Many a discussion has been had about consumption culture reverting to vinyl and cassette, but it takes a special breed to only release your album on tape. Though they’ve grown in popularity, cassettes often remain the language of secret music. And why wouldn’t they? Tapes have long been a favorite medium for frugal punks and experimental off-the-grid weirdos alike, so it makes sense that some of the year’s greatest and most challenging records were pressed only to magnetic film. These are records that might have made our Best of 2014 list if it were not for this one fact. If these bands and labels wanted their music to be heard in this format, we felt it necessary to commend them for their efforts. These are the 20 cassettes we felt rose above the hiss in 2014.
Jillian Medford’s busy year of solitary recording blossomed into the self-titled EP by IAN, featuring the backing power of drums, bass and guitar. The added members brought back old songs in new-and-improved sound. “You confuse me” deploys its original kinetic distortion and squealing from one guitar into a full band and the cymbal clanging smooths out the guitar and vocals like spreading wet cement on the floor of a new garage. “Big Dog” keeps the spotlight on Medford and a new respect for watery echo and smooth ascents to big sound bridges. Stand out, though, is a new one; the EP’s opener. “Don’t Call Me” keeps Medford’s twee side at the fore while the subtle cymbal work lets the guitar strums soar in a sweet state of melancholy before the full band really gets to introduce themselves.
Jesse DeRosa has been creating forward-thinking-man’s weirdo noise for nearly as long as Impose has been calling the internet our home. From his work as one-half of the drone-duo Grasshopper, to his role as gatekeeper at the cassette-label Baked Tapes, he is a formidable force within Brooklyn’s cacophonous walls. DeRosa’s most recent composition is a solo effort for the Wilmington, DE cassette label 2:00AM Tapes under the moniker Shingles. Whether referencing the roofing tile or skin malady, either could be an appropriate metaphor for the uncomfortable and omnipresent tones he’s able to conjure using EVI, an MS-10, Electric Bass, and a typewriter—yes, a typewriter. The result is God First Planted A Garden, a CS soundtrack to a nonexistent film that, as per the label’s description, adapts the story from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, though we’re hearing a bit more Escape From NY vibes than stitched-together monsters. Regardless, it’s a 27-minute ethereal escape from reality that deserves a coinciding movie.
It’s not required knowledge, but listening to Ellie Herring’s Chipped EP with the understanding that it was made during bouts of insomnia will assist in interpreting the headspace she was in during its creation. “Video Tapes”, the first song she made in the series, is an intentionally quiet creation, made as though not to disturb housemates or neighbors. Even at the height of the r&b vocals rising croon, Herring keeps the sample buried in the background, an afterthought to the droning sounds.
As the Chipped EP progresses Herring’s production gains comfort in causing a commotion in the early a.m. Those vocal samples become more pronounced and she expands the repertoire to include rap on “Dynasty” and dub on “The Never Ache”. She’s in heavy meditation throughout the EP, but as she notes in our interview below, this is also her production at its loosest. “Dynasty” opens the EP with brazen hi-hats that crack and snap into echoed canyons, but “Video Tapes” is the true genesis of Chipped. The comfort to incorporate those hi-hats was not immediate, but earned over repeated sessions in which the external world began to matter less and less and the solitude of crafting among the sleeping became a welcomed inventor’s hour. The Chipped EP feels born of the night, darkness is a material within the composition, but Herring also must have worked until daylight crept through the blinds to cause her to allow a little light into her production.
Crabapple, Is It You? (Self Released)
Sandra Alayon once fronted an excellent, short-lived indie-pop band called Dear Marje, backed by Allison Crutchfield and Kyle Gilbride. In the months following Dear Marje’s last show, Crutchfield and Gilbride went on to start Swearin’, while Alayon moved to the Bay Area and started playing in Crabapple. The band is Christine Toupou (a/k/a Try the Pie, formerly of Sourpatch), Jenna Marx (of Salinas pop punk trio Joyride!), and Sean Nieves (who drums with no-wave punx No Babies). They’re a bit of a supergroup, and together they quietly released one of the year’s greatest indie pop tapes. Is It You? is an all-too-short eight song collection of sweet-sung, bass-centered pop songs about missing, waiting, moving away, moving on (or not). It brims with intricate, interweaving melodies, channeling Tiger Trap’s variety of intricate singing guitar leads and the occasional pop punk riff.
“It’s late, you’re miles away in an East Coast city, I won’t name,” Alayon sings on “East Coast Cities”, the perfect, sentimental opener about someone whose taken her heart to the other side of the country. “I’d call, but it’s far too late, and you wouldn’t pick up anyway.” Crabapple use sugary, dim-lit harmonies to meditate on the anxiousness of saying goodbye; being stuck inside your own unshakeable daydreams. “I miss you some times, I know I don’t have the right,” Alayon admits on “Loose Ends”. “I’m a loose end you’ve tied.” There are some complicated feelings at play, but filtered through Alayon’s softly sweet Rose Melberg lilt and Toupou’s careful breezy drumming, you can’t help but feel like everything is going to be okay.
The Spookfish, Living Room (Singapore Sling)
Two tracks into The Spookfish’s Living Room cassette comes with the impulse to label it a beat tape; couture transmissions from a satellite location believed to be in the Appalachian divots of Upstate New York. And so The Spookfish pivot into homegrown crackle for an acoustic song that strikes through preconceptions, if only momentarily. Living Room finds a way to deplete programmed machinery of its human indifference. The cassette is concerned with being little and shrinking colossal instrumentation like funeral organs and breakbeat patterns over 808s into one’s living quarters.
Couples Counseling, Couples Counseling (Blood Oath Slumber Party)
If you’re a Mutual Benefit superfan, you may recognize the voice of Virginia De Las Poza, who sang on the band’s acclaimed 2013 album Love’s Crushing Diamond. With Couples Counseling, she takes her ethereal voice to drastically new territory. In listening to her self-titled cassette, that canonical bedroom feeling is transmitted with arresting grace. The thought comes with immediacy, “no one in Boston knows this exists.” Couples Counseling captures vintage doo-wop pinnings in a bottle, punctures holes in the lid, and drops in a few twigs to recreate its natural habitat, which is ultimate charm of the cassette – it’s slightly out of place. Couples Counseling takes strange turns, fidgets with texture, and valiantly gets lost in the moment. And yet, every moment brilliantly crashes into the last without interrupting the harmonious bloom.
Tredici Bacci is a 14-piece orchestral group from Boston who perform directed by Simon Hanes from Guerilla Toss. Yeah, that Guerilla Toss. The Guerilla Toss that’s been putting ear plugs in our ears and primal raptures in our souls for years. The Guerilla Toss that’s provided us with hits such as “Gay Disco” and “diluted fetus circuit tycoon”. The Guerilla Toss we love, the Guerilla Toss our parents hate—Guerilla Toss. A fucking member of Guerilla Toss scored an album of orchestral music. And if the name of the group, Tredici Bacci, doesn’t cue you in to the sound, then the album itself will. The Thirteen Kisses Cassetta sees Hanes coming into his own as a composer; it’s a beautiful collection of pieces inspired by 60’s and 70’s Italian film scores. Think the aural aesthetic of Spaghetti Westerns, Commedia all’italiana and Giallo Slasher flicks, but reimagined through the lens of retrospect.
Without getting too particular about Courtship Ritual’s appellation choices, the Oxford English Dictionary defines pith (n.) as “The innermost or central part of a thing; the essential or vital part; the spirit or essence; the core, the nub.” With Pith, the Brooklyn-based duo deliver on their denotative promise, providing an album that gets to the essence of the dream pop aesthetic (without ripping off Beach House): bare-boned electronic drums, insect-like basslines and scuttling guitar parts, and synchronously hook-laden and ethereal vocals. Songs range from trance-inducing pop tracks stripped bare by Jared Olmsted’s bouncing, syncopated bass parts (“Yellow Spiders”) to dancefloor breakdowns reminiscent of early DFA artists (the second half of “Kingdom of Beauty”).
Free Cake For Every Creature, Pretty Good (Double Double Whammy)
Free Cake For Every Creature is a sweet and sentimental band originally based out of Saratoga Springs, New York led by Katie Bennett with pals Colin Manjoney, Francis Lyons, and Ian Stewart. Following several independent releases, Bennett released pretty good, a full-band tape on Double Double Whammy. pretty good is chock-full of honest and earnest songs that feel like a warm embrace from a long-lost friend. Bennett’s lyrics are sometimes candid, sometimes careful, and always great. “”It’s true that I’m too old to be a punk rock prodigy but hey that’s kind of ok with me cause it means I’m still alive and breathing,” she sings on tape stand-out “too old to be a punk rock prodigy”. Pretty good is full of one-liner gems like that.
Quarterbacks, Sportscenter (Double Double Whammy)
The impulse is to think, the band name, the album title, it’s all juvenile irony. Given the lyrics of “Sportscenter”, it’s possible the New Paltz band genuinely love American sports and look out into a polar vortex, longing for the vision of green grass to practice their post routes and diving catches into imaginary endzones between two walnut trees. Recorded on a four-track at the home of DDW’s Dave Benton, the Sportscenter EP is seven songs clocking in at roughly eight minutes. Perhaps Quarterbacks made an EP with the suburban commuter demographic in mind, in which the drive to work in a two stoplight town could be completed on muscle memory and never accelerating over 30 miles per hour.
Inventive and innovative, U.S. Hard‘s self-titled debut EP for Portland-based imprint Blankstairs is techno appropriate for an automaton-run dance dystopia. The project of Oregon-via-New Mexico producer Santiago Leyba, it’s a wired, tension-filled three track release that pays homage to a barrage of regional influences and the idea of affective response. Minimalist mechanics run the show, as syncopated gears whirr and whine above a pulsating, hypnotizing bassline that is vaguely reminiscent of the classic hardware tracks popular in industrial-tinged venues around the world.
Besides ignoring all of the grammar rules on capitalization, you may know milo from his work with Nom de Rap, a Wisconsin based rap group, or collaborations with Open Mike Eagle and Busdriver, who are also featured on this new album. With an impressive number of releases under his belt, a toothpaste suburb is a strong debut album from the Los Angeles, by way of Wisconsin rapper. With softly surreal production by iglooghost, Riley Lake, greyhat, and Tastenothing, the album progresses from song to song with complex cloud beats that compliment milo’s quick and smooth flow.
Steve Sobs, Heavy Heart (Waaga)
Eric Littmann is Brooklyn’s Steve Sobs, who writes songs that come straight from the inside of the heart’s most precious chambers. In May, he released Heavy Heart for Waaga Records, bringing the flood of feelings one receives upon visiting old stomping grounds, making those circular rounds, wondering why you returned while remaining wistful at the same time.
With the help of Radiator Hospital singer (and “friend-muse”) Sam Cook-Parrott, Allison Crutchfield unexpectedly released a new 7-track solo EP, Lean In To It, this summer, which she recorded at her parent’s house in Birmingham as well as her bedroom in Philly. Sam co-wrote the track “Lupe”, in addition to contributing bass and vocals, and presumably, serving as the person Crutchfield can bounce her songs’ ideas off of. The EP opens with “SUPERMOON”, setting the dreamy downtempo mood that takes each stunningly grainy track into the next, culminating in the final song, “Berlin”, that stands for the EP as a whole in all its heartbreaking rawness and determined uplift.On “Rose Knows”, Allison and Sam exchange curt call-and-response lovesick snippets, alternating: “I just want love/This is exhausting/I want what everyone wants/I want nothing/I want you/I have nothing left to give”. The track’s playful angst is just shy of Woody Allen-esque, and the pair exhibit this same dynamic several times throughout the EP. Elsewhere, Crutchfield is far more introspective and contained, like on the epic penultimate track “You”, a sort of generational love ballad with one of the most beautiful melodies on the keys I have heard from a lo-fi bedroom outfit in a while.
Shitheads in the Ditch brings the second full-length from Upstate New York’s eminent punk queens, Palberta. Lily, Ani and Nina let loose, physically, and create the most feeling music I’ve heard in a long time. It’s perfectly placed dissonance—grit, shrieks, creaks and all. The rough tones turn Palberta’s herky-jerky cadence into a god damn emotional roller coaster. Something so perfectly discordant it’s harmonious, it’s the type of music that takes your chest and center of gravity along for a powerful ride.
Pinkwash, Your Cure Your Soil (Sister Polygon)
Philly duo Ashley Arnwine and Joey Doubeck’s brand of punk-meets-prog culminated in one of the least-likely political releases of 2014. After all, music might be the only arena where “progressive” strays far from the political foray. The melding of the minds that resulted in Pinkwash’s Your Cure Your Coil cassette might be best summarized by their parts—one part Bleeding Rainbow (Arnwine is their touring drummer) and one part Hume (of whom Doubek comes from). As political ramblings become louder, finding creative, forward-thinking punk outlets becomes a more daunting task, and like their Sister Polygon labelmates, Pinkwash seem to strike a chord that belies the mundanity of political punk for something bigger, better, and above all, aware.
The “other project” of Downtown Boys’ Victoria Ruiz and Joey De Francesco, Malportado Kids offer a more personal perspective of their political agenda. “In Downtown Boys I sing a lot about police, the borders and surveillance,” Ruiz told us. “But in Malportado Kids I get to be more personal. I get into the cops that live inside the bodies of those we love. Not the cops with guns and badges.”
Although Downtown Boys is a quintessential punk act for the people—blast beats, tortured cries for justice, and a saxophone thrown in for good measure—Ruiz and DeFrancesco’s appreciation for music runs well beyond the bounds of DIY punk rock purism. After all, without listening to Selena, MIA or Bomba Estereo, the tropical punk fury of Malportado Kids may never have reached the masses of non-punks they’ve inspired at shows. Even with just a computer, a mic and a video projector, their message is still punk as fuck.
The Truman Sho is Colin Alexander’s first formal solo release, out now on Benton and Mike Caridi’s label Double Double Whammy. Alexander describes the album as so “self-referential that it keeps going back in on itself.” The songs that form The Truman Sho had been in Alexander’s pocket for awhile. The first track, “Wooden Flooring”, was the first song he did for the tape club. Alexander says he is maybe most happy with that one out of all because of his own “personal love for Mount Eerie.” The album certainly does garner Phil Elvrum comparisons. The Truman Sho is composed of careful guitar pop songs with striking lyrics that hit you right in the chest. Alexander delivers these lyrics in a stream-of-consciousness style that ensures its sincerity.
With the last couple of Guerilla Toss releases the band moved into an experimental interpretation of funk/disco (mosh funk?), laying down hard, oddly danceable grooves mixed with harsh industrial dins. However you describe it, there’s one thing that is always certain: Guerilla Toss inspire weirdness, which translates on their Smack the Brick CS. Kassie Carlson’s taunting baby voice drawl has become somewhat of a signature; she’s managed to turn her voice into a highly textured instrument, makings lyrics and words inseparable from the sonics. Smack the Brick might also represent the band’s most blatant overhaul and experimentation with dance music yet, which could be attributed to the addition of two new members, Toby Aronson and Pat Keuhn. With structures complicated enough to look at critically, but still groovy enough to jam the fuck out (if necessary), there’s a push and pull, a compelling contrast that challenges musically, while simultaneously satisfying punk rock aesthetics.