Top 20 Albums of 2014

I’m not quite sure how this happened, but amazingly enough, it’s December 1st already, and that means it’s time for the 23rd annual installment of my Albums of the Year report to fall out of my brain, and onto your screens.

For the record, I don’t wait until the very end of the year to do my list, since I think it takes at least a solid month of listening before I feel comfortable that something meets both the “strong first impression” and “stands up to repeated listening” tests that I apply in rating albums. Discs issued in December 2014 will be eligible for 2015’s Top 20 List, accordingly. I expect to see brand new discs from Max Eider and AC/DC ranking highly there, since they missed this year’s deadline.

If you’d like some preview perspective on what you might expect to see on the 2014 roster, here is the complete list of my “Albums of the Year” from 1992 to 2013, as reported in a variety of print and digital outlets along the way. I don’t know what I was thinking in some of those years, but I stand by my picks as historic facts, for better or for worse:

1992: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Henry’s Dream

1993: Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville

1994: Ween, Chocolate and Cheese

1995: Björk, Post

1996: R.E.M., New Adventures in Hi-Fi

1997: Geraldine Fibbers, Butch

1998: Jarboe, Anhedoniac

1999: Static-X, Wisconsin Death Trip

2000: Warren Zevon, Life’ll Kill Ya

2001: Björk, Vespertine

2002: The Residents, Demons Dance Alone

2003: Wire, Send

2004: The Fall, The Real New Fall LP (Formerly “Country on the Click”)

2005: Mindless Self Indulgence, You’ll Rebel to Anything

2006: Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere

2007: Max Eider, III: Back in the Bedroom

2008: Frightened Rabbit, The Midnight Organ Fight

2009: Mos Def, The Ecstatic

2010: Snog, Last Of The Great Romantics

2011: Planningtorock, W

2012: Goat, World Music

2013: David Bowie, The Next Day

On a macro basis, 2014 felt like a very invigorating musical year for me, with old favorites and newcomers alike challenging me with bracing, exciting, interesting tunes and textures from places expected and places heretofore unexplored. I consider it a good sign when I have to work to cut my first list of contending albums back just to get 20 finalists, and when my Top 20 contains one or more (preferably the latter) artists who I had never even heard of 12 months ago. Both of those criteria are met in my 2014 Top 20 List, so I feel very good about that, indeed.

I’m going to repeat last year’s approach and do an inverted countdown from my 20th favorite album of 2014 to my Number One (With A Bullet), just to build suspense for you and me alike, since I’ve got a couple of possible contenders rattling around in my head for Album of the Year, and it’s helpful for me to sneak up on them from behind, rather than shooting them dead up front and then fleshing out the appetizer courses. I’m also going to provide a link to what I consider to be the best, signature and/or most representative song from each album, to help you consider them more completely. If you like what you hear, please support these artists by buying the albums reviewed, and not just chasing down free copies.

Though I shouldn’t have to note this, I know from prior experience that I do: the list below is obviously based on the things that I actually listened to in the prior year, and as musically omnivorous and curious as I am, there are some genres of music that I just don’t choose or get to experience much, and they’re generally not going to be represented in my year-end list. So please resist the urge to write me a scathing comment or e-mail telling me that I am a cultural imperialist bastard whose taste is all in my mouth because I do not recognize the overwhelming genius of your favorite Bolivian queercore free jazz ukulele and church bell skronk collective. I am glad to know that their latest album will top your own list when you write it. Thank you.

Those preambles completed, let’s get on with the list!

#20. Carla Bozulich, Boy: Bozulich earned “Album of the Year” honors from me in 1997 with the extraordinary Geraldine Fibbers, and since that time, she’s continued to make raw, literate, discomforting music with a plethora of collaborators in a variety of creative configurations. Bozulich refers to Boy as her “pop album,” though woe unto he or she who is misled by what that phrase might mean to someone as creative as Carla. I would simply cite Boy as the best thing she has done since the Fibbers’ masterful Butch, full props scored for highly effective and creative writing, playing, singing and arranging throughout this strong solo disc. Best Track: One Hard Man.

#19. Noura Mint Seymali, Tzenni: Noura Mint Seymali is a new artist to me in 2014, with her wonderful third album Tzenni offering a great blend of pan-continental North African melodies that highlight her Mauritanian griot-trained voice, her work on the ardine (a nine-string harp), and the awesome guitar of her husband, Jeiche Ould Chigaly, who adapts his axe to the tunings and phrasings of the traditional Mauritanian tidinit. Few blends of Western rhythms and African melodies work as well as this one does by embracing the best facets of multiple musical traditions. Best Track: Tzenni.

#18. Triptykon, Melana Chasmata: The erstwhile Tom G. Warrior (now generally using his real name: Thomas Gabriel Fischer) has moved on from Hellhammer to Celtic Frost to Triptykon over the past three decades, but his stock in trade remains fairly constant: smart, potent, theatrical death metal, leavened with enough experimentation and ornamentation to keep it consistently interesting, both in terms of any given albums’ arc, and across the full spectrum of his career. The second full-length release under the Triptykon moniker is one of Fischer’s best works ever, perfectly suited to the H.R. Giger biomechanoid adorning its cover, with equal blends of sheen and squalor restlessly set aside each other, squirming. Best Track: Tree of Suffocating Souls.

#17. Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2: This is one of those rare albums that seems truly, madly, deeply larger than life, in all measurable (and some unimaginable) ways. Its narrative is epically lurid, for example, with its stories spat in language that could make Redd Foxx, Lenny Bruce, Andrew “Dice” Clay, and Millie Jackson blush. Its beats are huge, chewing up 808s and guitars and sirens and cement mixers and shotgun blasts and concussing them back out at General Noriega-torturing levels. Legacy and provenance are utterly impeccable, with Killer Mike and El-P bringing their genealogical connections to the best of both Atlanta and New York underground hip hop, and guest spots by the likes of Zack de la Rocha, James McNew, Ikey Owens and Matt Sweeney expanding the family tree to include most everything that mattered musically in American for most of the past two decades. Oh, and it’s also incredibly, unbelievably, over-the-top fun, it has a good beat that you can dance to. Sold! Best Track: Close Your Eyes (And Count to F*ck) NSFW.

#16. TEEN, The Way and Color: TEEN take their name from singer-guitarist-songwriter Christine “Teeny” Lieberson, who made her mark with indie hotshots Here We Go Magic before heading out to form this band with her two sisters to play her own songs. TEEN evoke a 2010-take on the sorts of loop-based funky femme-friendly pop that Luscious Jackson once offered, though the songs on The Way and Color tend to be a bit richer and more satisfying than their forebears’ work, grabbing your attention first on surface shine alone, then unexpectedly impressing you once you peel the price tags off and take ’em for a serious spin. Best Track: Rose 4 U.

#15. Xiu Xiu, Angel Guts: Red Classroom: Following his surprising 2013 Nina Simone tribute album, Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart returns to his usual self-penned theatrical psychodramas on this disc, delivering the goods at something close to the top of his game in terms of material consistency, creepiness, creativity and claustrophobia. And as if the graphic narratives of his best songs aren’t already chilling and explicit enough, Stewart supplemented Angel Guts: Red Classroom with a series of expository videos, some of which could not be released through traditional musical outlets, rather finding their hosted homes on hardcore horror or pornographic websites. As odd as it is to follow those sentences with this sentiment, this record actually constitutes one of the most musically accessible and consistent collections in the Xiu Xiu canon, so if you’re new to the Stewart milieu, this is a very good place to start exploring this terrifically difficult, monstrously rewarding artist’s efforts. Best Track: Stupid in the Dark NSFW.

#14. Thurston Moore, The Best Day: Man, oh man, did I want to hate this album before I’d heard it! I had given up on Sonic Youth after Sister circa 1987, I can’t stand Thurston Moore being trendily trotted out to offer his often insipid insights in every rock documentary about every band who recorded anything, ever, in the ’80s and ’90s, and the tawdry other woman tale that ended Moore’s too-hip marriage to Kim Gordon read like a road map to everything I hate about many men my own age. So when the title track of this disc first floated out online, I hit “play” to give myself something to be happily unhappy about . . . except that I ended up being unhappily happy with what a great song I heard instead. Dammit!! Don’t do that, Thurston Moore!! That’s just not right!!! And then the rest of the album came out, and, oh man . . . it was great too, like Sonic Youth with all the annoying bits edited out!! God, I hate it when that happens! Grrrr! Best Track: The Best Day.

#13. Sleaford Mods, Divide and Exit: This very English duo sound like a cross between The Streets and Can, or Suicide with a sense of humor, or Mark E. Smith soloing with a Casiotone, with heavily accented (East Midlands, according to Wikipedia, though this subtlety was lost on me), often hysterical, highly observational lyrics being spouted atop minimalist metronomic grooves, creating a whole that’s far more entertaining than you’d expect from the sum of the admittedly limited parts. A little of this sort of thing normally goes a long, long way, but Sleaford Mods are so good at what they do (and so prolific!) that whole afternoons can disappear in a haze of grumpy grooves, hey presto, before you know what hit you. Best Track: Tied Up in Nottz NSFW.

#12. Ought, More Than Any Other Day: This is a surprisingly weird, unique, and effective album that belies its perpetrators’ relative youth and musical inexperience. The Montreal-based band’s debut album offers a fascinating blend of seemingly unmixable elements, ranging from Television-style guitar noodling through to atonal rhythmic lurches of a This Heat variety, from itchy funk fugues that wouldn’t have felt out of place on Talking Heads’ early albums through to Velvety violin drones, and from speak-sing sermons cut from Violent Femme fabric through to straight-up gorgeous Big Star-style songs with catchy choruses and oddly anthemic overtones. And they do all of that in the space of but eight songs. Impressive! Best Track: Around Again.

#11. Aloe Blacc, Lift Your Spirit: I had picked Aloe Blacc’s Good Things as one of my best albums of 2010, and I kept listening to that engaging disc for the ensuing couple of years, having no idea that Blacc went on to achieve a significant level of creative and commercial success as a singer, songwriter and producer in pop circles, where I rarely dabble. Imagine my (very pleasant) surprise when I was watching the Super Bowl in early 2014, where two of the biggest commercial roll-outs of the broadcast featured his songs. Huh! Go figure!  Someone I like got popular! Hooray! Lift Your Spirit builds on the many strengths evident on Good Things, with strong, often-inspirational songs framed in gorgeous arrangements all but guaranteed to render them ear worms in single listens, and favorites upon repeated spins. It’s nice to like something this nice sometimes, you know what I mean? Best Track: Wake Me Up (Acoustic).

#10. Goat, Commune: Two years after they earned my Album of the Year honors in 2012 for World Music, anonymous Swedish septet Goat return with their one-of-a-kind blend of voodoo magic, psychedelic grooves, shrieked female vocals, and absurd Arctic Circle back story intact, creating another wonderfully loopy record in the process. There’s a bit more percolating programming on Commune than on World Music, as well as some jolly fun Jim Morrison-style male vocals adding variety to the deliciously delirious mix. While the element of surprise in their music could never be as strong on their sophomore disc as it was on their debut, Goat certainly demonstrate that they’ve got the chops and the chutzpah to stick to their musical guns, and are happy to aim them at new targets in 2014. I’ll take that, happily. Best Track: Gathering of Ancient Tribes.

#9. Pere Ubu, Carnival of Souls: I’ve been writing rave reviews of Pere Ubu albums for as long as I’ve been writing about music, period, so I was particularly amused by Ubu guitarist Keith Moline’s “Review of Pere Ubu Reviewers,” which was published shortly before Carnival of Souls was released. As a very experienced Ubu critic, I’m pretty much guilty again and again of everything that Moline observes, so with no small amount of shame (or is this pride I feel?), I will duly note that this new Pere Ubu album is the best album they’ve done since the last best album they did, and also make reference to their first best album, The Modern Dance, and their best best album, Dub Housing, and then conclude by noting that I mean all of this more now than I have ever meant it before, when I had yet to experience this last best Ubu album, because that is what we very experienced Ubu critics do. My work here is done. Excelsior! Best Track: Golden Surf II.

#8. Melvins, Hold It In: I noted in last year’s Best Albums report that Melvins regularly win perversity awards for doing things like, oh, say, bringing back their original drummer and pushing their brilliant current drummer over the bass for a collection of reinterpretations of early materials (which they did last year) or, say again, bringing in the guitarist and bassist from Butthole Surfers (Paul Leary and Jeff Pinkus, respectively) and letting them write and sing a majority of the songs on a new album — which is what they’ve done with their latest, Hold It In. This fluid approach to band membership works weirdly well, once again, though in shockingly unexpected ways, many of them surprisingly poppy and accessible, when casual expectations would have indicated this one was gonna be a massive sludge fest. Paul Leary is among my Holy High Trinity of Lead Guitarists (along with Robert Fripp and David Gilmour), and Jeff Pinkus is one of the most under-appreciated bassists currently slinging an axe, so getting to hear their exquisite talents alongside the always-appealing Buzz Osborn and Dale Crover’s fare was one of the most exciting musical developments of 2014 for me. I literally got goosebumps the first time I heard Leary’s distinctive shriek atop the quartet’s rumbles on teaser single “Brass Cupcake,” and was also happy to hear how much Pinkus added to the mix as both vocalist and riff-meister, leading a lot of this album to sound like his own wondrous band, Honky. Pinkus is touring with Melvins this year, while Leary is staying home, hopefully to pen another set of songs for the next Melvins/Surfers album, though I doubt their perverse natures will allow it to come to pass anytime soon, until long after I’ve forgotten that I wanted to hear it, leading to more squeals of unexpected surprise and delight when it finally sees the light of day. Best Track: Brass Cupcake

#7. FREEMAN, FREEMAN: I have an embarrassing confession to make: when Gene Ween (Aaron Freeman to his wife and mother) left the mighty Ween a few years back, then issued press statements citing his search for sobriety and dedication to detox as deciding factors in said decision, then released a wan cover album of Rod McKuen songs, I found myself thinking he was really just being a wuss, and rooting mightily for his former partner in crime, Dean Ween (a.k.a. Mickey Melchiondo) and the other live members of Ween to carry on their band’s awesome legacy of substance-fueled, hilariously observational, brilliantly played rock and roll, despite that damnable defection. Then this album by Aaron Freeman and his new band came out, and I sort of consciously realized that (a) Freeman was the primary songwriter for Ween, and (b) most of their awesome vocals were his, and (c) it’s actually not very wussy at all to walk away from something huge to get healthy, if that’s what has to happen to get the job done. So now I kind of find myself feeling bad for Deaner, since based on the brilliance of FREEMAN, I think he’s probably lost his meal ticket, and he seems like such a fun, good dude and righteous guitar player. Hopefully his own Dean Ween Group can make an album as good as this one, and then I’ll have two great bands to root for . . . but I’m regretfully not optimistic about that happening, alas and I’m sorry. Oh well. If FREEMAN is all we get, post-Ween, then it’ll be enough, since it’s a wonderfully accessible disc of great songs, played and sung well, and Aaron Freeman gets a Gold Star for Huge Clanking Man Stones for explicitly tackling his final days in Ween with the harrowing “Covert Discretion,” one of the best getting-clean songs ever written, period. Well played, Gener . . . errrr, Aaron. Well played, indeed. Best Track: Covert Discretion NSFW.

#6. Protomartyr, Under Color of Official Right: Protomartyr are a Detroit-bred and based quartet who manage to make a standard rock vocal-guitar-bass-drum lineup sound like something much bigger, far scarier, more complicated, and wildly colorful than 98% of their similarly-configured peers. They achieve the leap from stock post-rock fare into transcendent music making on the strength of their songs, the creativity of their lyrics, and the forcefulness with which they ply their knotty musical waters, with baritone belter Joe Casey shouting into the darkness around them, while his bandmates triangulate complex navigational passages from the strength of his echoes. Protomartyr’s music is dark, yes, and reflective of the dying urban environment in which they live and work, filled as it with damaged characters who become fascinating via the myriad ways in which they’re broken. Under Color of Official Right ultimately feels like an album of anthems to anomie and atomization, and the clarity and consistency of its creators collective visions makes it one of the finest American rock albums released this year. Best Track: Ain’t So Simple.

#5. Krankschaft, Three: I wrote a long review of this album a few weeks ago, so rather than regurgitating (much), I’ll just point you to it, here. At bottom line: this is rock and roll music the way it used to be (and is probably meant to be), with great riffs, stellar arrangements and production, catchy singalong songs, superb packaging that’s integral to the musical experience, and slamming four-on-the-floor grooves from a three-piece band that knows how to steer well clear of power trio tropes and their related pitfalls. I love the BLANGA style, and this album delivers it by the bucketful. Aces, all around. What else can you ask for? Best Track: Silent Witness.

#4. Vulkano, Live Wild Die Free: It was apparently a very good year in Sweden for the types of music I like, as this is the second group hailing from that nation to make an appearance on my Top 20 Albums of 2014 list, with one more yet to come. Vulkano are an eccentrically weird, yet oddly earnest, pair of young women named Lisa Pyk-Wirström and Cissi Efraimsson, who make drum and keyboard intensive music that evokes the not-quite-right whimsy of early Sugarcubes, complete with quirky vocals, cheesy synth pads, and delightfully garbled English lyrics. They’re apparently charming and magnetic enough to have already inspired a feature-length biographical film treatment called All We Have is Now, and their online presence makes it clear that they have the drive — and the talent — to make it in the big world beyond Scandinavia. I’m a believer, for sure, as I’ve been rocking this record hard since its release — and watching pretty much everyone who hears it stop, pause, and ask me to tell them more about it. That effective blend of the appealing and the eccentric can be magic, and I look forward to hearing their next steps, while wholly appreciating the one they took this year. Best Track: Choir of Wolves.

#3. Ian Anderson, Homo Erraticus: With his latest solo album, Ian Anderson officially put Jethro Tull to bed as a band, while continuing to make music with the quarter of musicians who have accompanied him on most of his tours and studio outings for the past decade. He seems to have found that freedom creatively liberating, as Homo Erraticus is easily the best album he’s produced under any name since at least 1982’s The Broadsword and the Beast. The new disc builds on the Gerald Bostock mythology he mined on 1971’s masterpiece Thick as a Brick and its 2012 sequel, with a former child poetry prodigy allegedly writing the lyrics of an exposition on Britain’s past, present and possible future histories, all culled from the loony manuscript of a perpetually reincarnated English country gentleman. (If you’re keeping score, this is the second concept album on this year’s list, joining Krankscaft’s Three, which also rocks a time travel angle). The sound is exquisite throughout, and the album features all of the acoustic and electric flourishes and filigree that we expect from our old one-legged flautist, with knotty passages and dense wordplay dancing in a surprisingly spry fashion atop crunchy rock underpinnings. Recognizing that his voice isn’t what it once was (what is, though, really?), Anderson protege Ryan O’Donnell provides sympathetic and empathetic support to the proceedings, both live and in the studio, and the blend of their voices is quite charming, evoking that magical era in Tull history when Anderson and the late, great John Glascock once sang together. A wonderful, late career highlight — and hopefully a sign of still more possible musical futures, yet to come. Best Track: Meliora Sequamur.

#2. Godflesh, A World Lit Only By Fire: Justin K. Broadrick was an early, influential member of Napalm Death, who I will generally cite (along with Jethro Tull) as one of my all-time favorite bands, if queried. After leaving Napalm, he worked with Head of David (as a drummer) for a spell, then founded Godflesh, which took Napalm’s grindiest moments and merged them with Swans-like dirge-metal, all mounted atop drum synths that would have given Big Black’s Roland a headache. While ancillary members came and went (including former Swan Ted Parsons), Godflesh was primarily built around the pummeling patterns crafted by Broadrick and bassist G.C. Green, and they forged a formidable catalog before imploding under the weight of their own heaviness circa 2002. Broadrick remained active, generally issuing his best late career work under the Jesu banner — until this year, when he re-teamed with Green and issued a monster of a comeback Godflesh album with A World Lit Only By Fire. It’s amazing how much the evolution of musical technology in the past decade has benefited the Godflesh sound, as it seems studios are finally able to capture the full onslaught of their attack, made all the more forceful by Broadrick’s ministrations on his new custom-made eight-string guitars. This is easily the best, most riveting extreme music album of the year, and it is kind of amazing to me how much I find I have missed Godflesh, although it took a long sabbatical and a stellar, unexpected return to make me fully appreciate that fact. Best Track: Shut Me Down.

And with those 19 as preamble, it’s now time to name my 2014 Album of the Year. Drum roll please (with brushes, not sticks) . . .

#1, 2014’s Album of the Year: First Aid Kit, Stay Gold:


As noted earlier, I found myself listening to a lot of music from Sweden in 2014, and the best of the year’s crop was this wonderful album from sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg, recording as First Aid Kit. The pair make gorgeous, country-flavored music with soaring sibling harmonies, sweet melodies, unexpected song twists, and surprisingly poignant and evocative English-language lyrics. This was an album that grabbed me before I knew anything about the artists who created it — and that’s probably a good thing, as their back story (e.g. their dad was in Lolita Pop, they got their “big break” on MySpace, Conor Oberst played a role in bringing their music to America, and one of their first semi-hits was a paean/tribute to Emmylou Harris) likely would have been so off-putting to me that I wouldn’t have bothered listening to them. So it’s a testament to the glorious strength and vigor of this album that it overcomes a lot of deep seated preconceived notions on my part about what I like and what I don’t like (see also Thurston Moore above . . . dammit!), and this is also another record that inevitably caused people trapped in my car or house to inquire as to its provenance whenever any of its delightful songs aired on the stereo. With a little luck, I could see these incredibly talented sisters crafting the sort of career that Kate and Anna McGarrigle mastered, earning respect and adulation for both their songwriting and for their singing, creating a body of work that will grow in time to become simply accepted as part of the canon of great songs, capable of being eagerly covered by artists from a wide range of disciplines and sounds. I’m glad I discovered them when I did, and I look forward to hearing and seeing what the future holds for them. Best Track: Cedar Lane.

And that’s it for this year, huttah! As always, I welcome your thoughts and observations on these or any other of the year’s great releases. I’m always happy to learn about things I’ve missed, even after I complete my list! Happy listening!

Brave Exhibitions

1. In New York, we could only buy wine and spirits at liquor stores. In Iowa, we can buy it pretty much anywhere: grocery stores, drug stores, convenience stores, wine stores, wherever. Quality varies widely, needless to say. We rank the wine shopping hierarchy in Des Moines as follows:

Ingersoll Wine & Spirits > Hy-Vee > Dahl’s > Wahlgreens > Quik Trip > Casey’s > Kum & Go

2. Heresy alert: Critics around the world are falling all over themselves to praise Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ new disc, Push the Sky Away, as a moody, atmospheric masterpiece. But me? I think it’s slow, boring, and proves just how important ex-member Mick Harvey was to the Bad Seeds.

3. My other biggest musical disappointment in 2013 is Frightened Rabbit’s Pedestrian Verse. I adored their last two albums, and their 2012 EP State Hospital boded well as a preview for the new disc, but it really fell flat for me upon arrival. I read one review that compared the new record to Coldplay. I wouldn’t argue with that assessment, though I consider it a terrible insult.

4. Grand Mal’s Binge/Purge is one of my favorite records from the time I spent in mid-1980s Washington, DC’s musical underground. You can nab a copy here. Don’t be put off by the heinous album cover, a poster of which used to adorn my bulletin board at the Naval Academy, much to our visitors’ horror.

5. Still the best children’s book ever: Jerome.

6. Still the most terrifying version of the tired Charles Dickens classic: Richard Williams’ A Christmas Carol (1971). See especially 5:58 and 16:40.

7. As a native South Carolinian, I am very good at cracking pecans by hand. There’s some brute force involved, but also some finesse, and it is deeply satisfying to end up with two perfect pecan halves in hand without any mechanical assistance. I bought some pecans at our indoor Winter Farmer’s Market a couple of months ago, and one afternoon was particularly pleased by the perfect pecan I extracted. I went to the living room to show Marcia and share my accomplishment, hand held out in front of me. Before I could say a word, she grabbed one of the pecan halves, popped it in her mouth, and walked away. Show Off FAIL.

8. How much money do state and federal governments spend on signs that are essentially universal, such as “No Littering” or “Bridge Freezes Before Road” or “Keep Right Except to Pass.” How about we save a ton of tax dollars and eliminate all of these and other stupid signs by just having acceptance of a driver’s license include a signed attestation the the recipient understands that all bridges freeze before all roads, that littering is a no-no, that the left lane is reserved for passing, etc.

9. This post cleared about half of my office whiteboard.

Interview with David Thomas and Jim Jones of Pere Ubu (1996)

“Reliable sources say this group and that group have acknowledged great debts to Pere Ubu, but I can never hear it,” says that band’s founding front-man, David Thomas. “I think our contribution is ideas, not styles. I think we point out ways to approach problems and demonstrate possibilities of the medium. We are pioneers, not settlers.”

Thomas blazed his earliest musical trails through the industrial blight zones lining Cleveland’s Lake Erie shoreline during the early ’70s. He was joined in pioneering that unlikely urban wilderness by a eclectic assortment of traditional and experimental music-makers who — in bands with names like Rocket From The Tombs and Electric Eels, the Numbers Band and Mirrors, Styrenes and Pere Ubu — collectively built one of the most dynamic and influential music scenes of the modern rock era, despite remaining virtually invisible to the record-buying public. Those Cleveland bands instead earned their entries in the rock history books by forging key evolutionary connections between the Velvet Underground-MC5-Stooges’ low-impact primordial punk and 1977’s large-scale New York-to-London anti-pop explosions — unwittingly keeping the flame, if you will, for a musical movement that was not yet conscious of its own existence. These same Cleveland bands also pioneered revolutionary new links between rock’s mutant blues idioms and the more free-form lingua deployed in the electronic and jazz communities; Allen Ravenstine’s innovative and noisy EML synthesizer work with Ubu, as an example, provides a discrete creative bench-mark against which all contemporary rock synthesists must be judged.

Pere Ubu were the only original Cleveland band to survive for long outside of the Lake Erie fishbowl in which they were spawned: they released five albums in their first incarnation (1976-82), have issued another five since regrouping in 1987, and will head into the studio in January to begin the follow-up to their 1995 triumph, Ray Gun Suitcase. Despite their creative longevity, Thomas and his band-mates have remained pointedly low-profile and largely anonymous throughout their creative careers; that attention-deflecting mutual credo found voice in a recent “Ubu Communex” Internet informational release from the seldom-photographed Thomas, explaining that “band photos were considered a necessary evil for press use but had no business being in close proximity to art.”

Pere Ubu have also been vexed with more than a career’s worth of shoddy vinyl pressings and record company indifference and/or incompetence. DGC Records (a Geffen subsidiary) recently took a solid step towards remedying that unfortunate historical situation by issuing an extraordinary document of Ubu’s early work: the five-CD box set, Datapanik in the Year Zero, includes pristine versions of Ubu’s early singles and seminal albums Modern Dance, Dub Housing, New Picnic Time, The Art of Walking and Song of the Bailing Man. The box also contains a disk of heretofore unreleased live Ubu recordings from 1978 and 1981 along with Terminal Drive, a compilation disk featuring limited or unreleased material by other bands and players from Cleveland’s underground musical heyday.

Jim Jones (a one-time Pere Ubu roadie who has served as the band’s guitarist since 1987) features strongly on Terminal Drive: he can be heard playing with Mirrors (“A cool band to be with, back in ’74, and a great learning experience for me”, he recalls), Electric Eels (“Absolute terror. Dave E.’s unconventional subject matter lyrics and vocal delivery, coupled with John Morton and Brian McMahon’s assault weapon guitars were a frightening experience, akin I imagine to being at sea during a hurricane”), and the musique concrete Foreign Bodies (“Hours of tapes recorded while I squeaked, buzzed and scraped myself to distraction”).

In addition to his on-disk contributions, Jones worked closely with Thomas in compiling the archival collection. “The material had to have an Ubu connection,” notes Thomas when I ask about their selection criteria. “It had to be rare. We wanted to direct attention to some of the other people. We stretched the limits, but it was important to get Mirrors, the Eels and the Numbers Band in. It was important to get name checks for the people we ‘grew up’ with. Some people have criticized the disk because it’s not full of Rocket From The Tombs and Peter Laughner.”

Rocket From the Tombs were an Ubu precursor that featured Thomas, future Dead Boys Stiv Bators and Cheetah Chrome and guitarist-cum-critic Peter Laughner, who died of rock n’ roll life-style complications in 1977. Rock biographer Clinton Heylin’s widely-read 1993 book, From the Velvets to the Voidoids (Penguin), provided an illuminating expose on the ’70s Cleveland scene, with heavy focus on the Laughner legend. That re-fanning of the Dead Rock Star cult flame in and critical circles contributed strongly to the expectation that Terminal Drive would — and should — be a Rockets/Laughner memorial.

“Rocket From The Tombs and Peter Laughner were important,” Thomas accedes, “but there were other people and other groups just as important, and arguably more original. Peter’s style was rooted in more familiar idioms. [Ubu Guitarist, then and now] Tom Herman, however, was a more radical guitar player. But Tom Herman wore dozy looking clothes and was a steel worker. Peter wore black leather and shades and he went to New York City. [Ex-Ubu bassist] Tim Wright was a more radical player but his style wasn’t rooted in a familiar idiom. [Ex-Ubu guitarist] Mayo Thompson was a more radical conceptualist. But the issue isn’t even radicalism versus the familiar. Pere Ubu is a mix. When we parted with Peter we stopped doing cover versions and abandoned the ’60s idioms that he loved. Is that bad? Is it good? The answer is neither.”

“Peter’s fatal weakness was that he wanted to be accepted. He wanted to be liked. In this way he was out of step with the rest of us. Look at the songs he wrote and performed. Peter was talented. But now you must account for the pastiches he did. Now you must account for the preponderance of cover material in his sets. You must deal with the whole picture, not just the slice that appeals to you. You must deal with the whole person, not just a processable icon that feeds your prejudices. Peter wanted to be from New York City and it killed him. Most people think being from New York City is the thing you should want. It reinforces what they want to believe. Peter in a terrible way got what he wanted. All it took was to die. I hate the nonsense people talk. All it accomplishes is the death of another Peter Laughner in another town.”

So what aesthetic drove the other Clevelanders if not the New York City dream? “Nothing more than blasting open an escape hatch to flee a culture we despised,” explains Jones. “The promise of late-’60s free-form radio was in its final throes, killed by corporate-mandated play-lists and white-powder-nostrilled deejays who rested securely in the back pockets of shifty promo men. Our determination was to expand upon the rich areas pioneered by the Stooges, Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart, MC5 and Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd. Bands that never got played on commercial radio. Music that acknowledged the presence of emotions other than those associated with teen love. Music of substance and mind. Music that existed for its own sake, on its own terms.”

“As a scene, we had reverence for music history. We were hungry to know what preceded us, culturally. We read, we listened, we researched, we shared information, we appreciated the beauty of the bombed-out, defaulted city — our nocturnal playground. We respected, and occasionally only tolerated, each other as fellow misfits who shared in the common experience of being Clevelanders. We were akin to a secret society. Closely linked, yet aloof.”

Thomas boils the aesthetic down to its bare essence: “Nobody likes what we do, nobody will ever like what we do — let’s do what we want.” Fortunately, one of the things that Thomas wanted during the ’70s was an aural document of the music surrounding him, hence his pioneering independent label, Hearthan (later Hearpen) Records.

“The model for what we were doing was the Salvation Army used record bins,” recalls Thomas. “I figured somebody someday would find [Ubu’s debut single] in a used record bin (and at that point the only used record bins were at Salvation Army) and that would be our legacy. That was the extent of the plan.” How did Thomas feel looking back at his Salvation Army legacy while compiling the box? “I was surprised at how subtle some of our ideas were. I was gratified that we weren’t completely out to lunch. I think the box vindicates many of our experiments.”

And would Thomas or Jones offer any “Cleveland lessons” to members of other exciting, but seemingly dead-end, music scenes? “Those who know don’t need being told. Those who don’t know never will,” offers Thomas cryptically, while Jones takes the more pragmatic stand: “Be stubborn. Be devoted to your craft. Give up while you’re ahead.”