A month into my new job, I traveled to Alexandria, VA to work in the main office of my company for a week. It marks the first time in a nearly-20-year web development career when I traveled for business.
Of course, I had to spend time checking out the record stores in the area. Most of the shops in Washington, DC are concentrated on U Street, which allowed me to hit a number of them in a single evening.
I left work at around 5 p.m. on a Tuesday and crammed as much shopping as I could before the stores closed at 7 p.m. My visit to Crooked Beats happened the day before.
Crooked Beat Records
Crooked Beat was the only shop not in DC proper, but in Alexandria itself, which made it my first destination. The DC area doesn’t have a square-footage behemoth like Amoeba, Waterloo or Everyday Music. So the shops are about equal in terms of size.
That said, Crooked Beat has a slightly bigger space than the rest of the places I visited, and it allowed me to find a good cross section of releases — some Nonesuch titles, Chris Isaak’s second album and a requisite helping of Fugazi.
I probably would have spent more time exploring if I hadn’t showed up about 45 minutes before the store closed.
Joint Custody is comparable to Crooked Beat in terms of stock. Everything is organized by genre, and little else, so a lot of digging is required. I came away with an impulsive purchase of Kanye West — I don’t care for his politics, but The College Dropout stands above all that — and the self-titled Minor Threat compilation.
If time weren’t an issue, I probably would have explored further down the racks. Joint Custody’s space is longer than it is wide, and the back portion of the store included jackets and vintage turntables.
The Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead was playing in the background, which enhanced my shopping experience nicely.
On the week I visited Alexandria, high temperatures reached the low- to mid-90s. And it was a humid heat.
Som Records is located in the basement of a building with little in the way of signage. On any other day, the cramped, un-air-conditioned space would be punk-rock charming. Not so much during a heat wave.
Despite the size, the stock in the store also spanned a wide swath of styles, and I even found another Nonesuch title from the mid-80s.
Smash Records is the punk-centric shop of the city. Getting there was a bit more of a hike, taking me away from U Street and into the Adams Morgan neighborhood. I saved it for my last destination because it closed at 9 p.m. From the hillside, you can see the Washington Monument.
Like Joint Custody, Smash Records has vintage wear as well as records in a space of similar size. The stock of new vinyl focuses mostly on punk, but its used selection has a diverse range of genres.
I rounded out my Fugazi collection with a purchase of Steady Diet of Nothing on CD. I nearly came away with Queen Latifah’s All Hail the Queen on vinyl, but it was in a sad state, priced accordingly.
Red Onion Records
Red Onion Records is a smaller space than Crooked Beats, which meant that the available stock didn’t happen to have anything in which I was interested. So my stay wasn’t long enough to form an impression.
A few titles didn’t get included in the last round-up of new releases, and the release schedule for late autumn hasn’t quite yet coalesced. So this list is thinner than I prefer.
Perfume, Future Pop, Aug. 15
We probably reached peak Perfume two albums ago, if the cool reception to COSMIC EXPLORER is any indication. Imaginative videos can’t quite make up for the weakness of the last few singles, but will either stop me from placing a pre-order? Unlikely.
Blood Orange, Negro Swan, Aug. 24
How did I miss news about a new album by Dev Hynes?
Oh, he announced it when my mom was in town and caught the flu, about a week before I would become briefly unemployed. Has it really been two years since the release of Freetown Sound?
Mandy Barnett, Strange Conversation, Sept. 21
I’ve Got a Right to Cry is a classic album that has been relegated to bargain bins and thrift store shelves. The Owen Bradley-produced album probably did too good of a job calling up the ghost of Patsy Cline, whom Barnett has portrayed on stage.
Barnett recently did a duet with Kenny Chesney, which … whatever. But I would still check out this album because I’ve Got a Right to Cry is an album that just doesn’t wear out, even after nearly two decades.
Jason Isbell and 400 Unit, Live from the Nyman, Oct. 19
It’s easy to marvel at how effortlessly it seems Jason Isbell spins his tales, but when he shreds on stage, it’s a sight to behold.
Fastball, All the Pain Money Can Buy (Deluxe Edition), Nov. 9
Oh, hey, it looks like part of my wish is coming true — All the Pain Money Can Buy is headed for a vinyl release, albeit saddled with bonus material for its 20th anniversary, which I’m pretty sure I’ll be getting anyway.
The strongest memory I have about this album involves one of my teachers in high school. At the time, I wouldn’t have admitted to thinking he was cute. Heck, I really didn’t know what was going on with my hormones to tell.
Compared with all the other teachers on the faculty, he was a kid, probably not more than 10 years older than I was. I didn’t really give age much nuance back then — he was an adult, so he fell under the broad stroke of old.
As a student, I never really liked raising my hand and asking for help. I perceived that as a sign of weakness. But on that first summer of high school, I was underwater. The school threw us into a geometry class that required Algebra I, and most of us hadn’t taken algebra.
So I had to ask for help. A lot. And I didn’t mind because, well, the teacher’s cologne smelled nice.
He was also building his music collection, and one of the albums he owned was Birth, School, Work, Death by The Godfathers. The album cover intrigued me, and it struck me as something I probably would like.
A friend of mine had picked it up based on said teacher’s recommendation and encouraged me to do so as well. I choose my purchases carefully back then, so I didn’t follow up.
Not for another 30 years.
I probably would have dug the Godfathers quite a bit. Birth, School, Work, Death has the reverb-drenched commercial sheen required of post-punk albums at the time, but it didn’t polish off all the rough edges from the band.
The Clash is an obvious influence, especially with the shouted choruses and Peter Coyne’s monotone verses. But that influence is tempered with a dash of classic rock and some well-timed melodies.
I hadn’t quite gotten into the rougher areas of punk, so the Godfathers would have been an appropriate gateway band.
Birth, School, Work, Death also has a cover that absolutely sells the album. If I had discovered the album by other means, I still would have found the austerity of the cover fascinating.
As it stands, Birth, School, Work, Death marks the first time my life ever resembled a song by The Police.
It’s time we turn this list around. Instead of tracking the favorite new releases of 2018, I’ll start with my favorite catalog discoveries. The vast majority of my listening these days is old music that’s new to me, so let’s pretend no longer I have a read on anything current.
Patti Smith, Horses: PJ Harvey sure owes a lot to Patti Smith. The first time I played Horses, there were moments I thought I was listening to Polly Jean. This album confounded me, thus forcing me to play it multiple times, each time engaging me more than the last. Smith has been described as the godmother of punk, and I half expected a proto-Sleater-Kinney. Nah, man. That’s not it at all.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced?: Maybe it’s because of Emmylou Harris and Kronos Quartet that made this album feel instantly familiar, or maybe its influence extends as far as the arm of Sauron.
Roxy Music, Avalon: Smooth
Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska: This shit is dark.
Joni Mitchell, Court and Spark: Without some schooling in Charles Mingus and John Coltrane, I wouldn’t have understood how ground-breaking this album is. Otherwise, the cheap imitations it spawned would have been my only reference.
Fugazi, The Argument: I didn’t think anything could top 13 Songs or Repeater, but this album comes damn close.
Dwight Yoakam, Guitars Cadillacs Etc. Etc.: Honky-tonk AF
Benjamin Gibbard / Andrew Kenny, Home, Vol. 5: Even after 15 years, this split EP holds together well.
Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer: This is the album I wished The ArchAndroid was. I still think she hasn’t yet recorded her Shousou Strip.
Laurie Anderson and Kronos Quartet, Landfall: I found myself engaged in this album more than I expected.
Various Artists, Adam to Eve no Ringo: Shiina Ringo is one of the best songwriters, because the strength of her writing cuts through even the most ordinary interpretation of her songs.
Thomas Bartlett and Nico Muhly, Peter Pears: Balinese Ceremonial Music: It’s an improbable concept album based on transcriptions of Balinese gamelan music by English composer Colin McPhee. In execution, it’s a stronger concept than the Planetarium album Muhly did with Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner and James McAlister.
Steve Grand, not the end of me: Grand has gone through some serious shit since his debut album, and this sprawling sophomore effort lays it all out.
Utada Hikaru, Hatsukoi: Check out the rhythmic modulation on “Chikai”. She does some amazing obfuscation with the downbeat.
Igor Stravinsky, Chant Funèbre / La Sacre Du Printemps: It seems Funeral Song didn’t really answer the question of how Stravinsky bridged his Scriabin-influenced early work with the Firebird and all that came after.
Tracey Thorn, Record: Tracey Thorn returns to the dancefloor, thank deities.
I’ve read about her in numerous rock magazines during high school, and on more than a few occasions, Blue would be played on the in-store system at Waterloo Records during a shift. Máire Brennan of Clannad introduced me to “Big Yellow Taxi”, which Janet Jackson would sample to great effect.
But it wasn’t until I picked up Court and Spark at the Friends of the Seattle Library Book Sale that I made the connection with “Help Me”. I didn’t realize Joni Mitchell had recorded that song.
Even now, “Help Me” is indelibly tied in my head with one particular radio station in Honolulu — KSSK, or K-59. In the ’70s, KSSK (590 AM) was the top-rated station in Honolulu with a playlist that featured all the big hits of the day.
In the ’80s, car stereos improved, and FM stations gained popularity. KQMQ (93.1 FM) captured mindshare among young people, but my mom stubbornly refused to let us listen to it. She preferred the traffic and news reports KSSK provided, and since she was behind the wheel, that information would be important for drive time.
But oh my GOD, KSSK didn’t update their playlist as the decade switched over from the 70s to the 80s. They were still playing music that was considered absolutely square by my siblings and me. Duran Duran, Madonna and Huey Lewis were doing wonderful things with synthesizers. Why did we have to be subjected to this easy listening junk from Carole King, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell??
“Help Me” stood for everything that was wrong with KSSK’s playlist. It was that jazzy, inoffensive, reliably adult kind of music that was automatically branded “boring” by anyone under 20.
Maybe the station might play a Sheena Easton single or some pre-Thriller Michael Jackson, but Prince was verboten. And good luck catching any Eurythmics. Otherwise, it was the Eagles, baby.
I haven’t listened to radio since the ’80s, but I assume if I were to tune into KSSK right now, the playlist would still be stuck in the ’70s, and “Help Me” would be right there.
Of course, now I listen to “Help Me” with terrific fondness, and 30 years of music education has given me a far deeper appreciation of Court and Spark. When I didn’t have John Coltrane and Charles Mingus as a point of reference, the album would have remained square to me. Instead, I understand why Court and Spark is a big deal. Mitchell retains her folk sound, but she makes it swing.
At some point, I’ll revisit Blue, but right now, Court and Spark is my go-to Joni Mitchell album.