their last two LPs, but who would have expected such a radical mutation, from synth Pop to practically classical music? Laughing Stock continues where Spirit Of Eden ended; the two LPs could be a double album, and anyone who loves one of the two should make sure he/she got both. Myrrhman starts the album with searching for structure. A mixture of Blues and modern classical music, the music is played on acoustic instruments. With Ascension Day, a groove is introduced; there are Jazz influences. The mighty and hymnic After the Flood, my favorite song of this album, is the closest Laughing Stock gets to resemble regular Pop, only its length (over 9 minutes) shuts it off from Radio play. It flows directly into the spacious and ambient Taphead. A 6/8 beat brings back the motion on the blissful and meditative New Grass – a Bach choral (from the St. Matthew’s passion – O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden) appears, reinforcing the religious mood of the album. The final song, Runeii, starts with only voice and guitar, later, organ, piano and drums fade in and out; it’s a quiet windup with a hippie feel. Laughing Stock is the ultimate step of Talk Talk’s musical search into the soul. Commercially, it was a fiasco, and Laughing Stock, with its lengthy and introvert songs, sounds as if Talk Talk never planned to compete with this LP on the Pop market; it remains their last album. As a creative effort within the realms of Pop music, however, it’s a victory, a timeless beauty and one of the best Pop records of the 90s. –Yofriend

Kate Bush “Hounds of Love” (1985)

Albums that take you into another world never seem to have the adorable pop structures our ears need to play them as much as we’d like to. Kate Bush solved this by breaking the album into two sides, suiting both. Before you know it, it’s one and the same. There isn’t a more comforting voice in the world than Kate Bush’s, as far as I’m concerned. From the vivid opening trio to the down right moving “Hello Earth”, it’s amazing to contemplate Bush did this all on her own in her studio. The word genius gets flung around so often in music culture, but listening to Hounds of Love front to back there isn’t another word that seems more appropriate. It’s not about single-handedly inspiring every female musician to come or making some great songs, it’s about making one of the most strangest, complete, moving albums ever made that takes you into a different world every time and yet has you humming when you return back to your home in the city. –Allistair