The Steel City’s Top 20 Tracks of 2009

First and foremost, I must thank the fellas at Songs in the Key of Touche for calling me out, kicking me in the ass and forcing me to write this post.  This post in particular was something I had wanted to do ever since I started this blog in February. If you’ve read the blog the past year, you know that I jump at any chance I can get to showcase the stars of the Pittsburgh music scene.

This list provides not just 20 different songs but 20 different artists that call the steel city home.  I have also included a couple regional bands from towns (Youngstown, OH and Morgantown, WV) that I consider extensions of Pittsburgh in their own right. I wrote new stuff about some songs and other pieces are mostly recreated from old track reviews.  Truthfully, I just needed to get this list out there. Its been germinating too long in side my small small brain for me to function as a normal human being.  Enjoy the list (and no one get pissed off).

20  “Minneapolis” –  Boca Chica

Fragile but intricate, quiet yet epic, Boca Chica’s “Minneapolis” makes claims like “we could have conquered North America in a year” amid a meekly complicated arrangement of Nick Drake-style acoustic noodling and natural violin strings.  The simple addition of stark, walloping drum patterns  in “Minneapolis'” final third sharpens the track with just enough edge to make all those gorgeous strings simmer rather than evaporate.  Boca Chica may be Pittsburgh’s finest philosophers of folk, effortlessly combining craft with emotion in countless combinations of subtle, unhurried majesty.

19  “I Know Every Street” – Meeting of Important People

I don’t mean to speculate about Josh Verbanets’s, Meeting of Important People’s lead singer-songwriter/guitarist, motives behind writing a song like “I Know Every Street,” a track he contributed to his former band’s LP (Lohio’s History, The Destroyer) and is now featured as the centerpiece of Meeting of Important People’s debut, self-titled album.  I’d like to think he’s talking about Pittsburgh and the ways in which this town’s intricacies feel small enough to learn but damn near impossible to master.

18  “Don’t Wait Up” – The Takeover UK

A smoky, sleazy rocker in the vein of The Libertines circa 2003, The Takeover UK’s “Don’t Wait Up” splashes down like a massive, retro-fuck meteor from another era. Gleefully hedonistic and irresponsible, the song is basically a sweetly tinged, but ultimately conniving, plea from lead singer Nic Snyder to his naieve lover that he literally doesn’t give a shit about her.  “Little child, you’re so vacant” he croons to open the song only to be followed by the epic group chorus, basically spelling out to her in giant neon letters that he’s going to do whatever the fuck he wants.  Honesty, when wielded correctly, proves to be a blunt object of massive force.

17  “Turn Me Around” – Satin Gum

Taking a short break from their shit-gaze early 90’s roots, Satin Gum manage to make “Turn Me Around” one of the tightest pop-rock song’s of the year, reminiscent of 70’s cult rockers The Flamin Groovies and their classic “Shake Some Action.”  Lead singer and guitarist Brian Sepkis once again juxtaposes mid-twenties melancholy (“it ain’t easy to say/i’d like to be thirty some day”) with sincerely jubilant arrangement of party-ready, no bullshit, rock and roll happiness.  Just like a ton of band’s on this list, Satin Gum’s self-released, debut album proved to be rock solid, dying to provide the soundtrack to endless late night drives weaving through Pittsburgh’s city neighborhoods.

16  “All On Your Own” – Good Night, States

2009’s In The Impossible Tension EP showed Good Night, States completely embracing the electronic undertones of their first album.  “All On Your Own” effortlessly embeds shimmering combinations of 8-bit noodling with what is arguably the group’s strongest composition to date.  Is it danceable? Just about.  Loungey might be a better description. Regardless, Good Night, States’ signature jaunty innocence is intact, further solidifying them among Pittsburgh’s indie elite.

15  “Crazy Folks” – Chalk Dinosaur
Brian O’Hallaron and Chalk Dinosaur know this track owes more than a little to Weezer’s “Sweater Song,” but where Rivers Cuomo can sound ironic and detached , O’Hallaron comes off refreshingly sincere: youthful, restless, and a little overwhelmed by the future.  The song is pitch perfect in theme, tone and harmony, perfectly illustrating the poignant malaise of a late night going nowhere.  The last verse perfectly encapsulates one of my biggest fears, reminding me to poke a little less fun at the motley crew of regulars 24 hour diner tends to have, “The crazy folks/are the aim of our jokes./But someday I’ll be there.”

14  “Waking Vision” –  Gil Mantera’s Party Dream

Okay, okay, I know Gil Manera’s Party Dream (or GMPD as they now wish to be known) is actually from Youngstown, OH, but they have played so many shows in Pittsburgh over the years, including repeated affairs with the likes of local legends Girl Talk and Grand Buffet, that I couldn’t help but consider them apart of the steel city.  Coming off their 2006 fucking stunner of a debut album Bloodsongs, GMPD have just released their sophomore effort Dreamscape in February of 2009.  Where Bloodsongs held a steady, exuberant, party fusion of synth, metal guitars and thumping bass drums for the entire album, Dreamscape seems to be more contemplative and introspective.  The first single from the album ready for download is “Waking Vision” calls to mind classic New Order rather than the smart alleck raps of Grand Buffet.

13  “Waitin’ For The End of the Summertime” – Lohio

With their stunning self-titled EP out this past fall, Lohio cemented themselves as Pittsburgh’s alt-country iconoclasts: consistent, powerful and prolific. With “Waiting for the End of the Summertime” Lohio appears to be recalling Elliot Smith by way of Summerteeth-era Wilco (which, as an album, actually examined Velvet Underground’s Loaded through an alt-country lens’) draping the track in a wounded optimism that underscores lush harmonies and wood-paneled-basement organs with heart aching depth.

12  “Out There” – David Bernabo + Assembly

“Out There” from 2009’s Happener-Magicker showcases what David Bernabo and his faithful Assembly do best: infuse charging off-kilter indie rock with the tricky complexity of an avant-garde jazz improvisation.  The track bobs and weaves, teetering on the edge of a freak out before snapping into astute angular pop.  Is Bernabo Pittsburgh’s David Longstreth from the Dirty Projectors?  Something like that.  I can’t wait to see what other tricks he has in his magic hat.

11  “What it is to Fly” – Discuss

Discuss a.k.a. Young Frankenstein
(a.k.a. Andrés Ortiz-Ferrari) has an uncanny knack for making compellingly intricate, instrumental hip-hop that keeps the audience in mind.  In a genre that is overstuffed by too many self-indulgent experiments, where some compositions are more interesting for the artist to create than for a crowd to listen to, Discuss provides a unique bridge between older crate digging samples and glitchy breakbeat production.  The convergence of the twain can produce a track like  “What it is to Fly,” which boasts not only some choice soul, reggae and jazz samples but a massive lumbering synth encrusted beat that crackles and shimmers with each progression.

10  “I Can’t Be Blue in Bloomfield” – The Harlan Twins

“I Can’t Be Blue in Bloomfield” is the love song to Pittsburgh, Little Italy, and the music scene as a whole.  Charming and modest, the song has evolved from a scratchy, ukulele soaked demo into a shaggy ballad alt-country rockers Harlan Twins used as the centerpiece of their self titled debut album.  Little touches like the lazy organ waltzing around in the back of the mix, the somber horns right before the heavenly bridge, and lead singer Carrie Battle’s insouciant vocals make “I Can’t Be Blue” a Pittsburgh classic.

09  “Soulmate” – Wiz Khalifa ft. John Records

“Soulmate” is easily the most affecting track from Wiz Khalifa’s Flight School mix tape and possibly the most confident sonic document of Wiz’s true aesthetic, showcasing stuttering drum combinations at various speeds and a heavy oscillating synth backdrop that hums with the robust atmosphere of a Dave Sitek production.

Khalifa’s delivery is startling in its disconnection from his usual flow with his constant, relaxed arrogance being replaced by a straining, sincere draw that puts effort behind lines like “and last night was amazing/I can honestly say that you the best I ever had/and you don’t remember/because you weren’t even there/but your soul was.”

08  “Wormwood Star” – Kim Phuc

Kim Phuc’s “Wormwood Star” has the feeling of an early Stooges outtake, a track that would have been deemed too loud, too vicious, and simply too scary for audiences circa 1969 to process let alone enjoy. With its dangerous, buzz saw guitars, face pounding drum sections and apocalyptically cryptic vocals, “Wormwood Star” possesses the kind of doomed menace serious metal bands unwittingly force into parody. This is the soundtrack to a riot, a buckshot blast through a store front, white hot and unstable.

07  “Double Dip” – Dan Koshute

Dan Koshute’s Kissline came out of left field earlier this fall and knocked me on my ass.  “Double Dip” is light speed fast, layers of intricately connected guitar lines interlocked with a stadium rock swagger and confidence that is only rivaled by Koshute’s bombastic vocals, capable of howling, crooning and seducing simultaneously.  Any time this guy plays a show in Pittsburgh, the concert is a must see.

06  “Patience” – Ball of Flame Shoot Fire

Patience” first reared its pretty little head on the 2008 Key Party Compilation along with more than a few bands on this list. When it was released with Ball of Flame Shoot Fire’s Jokeland in early 2009, it soon took on greater proportions.  Connecting the album’s first and second half, “Patience” made the songs around it better, building to what has to be Ball of Flame’s most transcendent chorus yet.  It’s a pocket symphony and Lewis Carrol mind-fuck simultaneously.  It’s a damn shame these lads call Long Island home now.

05  “We Gotta Get Along” – Derek White

Takeover UK guitarist Derek White produced this white-boy soul gem on his free time and proved to be one of the most fully realized retro-pop tunes of the year.  Dripping with a Detroit “hitsville USA” aura, “We Gotta Get Along” is a swingers anthem, cocksure with enthusiasm and FM radio tropes that never go out of style.

04  “Found Out” – Big Hurry

This song is an out and out tantrum, a raging concoction of accusation, fundamentally driven by drummer Dani Buncher’s shit kicking percussion.  Lead singer Kelly Tobias is more than up to the task, crushing the chorus out of the park with a sultry fullness that implies the image of a devastating femme fatale who has just gone off the reservation. The guitars are in a lock step, sex induced haze, the electronics ominously accent each pivotal transition, and the entire thing just about explodes.  Wanna see this song taken to a new level? See Big Hurry live.

03  “Shh” – Donora

Another Key Party Compilation alumnus, “Shh” could very well be Donora’s signature song.  Jake Churton turns his bass into a lead guitar, churning through emphatic licks and wrapping Casey Hanner in just enough ambiance to give her vocals an even greater sense of depth and proportion than before.  By the time Hanner whispers (about how she likes to whisper) in the almost-to-precious chorus, you know you are hearing the signature voice of the Pittsburgh music scene.

02  “Candy Season” – Librarians

Yes, this album technically doesn’t come out till march and yes, these guys are from Morgantown.  But I can’t help thinking of Mo-Town as an extension of Pittsburgh (including nearly identical accents), if only to include arguably the most confident avant-pop song smiths this side of the Rust Belt, Librarians. “Candy Season,” my favorite track form the forth coming Present Passed, is a dynamic, catchy, insanely fun romp around the Animal Collective neighborhood: complicated percussion, gorgeous melodies, and a simple refusal to play in any sensible time signature.  If you were lucky enough to snag the new album at their last show in Pittsburgh (like my roommate) “Candy Season” is merely the tip of the iceberg; Librarians are the real deal: challenging, experimental, catchy, and above all, fucking good.

01  “Born on a Day the Sun Didn’t Rise” – Black Moth Super Rainbow

Yes, they aren’t very visible in Pittsburgh (their MySpace says they are from Rural Western PA – Viet Nam) but Black Moth Super Rainbow are entirely more comfortable operating in the shadows.  “Born on a Day the Sun Didn’t Rise” from 2009’s Eating Us is deliriously happy in an exctacy enhanced fog, but manages to evoke subtle menace from the fun house atmosphere.  Tobacco dups and fops through his favorite musical mask, a maniacal vocoder, reciting a barely comprehensible mantra of psychedelic poetry.  Why is the best steel city track of 2009? Frankly, its because BMSR know exactly who they are.  They have a fully formed aesthetic and can naturally produce songs that sound like Black Moth Super Rainbow (that’s a compliment).

“Born on a Day the Sun Didn’t Rise” is the group’s most accessible song yet, but still manages to embody the experimental neo-psychedelia they became famous for.  That’s the point isn’t it? Attempting to making music people want to listen while managing to move forward artistically? Black Moth Super Rainbow are now established, turning heads, influencing others, and freaking out the rest.

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4 thoughts on “The Steel City’s Top 20 Tracks of 2009

  1. Have you heard Emily Rodgers’ record “Bright Day”? It is a beautiful record, there are some amazing songs on it, check it out if you haven’t.

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