Our next Revival Tune-Ups guest, Mike Treff, has always put out excellent “best of the year” playlists at the start of the new year. This year is no exception, so we wanted to share it with you all. Mike isn’t a household name, but if you are into music and pop culture, odds are he has touched something you have seen or heard. His label Tiger Style released critical albums from Lucero, 764-Hero, Rye Coalition, Low, Les Savy Fav, Austin’s own American Analogue Set, and more. He was part of Insound, the world’s first online independent record store, and Soundscreen Design, a publishing arm focused on thoughtfully designed, music-centric books and objects. Mike is now spreading that cultural influence as President of Code and Theory, a global digital-first creative agency whose work includes rebranding an NFL team to Spotify and everything in between. So do yourself a kindness, Start the list, scroll down, and get in deep on each song with his writing.
Without further delay, here's Treff:
Well, all, it’s been a minute since the last one of these back in 2019. And wow, what a fucking two years it’s been. But, we are not here to dwell on the world; we are here to talk about music.
Specifically, the music that came out in 2021 (or was reissued; more on that in a second). The older I get, the more I appreciate music (and I did not know that was possible for me). New music, old music I never knew about, classics (at least to me) that I revisit. All of it. It’s one of the most constant companions we have in this crazy world, and for that, I’m grateful. All this time at home has meant really being able to spend time with records like most of us did when we were kids figuring out who we wanted to be. Listening to them in a focussed way, reading the liner notes and inserts, exploring an artist’s catalog, and filling in the cracks. It’s been such a necessary relief from the heaviness of the past year. I hope it’s been that for you as well.
So onto some criteria updates. Given there was almost no touring the past two years and that new music was hard to record in pandemic conditions, a lot (and I mean A LOT) of labels have spent a considerable amount of time and energy reissue records that were either a) not available and/or out of print, b) never released before anywhere, c) given official releases of bootlegs and demos and d) live records.
You will note a lot of the above in this year’s list. Especially live music (four live entries this year). I have been to exactly three shows in all of 2021 (all of which were incredible...shout out: Edgar, Gospel, Facs, Preoccupations, Metz), which used to be the same amount as a good week. I fucking miss it. Maybe that explains the live records.
Last story. There used to be a record store in SF called Aquarius Records. I loved this store. They sent a weekly email that would come on Friday nights with DETAILED write-ups of every new record that came out that week. I read it start to finish every week and usually nerded out with friends (looking at you DCAM) about what records we would buy. What you will find below is my attempt to recreate that email newsletter. It’s a feeble attempt, but an attempt nonetheless.
With that said, wishing you and yours a safe, healthy, happy new year. All the best in 2022.
Floating Points + Pharaoh Sanders: Promises (Movement 3)
Didn’t see this one coming, but glad it happened. The great Pharoah Sanders, in his 6th decade of making music...6th...pushes himself to reinvent and collaborate with a modern electronic musician. Adding in the London Symphonic Orchestra was not a bad move either. The result is a stunner of a record, beautiful and expansive, with Sanders’ delivering some of his most tender and touching moments, which says a lot for a guy with a career like Sanders. It’s a beautiful listen.
Low: Hey What (Hey)
I’m a sucker for exactly this kind of record and this kind of band...a band who almost 30 years into their career makes their most experimental and challenging record, in a catalog that has a lot of exceptional records. This record picks up where 2018’s Double Negative leaves off but goes leaps and bounds farther. They yet again prove to be uncategorizable...no one sounds like Low. No one. Also, the record sounds fucking incredible, quite possibly the best-engineered record I’ve heard in years.
Soft Kill: Sky EP (Sky)
Get ready; I’m going to talk about Soft Kill again (as many many eyes begin to roll). Whatever. They are just that good. I listen to them more than any other band and basically have for the better part of the past decade. Last year’s Dead Kids R.I.P. City is a masterwork, and they followed it up with a random single that is better than maybe any song on that record (and that’s saying a lot). They can do no wrong.
FACS: Present Tense (General Public)
Brian Case appreciation post 112 from me. You’ve heard it all before, how great all his bands are (90 Day Men, Disappears). This band, however, is the pinnacle of his work. First off, the rhythm section...comprised of vets from We Regazzi and Milemarker, are just straight pummeling. I was lucky enough to see them live twice this year (with Metz and Preoccupations, it was not a bad show, both times), and my face remains on the floor of Bowery Ballroom and Elsewhere.
Screamers: Demo (Peer Pressure)
Reissued, finally after years of bootlegs, by the always stellar Superior Viaduct label, the only recorded output of this monumental LA band gets its well-deserved proper treatment..44 years later (these songs were recorded in 1977). five songs were all this band needed to create a shadow still felt today. Imagine them on a bill in 1979 with Cabaret Voltaire...and imagine how pissed off all the idiot fashion punkers would have been. Then smile.
James White & The Blacks: Melt Yourself Down (Hell On Earth)
After Screamers, there is only one place to go...James Chance. FINALLY available on vinyl, this Japan-only LP released in 1986 (on the same label as Gauze, just saying), though it was recorded in 1983 and then stuck in legal purgatory, is still decades ahead. Zero of the 2000s dance-punk bands exist without what this man did 40 years ago. He referred to this record as “super-radioactive disco voodoo funk” he was right.
Bush Tetras: Rhythm and Paranoia (You Can’t Be Funky)
Keeping it in the reissue section of this playlist for another one of NYC’s finest, Bush Tetras. 2021 saw the release of a career-spanning box, and You Can’t Be Funky seems to feel as though it were written for today’s times, despite being written in 1981. Having fallen off the family tree of The Contortions (guitarist Pat Place), you can see why this band’s fingerprints on everything that came after it, just like James Chance.
Affection: S/T (5am Lights)
This band is a complete mystery. I think they existed in the early 2000s, are from Arkansas (maybe?), and never released anything...until this year when their only recorded output was released. Recorded in 2003, I wished I had known of this band; I would have loved them. At times they sound like a more modern Clash; at times, they sound like Wire, and at times they sound like nothing I’ve heard from that era. I’m very grateful this was released.
Plaster of Paris: Lost Familiar (Danceflaw)
This band is from Melbourne, which is yet another reason why I want to live there. How music this sinister, danceable, rhythmic, and interesting is being made in a place that is so freaking gorgeous is fascinating me. The guitar lines could have easily been on the Bush Tetras records mentioned earlier. The vocals are a demented cross between Lizzy from Gang Gang Dance and maybe early Rapture if the Rapture were fronted by a vocalist with operatic range. Yeah. That.
Anika: Change (Naysayer)
Performing alias of British-German singer-songwriter and political journalist Annika Henderson, who was in the CRIMINALLY OVERLOOKED Exploded View, this record is unbelievable. Layered, dubby, noir-ish, brilliant. There is no shortage of ambition on the themes of this record; it’s a slow burn of a listen that rewards the listener for repeat plays. I’ve played it 100+ times at this point. She describes this record as “a moment caught in time” I would like to stay in that moment.
PJ Harvey: Is This Desire Demos (Is This Desire)
This is going to be controversial to some...but...I am thrilled all these demo records were released with the reissues of her proper studio albums. For one, they sound incredible and have expertly mixed and mastered. Two, they really give you a window into her writing process and how a song goes from demo to finished recorded output, something I obsess over since I’ve never had the skill to get things from demos to actual (decent) recordings. And three, it reminded me of just how incredible her writing is.
Alan Vega: Mutator (Fist)
It took me until well into my 20s to understand Suicide (the band), and I’m still not sure I do. One of the reasons for my confusion is that I could never understand just how they made the music they did. It felt out of time yet somehow from the future. Their impact on music stretches as far as you could imagine (don’t take my word for it, google what Bruce Springsteen said about them, and he even covered Dream Baby Dream on a 10” as part of the Mute Records anniversary series). Alan Vega was one half of that incredible duo. Mutator is the first in what will be a slew of archived releases put out by the always epic Sacred Bones Records. I don’t know how this record was not released when it was recorded in the mid-90s; it’s incredible. Fist is a perfect encapsulation of where he was going musically at the time...which was to make music that still sounded like it was from the future.
Dirty Three: Ocean Songs Deluxe (Sea Above, Sky Below)
The legend around the live performance of the Dirty Three at the 2005 edition of All Tomorrow’s Parties is grand. Nick Cave joined them on stage and played piano for the ENTIRE SET, which makes sense now that we understand the partnership of Cave and Ellis over the last 15+ years of Bad Seeds material (and countless soundtracks). Ocean Songs is a masterwork, and live, it’s just, transcendent. There are no words on this album, and no words can describe it.
Thelonious Monk: Palo Alto The Custodians Mix (Epistrophy)
So this is a crazy one. A high school music club decided to spend their funds on inviting Thelonious Monk to come and perform at their high school in 1968. Then it was released in 2020 after being unearthed all these years later. But then, in 2021, a different mix of the album came out, entitled The Custodians Mix. In short, the mysterious high school janitor exchanged his skills in tuning the piano for this performance for rights to record the show. Clearly, this custodian was quite a technician with multiple microphones and at least some sort of mixing board to bring several channels of music together. That’s one hell of a janitor. And the record is breathtaking as well, Monk at his finest on the piano.
Neil Young: Carnegie Hall 1970 (After The Gold Rush)
Neil Young wrote a song about the destruction of the earth and climate change in 1970. Seriously. 1970. And this entire live set, especially this song, has never sounded more urgent and prescient. On the recorded album, it’s a stunner; live it’s otherworldly.
Matt Sweeney & Bonnie “Prince” Billy: Superwolves (My Body Is My Own)
Well, we’ve been waiting a long time, 16 years, for this record (since the release of their first collaboration record called, Superwolf in 2005). The wait was worth it. Mastery, just straight mastery, is displayed on this record. Of their craft, of their playing, of songwriting, of recording. Their chemistry together is thrilling; the way they complement each other’s playing and writing is nothing short of amazing. The songs have depth; they are fun (and funny sometimes) and beautiful.
Dan Sartain: Arise (You Can’t Go Home No More)
In one of the sadder moments in a very sad year, Dan Sartain took his life. His recorded legacy is profound and extensive, and Arise was the last thing he had completed before his death. He’d been telling us for years in his songs and album titles what he was thinking...I wish he had found the help he needed. He was a gigantic talent, and I’m sure missed by so many. RIP Dan, you are one of the greats.
Plosivs: (Hit the Breaks)
Yep, He did it again. John Reis decides to start yet another band and this time enlists Rob Crow. I can’t...I just can’t. I’m like a drug addict for this. I need it, mainlined...now. Put out the records already...please... (side note: shout out to my homie BOB who got a Reis hand-carved tiki necklace during the pandemic...not even kidding).
Night Marchers: Wot’s Da Use 7” (Dosed)
See above. REIS, I NEED YOU. When this shit is over, PLEASE TOUR. With any of your 15 bands. PLEASE. For the love of all that is holy, PLEASE TOUR AGAIN.
Metz: Acid / Slow Decay 7” (Slow Decay)
When the world is mid-pandemic, and you can’t tour...what do you do? If your Metz you go and record the entirety of your latest record (the brilliant Atlas Vending) live, put it out. Record the best 7” of the year and release it as a 2-sided picture disc. Then in the window for touring, decide to go on the road with (the aforementioned) FACS and Preoccupations. Play NYC twice. And then get the fuck out of dodge and call it a year. Well done, Metz, well done.
Iceage: Seek Shelter (Dear Saint Cecilia)
Yet another “I love this band because they are
always changing” addition to the playlist. The opening of this song, named for the patroness of music, Saint Cecilia (not to be confused with the hotel in Austin), makes me think of Exile-era Stones but done by Danish hardcore kids who grew up on the darker side of music. Seek Shelter is such an ambitious record; it just jumps out of the speaker and commands attention. It moves effortlessly from classic rock stomps to frenzied punk to noir tales of murder. If you have the chance to see them live, do not miss it...pandemic considerations aside, of course...these songs will surely be that much greater live.
Quicksand: Distant Populations (Phase 90)
If you told me at 15, when I first heard Quicksand’s Slip, which many (including myself) consider the holy grail of NYHC records, that in 2021 I would constantly be playing a new Quicksand record that sounds more like For Against (or any of the heavier shoegaze bands of the 80s) than it does Slip, I would have laughed in your face. And I would have been a complete moron for doing so. Distant Populations is unbelievably well written, and it takes risks that no band of their stature needs to take. I’m glad they did; as a result, it is stunning.
Earthless: Live In The Mojave Desert (Lost In The Cold Sun)
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: THIS SONG IS 40 MINUTES LONG.
Now that that is out of the way, I have only one thing to say: how the fuck does this band even exist, and how do they all not pass out playing songs this heavy and intense and long? Their new record, which is due in January, will be yet another face shredding installment in quite possibly the best catalog in modern heavy music. Long live Earthless.
Mogwai: As The Love Continues (Fuck Off Money)
“Return to Form” is a really shitty term. It means that that said musician has to retread over old thoughts and sounds. Fuck that. Do something new. Mogwai has always done that. They don’t go backward. Do I love all of their steps? No. Is As The Love Continues brilliant? Yes. Intricate, heavy, layered, sonically maximalist, and everything else that makes Mogwai great...and they managed to do it while not repeating Come On Die Young and pushing their sound forward. I’ll be here for every step they take; they deserve it.
Cloudkicker: Solitude (What They Do Is Not Art)
I don’t and never will understand how this is one person. It’s ONE FUCKING PERSON. Repeat. It’s ONE FUCKING PERSON. Imagine if the three bands before this were done BY ONE PERSON and 10x heavier. That’s Cloudkicker. My god. I have never felt more worthless...
Godspeed You Black Emperor: G-d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! (Government Came)
Relentless. That is the best word I can think of to describe this band and their work. They do not quit. They push on. They are unafraid to keep pointing out the way they see the ending of the world (at least the world we know). It’s some of the darkest themes in all music. Yet. They do it with profound beauty. Seeing them 20+ years ago at the old Knitting Factory in NYC, to this day, remains one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.
Big Brave: Vital (Of This Ilk)
This band was new to me in 2021, and wow, was I missing out. “Experimental metal” is what people seem to call them; I have no idea what that means. I just know it’s absolutely crushing. Zero traditional song structures, minimalist compositional elements to maximal effect, pummeling drums and bass with distortion and feedback-drenched guitars, and a vocalist like non-other that I have heard. They, like Godspeed just before this track, hail from Montreal. Clearly, something is going on up there and has been for 30 years.
Kowloon Walled City: Piecework (Oxygen Tent)
Probably more than any other record in 2021, I anticipated this band’s latest full-length, their first since 2015’s EPIC long-player, Grievances. I was so freaking excited about this record that when they started to pre-release tracks digitally, two in all, and released one at a time, I would literally spend days listening to them over and over and over. The record couldn’t possibly live up to the expectations I had for it...or could it? The answer: Yes. It could. 7 songs, 32 minutes. It’s perfect. It’s heavy without needing to do it in obvious ways. It’s smart. It’s an exercise in discipline. It’s maybe my album of the year.
Nick Cave & Warren Ellis: Carnage (Shattered Ground)
Unlike the six years I was waiting for Kowloon Walled City, I didn’t even know this was happening...in fact, no one did since it was a surprise record. These two have never done a record together, just them, that wasn’t a soundtrack, yet had done countless albums together in The Bad Seeds (see above for the Dirty Three collaboration). The result is outstanding. The songs are filled with room for both the instrumentation and vocals to explore but always remain focussed on the theme at hand. And it doesn’t shy away from the heavy topics: grief, death, isolation, religion, heaven, and hell...but it does so in a way that only these two can. They are uniquely their own canon of music.
Soft Kill: Dead Kids Demos (Ducky (Demo)
And you thought you were done with Soft Kill, didn’t you....well NO! There’s more. Since they release a record or ep or 7” or demo a week...there was just too much good stuff to only put one song on this playlist. Last year’s immaculate Dead Kids R.I.P. City is still in constant rotation for me...so the release of the demo versions of those tracks was an abundance of riches! Ducky, the demo version, is better than the LP version...and I don’t say that about many demos.
Grouper: Shade (Pale Interior)
While Shade is billed as a new album, it’s actually a collection of unreleased songs recorded over 15 years, but somehow they feel cohesive and like explorations of the same thought. Liz Harris (aka Grouper) has always built worlds of sound, sometimes maximal but most time minimal, and this is no different. The vocals are whispers, feeling as though they are flying through the air and could be missed unless strict attention is paid. The intimacy of the music is felt immediately, almost uncomfortably so. But it’s worth the discomfort. With Grouper, it’s always worth it.
Emma Ruth Rundle: Engine Of Hell (Blooms Of Oblivion)
It was both a big and quiet year for Emma Ruth Rundle. She opened the year with the second installment of her collaboration with New Orleans legends Thou and then went silent for nine months, to then come back with what is both her most intimate, quiet, AND heavy record of her career in Engine Of Hell. Similar to Kowloon Walled City or Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, yet sonically nothing like the former two bands, this record proves volume and sonics are not necessary to deliver some of the heaviest music I have ever heard. This record is absolutely haunting. Not for the faint of heart, but if you are open to it, the rewards are plentiful.
Space Afrika: Honest Labour (Yyyyy2222)
I had never heard of this incredible duo from northern England until this year. They have a fantastic show on NTS radio, but Honest Labor was the first album of theirs I heard. Released on the always excellent Dais Records, Honest Labor is part ambient, part Detroit techno, part dub, and utterly stunning. I can’t think of a better record to transcend the mood of closing the page on 2021 as we turn to 2022.