The Muffs, Blonder and Blonder (Reprise, 1995)-
This band was pretty much peerless in combining a classicist mid-60s sense of pop song structure (think The Who/The Kinks/The Beach Boys) with the finest dynamic heaviness of 90s alterna-punk. . . This is their hardest, fastest, and best. . . Try 2, 10, 13.
MGMT, Oracular Spectacular [Columbia, 2007]
Steeped in technicolor synths and sputtering drum machines, samples bits of Pink Floyd, starry eyed 70s soul, 80s pinging textures and beats, and a healthy dose of Flaming Lips-style quirkiness courtesy of producer Dave Fridmann. . . sometimes dragged down by horrid lyrical platitudes. . . and while this could be way worse, it could also be way better. Try 1, 2, 4, 5.
Teengenerate, Get Action! (Crypt, 1995)—
Their usual greatness, treble-blaring garage-punk with an emphasis on the “punk”; barely-controlled guitar blasts powered by barreling drums and a singer who sounds like he’s just had major dental surgery and the anaesthetic is wearing off. Try 1, 2, 3, 7, 17.
Creatures, A Bestiary of (Polydor, 1997; original release 1981, 1983)—
So, whaddya get when the regal mistress of the moody, mind-bending end of Brit post punk goes Hawaiian? The answer essentially is, a Siouxsie record with no guitar and more/wilder/weirder percussion. . . The Hawaiianisms (it was recorded there) are played for atmosphere rather than festive fun (surprise), so this is recommended for Banshees fans (if not for devotees of Don Ho) . . . Try 2, 3, 6, 10.
Antena, Camino del Sol (Numero, 2004; original release: Les Disques du Crepuscule, 1982)—
French combo that blended synthesizer post-punk with 60s tropical sophisto-pop à la Astrud Gilberto. . . The result is somehow lush and minimal, off-kilter and hypnotically fluid, all at the same time, utterly bewitching in its sun-dazed, elliptical elegance. . . Try 1, 2.
Archers of Loaf, Vee Vee (Merge, 2012)—
These guys quite likely the worst name ever for an otherwise first-rate group, which is maybe why they didn’t quite get their due when this originally came out in 1995. . . So here it is again, and it still sounds mighty fine to me—dueling angular guitars drill forward in a sound like (their contemporaries) Pavement with extra muscle, songs that echo prime Replacements in their humor, desperation and warmth, plus a nifty regional aftertaste, like stumbling out of the bar into a summer full of crickets. . . Try 1, 2, 4, 9.
Sonny and the Sunsets, Longtime Companion (Polyvinyl, 2012)—
I remember earlier stuff from them being more in a Beat Happening-esque primitive-strum-pop vein, but this has a more steady, reserved sound as it moves squarely into country territory, to excellent effect. . . It has an austere, almost timeless quality, illuminated by a feeling of mountain brightness… Try 1, 4.
Blasted Canyons, 2nd Place (Castle Face, 2012)—
This label can do no wrong in my book, and this just might be its best release yet. . . Blasted Canyon’s hit the sweet spot right where trippy garage-punk evolved into no-holds-barred Freakout psychedelia, and fill it with pop melody, sound-spasms, and everything but the kitchen sink, while always staying hooky and on-the-beat. . . Try 3, 5.
Sleigh Bells, Reign of Terror (Mom + Pop, 2012)—
The hype machine is really cranking re: these guys, and this is slicker than the debut, but it also rocks harder and has better songs (though nothing as perfect as “Rill Rill”). . . Processed sheets of candy-colored guitar scree that burst in mid-air like fireworks, driven by rolling late 80s-hiphop-inflected beats and spectoresque bang-chime effects. . . Try 4, 6, 9
Wire, The Black Sessions (Pink Flag, 2012)—
In the first wave of UK punk, Wire simultaneously invented post-punk and hardcore on the album this label is named after. . . I was told their recent work returned to that sound, and this hard-hitting live album confirms it. . . This is Wire at their most primal—songs that twist to the left, then slam back on track, head toward you and explode. . . Try 3, 10.
Cut Hands, Cut Hands (Very Friendly, 2012)—
William Bennett was the prime mover of Whitehouse, perhaps the most relentless, monolithic and migraine-inducing of the first-generation power-electronics pioneers. . . Now he returns with something nearly as grand, violent and elemental, but more subtle and (yes) listenable. . . Painstakingly researched African percussion patterns, played for impact NOT dilettante exotica, and threaded through with spasms, twists and crescendos of beautifully sculpted noise. . . Try 3, 12.
Kendra Smith, Five Ways of Disappearing (4AD, 2012)—
Ms. Smith was the bassist in the legendary, explosive first Dream Syndicate lineup, then formed Opal, which turned into Mazzy Star when Hope Sandoval replaced her… Leaving before excess visibility is her magic trick, and the clue to her enduring mystery and allure (hence the album title)… Recorded just before she vanished into her mountain hideout (so far so good), this is handmade psych-pop from a free spirit and a luminous voice, like Nico if she was a hippie survivalist… Try 1, 9, 13.
The Gateway District – Some Days You Get The Thunder (It’s Alive Records, 2009)
I never got that into the Soviettes, but those former members of that group here deliver a set of songs that live up to the ragged greatness of their Minneapolis punk-and-roll predecessors (think Replacements/Hüskers/etc. when they were young and on FIRE) while sounding totally contemporary . . . Beer, desperation, romance, the Mississippi, two girls’ voices intertwining and holding on for dear life until a guitar roars out of the darkness—this is how it’s done, and it sounds pretty damn great… start with 6, 7…
Gerardo Manuel y el Humo, Apocallypsis (Lion Productions 2012; orig. 1970)—
Reissue of “Peru’s first hard rock LP,” and it’s pretty excellent… No indigenous Andean music curlicues, sadly, but fine. Hendrix/Santana-inspired space-blues workouts, and some crazed vocals and distorto-guitar… Try 1, 7, 10
Suzi Quatro, Classic Quatro (Razor and Tie, 1996)—
These early—and mid—1970s recordings were as crucial to the emergence of punk and new wave as the contemporary work of Bowie and the New York Dolls; Quatro’s pioneering modern, hard-edged, tough-girl glitter sound and persona was a direct inspiration to a teenage Joan Jett, among many others… Historical interest aside, this is excellent cool-rocking tuneage that moves your feet and sticks in your head… Try 1, 3, 10, 11
Radio Zero will be an ongoing review of music of critical interest. Michael O’Flaherty was the pop-music critic for The Baffler, and is the author of the novel Shiny Shiny.
Mecca Normal, [Self-Titled] (Smarten Up!, 1986)—
Debut from this artistically uncompromising, singular duo; an incredibly raw and alive take on protest-folk as filtered through distortion—crazed punk rock guitar (no rhythm section necessary), as if there was NO ESSENTIAL DIFFERENCE between Woody Guthrie and Black Flag. . . The detonator is Jean Smith’s trilling, wailing, snarling vocal presence, somewhere between Lydia Lunch and Corin Tucker (on whom she was a key influence). . . Try A/3, A/6, B/1