Very Alt. Rock on eMusic & Bandcamp
Back in high school in the 90s, the only radio I listened too was alt. rock out of Madison, WI, and a weekly electronic music show on community radio. I don’t think either exists today, but this list requires one to imagine that commercial stations still play new rock & roll.
I didn’t know indie rock existed until college, so it was quite a rude awakening to be suddenly so uncool. Most of this list is probably better described as indie rock. But there was an alternative aesthetic at play at some point, where an album might try to include a couple of catchy tunes that might get played on a non-college radio station. Maybe these sound like that only in my imagination, especially since half aren’t sung in English.
Whether alternative rock continued into the 2010s is something I’d enjoy debating, though assuming it will live on into the 2020s seems a most tenuous proposition. I think it only works in an environment where rock is either the most popular style of music, which hasn’t been true since the 1990s, or in contrast to the excesses of heavy metal. If anything, “power pop” seems the best way to keep rock connected to pop listeners, and that itself is already alt. rock, IMHO. Has indie rock subsumed it all? I don’t think alt. rock can continue to exist as an alternative to indie rock since there’s so much overlap.
Some of these give me hope that new rock w/ little hope or attempt to strive for indie coolness still has a few tricks up its sleeve. Overall, I think their claim to an “alternative” label lies in their obscurity.
In approximate order of how much I like them, w/ alt. rock RIYLs where possible…
1. “Bel Avenir” - Delta Mainline (2019). There’s enough this album does very well, spanning at least a few different styles, not to harp on similarities to The Flaming Lips or Spiritualized. Also a slightly less bombastic, more electronic version of The Polyphonic Spree on “Visions of Post America.” Alt-country on “Mountain Music.” “Love without Fear” has a lovely wall of sound and a highly chantable chorus to boot. Do these familiar references leave enough sonic space for them to carve out their own sound? I’ll let you be the judge, but it would shock me to know of anyone who could dislike this album. It’s the perfect musical salve for 2020. https://deltamainline.bandcamp.com/album/bel-avenir-lp
2. “Utan Titel” - Tjernqvist (2017). One doesn’t need to understand Swedish to recognize these electronically enhanced acoustic guitar songs as sombre expressions of longing. Highly hummable melodies are his stock in trade The guy has sung himself hoarse on the second track, but that doesn’t stop him. These songs burrow into hearts and souls and don’t let go, often building to unexpected climaxes from the simplest of beginnings. Reminds me of Mus in that way, and the concluding electronic fade-out lingers better than songs several times more heavily produced. They’ve got a couple free EPs of acoustic demos on Bandcamp, but IMO they can’t hold a candle to the production of the $2.49 one only on eMu. https://tjernqvist.bandcamp.com/
3. “S/t” - TORSI (2018). I understand none of it, it’s a bit brief at 30 minutes, but there’s a buoyancy to this kind of rock that reminds me of a time when anything was possible and the world awaited exploration. I’d have to listen very carefully to both this and a Russian band, Fixme, I compared to The Shins, to say definitively which comes closer. “Vrålet” has the broke down sound of Benjy Ferree. I especially like the haunting falsetto backing vocals on several tracks. Rarely would I not be in the mood to listen to this album. That it’s all alone, independently released makes me wonder how one would ever stumble upon it unless trying to search the entirety of eMusic’s catalog by brute force. I think they’re also Swedish.
4. “Listen Time Space” - Unsuspected (2015). Surprisingly, one of the “harder” albums on this list is also among the few to feature a female vocalist. There’s definitely something retro going on here, and it turns out that beneath the hard exterior is a lot of sweet, heartfelt songwriting. Organ rock comes to mind as a descriptor, sometimes close to We Ragazzi in accompaniment, and vocal harmonies on choruses owe something to Cibo Matto. As a 99-cent EP, its 27-minute run time could count as epic. Overall, it reminds me of a softer (i.e. more alt. rock than metal), slower version of Two Ton Boa, who I know is such a household name that everyone will rush to snatch this right up. https://unsuspected.bandcamp.com/album/listen-time-space
5. “II” - Basset Hounds (2018). The honking jazz rock opening song is most interesting, waiting a full two minutes to introduce the vocalist, but the rest of the album is no slouch either. I never would have thought the brass of smooth jazz had any place in rock that actually rocks before this album. Certainly some of the best Portuguese alt. rock sung in English I’ve ever heard and an all-around enjoyable album that is at least somewhat challenging also. https://bassethounds.bandcamp.com/album/ii
6. “Harland” - Harley Alexander (2016). Neither lofi nor rockabiliy but displaying elements of both, this guy’s voice reminds me a bit of David Byrne, which my classically trained friends tell me is terrible. But the whimsy and innocence on these songs is quite endearing. There’s almost no rhythm section, just the guy and his guitar in guileless conversation. These are simple, delicate tunes to while away one’s hours on a porch swing overlooking a pond. Keeping imperfect takes, as when he can’t help chuckling on the line “shovel the pancakes into my mouth,” lends the album airs of spontaneity, honesty, and modesty not unlike a Howe Gelb album. The jangly closer steals the ri-ri-ri-ri from Tim & Eric’s birthday song and bears some resemblance in earnest to the DIY aesthetic they parody, though again this is too competent to be outsider music. https://harleyalexander.bandcamp.com/album/harland
7. “ep2” - Vanarin (2020). This is an unassuming, 20-minute ride through funky synths and guitars hewing close to pop with falsetto vocals. Altogether pleasant, but not without an edge, a difficult balancing act. Easygoing lyrics about freedom, love, and other unsurprising themes go down easy. “Orange Juice” has a pretty irresistible 80s synth-rock sound. NZCA/Lines does it better, but I’m up for an also-ran for 99 cents.
8. “Kewali EP” - Flamingods (2017). This 19-minute, 99-cent EP isn’t exactly Afrobeat, but it’s still highly danceable. The many borrowed elements and generally boisterous tempos are hard to miss, but the songs wouldn’t have been out of place on alternative radio of the 1990s. This one has grown on me, as all good, eccentric pop should. Moshi Moshi remains one of the best remaining labels on eMu, and there’s plenty more to enjoy from Flamingods, including a remix of this EP. https://flamingods.bandcamp.com/album/kewali-ep
9. “S/t” - Martinus (2014). I didn’t particularly like the Son Volt side of the Uncle Tupelo split, and this 99-cent EP has an alt. country thing going on that kinda reminds me of it when it’s not just being sentimental folksy. Pedal steel fans will also be pleased. NYP EP may not be the same band https://martinus.bandcamp.com/releases
10. “Sacos Plásticos” - Titãs (2019). Old guys I presume from Brazil rock for 99 cents. A few more electronic songs near the end of the album. Inoffensive but with touches of attitude and danceability that never stray far from pop rock.
11. “Haunted Fang Castle” - The Spits (2010). This EP is in full novelty territory, turning processed voices into a children’s storybook musical. Each track has some spoken exposition, with characters built on different vocal effects commenting on whatever predicament they find themselves in, followed by a musical number that both advances the plot and invites the listener to shake it. If songs about trolls, robots, swamps, and princesses in distress are at all of interest, I can’t recommend a better rock album.
12. “Noteless Poetry” - Videatape (2016). I assume the opening waltz “Silly Hats Only” is a tip of the hat to Don Hertzfeldt, and from it I had high hopes for more than just another Radiohead rip-off. Plenty of people out there wish that supergroup hadn’t ever left its early, interim sound between ph and The Bends, and maybe this Russian group will please them the most. Not a bad album by any means, but the word “derivative” was made for it. For good measure, the last song could be right off of “Kid A.” Just $2 on Bandcamp https://videatape.bandcamp.com/album/noteless-poetry
13. “Trouble” - Venture Boi (2020). Starts out like it’s going to be electronic, but guitars are too prominent to be other than alt. rock. The vocalist for sensual falsetto on the opener, then pairs up with a lady for the duet “She Keeps Me in Her Locket.” No points for originality, and the electronic beats will offend rock purists. I don’t know if Duran Duran is what they’re shooting for, but it’s far too new to sound 80s. Glad it’s not as softly insipid as Gary Wright, but I guess they’re the RIYLs.
Bandcamp Only (all NYP): “Babes, Water, Waves.” - Perth (2012). Based on sampling, I hesitated to buy this one b/c I didn’t think an album with all these different sounds could be cohesive. And yet it all works together, and instead I have the problem of suggesting which song would qualify as a radio-ready “single”. It feels unfair to call the album quirky, and it’s not all the way to weird either. Definitely worth listening from start to finish without interruption. https://perth.bandcamp.com/album/babes-water-waves
“Laguna” - Adan Yeti (2016). There’s a dreamy, psychedelic quality to this album, aided by putting his breathy falsetto no louder than other instruments in the mix. The stop & go stutter of “For Your Love” is a mellow highlight. Highly listenable all the way through without rocking the boat too hard. https://adanyeti.bandcamp.com/album/laguna
“Nice” - Blanket Music (2000). An understated millennial gem I missed, on a label that needed to be redeemed in my ears. Reminds me of a subdued Pavement. https://hushrecords.bandcamp.com/album/nice
On other lists: Second-Hand Roses, Mão de Oito, Adam Stafford, Jesca Hoop
Rather than reposting repeatedly, here’s my lists of what’s left on eMusic: http://www.omnifoo.info/pages/eMuReddit.html
& by my evaluation http://www.omnifoo.info/pages/eMusic%20Labels.html