It’s remarkable when a band or artist sticks around creating new music for more than 15 years. The hard work involved in doing that under the auspices of mainstream or indie labels is something that should be recognized and applauded.
It’s all more impressive still when a band or artist’s excellence is underrated– or virtually unrecognized by the critical and/or listener mainstream. The most impressive? The band/artist doesn’t get frustrated, doesn’t complain. It soldiers on, not giving one fuck, just doing its thing, even as the music it influences gets more recognition.
This new edition of List ‘Em Carefully presents 10 bands and artists, among so many more that deserve their day in the sun, that have been around 15 years or more. All 10 are ride-or-die as hell, influencing at least a generation of notable performers, music scenes, genres, and sounds today. It’s called the 15-Plus-Year Itch, and it’s about time some of these folks got a scratch.
Note: As is often the case with memories (and documented facts), there are differing interpretations and recalls of when an artist/band officially started. Sources like All Music Guide were used in most cases when competing years appeared.
Low (since 1993)
Low, in this context, reminds me why I find sweet, low-key Midwesterners charming. The lifer slowcore band from Duluth, MN was founded by Mormon husband-and-wife Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, who have built a family with two children (and an extended family of musicians) around the band. It wouldnt be unfair to think of Low as the Sonic Youth of slowcore.
The band has done basically nothing drastically attention-drawing over their long career, outside of a musical crescendo or an occasional low-budget music video. The first 10-12 years of Low’s output found its way on experimental labels on both sides of the Atlantic as well as the band’s own, Chairkickers.
The middle-period trio of releases on Kranky (Secret Name, Things We Lost in The Fire, and Trust) showed some signs of skewing into pop territory (particularly on 2001’s seminal Things We Lost in the Fire). The band’s first LP with Sub Pop, 2005’s The Great Destroyer was a momentary bit of Dave Fridmann-produced sonic grandiosity. But the band backtracked to a more austere sound, perhaps more so than ever before, two years later for Drums and Guns.
This year’s C’mon sees Low grasping at mainstream recognition a bit, featuring actor John Stamos in the video for lead-off single “Try to Sleep”, which even garnered a mention in Entertainment Weekly. The last time Low got that much profile was in 1999 when its cover of “Little Drummer Boy” (off its Christmas EP) was featured in a Gap ad.
Neurosis (since 1985)
Outside of extreme metal circles and prog geeks, Neurosis doesn’t get much love these days. The band’s ’90s output got some significant critical acclaim from the press (Through Silver in Blood in 1996 and Times of Grace in 1999, especially), but mostly in punk zines, the writers and readers of which practically worship the band.
So goes the classic story of the ugly duckling: Neurosis started as a mediocre (okay, terrible) thrash outfit out of Oakland, content to play second fiddle (or shitty-sounding snare drum) to West Coast punk, thrash, and sludge bands like D.O.A., Black Flag, and The Melvins. But Neurosis slowly took on art-rock elements, building atmosphere, epic arrangements and soundscapes along the lines of Swans and various New York no-wave acts, building art-rock like Pink Floyd and metal/industrial sounds like Ministry, Godflesh, and Skinny Puppy.
The recent rise of post-metal bands (Mastodon, Pelican, Isis, Russian Circles) and post-rock acts with heavy/noisy passages and experimental-film images screened during live shows (Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Sigur Ros) owe more than even they may realize to Neurosis. Fellow California metal band Tool, by the way, probably owes Neurosis a royalty check. Just sayin.
Spoon (since 1994)
“But Spoon is already a big indie band! They do pretty big tours! They’re on Merge! They’ve sold thousands of records, if not millions, over their career!” That may be true. But it doesn’t change the fact that Spoon is, still, oddly, confoundingly overlooked in today’s indie rock. When Metacritic named them top overall artist of the ’00s, the silence from indie fans was deafening. And that deafening silence is disappointing.
Spoon’s influence on Austin, T.X.s highly regarded music scene alone qualifies the band for this list, not to mention holding down quality control for the post-R.E.M. indie guard, and the undeniable fact that if Spoon had come around in just about any post-1969 year of pop music culture, they’d be on the level of Foo Fighters/Muse/Coldplay and other big rock stars. Plus, how the fuck can you deny “The Way We Get By”, “Take the Fifth”, “Sister Jack”, or any of the dozens of pop gems Spoon have made in the last 18 years? If you’re hating on this pick, sit down, man. Nothing is wrong with Spoon. It’s not them, its you.
Pinetop Perkins (since the mid-’50s)
If you know Muddy Waters, you should know pianist Joe Willie Pinetop Perkins. And if you dont know Pinetop Perkins, you dont know Chicago blues. Perkins was one of 2011s last surviving progenitors of the peak of the Chicago blues era of the 50s.
Perkins began playing with Waters in 1969, when Waters music was at its peak in popularity, having been made a household name by British invasion bands such as The Rolling Stones (which owes its name to Waters Rollin Stone). Perkins was along for the ride.
While all the other acts on this list are still with us, Perkins is sadly not. He had a great run of it, passing away at age 97 (ninety-fucking-seven!) in March, surviving a knife attack (which, at young age, forced him to quit guitar and learn piano), a train colliding with his car, and decades of touring. Needless to say, Perkins left behind an incredible blues legacy, not to mention a reminder of every under-appreciated musician’s mortality.
But it was only in his final years that non-blues diehards and National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (Grammy) voters gave Perkins mainstream recognition. As the Grammys often do, the awards program gave Perkins last-minute recognition in the scheme of things, awarding him a Lifetime Achievement award in 2005, an award for Best Traditional Blues Album in 2008 for Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live in Dallas, and another a month before he died in 2011 for Joined at the Hip, a collaboration with harmonica player and fellow Muddy Waters sideman Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, who also passed recently.
Perkins kept up a robust touring schedule throughout his career, even into his ’80s and ’90s. Hes influenced and/or played with just about every major blues artist of the last half-century. His influence in blues history is towering, and, in his memory, it deserves to be recognized.
Ted Leo (since 1991)
They just don’t make ’em like Leo anymore. How many veteran singer-songwriters are out there today making no-nonsense music, singing passionately, gracefully, and knowledgeably about foreign and domestic politics, and how it emotionally affects our everyday lives? Among rock n roll and all of its sub-genres, their names would make for a short, sad list.
Ted Leo, quite simply, is a bad ass in the way that Elvis Costello and the late Joe Strummer of The Clash were bad asses at their respective peaks. Strummer left a giant hole in music, and Leo is the only performer multifaceted, dogged, and salt-of-the-earth enough to fill that hole in rock music. And since I dont see punks aged 13 to 30 worshiping at the altar of Ted Leo, Im going to say his contributions to indie, punk, and beyond are drastically underrated and criminally overlooked.
It could just be a matter of weird timing. Leos years of touring and recording in various bands (Citizens Arrest, Chisel, and his current band, the Pharmacists) bests most of his contemporaries on his label, Matador, but he’s not willfully obtuse enough to blend in well with many of his labelmates. Hes too clever and clear-eyed to fit in with most punks these days. And Leo, who recently celebrated his 41st birthday, wasnt born early enough for England’s late ’70s class of excellent post-punk/new wave artists. Leo is almost singular in todays music. If you have an even passing interest in political music or razor-sharp punk, give Ted Leo a listen immediately.
Boards of Canada (since 1996)
You may know Boards of Canada. You may not. Or you may know them but havent thought about the Scottish (nope, not Canadian) IDM/ambient duo in a while. Why? Because Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin draw literally no attention to themselves aside from releasing music and the occasional interview.
In one of those rare interviews, with Pitchfork writer Heiko Hoffman in 2005, Sandison and Eoin revealed that they were in fact brothers and had never mentioned it, even going so far as to avoid divulging it. Why? Because they wanted to avoid comparisons to the Hartnoll brothers of U.K. ambient house outfit Orbital. Apparently, Marcus full name is Marcus Eoin Sandison and he and his brother Michael have been making music together since six or seven years old, recording as early as age 10.
Bomb. Dropped. Stranger still, this news was a bombshell that no one besides Warp Records lifers seemed to have heard or even care about if they did. The intense but absent rock stardom of the Sandisons is something that makes Boards of Canada inherently underrated. Virtually every ambient or semi-ambient artist– from Dan Snaith of Caribou to younger generations of gear-head bedroom artists who seem to be at the forefront of chillwave right now– owes BoC everything.
Chuck Brown (since 1972)
Cause I feel like bustin loose/and I feel like touchin you, is probably best known as a line from Nellys classic Hot in Herre single. But The Neptunes had to pull its brilliant interpolation from somewhere, no doubt an old soul classic. Bustin Loose, by Chuck Brown, the godfather of go-go music, is that classic.
Of course, it may not be a classic to you if you have never lived in Washington D.C. or its metro area. You may associate the phrase go-go music as stuff go-go dancers dance to, but go-go is more precisely a slowed-down take on ’70s disco, emphasizing call-and-response, and bands of at least six members , a style that has virtually never left the D.C. area as a viable genre. Brown essentially invented it in the early ’70s.
Theres really no telling why go-go and Browns career didnt go very far beyond momentary bits of exposure like Bustin Loose and its 2002 interpolation by The Neptunes. Browns theme music for The Sinbad Show in the ’90s didnt do it, and neither did his appearances in television commercials for the D.C. Lottery. His greatest claim to fame may be that the song spent four weeks at the top of the Billboard R&B singles chart in early 1979, ostensibly when Brown broke out as bandleader and top-billed name with The Soul Searchers.
Sure, its possible hes dogged by geography and a provincial audience stuck in its ways, but it wont be slowing the 75 year-old Brown down anytime soon. He was nominated for a Grammy last year for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals for “Love”, featuring Jill Scott and Marcus Miller. That track came from his 2010 record We Got This and, yeah, he sure as hell does.
Slayer (since 1982)
When I saw Slayer live as part of the 2003 JÃ¤germeister Fall Music Tour at The Masquerade in Tampa, the metal capital of the U.S., lead vocalist Tom Araya savored aloud the bands 20-year history of slaying, rocking, and the like, causing the crowd to roar. And they dont suck, I said to my cheering friend, who drove us hours to see the show. I offer up that moment because all of Slayers early-80s thrash contemporaries fell to the High Fidelity-explained dichotomous fate of either burning out (Anthrax) or fading away (Metallica). Of course, Metallicas faded away all the way to bank, but the bands worldwide notoriety should be Slayers by all rights. Slayer should never have to open for Metallica, as it did in April.
Metallicas widely regarded holy trinity of 1983s Kill ‘Em All, 1984s Ride the Lightning, and 1986s Master of Puppets is just as stellar/influential as Slayers holy (unholy?) trinity of 1986s Reign in Blood (which thrashes so hard and fast, the record runs only 29:03 long), 1988s South of Heaven, and 1990s Seasons in the Abyss. Metallica could never play as fast or as brutal as Slayer, nor was it ever anywhere close to as morbid or aggressive. In short, Slayer is more metal than Metallica.
While Lars Ulrich was bitching and moaning about file sharing, putting himself opposite Limp Bizkits Fred Durst in 2000s Napster tussle in the court of law and public opinion, Slayer guitarist Kerry Kings opinion of Durst was pretty clear. “I wouldn’t lose any sleep if Fred Durst got shot tomorrow, King said to Guitar World in 2002. Hard-fucking-core.
Robyn Hitchcock (since 1976)
The brilliant film director Jonathan Demme has worked with only three acts (one per decade) as the subject of a feature-length film: Talking Heads in 1986’s stellar Stop Making Sense and Neil Young in 2006’s Heart of Gold are two of them. The third, and least known, is Robyn Hitchcock in 1998’s Storefront Hitchcock.
The film places the British singer-songwriter into an easy, rarefied air of charisma, one akin to Heads leader David Byrne and Young. If anyone’s earned that kind of regal, cool image, it’s Hitchcock, who’s been pumping out records (be it solo or with his bands the Venus 3 and the Egyptians) for over 35 years, if you count his work fronting Cambridge post-punk band The Soft Boys, which pioneered jangle-pop.
It makes sense, then, that Hitchcock still gets to collaborate with some of rock’s best musicians, including former R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck (and Buck’s band the Minus 5), former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, alt-country songstress Gillian Welch, singer-songwriter/producer Nick Lowe, and former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, just to name a few.
Hitchcock worked with all of the above (minus Welch) for his latest with the Venus 3, Propellor Time, released in 2010, and TromsÃ¸, Kaptein released this year, which is only available for physical purchase in Norway, where it was recorded. So bad-ass.
Mekons (since 1976)
When it comes to the late-70s class of English post-punk, one of the U.K.s most vibrant eras of music, the Mekons and Elvis Costello are the eras only surviving and relevant musicians. Like Costello, the band has ravenously and with polymath glee played disparate genres of music with its signature grit and knowing British wit.
And a caustic wit it is, similar to Gang of Four (whose members were in the same University of Leeds student body as the remaining, founding members of the Mekons, Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh) or The Clash (the bands first vinyl single Never Been in a Riot was an ironic response to White Riot).
Virtually any singer-songwriter, indie band, or punk band whos ever made a snarky political comment on stage or in music owes plenty to the Mekons, even if they dont know it. Yet the Mekons have never been recognized widely, in commercial or critical circles, as the dynamic contributor that it is to the punk canon.