Best of 2019 in Indie Rock

Here we are…the last year-end summary of the decade. I’m in an amazingly different place at the end of the decade than I was at its onset. It was a different world, I was living in El Salvador, and I had completely lost the ability to find new music. Several years later, I got my mojo back and figured it all out again. As always, you will not see all of the same artists on my best of list as you will on the industry’s biggest names. I don’t try to span every genre. These are the records I found myself listening to most often this year. Let’s get at it.

Fresh – Withdraw

I’ve said quite a lot about this record, and I’m not done. It’s brilliant. Just fantastically crafted. I liked their first album enough to keep paying attention. Prior to Withdraw’s release, I heard the track Willa and knew it was going to be a special record. There is no stronger run of songs on any album this year than Nervous Energy/Going to Brighton/Willa. Fresh combines strong indie rock guitar work with clever lyrics and catchy as hell choruses. The album closer, Revenge, is an anthem you will be screaming for years. It took some work, but I got to see Fresh on their brief first U.S. tour a couple of months ago and highly recommend you see them wherever and whenever you can. The first pressing was 300 copies on yellow vinyl and 200 on split yellow and green vinyl.

Tacocat – This Mess Is a Place

Tacocat continued on the trajectory of their recent albums on their official Sub Pop debut – away from the harsher guitar sound and in the direction of straight pop songs. And it works – there are a few supremely catchy songs on this one, most notably Grains of Salt, Rose-Colored Sky, and Crystal Ball. They released I Grains of Salt before the album came out and I listened to it to death. The subject matter of this album varies a bit from previous efforts, as some tracks deal with the band reconciling what’s going on in the world around them. Good stuff. The Loser Edition was on jade-green vinyl. A black vinyl version is also out there.

That Dog – Old LP

I wasn’t sure what to expect with this record. You just never know when a band makes their first album in 22 years. Well…they nailed it. Old LP is a beautiful record. And it unmistakably a That Dog album, jumping from a distinctly 90s guitar edge (as in Just the Way) to a symphony (Old LP), with fabulous vocal harmonies throughout. The title track, Old LP, is a heartbreaking tribute to the Haden triplets’ father, who passed away in 2014. After the record came out, I had a few weeks to train myself to keep it together before seeing them play it live. I got close, but I failed. It’s a gorgeous, but difficult, song. Released on black vinyl and yellow vinyl. The yellow one was mostly exclusive to Kickstarter backers, but the had a few left over, which they sold in their Hello Merch store.

Martha – Love Keeps Kicking

That was this year? How is that possible? I feel like I’ve been listening to this record for at least two years. I have not. For anyone who has listened to Martha before, this record will fit expectations: powerful pop-punk earworms. Any track on here could get stuck in your head for days on end. Really strong showing, start to finish. Favorites: The Void, Into This, Wrestlemania VIII. The U.S. vinyl was on Dirtnap and came in opaque maroon (200), opaque pink (200), and black vinyl. The UK version (on Big Scary Monsters) was on blue with blue splatter (300), red (700), and black vinyl (1,000).

The Subjunctives – Sunshine and Rainbows

Holy hell, I needed this one. This was the first full-length from The Subjunctives, the latest band from Ean Hernandez of Sicko. And it is awesome. It sounds a lot like what I would imagine a 2019 Sicko record would sound like, if you added a handful of sadder lyrics into the classic mix of upbeat, nostalgic, and funny ones. Ean and company reminded us with this record that they were, are, and will forever be pop-punk royalty. This is how the rest of us should be doing it. Pass It On should get stuck in your head, Hey Dad is infectious, but with some depressing undertones beneath the pop-punk exterior, and Dumbass is the office worker’s anthem that we’ve all needed. And to make sure it lives up to its 90s roots in full, there is even a hidden track at the end of the last song…which is fine in my home music library, but dudes, you’re messing with my Spotify playlists. It’s out on Top Drawer Records on red vinyl.

Charly Bliss – Young Enough / Supermoon

Charly Bliss surprised us with an EP late in the year here, so they get a double entry. Their second full-length, Young Enough, is very different from their debut. Gone is the fuzzy guitar noise that first drew me in. They doubled down on pop songs and synth for this one, and added some darker subject matter. It’s clearly a much more personal record than anything they’d released before. On first listen, I wasn’t sure about it, but it grew on me quickly. Then I saw them perform it live, and it jumped several additional notches for me. The boundless energy Eva poured into every song made them come alive for me much now fully. I think The Truth is one of the best overall songs they’ve written. Young Enough came out on blue vinyl in the U.S. (Barsuk) and UK (Lucky Number). There was also a Vinyl Me, Please exclusive version on orange vinyl with blue and white splatter (limited to 300).

Then they went and dropped Supermoon. They described this EP as in between the sound of their first and second albums, and I concur. The whole thing is great. Threat, Slingshot, and the Supermoon are all excellent tracks. The vinyl for this one is coming out next year.

Nato Coles and the Blue Diamond Band – Flyover

Nato Coles & the Blue Diamond Band should probably be from Jersey, but they are an unabashedly Midwestern band of rock n’ roll misfits. Their latest album, Flyover, is packed full of American rock vignettes. I’ve always thought their stuff fit really well with The Gaslight Anthem, except with Gaslight, I always got the sense that they were playing a part. The Blue Diamond Band is not – they are every bit what their songs say they are. The record is strong throughout, but the 1-2 punch of Standing on the Corner Alone and The Roadrunner is my favorite part. Flyover is out on Don Giovanni on black vinyl.

Upset – S/T

Upset has the distinction of being the only band on here I enjoyed listening to, but knew next to nothing about. So I looked them up. Hold up, Patty Schemel is in Upset? From Hole?!? Who knew? Anyway, I’d picked up their drop a few years ago and thought it was really solid, so I got their full-length when it came out last month. Also very solid – classic indie rock song composition and fun throughout. The two tracks that really stand out for me are Tried & True and Mullet, both of which appear late on the album. Released on the ever-dependable Lauren Records. 300 copies on butter cream vinyl.

And here, for your listening pleasure, is a playlist featuring all of the above and more. 2019 had a lot of songs that were clearly designed to be the heavyweight closer for their respective albums. I put them all at the end of the playlist because of that, but then realized that most of my favorites for the year were buried at the end. Also, “Old LP” was the no-question closer, so I moved the others up. Buy the records! Listen to the playlist, too!

Top Drawer Pop Punk Lives

14 Soda Punx LP
Top Drawer Records
Available January 19th

It’s 2018. Sicko is doing a reunion show. I’m flying out for it. Top Drawer Records is active again. I can’t really handle this combination of events. The Sicko performance is part of the two-day Seattle Pop Punk Festival, January 19th and 20th at Highline. You should do this. You still have time. I was a bit late to the party with Sicko (a friend introduced me in 1997), so I never got to see them play the first time around. Time to rectify that.

If that weren’t enough, though, Top Drawer decided to take it one step further, reviving the (tragically) lost art form of the compilation. In conjunction with the festival, they are releasing the 14 Soda Punx record, limited to 500 copies on red vinyl (pre-order here). This is a 23-year-later sequel to the classic Top Drawer 13 Soda Punx compilation.

Top Drawer and Sicko have always excelled at promoting the frequently overlooked Seattle pop punk scene, which has always existed – it shared space with the ’90s grunge boom era, and never achieved the fanfare. The Fastbacks managed to keep one foot in both worlds, but they were mostly alone in that – other bands were seemingly either in one camp or the other, and there was little overlap. Top Drawer planted the pop punk flag and flew it proudly while everyone else was perfecting their power chord/feedback balance.

So here we are. There is still pop punk in Seattle, and Top Drawer has come out of retirement to once again, with a small army of punk bands, to stake its claim to that segment of the Seattle music scene. And it’s good. 14 Soda Punx is a fascinating walk through a variety of pop punk styles. Parts of the record are like walking through a mid-90s Warped Tour lineup…you can hear influences all over the place from the bands of that time.

Since Top Drawer has brought back the compilation with authority, I am going to revive yet another lost art form: describing tracks on a comp by drawing comparisons with other bands. There are highlights all over the place, but one real standout for me is the opener. The record kicks off with a strong entry from Success called “Kurt Bloch,” a not-super-subtle musical love letter to the Fastbacks. It’s got Weston/Armchair Martian-style guitar work and vocals, which equates directly with happiness. It’s scientific fact. Really catchy and solid. Ramona’s “Token” follows, which is also fun – this one kind of sounds like one of the early Rancid tracks sung by Matt. Or something by Tilt. Or both together.

Shadow Cats bring us “Paranoia,” which sounds like a Fastbacks love child. Fantastic hooks and Hi-Fives-like vocal progression. Head-bobbing and infectious. Burn Burn Burn’s “What Doing” takes us on a detour from 14 Soda Punx and lands us in a ’90s Fat Wreck comp. Great energy. A couple of tracks later, after we find our way back from Fat Music for Top Drawer People, we crash into something straight out of Husker Du – the Botherations track “Amor Perdido.” I love the emotional intensity of this song. Intensity – whether in music or obvious in vocals – is a feature I am realizing more and more matters to me in new music.

At this point, we reach the brightest highlight for me on 14 Soda Punx. I will say that Top Drawer did its best to avoid making this record/festival a celebration of Sicko and its members’ new bands. I knew Denny’s new band was on here, but I did not know which band it was when I listened to it. When the Drolls’ song “Getting Old” kicks in, it takes all the guesswork out of the equation. This song brings me back to vintage Sicko. Great stuff. Ean’s new band, Date Night with Brian, follows with the characteristically catchy pop song, “Get It In.” The song is excellent, and it is a good follow up to their debut EP that came out in 2017 (which you should go check out from Top Drawer. It’s on Spotify, too). 14 Soda Punx closes with Dead Bars, probably the best-known of the bands on the record. They contribute the hysterical “Krist Novoselic’s New Band,” which…well, just go listen.

Top Drawer has returned with a vengeance, and it’s what we need in 2018.