Last week, I took a trip to Portland. Your turn. The best bands from the City of Roses.
I’ve been saying it over and over and over for the last three years; Portland is clearly the greatest music city in the United States today. Most people today think immediately of the show Portlandia, but the modern output and fantastic musical heritage of this great city is much deeper than a few pop culture references. It started off innocently enough. I would hear something on NPR that I really loved and thought it was interesting they were from Portland. Then I would be doing research on one of my favorite bands for one of these columns and Portland would pop up again. I knew the fix was in when we were voting on one of those ‘best songs of the year’ lists amongst the writers and a full four of my ten songs were from Portland artists (with an additional vote going to a Seattle group). During a recent trip to the city, I picked up a copy of Peter Blecha’s fantastic look at the history of music from the Pacific Northwest, Sonic Boom (yes, I bought it at Powell’s). I highly recommend it to anyone that has even a passing interest in the sociological context of American regional music. However, what occurred to me almost immediately is that when anyone references the Northwest in terms of music, we immediately assume they mean Seattle. I don’t necessarily have a problem with that in a historical context, but today it just doesn’t hold muster. While people blast philosophic about the artistic communities in Brooklyn, Austin, or even San Francisco, I don’t take any argument seriously that Portland hasn’t become the capital of American (particularly independent) music.
What is most interesting to me about this topic is that you still can’t use the term ‘Portland band’ to mean anything about how the record itself will sound. Brooklyn has its bedroom projects. Austin is dirty country and blues. San Francisco is all about dark, dirty psychedelia. Artists that come from Portland don’t seem to have much more in common outside of making really fantastic music. You have electronic festivals, literary folk heroes playing on the street corners, bleeding raw punk rock clubs, and even a thriving alternative metal culture. In each of these categories, Portland has birthed at least one group or artist that is one of the very best doing it today. If I had to make an argument about what defines the sound of Portland, it is a true adherence to the DIY attitude of the American Underground scene of the 1980’s. You can step into the Tender Loving Empire storefront and pick up some homemade socks along with your copy of Y La Bamba’s newest album. All of the artists I’ll be discussing here seem to carry their own fiercely individual voice as the guiding factor in their art. No one else can sound like these artists and most wouldn’t want to try. Maybe that’s just something I find endearing.
So, now I’m left with the task of having to somehow limit this possibly massive list of all the great musicians hailing from Portland. I knew immediately that I wanted to include artists that have relocated to the City of Roses. I also knew that I wanted to focus in on the music that is making Portland noteworthy today. So, I attempted to limit the list to artists that call Portland home and are actively making music today. That makes it easy to cut out some massively important but generation old groups like The Kingsmen. A little bit harder were cutting out artists like Elliott Smith or Built to Spill. You can’t deny their sound has an impact on the music being made in Portland (and elsewhere) today, but I had to cut the nominees down somehow. So, no Elliott Smith knob-slobbery on this go-round. With that rule set in place, I was set with a mission and I think you’ll be surprised by a few artists that still didn’t quite crack the top ten.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Wooden Indian Burial Ground
Y La Bamba
The Dandy Warhols
a notable exclusion.
As I write this, I’m still 50/50 on whether or not I should include Black Francis on this list. I don’t think anyone can argue that his music is deserving of mention. I also believe you can certainly hear the sound of Portland in a lot of Francis’ solo work. I doubt anyone in Portland would hesitate to claim this guy as their own. What is giving me pause and is relegating Frank to this week’s notable exclusion is the fact that his work with the Pixies is something I regularly cite as being the true heart of a ‘Boston’ sound. Out of respect to that, I’m keeping him out this week. If I ever get around to a Boston list, you can pretty much count on seeing this guy in the top three.
10. Red Fang
Based out of Portland, Red Fang captures the loud and fast, anything-goes spirit of classic rock with their heavy stoner-influenced jams. Red Fang has been able to successfully confuse the line of abandon-less rock like The Replacements and downright metal of The Melvins. The quartet, consisting of Bryan Giles, Aaron Beam, David Sullivan, and John Sherman, makes guitars the focus of their gimmick-free brand of driving rock & roll, eschewing any prog leanings and putting the emphasis on the riffs. The sound is tied together by a sense of punk urgency which spurs the jams into action and gets the songs moving at a raucous gallop. The band made their debut in 2009 with a self-titled album, released by Sargent House. For their follow-up, the band struck up an unlikely partnership, heading into the studio with producer and multi-instrumentalist for the Decemberists, Chris Funk. The move would pay off for the band, who would release their second album, Murder the Mountains, on Relapse in 2011. Like contemporaries Baroness and Mastadon, Red Fang have been able to capture the imagination of indie rock fans without sacrificing their metal credentials by taking the genre back to its Sabbath and Zeppelin roots. Receiving public affirmations from none other than the Portland Queen herself, Carrie Brownstein, Red Fang has become an increasingly important example of the more laid-back musical culture of Portland. They don’t take themselves too seriously, turning the fun factor of these two records up to eleven.
9. The Thermals
For as much music as has become available in the digital age, it seems only more precious to be able to follow a group through several albums as they develop. With the landscape torturously littered with one-off side groups and bedroom projects, it’s easy to miss the days when you would sit in excitement for months waiting for the next release from your ‘favorite band’. Luckily for me, The Thermals released Desperate Ground earlier this year. The Thermals came together in 2002 with Hutch Harris and Kathy Foster, former band mates in the folk duo Hutch & Kathy. Their first album, More Parts per Million, was released in 2003 by Sub Pop Records. The album was recorded and performed entirely by Hutch Harris, who played every instrument. The first live line-up was Harris with Kathy Foster on bass, Jordan Hudson (also of M. Ward) on drums and Ben Barnett on guitar Their follow up album Fuckin A was mixed by Death Cab For Cutie member Chris Walla. During that period Ben Barnett left the band and Hutch Harris took over the role as guitarist.
But The Thermals really hit their stride with their third album The Body, The Blood, The Machine which won the group much recognition and acclaim, appearing on multiple top album lists for 2006 like NPR, The AV Club and Pitchfork. Jordan Hudson dropped out of the band during the recording of their third album. Kathy Foster took over percussion duties in the recording studio, which Lorin Coleman performed on tour. Produced by Brendan Canty of Fugazi, it was a politically charged concept album designed to showcase a path of religious tyranny that America might take. The Thermals’ fourth album Now We Can See, was released on the label Kill Rock Stars and produced by John Congleton and Personal Life followed on September 7, 2010.
After going quiet for a few years, The Thermals signed with Saddle Creek in January (joining great stablemates like Bright Eyes, Big Harp, and The Mynabirds) and announced their work on the upcoming release of Desperate Ground. After being named an artist to watch at SXSW this year by Fuse TV, the excitement for a new album from the group had me salivating. Even amongst other releases this month from Kurt Vile, Junip, The Meat Puppets, The Black Angels, The Besnard Lakes, and Steve Earle, this was the album I wanted to hear. The time just seems right for a new Thermals record. Luckily, Desperate Ground pays off with a collection of songs that deliver on the group’s promise without sounding formulaic. The album’s ten tracks blast in at under 30 minutes, but display the type of power necessary to leave at room silent and bewildered by record’s end.
Oh boy, if Kyle Morton keeps growing as a songwriter, as he did from Typhoon’s debut Hunger and Thirst to the A New King of House EP and now on their newest LP White Lighter, we are going to have a monster on our hands. A New Kind of House was the only EP I considered for my best albums of 2011 list because its five songs are better than five songs from almost any other record released that year. Morton’s change on that record was the equivalent of moving from anecdotes to novels. He fully utilized the twelve member band to create massive sounds that expertly built to maximum emotional payoffs. The final chorus from “An Honest Truth” still sends chills down the back of my neck. It is extremely rare for me to hear a record that I consider absolutely life-changing. This was the only record I heard in 2011 that I receive that credit. If Morton had been able to keep that pace over the coarse of a full LP, this wouldn’t have just been my number one in 2011, it would have been one of my very favorites of all time.
Of course, now he’s done it. Coming out a little later this year will be the much anticipated follow-up White Lighter. Because we get to advance these things from time to time (and because I’ve been harping on the band, label, and PR firm since October of last year), Earbuddy has had the opportunity to spend the last few weeks with this new record. It succeeds on just about every level I was hoping for. I think of Typhoon as a great Portland group because they do seem to be the ideological counterpart of the Brooklyn bedroom project wasteland in a lot of ways. While the band is undoubtedly a Kyle Morton project, it is clear that he wants as many people to have their hands on this thing as possible. Typhoon is more about community and collaboration than ego. That alone makes them a group I’ll support to my dying day. It’s just a bonus that the music is really good; really, really, really good.
7. Todd Snider
I’ve been itching to get Todd Snider onto one of these lists for the last three years. Thankfully, this one gives me plenty of reason to finally include one of my favorite songwriters working today. In the vein of Jerry Jeff Walker, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, and Mary Gauthier, Todd Snider is a country troubadour, master storyteller, and bona-fide son-of-a-bitch to anyone calling themself an ‘authority’ on anything. In other words, he’s my kinda guy. While one usually associates the term ‘singer-songwriter’ with some swear-wearing douche nozzle sitting on a college quad and singing about having someone rub his soul, my mind immediately goes to a guy like Todd. Born October 11, 1966, in Portland, (one of our only natives), Snider lived there until his family moved to Houston. When he was 15, he ran away from home with a friend and went back to Portland. After high school, he moved to Santa Rosa, California, to be a harmonica player. Then his brother, who lived in Austin, Texas, bought him a ticket to move there. After seeing Jerry Jeff Walker in a local bar, Snider decided that he didn’t need a band to be a musician.
After moving to Memphis in the mid-1980s and establishing residency at a club named the Daily Planet, he was discovered by Keith Sykes, a member of Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band. A longtime acquaintance of John Prine and Jerry Jeff Walker, Sykes began to work with Snider to help advance his career. Prine hired him as an assistant and then invited him to open shows. In time, Buffett heard Snider’s demo tapes and signed him to his own label. On his music, Snider has said “I was just trying to come up with the best… most open-hearted … well-thought-out lyrics I could come up with. I wanted every song to be sad and funny at the same time, vulnerable and entertaining at the same time, personal and universal at the same time. I wanted every song to be as uniquely written as possible and then I wanted to perform them in a studio loose and rugged and hopefully as uniquely as I could. My hope is to be hard to describe and/or new…I’m not saying I am. I’m just saying that’s the hope.”
Snider’s 1994 debut album on MCA, entitled Songs for the Daily Planet, was named for the bar where Snider used to play regularly in Memphis. On that album were the minor hits “Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues”—a folk song about the early ’90s grunge scene, featuring a band that “refused to play” and “Alright Guy”, which later became the title cut of Gary Allan’s 2001 album. He released two more albums for MCA, Step Right Up and Viva Satellite before moving to John Prine’s Oh Boy Records where he made Happy to Be Here, New Connection, Near Truths and Hotel Rooms, East Nashville Skyline, and Peace Love and Anarchy. Snider’s next studio album, The Devil You Know, was released in August 2006. It marked his return to a major label, New Door Records, a subsidiary of Universal Records. The Devil You Know was named to several critics’ year-end “best” lists, including a number 33 ranking in Rolling Stone magazine’s top 50 albums of the year, a number 25 ranking by No Depression magazine, and number 14 by Blender magazine. Peace Queer was released on October 14, 2008, and reached No. 1 on the Americana Airplay Chart on October 27, 2008. The Excitement Plan followed in 2009 on the YepRoc Label and was produced by Don Was. In April 2012 Todd Snider released two albums. The originals set, Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables, and a tribute album, Time As We Know It: The Songs Of Jerry Jeff Walker. The latter album is an homage to his longtime hero, Walker. American Songwriter claims, “Snider has been carrying on Walker’s scraggly Texas-styled country/Americana tradition since he started.” Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables was listed at #47 on Rolling Stone‘s list of the top 50 albums of 2012, saying ” One of the sharpest, funniest storytellers in rock, Snider keeps the indictments coming.” Todd Snider is one of those guys that just keeps plugging away and making great music. Once having flirted with mainstream fame, Snider now quietly releases albums to the delight of his loyal fanbase. Anyone who has seen this guy play live knows how good he is. It takes a special kind of storyteller to captivate an audience all by himself and Todd seems to do it with ease.
It is odd to think of Portland’s Menomena as elder statesmen of indie rock. It seems like only yesterday I was discovering this extremely form of deconstructionist pop from the trio. In truth, I only picked up their 2004 debut I Am The Fun Blame Monster! because I thought it was a take on the Muppet Show classic “Mahna Mahna” (something the band denies). Yet nevertheless, eight years and four albums later it is hard to argue that Menomena is a group that commands attention with a new release. That attention has only been amped up since the departure of founding member Brent Knopf last year, who left to focus on Ramona Falls. Knopf’s departure left only Justin Harris and Danny Seim. Luckily, with their newest release Moms, they prove the attention is absolutely deserved. This is possibly the best Menomena album yet.
The newest from Menomena is easiest to consider when thinking about it as the harder edged cousin of TV on the Radio’s Nine Types of Light. The deconstruction of sound is ever present and approached with an undeniably fun songcraft, but the sound here is a little bit rock where TV on the Radio would be a little bit soul. Also akin to TVotR, Moms calling card is in being much more approachable than the standard spaced out experimental sound. This band is challenging themselves with each new song, but they also make sure to include plenty of handclaps, whirs, and hoots to ensure we’re all still having fun. There are a lot of groups that have been compared to Pink Floyd over the years. The central flaw of that comparison is that people always try to find sonic similarities without considering a larger contextual comparison. In my mind, Menomena hits closer to the Floyd’s legacy than any other artist working today. They have the capability to take something completely off the wall and get a full room to nod their head in time.
5. Portugal. The Man
Portugal. The Man is an American rock band based in Portland, Oregon. The group consists of John Gourley, Zach Carothers, Kyle O’Quin, Noah Gersh, and Kane Ritchotte. Gourley and Carothers met and began playing music together in high school in Wasilla, Alaska. Since the formation of Portugal. The Man in 2005, the band has released six studio albums and three EPs. Their first two albums were released on Fearless Records. They also released material on their own imprint Approaching AIRballoons through indie label Equal Vision Records. On April 2, 2010, the band signed to Atlantic Records. Evil Friends marks their seventh full length studio album and the first collaboration between Portugal. The Man and producer Danger Mouse.
Around August 2002, the band Anatomy of a Ghost was formed by John Gourley and Zach Carothers. Gourley fronted the band having had no previous singing experience. Anatomy of A Ghost quickly gained popularity, but before long, the group broke up. Portugal. The Man was originally started as John Gourley’s side project, with Carothers playing bass. Before they had a drummer, they used drum machines and synth-loops as the backing beat. Gourley and Carothers teamed up with Wesley Hubbard, Nick Klein (former guitar tech for Anatomy of a Ghost) and Harvey Tumbleson, and formed Portugal. The Man. The band left Alaska and went to Portland with the intent of recording and touring. The band recorded demos in the summer of 2004, followed by a US tour that fall. In spring 2005, Klein and Tumbleson left and soon after Jason Sechrist joined the band. Portugal. The Man’s debut record Waiter: “You Vultures!” was released by Fearless Records on January 24, 2006. The album was produced by Casey Bates.
On June 22, 2007, they released their second full-length, Church Mouth, again produced by Bates, and set out on a full U.S. headline tour with support from The Photo Atlas, Play Radio Play, Tera Melos, and The Only Children among others. They then toured Europe, and followed it up with another US headlining tour with support from Rocky Votolato and Great Depression during September and October. Following this tour, they joined Thursday (band) on a short east coast tour in November alongside Circle Takes The Square. In 2008 the band left their label, Fearless Records, and added Ryan Neighbors, their touring keyboardist, as an official member and the replacement for Wes Hubbard. On July 30, 2008, it was announced that Portugal. The Man was releasing Censored Colors under its independent record label, Approaching AIRballoons, in partnership with Equal Vision Records. It was released September 16, 2008. John Gourley was also chosen as the recipient of the 2008 AP Magazine’s ‘Best Vocalist of the Year’. In 2009 they played at Bonnaroo and at Lollapalooza in Grant Park, Chicago. On April 9, Portugal. The Man announced The Satanic Satanist, which was released on July 21, 2009. Originally named The Satanic Satanist of the Majestic Majesty, the album title was later shortened and an acoustic counterpart entitled The Majestic Majesty was released. The Satanic Satanist is themed around memories and stories from singer John Gourley’s growing up in the state of Alaska. The album was recorded with the help of record producer Paul Q. Kolderie of Pixies and Radiohead fame.
Throughout early 2013, Portugal. The Man teased Evil Friends by leaking pictures on the official Bonnaroo Tumblr page, which showed that celebrated producer Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, was producing Portugal. The Man’s new record. Danger Mouse is most known for his standout, hit-making work with Gnarls Barkley, Jack White, and Broken Bells, and for producing award-winning albums for bands like the Gorillaz, The Black Keys, and Norah Jones (as well as one of my favorite records in collaboration with Sparklehorse, Dark Night of the Soul). Evil Friends is one of those albums that should put a smile on every single person’s face. This is a record you will dance along with, regardless of whether or not you want to. I have this incredibly geeky habit of keeping notes about my favorites songs with each new album I listen to. I just makes things easier for lists like these when I have a notebook full of ideas already written down. To date, this is the only album that had five songs noted as possible ‘song-of-the-year’ candidates. The entire second side of Evil Friends is thirty minutes of ‘fuck yeah’. Portugal. The Man are playing at the top of their game and Danger Mouse is crafting mixes behind them that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. This is easily the best ‘major label’ album I’ve heard this year and is the kind of record I’d recommend to even the staunchest American Idol fan. I’m thoroughly convinced this is the single best example of ‘popular’ music made so far in 2013.
4. Blitzen Trapper
I’ve directly said this before; Blitzen Trapper is one of the best groups working today. Blitzen Trapper’s music went through various genres with each record, bouncing from Guided By Voices-esque indie folk to art rock to experimental folk before settling into a rich, dusty brand of Neil Young-inspired alt country. The band formed in 2000 in Portland, Oregon, with songwriter Eric Earley leading a lineup that also included Erik Menteer (guitar, keyboard), Brian Adrian Koch (drums, vocals), Michael Van Pelt (bass), Drew Laughery (keyboard), and Marty Marquis (keyboard, vocals). Before signing a record contract in 2007, the band released three albums on its own dime: an eponymous effort in 2003, Field Rexx in 2005, and the highly acclaimed Wild Mountain Nation in 2007. The latter album landed the group a record deal with Sub Pop.
With Sub Pop’s help, the group hit a creative peak with 2008′s Furr, a collection of 13 songs that found Blitzen Trapper boiling down its many influences into a cohesive, unique Americana sound. The Black River Killer EP followed in 2009, and the group spent part of that year working on a new full-length release, which arrived one year later in the form of Destroyer of the Void. When it came time to record the band’s third Sub Pop release, American Goldwing, Blitzen Trapper opened the studio doors to outside collaborators for the first time, with Tchad Blake mixing the record and Gregg Williams co-producing. Musically, though, the guys kept things entirely within the family, reaching back to their ’70s country and Southern rock influences without losing their contemporary appeal. Blitzen is a group that is so varied in their influences that they don’t even really fit in with the indie community, garnering a heap of lukewarm receptions from vogue critical outfits like Pitchfork. I can objectively understand why Blitzen’s brand of country glam may not appeal to mass audiences or snooty critics, but in true Portland fashion the band doesn’t seem to give a damn and I love them for it. In truth, this is my favorite group on the list and the one I’ve undoubtedly spent the most time with. In this case however, I just felt like there were three other selections that might better help someone get an idea of what the music of this city is all about today. Nevertheless, I’ll never accept any argument that these boys aren’t one of the best groups the city has ever produced.
3. The Decemberists
If a non-geek has an opinion about the music of Portland, it probably has a lot to do with The Decemberists. I don’t believe that’s a bad thing by any means. Literate, idiosyncratic, fiercely individual and with influences ranging from post-punk to Old World folk, this group hits at the heart of what makes the Portland culture so inviting to great art. The Decemberists formed in 2000 when Colin Meloy left his band Tarkio in Montana and moved to Portland, Oregon. There he met Nate Query, who introduced Meloy to Jenny Conlee (they had played together in the band Calobo) and the three scored a silent film together. Playing a solo show prior to meeting Query, Meloy met Chris Funk. Funk was a fan of Tarkio and played pedal steel on the first two Decemberists releases, not “officially” becoming a member until the third effort. The band’s first drummer, Ezra Holbrook, was replaced by Rachel Blumberg after Castaways and Cutouts. The band’s name refers to the Decembrist revolt, an 1825 conflict in Imperial Russia. 5 Songs, the band’s debut EP, was self-released by the band in 2001. The members at that time played for several hours in a McMenamins hotel the night before to raise the money needed to record in the studio the next day. This originally served as a demo tape and the five songs on it (minus “The Apology Song”) were recorded in under two hours.
After releasing its first full record Castaways and Cutouts on Hush Records, the group moved onto the Kill Rock Stars recording label. After the re-release of Castaways, Her Majesty was released in 2003. In 2004, the band released “The Tain,” an eighteen-and-a-half minute single track based on the Irish mythological epic Táin Bó Cúailnge. The band’s final album with Kill Rock Stars was Picaresque, which was recorded in a former church. Thus ended what fans commonly refer to as “the golden years” of the Decemberists (a term I violently disagree with). In March 2005, the band distributed a music video via BitTorrent, the self-produced “16 Military Wives” (from Picaresque). In the same month, the band’s equipment trailer was stolen; fans contributed to a replacement fund, and another fundraiser was organized via an eBay auction, with buyers bidding for copies of Colin Meloy Sings Morrissey and original artwork by Carson Ellis. The band also received help from Lee Kruger, the Shins, The Dandy Warhols, and other musicians. The Martin Guitar Company offered 6- and 12-string guitars on permanent loan. In early April, police discovered the trailer and a portion of the band’s merchandise in Clackamas, Oregon, but the instruments and equipment were not recovered.
On December 12, 2005, Meloy revealed to Pitchfork Media that the band had signed to Capitol Records, and planned to begin recording their major label debut with producers Tucker Martine and Chris Walla (of Death Cab for Cutie) in April 2006. The band’s first album on Capitol, The Crane Wife, was released on October 3, 2006. The release was accompanied by an appearance the same day on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, during which the band performed “O Valencia!”. The supporting tour (called “The Rout of the Patagons Tour”) began on October 17, 2006, at Portland, Oregon’s Crystal Ballroom. The opening act was Lavender Diamond. Later in the tour, Alasdair Roberts opened for the band. NPR listeners voted The Crane Wife their favorite album of 2006, as announced on the December 5 episode of All Songs Considered. The Hazards of Love was released on March 24, 2009 on Capitol Records, under Red Light Management (Jason Colton and Ron Laffitte). It was made available for download on iTunes one week earlier, on March 17, 2009. The track “The Rake’s Song” was put up for download on The Decemberists website in advance of the album’s release. During Meloy’s 2008 U.S. tour, he played several new songs that were included on the album. The album was also produced by Tucker Martine.
The Decemberists remained off tour as they embarked on a new studio album. On September 4, 2010, the band opened for Neko Case and the headliner, Bob Dylan, the first day of the Bumbershoot Arts and Music Festival in Seattle, WA. There they announced that they were wrapping up a new album before debuting three of the upcoming album’s tracks. The King Is Dead was released on January 14, 2011 with Peter Buck of R.E.M. appearing on three tracks. Colin Meloy has noted that R.E.M. was an inspiration on some of the songs. The King Is Dead debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in the United States upon its release. As compared to The Decemberists’ previous work, The King Is Dead is more influenced by genres including country, blues, and folk. This paid off in spades with this album being my personal favorite of the entire catalog. On May 3, 2011, it was announced on The Decemberists official site that Jenny Conlee had been diagnosed with breast cancer. and would miss most of the band’s 2011 tour dates while recovering. Colin Meloy has said the group will take a multi-year hiatus once the touring cycle for The King Is Dead ends. They’ve earned the break (though I’m sure Meloy will do anything but ‘rest’).
2. Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks
Much like his solo work has been grossly overcast by the shadow of Pavement’s catalog, Stephen Malkmus is probably associated by most as a California musician. For me, he was just getting started when he got to Portland and the city and artist have become synonymous with my own concept of how art and place are wonderfully intertwined. Malkmus was born in Santa Monica, California on May 30, 1966 to Mary and Stephen Malkmus, Sr. When Stephen Jr. was 8, the family moved upstate to Stockton, where he attended Carpinteria’s Cate School and Lodi’s Tokay High School. As a teenager, Malkmus worked various jobs, including painting house numbers on street curbs and “flipping burgers or whatever” at a country club. At age 16, he spent the night in jail after consuming alcohol, urinating in the bushes, and walking on the roofs of several residential homes. Later, he was placed on probation for underage drinking, and was also expelled from school “for going to a party in the woods where people were taking mushrooms. I didn’t take them, but some guy narc’d on me.”
Malkmus learned the guitar by playing along to Jimi Hendrix’s recording of “Purple Haze”. During high school, he played in several Stockton-based punk bands: Bag O Bones, The Straw Dogs, and Crisis Alert. After graduation, Malkmus followed in his father’s footsteps by attending the University of Virginia, where he majored in history and was a disc jockey for the college radio station WTJU. During this time, Malkmus met fellow WTJU DJs David Berman (who would later front the Silver Jews) and James McNew (of Yo La Tengo). In the late 1980s, he was employed as a security guard at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, along with Berman and Bob Nastanovich.
Malkmus formed Pavement with Scott Kannberg (aka Spiral Stairs) while he was living in Stockton during the 1980s. Their first album, Slanted & Enchanted, was released to critical acclaim, and the band continued to receive attention for subsequent releases. Pavement, and Malkmus in particular, was hailed as spearheading the underground indie movement of the 1990s. In 2001, following the 1999 dissolution of the band, Malkmus released his first self-titled solo album. He also was a member of rock group Silver Jews along with poet/lyricist David Berman. In early 1999 Stephen Malkmus participated in a Sonic Youth side project called Kim’s Bedroom that included bassist/vocalist Kim Gordon, guitarist/vocalist Thurston Moore, Chicago avant-garde veteran Jim O’Rourke, and renowned Japanese drummer Ikue Mori; they never released an album, but did play a few live shows.
Following the dissolution of Pavement, Malkmus moved to Portland, Oregon, where he met his wife, artist Jessica Jackson Hutchins. The couple have two children: daughters Lottie (born 2004) and Sunday (born 2007). Malkmus was particularly busy during that time, performing new songs with Kim’s Bedroom that spring in Holland and recording them at studios near Portland. Working with him were the Jicks, aka Portland indie rock veterans drummer/percussionist John Moen and bassist Joanna Bolme. Moen had played with the Fastbacks, the Dharma Bums, and his own group, the Maroons; Bolme played with the Minders and worked as an engineer at Jackpot Studios, where Pavement’s Terror Twilight was demoed and parts of Malkmus’ new project were recorded. Initially, Malkmus intended to release the album on his own or through a local label, but when his old label, Matador, received a copy, they agreed to release it. By the time Malkmus officially confirmed Pavement’s breakup in the November 2000 issue of Spin magazine, Matador announced it was releasing the album — originally titled Swedish Reggae and then changed to Stephen Malkmus — in winter 2001. the Jicks made their live debut that January at New York’s Bowery Ballroom and spent the rest of the winter and spring touring the U.K. and the U.S., including a gig at South by Southwest with labelmates Mogwai and the reunited Soft Boys. Former Pavement percussionist Bob Nastanovich acted as the Jicks’ tour manager and Elastica leader Justine Frischmann — another friend of Malkmus — joined the band as a guitarist for selected dates. On 2003’s darker, trippier Pig Lib, the Jicks shared credit with Malkmus, reflecting the album’s more band-like feel. Released in 2005, Face the Truth — on which Malkmus embraced domesticity with a whimsical feel missing from his work since Wowee Zowee — featured Malkmus with and without the Jicks, who also supported him on tour that summer. On 2008’s Real Emotional Trash, the Jicks welcomed former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss into their fold, giving the album’s psychedelic free-for-alls greater heft. Mirror Traffic followed in 2011, featuring Beck stepping in as producer and Weiss taking her last bow as the Jicks’ drummer.
I have no problem with argument that the majority of people who would self-identify as independent music fans have a healthy respect for Pavement or that the overwhelming majority have listened to at least one Pavement album from beginning to finish. In our increasingly fragmented community, those are ever more impressive statement. What I find quizzical is how few Pavement fans are really familiar with Malkmus’ solo work with the Jicks. In a very similar argument that I make for J Mascis, Malkmus has only improved as a songwriter since the dissolution of Pavement. Also like Mascis, it has a lot to do with Stephen’s ever increasing affinity for a nice melody. During my trip there, Malkmus & the Jicks made the best headphone walking music in Portland. It is as if he was painting those city scenes in each new song. There is a reason this guy is indie legend, but I still don’t think he’s received due credit for how good he has become.
1. Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker & Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney, Wild Flag, The Corin Tucker Band, Quasi)
Sleater-Kinney is a group that was the definition of ahead of their time (at least, for me). It’s taken about a decade, but I feel comfortable saying now that this is one of the great bands of our generation. Unfortunately, like myself, most of us didn’t appreciate that while they were around. The group was formed in early 1994 in Olympia, Washington, by Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein. The group’s name is derived from Sleater Kinney Road, Interstate 5 off ramp No. 108 in Lacey, Washington, the location of one of their early practice spaces. Tucker was formerly in the influential riot grrrl band Heavens to Betsy, while Brownstein was formerly in the queercore band Excuse 17 (I would like to take this opportunity to again point out how ridiculous I think these genre identifications are…it’s fucking rock music). They often played at gigs together and formed Sleater-Kinney as a side-project from their respective bands. When Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17 disbanded, Sleater-Kinney became their primary focus. Janet Weiss of Quasi is the band’s longest lasting and final drummer, though Sleater-Kinney has had other drummers, including Lora Macfarlane, Misty Farrell, and Toni Gogin.
Upon Tucker’s graduation from Evergreen State College (where Brownstein remained a student for three more years), she and then-girlfriend Brownstein took a trip to Australia in early 1994. Their last day there, they stayed up all night recording what would become their self-titled debut album. It was released the following spring. They followed this with Call the Doctor (1996) and Dig Me Out (1997), and became critical darlings as a result. Renowned critics Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau have each praised Sleater-Kinney as one of the essential rock groups of the late 90s/early 00s. Marcus named Sleater-Kinney America’s best rock band in a 2001 issue of Time magazine. On June 27, 2006, the band announced an indefinite hiatus, stating there were “no plans for future tours or recordings”. Sleater-Kinney’s last major public show was at the 2006 Lollapalooza music festival. The band’s last appearance was at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Oregon, on August 12, 2006. No explanation for the hiatus was given. In a May 2005 interview, Weiss stated, “Corin’s hurdles were my biggest hurdles. Her pulling away from the band was the hardest thing for me as far as writing music. She said in a recent interview that she thinks about quitting every week – and that’s heavy for me, ’cause this is all I want to do.” In an interview from March 17, 2010, Carrie Brownstein claimed that Sleater-Kinney may reunite and release an album “sometime in the next five years.” She repeated this affirmation in an interview with This Is Fake DIY in 2012. Hence, I’m considering the group still active. I don’t even need that however to place these three at the top of the list, because everything they do individually becomes rock gold.
The existence of Wild Flag was first announced by Carrie Brownstein via a blog post on National Public Radio’s All Songs Considered blog, of which she was a contributor, in September 2010. She said that she had called together her friends a year ago and tried to form a band. The group consists of Carrie Brownstein (vocals, guitar), Mary Timony (vocals, guitar), Rebecca Cole (keyboards, backing vocals) and Janet Weiss (drums, backing vocals). Their eponymous debut album was released on September 13, 2011 on Merge Records. That album made a bevy of year-end lists, but most importantly Earbuddy’s (it was my number one vote for 2011). In April 2010, Tucker announced she was recording a solo album for Kill Rock Stars to be released in October 2010. Working along with Tucker on her solo album was Unwound’s Sara Lund and Golden Bears’/Circus Lupus Seth Lorinczi. According to Tucker, the album would be a “middle-aged mom record”. The album, entitled 1,000 Years was released on October 5, 2010, to positive reception by music critics. Tucker toured on both U.S. coasts to support the 1,000 Years album, in addition to dates in other parts of the country. The band’s second album, titled Kill My Blues, was released on September 18, 2012. This album is currently being supported by a US tour.
Then there is Janet Weiss. Janet is the best rock drummer of our generation. No equivocation. If you have an argument with that, you haven’t listened to her play. Weiss is the kind of drummer that can shake a building to the foundation without breaking a sweat. Fuck Chuck Norris. You need to fear Janet Weiss. Her work with Wild Flag put that record on the map for me. She did great work behind our number two selection Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks. Then there’s Quasi. Quasi is an American indie rock band formed in Portland in 1993 by Janet and her ex-husband Sam Coomes (vocals, guitar, rocksichord, various keyboards). To say I was excited to hear that the duo would be coming back this year with a double-LP would be an understatement. Having already had that record in my eardrums, let me warn you, it oozes the good stuff. Listening to Janet play brings me a childlike joy that I can only compare to your grandparents allowing you to use the garage door opener before you could reach the button on the wall. In truth, I’m not sure I would have a problem with placing her as number one on my list alone. Altogether however, Janet, Carrie, and Corin are a force in rock music. Not only with what they are turning out, but how they are influencing the scenes around them. I can listen to any of these records again and get as much joy as that first virgin listen. As a matter of fact, I think I’ll put All Hands On The Bad One on right now. Thank you Portland. You rock my world.
Think I got something wrong? Want to add your own list or nominations? Make sure and leave a comment below.
No synthesizers whatsoever were used during the writing of this column.
Read previous editions of a list obligatory.