christmas mix: give ’em what they want / it’ll never be enough

I’ve been making what I call a Christmas mix — that is, not holiday songs but a mix made at the holidays — since 1997; first they were tapes, then for a few years cds, and finally, in the digital age, many years of downloadable zip files and now the last three years have been Spotify playlists; this year is no exception. These are songs — frequently but not necessarily released in 2018 — that meant something to me this year, for various reasons, and they are for you.

I got married this year. It’s pretty much the best thing I’ve ever done.

(“Girls To The Front” is probably recognizable as the Hysteria podcast theme, but the whole Sizzy Rocket record bangs. And because I listen to podcasts on 1.5x speed, spending time with that song and with “Grits” – because of the Carolina Insider podcast outro – was weird, because I usually hear them sped up. The slow jam-ness of “Grits” startled the shit out of me when I did my first full listen through to the mix. If you liked the first Lily Allen record, you’ll like the GIRLI EP. Brian Fallon’s Sleepwalkers was one of if not the most underrated record of the year. “Save The Last Dance For Me” was our first dance at the wedding. Frank Turner’s Be More Kind was my favorite record of 2018, and the title track is the best advice I have to anyone trying to operate in the horror of the current world. I love all y’all.)

  1. Sizzy Rocket – Girls To The Front: yeah i’ll say it loud and we’re gonna shut it down / all the girls to the front with me
  2. GIRLI – Hot Mess: i don’t know who you think i am / but your bitch is not one
  3. The Love Language – Castle In The Sky: you’ve been in the woods for quite a while / no i never knew i loved you til i saw you in the wild
  4. Spider Bags – Rollin’ With The Flow: ah but i still love rock and roll / so i keep on rollin’ with the flow
  5. boygenius – Stay Down: i wasn’t a fighter ’til somebody told me / i had better learn to lean into the punch
  6. Brian Fallon – If Your Prayers Don’t Get To Heaven: and when i was a child, a dream came to me / where every soul hanging low found its piece of dignity
  7. Cory Branan – I Only Know: if our past is all we get to be / my old life would have been the death of me
  8. Emily Barker – If We Forget To Dance: baby we don’t stand a chance / if we forget to dance
  9. Josh Ritter – Miles Away: honey, can you leave your light on?
  10. Sarah Jarosz – When Doves Cry: maybe i’m just too demanding / maybe i’m just like my father, too bold
  11. True North – Wilder Than Her: she takes the fire and turns it down low / she takes the night and makes it not so cold / she takes the distance, breaks it into miles / she makes my life just a little less wild
  12. The Drifters – Save The Last Dance For Me: but don’t forget who’s takin’ you home / and in whose arms you’re gonna be / so darlin’ save the last dance for me
  13. Jason Isbell – If We Were Vampires: it’s knowing that this can’t go on forever / likely one of us will have to spend some days alone / maybe we’ll get forty years together
  14. Annaleigh Ashford – Children And Art: it’s not so much do what you like as it is that you like what you do
  15. Frank Turner – Be More Kind: in a world that has decided / that it’s going to lose its mind / be more kind, my friends, try to be more kind
  16. The RZA – Grits: (see ya later, big grits)

Photo at top taken by The Joyner Company, who I totally 150% think you should hire to photograph your wedding.


gracie & rachel @ cat's cradle

#MWE stands for Music Writer’s Exercise, and it ambled its way across my Twitter timeline in late January; started by Gary Suarez, it challenges music writers to listen to a new-to-them (never before heard) album every day in February, and review it in a single tweet. Since last year I didn’t listen to enough music or write enough about the tiny bits I listened to, I was in. And though I struggled to keep up on a day-to-day basis, I did eventually listen to 28 new to me albums (fuck you Leap Day) and write about all of them on Twitter.

You can check out my collected reviews over here, and this is a playlist that includes every album I listened to. I tried to mix up what I was listening to, and sought recommendations from friends who love bands I’ve never tried, records by artists I love that I missed last year, classics I’ve never tried, and new releases so far from 2016. There was some stuff I wouldn’t necessarily listen to again, but I was delighted to discover that I didn’t hate anything I listened to. I didn’t even hate the Cream album I listened to, even if it was still too guitar wanky for me. It’s a thing I have. Too many guitar solos, Cream. Stop guitar soloing.

So I loved writing about an album every day (and some days about two or three or four to catch up), and I really loved going through the #MWE hashtag, checking out what other people were listening to, liking, hating, discovering. And I realized how much I missed listening to lots and lots of music. So I think the exercise served its purpose, which is exactly what it was supposed to do. Time for more listening, and time for more writing. Neither of those things is a bad thing.


christmas mix: if you want to see a miracle

house show: slingshot cash

I’ve been making what I call a Christmas mix — that is, not holiday songs but a mix made at the holidays — since 1997; first they were tapes, then for a few years cds, and finally, in the digital age, the last seven nine ten eleven years have been downloadable zip files, and this year is no exception. These are songs — frequently but not necessarily released in 2015 — that meant something to me this year, for various reasons, and they are for you. The whole shebang is available as a zip file [here] (110MB, .zip).

Happy holidays, happy 2015, happy these are great songs — whatever floats your boat. This is from me to you. 2015 wasn’t half bad, and it was mostly more than good. Here’s to 2016.

If you creep about lurking and you only comment on one post all year, this would be a good one. I’m just sayin’. ♥

  1. Langhorne Slim – Changes: i’m going through changes / ripping out pages / i’m going through changes now
  2. Fort Frances – Anonymous: let’s be the philosophy in a book that no one will ever read
  3. Frank Turner – Get Better (Acoustic): may i always see the road rising up to meet me / and my enemies defeated in the mirror behind
  4. Jason Isbell – If It Takes A Lifetime: i keep my spirits high, find happiness by and by / if it takes a lifetime
  5. Ryan Adams – Shake It Off: it’s like i got this music in my body and it’s gonna be alright
  6. Rhett Miller – Reasons To Live: and it is what it is / i have found reasons to live
  7. Thea Gilmore – Coming Back To You: it’s the laughter in your eyes / it’s the whisper of surprise / gonna see me through / keeps me coming back to you
  8. Kacey Musgraves – Biscuits: mend your own fences and own your own crazy / mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy
  9. Dar Williams – FM Radio: maybe queen needs a clarinet player
  10. Blitzen Trapper – Rock And Roll (Was Made For You): rock and roll won’t ease your mind / but you’ll find it’ll ease your soul
  11. Genevieve – Colors: i wake up thinking bout my purpose / and wonder if i’m really worth it
  12. Rachel Platten – Fight Song: this is my fight song / take back my life song / prove I’m alright song / my power’s turned on
  13. Quiet Hollers – Cote D’Azur: it was a good old time for sure
  14. Josh Ritter – Getting Ready To Get Down: if you want to see a miracle, watch me get down

top 10: favorite albums of 2014

still life

Yeah. 2014. This is late. I wrote it and never posted it and I have no idea why, but here you go, mostly because I’m trying to put together my 2015 list soon anyway. Must clean up the drafts folder!

2014 was a hard, hard year, and the place it suffered most was my music listening; podcasts were easier, and when delivered directly to my phone automatically, less for me to think about. I don’t know that I’ve ever made a list that’s fewer than 25 albums, but this one is. What I was enjoying while I made this, though, is other people’s lists, because I missed almost everything in 2014, trying to keep my head above water, and I’m ready to stop missing things.

  1. Caleb Caudle – Paint Another Layer On Your Heart: one of the simplest, most beautiful records of 2014, Winston-Salem’s Caudle absolutely knocked it out of the park with Paint Another Layer On Your Heart. It’s full of heartbreakingly honest songs mostly about distance and love and long distance love, and “Trade All The Lights” and “How’d You Learn” are fighting for my favorite song of 2014. The single lyric, from early in album opener “How’d You Learn”, of home doesn’t share you with the places you’ve been made me cry so hard the first time I listened to Paint Another Layer that I ended up listening to nothing but the first minute of that song, over and over, for about the first 15 minutes of my experience with it. I finally listened to the rest of it, though, and it’s all just as brilliant as that line.
  2. Cory Branan – The No-Hit Wonder: Branan’s second record for my beloved Bloodshot Records combines Branan’s signature tongue-in-cheek bitter-but-not-quite lyrics with a variety of sounds — mostly bigger, broader, more layered than his previous guitar-centric solo sound — that punch up his already sharp songwriting into musical pieces that are even more suited to that lyrical sharpness than ever before. They range from country rockers to New Orleans horn laced crooners, and the startling lovely and acoustically stark “The Meantime Blues” that comes near the end of the record shouldn’t work, but might be the highlight of the album. Branan tours pretty relentlessly, and I can’t wait to hear the songs from this one live next year.
  3. Ex Hex – Rips: The only bands I saw more than twice in 2014 were Caleb Caudle, Cory Branan, and Ex Hex, who are about as far apart as can be, musically, and that didn’t matter to me. Rips, the Merge Records debut from the latest project from grown-up Riot Grrrl Mary Timony, is short and to the point, but it ain’t sweet: it rips and roars and screams and shreds guitars and bass and drums as hard as it can. It’s awesome.
  4. Old 97s – Most Messed Up: Rhett Miller drops the f-bomb upwards of 50 times on the 97s’ most recent studio album, and every single one of them makes me giggle and grin like a 12 year old boy. They also put on one of the best, if not the best set I saw this year, playing to a tiny and raucous crowd in the desert of West Texas, tearing through most of this record and proving that Rhett Miller dropping f-bombs in person is greater than Rhett Miller dropping f-bombs in the studio. And in record opener “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive”, the band gives one of the most astute commentaries on the life of a musician: we’ve been doing this longer than you’ve been alive / 20 good years of about 25. The 97s will never be an arena band, and I wouldn’t want them to be; Most Messed Up just shows how great clubs have been and will still be for what they want to do.
  5. Taylor Swift – 1989: okay, don’t close the tab just because you hit this entry. This is a glorious, complete pop record, and sometimes, you guys, we just need glorious complete pop records. There’s always going to be blowback against Tay Tay and the music she’s making and the life she’s living, but most of it is going to come from people who didn’t listen to her albums. 1989 makes me feel good about being alive, and sometimes that’s quite literally all I want from a pop record. I listened to this four times in a row sitting in post-Thanksgiving traffic, and bonus track “New Romantics” made me cry every time. It also kept me from committing significant acts of road rage in Gaffney, South Carolina, and so Taylor Swift wins.
  6. Lydia Loveless – Somewhere Else: sneakingly might be a better rock and roll album than noted rock and rollers the Drive-By Truckers, who follow her on this list, Lydia followed up the excellent Indestructible Machine with the subtler but just as fierce Somewhere Else. “Verlaine Shot Rimbaud” is in my top five favorite tracks of 2014.
  7. The Drive-By Truckers – English Oceans: I fell out of love with the Truckers in 2013, and then I took Trav to see them in Atlanta in January, and I fell back in love with him, and with them. English Oceans is mostly free of the lengthy Patterson Hood guitar wanks that I complain about a lot, and things like “Shit Shots Count” add to Mike Cooler’s considerable arsenal of blow-your-face-off rockers. The balance of the songwriting is what’s been most talked about this year, and it’s one of the things that’s the most worthy of talking about, because it’s what makes this record so much greater than Go-Go Boots.
  8. The Gaslight Anthem – Get Hurt: Brian Fallon knows the way to my heart; this record was so close to my core that I couldn’t even write about it. But it’s beautiful.
  9. Noah Gundersen – Ledges: what I said in my two sentence reviews: start to finish gorgeous heartbreaking alt folk. One of the best records of 2014.
  10. Various Artists – While No One Was Looking: Celebrating 20 Years of Bloodshot Records: perhaps the greatest compilation I’ve ever heard, Bloodshot’s 20th birthday celebration made me cry, made me laugh, made me dance. It’d be higher on the list but it’s weird to put a compilation that high, sometimes. Regardless: it’s good. You should have it.

hopscotch music festival: saturday

hopscotch music festival: x

Speakers didn’t cover Hopscotch this year because Matt done gone and gotten himself a baby, and I was reeling after we had a break-in in July and Butthead McStealy walked off with not only all my camera gear but also my camera bag, which contained my entire collection of press passes in a pass holder. NOT COOL, BUTTHEAD MCSTEALY.

Anyway, on Saturday because I was missing it, Trav and shep. and I went over to Raleigh, intending to do the day parties and then bail for Michigan State / Oregon — and then my buddy Dan came up with enough passes for us to get into the mainstage City Plaza shows, and I got to shoot X and American Aquarium.

It was so, so good to shoot again. It was so great to shoot American Aquarium, the band who made me want to take concert photos, on such a big stage. Trav and I came home blissed out and peaceful and exhausted, and I am still those things. Photos from City Plaza below, and everything here.

hopscotch music festival: x

hopscotch music festival: x

hopscotch music festival: x

hopscotch music festival

hopscotch music festival: american aquarium

hopscotch music festival: american aquarium

hopscotch music festival: the dead tongues

hopscotch music festival: laney jones & the spirits

hopscotch music festival: teardrop canyon

hopscotch music festival: flesh wounds

festival preview: secret stages, birmingham, alabama

magic mike @ greene street club

Secret Stages, a two day festival in downtown Birmingham featuring loads of great smaller bands, starts on Friday, July 31, and runs through August 1. Festival organizer Travis Morgan was nice enough to sit down and answer some questions for me. If you’re in the greater Birmingham area this weekend, make sure to check it out.
BNKO: This is the 5th year of Secret Stages. What inspired you to start the festival?
Travis Morgan: The festival was organized by several folks, including myself.  Secret Stages started in the wake of City Stages, which a much larger scale outdoor festival in downtown Birmingham.  When City Stages went under, we saw the need for a festival, but a much different one.  We focus on up and coming or under the radar music who are mostly based around the southeast.  We feel this type of music festival is an imperative element to a thriving music scene in Birmingham.
What are some of the challenges of planning and executing a festival? What are the most rewarding parts?
The challenges usually are funding and having a small staff, but with a festival with so many working parts.  It’s much harder to sell a festival this size and of this scope than something that will automatically attract tens of thousands of people if you book a certain band. It’s much easier to reach your audience and your sponsors.
We are all into challenges, but due to the approach and personal outlook of our festival, we are at a disadvantage.  People aren’t as accustomed to going to see a bunch of bands they’ve never heard of.  They’d probably likely pay 10 times the price to go to see a bunch of bands they already know. So, we now have a pretty solid 4 year track record of amazing bands.
Secret Stages is more difficult to sell to sponsors.  This is more of a group partnership between the bands, attendees, the festival, and the sponsors to put on an event that helps celebrate the incredible music coming out of Birmingham, the Southeast, and beyond. Once sponsors can see how they are benefiting their community, I think they are much more likely to jump on board.
Additionally, the city of Birmingham has implemented extra permit costs to us and other outdoor events. Partially because of that, we have eliminated our outdoor stage, which we’ve had since the beginning.
The rewards certainly outweigh the challenges.  When the festival is in motion and especially when it’s over, it’s easier to see what we have achieved.  We are able to bring together a wonderful selection of open-minded folks to celebrate a love of music together.
How do you select the bands who play? What’s your curatorial process like?
Rashid Qandil books all the hip hop.  At this point, I book everything else.  I think I booked 52 bands this year.
My approach is a little bit different than looking at what other festivals are booking or what’s at the top of the charts.  I have to go much deeper.  I usually go to a lot of shows, festivals, follow a lot of smaller labels, and have a relationship with hundreds of folks around the southeast.  My criteria is really based on a few factors.  Can the band write great songs? Not just one great song, but many.  Can the band perform really well? Is the band great live?  Is the band unique is some way wether it’s their genre/style, lyrical style, sense of humor, or what have you?
I stay in touch with bands, talent buyers, booking agents, labels, music journalists, and radio deejays and literally build a spreadsheet of hundreds of bands which I whittle down to about 50 or 60 each year.
Are there any bands you’re especially excited about this year? Anyone you’re psyched to see live for the first time?
This is always the question that makes me feel funny. The real answer is that all the bands that are playing made it through so many hurdles to play the festival.  All of these bands are special. I have seen a bunch of these bands, but I have never had a chance to see most of them before because they may not have played in Bham ever before.
I’m really excited to bring so many of these bands to Birmingham.  And I’m not sure any of these bands have played Birmingham before.
Bear Medicine, Bonnie Montgomery, Bo White Y Su Orquesta, Buke and Gase, Culture Vulture, Dot.s, Early Walker, Gold-Bears, Small Reactions, Jake Xerxes Fussell, Landlady, Onawa, Raindeer, Ryan Schaefer, Sweet Crude, TONE, White Reaper and Waking Astronomer.
I’m super excited to see these Birmingham bands Timber and Shaw for the first time.
I’m also really excited to see what Birmingham’s Dead Balloons, Taylor and the Puffs, and Eleven Year Old bring to the table.
Festivals can sometimes be strange to play. What do you think makes up the best kind of festival set?
The cool thing about Secret Stages, is ours is made up of 6 relatively small venues, plus a VIP venue and this allows for so much intimacy.  Since people aren’t usually too familiar with many bands, it is a time when attendees are first being exposed to a band.  It helps if a band brings all their energy and engages the crowd.  It also helps when the audience is quiet and respectful to the bands which they typically are. It’s a great platform for the bands and for the audience to hear great new bands. These are short sets from 45 minutes to an hour.  Not too much time for people to get bored, but if they do, they can always check out what’s happening next door.
Where do you see Secret Stages going? What does the festival look like in another five years?
We are always shifting things here and there, but our mission statement will always remain in tact.  Our bands are the little engine that could…The kids on the baseball or softball team that show so much promise and we are just giving them a leg up.
I hope our reputation continues to be favorable.  I hope to have more support from the City of Bham and recognition for the importance of our festival model.
In five years, I hope to double our attendance and add more venues.
For those of us who aren’t necessarily familiar with the Birmingham music scene, recommend a couple of local bands (they don’t have to be playing Secret Stages, just in general!).
Right now the biggest band from Birmingham is St. Paul and the Broken Bones.  They have recently done some dates with The Rolling Stones opening for them.  They played their first show at Secret Stages in 2012.  There’s also Lee Bains and the Glory Fires who played previously and are now signed to Sub Pop.  I think the other bands on the rise are WRAY, Future Elevators, The Green Seed, and Banditos (who recently moved to Nashville).
I personally think Through the Sparks is one of the best bands to come out of Alabama ever. I am biased because I have been working with them for a while, but they are fantastic.
Where’s the best place for out-of-towners visiting for Secret Stages to have a drink? A great meal?
What a question!  Bham is definitely a food town.  There are too many.  Within our footprint, you must try Carrigan’s, Brick & Tin, El Barrio, Trattoria, and Urban Standard. Beyond our footprint I love Ollie Irene, Olive Branch, Chez Fon Fon, Betolla, Bottega Cafe, Hot & Hot Fish Club, Silver Coin, even a sandwich at Diplomat Deli is amazing!…But there are so many good ones.
If you had a time machine and could use it to go back and see one show (one you missed, one you weren’t born for, one you want to relive, whatever), what would you go see?
I would have loved to see Pink Floyd in their prime with Roger Waters.