Since today marks the first annual Cassette Store Day, I'll be celebrating my favorite musical format with a timeline of tape releases that I find inspirational. Starting at 1982 and ending today, this list only scratches the surface of cassette culture's rich history, but I hope to highlight the more important albums of the past thirty years and maybe even introduce you to a new band or two. Here's part one of the list, ranging from 1982 to 1992.
Solid Space - Space Museum
(1982 In Phaze)
With its muffled synthesizers and jangling lead guitars, album of 80's synth-pop has an unshakable sense of antiquated charm. It's a strange listen; the lyrics center around space travel as imagined by 50's science fiction flicks and there are a few disco-influenced moments scattered throughout the tape. Hiding behind the many quirks Space Museum offers are moments of sheer brilliance. "A Darkness In My Soul", recently covered by Led Er Est, is a particularly memorable cut, featuring vaguely proggy acoustic guitar in its intro. "Tenth Planet" is probably my favorite song off the album, a minimalist gem only enhanced by its humorously corny synth pulses.
Full album stream
Amos and Crew - True Tears
(It's War Boys 1982)
Puzzling, fascinating, alienating, Amos and Crew's True Tears definitely isn't everybody's cup of tea, but it'll certainly capture the attention of whoever listens to it. The album, recorded in three days by avante-garde musician Jim Welton, is almost completely improvised, yet clings by a thread to loose pop constructions. A variety of instruments and sounds accompany Welton's squeaky, heavily filtered vocals: clunky drum-machines, sporadically played, tinny guitar notes and goofy keyboard grooves. True Tears, in a strange, twisted way, is pop music in its rawest form. Whether it's quality songcraft or utter crap is in the ear of the beholder, and in mine, it's lo-fi gold.
Armed Truth Foreigners
Beat Happening - Three Tea Breakfast
No Half-Gifts "best of" list would be complete without mention of seminal lo-fi band Beat Happening. Released just after their self-titled debut EP, Three Tea Breakfast remains one of my favorite releases by the Olympia, Washington based trio. Everything about its sound quality is simply perfect. The guitars are fat and booming, the percussion sounds like kitchen utensils being clapped together, yet it's the vocals that make this EP. Calvin Johnson and Heather Lewis split singing duties on this tape, sharing a similarly monotone, uninterested delivery. Three Tea Breakfast sounds like your little brother grabbing your guitar and mercilessly banging on the strings as he belts out poorly constructed, stream-of-conscious lyrics. I mean that in the best way possible.
Daniel Johnston - Continued Story
Not much ink is spilled over this under-appreciated tape by outsider artist Daniel Johnston, but it's possibly my favorite selection from his prolific discography. I'll spare you Johnston's backstory as you've probably heard it hundreds of times by now, and I'll get straight into the review. Johnston flirts with intelligibility (maybe even professionalism) on Continued Story, prying himself away from the chord organ that dominated previous efforts. With help from punk act Texas Instruments, he benefits greatly from a full backing band, making for an interesting departure from his familiar solo material. "Ain't No Woman Gonna Make A George Jones Outta Me" is the album's crowning achievement, a simple acoustic tune featuring an uncredited female vocalist.
Ain't No Woman Gonna Make A George Jones Outta Me
Sebadoh -Weed Forestin'
The oft-overlooked Sebadoh debut, Weed Forestin' is home to some of Dinosaur Jr. bassist Lou Barlow's finest solo songs. This tape is the precursor to his later, acoustic-only project Sentridoh, possessing many of the lo-fi recording techniques and lyrical tropes employed under the moniker. As usual, Barlow's songwriting is overwhelmingly melancholy on Weed Forestin', featuring an early demo version of my favorite Sebadoh track "Brand New Love". "Whitey Peach" is another prime cut, and is one of Barlow's best vocal performances. It may not be as important as 1994's Bakesale, but as far as Sebadoh releases go, Weed Forestin' is a close second best effort.
Brand New Love
Various Artists - Pawnshop Reverb
Pawnshop Reverb is the best of a smattering of cassette compilations released in the early 90's by legendary DIY label Shrimper Records. The Mountain Goats and Sentridoh are the more well-known acts appearing on the tape, but tracks like Delirium Insomniacal by the more obscure psychedelic rock band Primordial Undermind will give listeners reason to stay. That being said, "Certain Dance-Circumstance" is one of my favorite Sentridoh tracks, and that cut alone is enough to put Pawnshop Reverb on this list. If you're into blown-out twangy guitars, you'll love this tape.