Power or Pub Rock… screw the labels: Spoon – Hot Thoughts

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Very few bands garner my ever elusive “buy unheard” designation. That place where you drop cash on release day or do that advance order thing. With the popularity of music streaming sites and advance listens on popular music mag web pages, there isn’t much need for the mystery purchase. Regardless, Spoon remains one of the ‘only’ rock bands that actually matter. Whether it be their debut Girls Can Tell, the best-selling Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, my personal favorite Gimme Fiction, or even the half-hearted They Want My Soul, Spoon has remained not only one of the most consistently great bands of this new(ish) century, but also one of the most intriguing.

They don’t often give away the subjects of their songs, usually choosing to keep their cards close to the chest, but when they do… well damn! “Let them build a wall around us, I don’t care I’m going to tear it down…” are lyrics found on “Tear it Down” and coming from a bunch of Texans, it might as well be a declaration of war against ‘Forty-Five.’ Of course, the lyrics are veiled enough that one might see it another way… BUT COME ON – it was written during the f@#king Presidential Primaries.

The thing is, Britt Daniels could write just about anything and it would still allow you enough room to project just about anything you damn well please onto the lyrical theme. “Do I have to talk you into it?” is just open enough to be up for any interpretation. “For your love, my first caress/ your friends have came and went/ Coconut milk/ Coconut water/ You still like to tell me they’re the same/ and whom I to say.” “First Caress” could be a direct shot at a former lover, or a bunch of crap written in a journal that sounded good together… in all honesty it doesn’t matter, the end destination is a great ride.

Which is kinda (kinda isn’t a word, I know… but stay with me here) the point. Great rock ‘n’ roll can be open to interpretation; meaning everything to the writer and something completely different and equally important to the listener.  Yet, somehow these two places have common ground, and when I find Spoon to be at their greatest is when these diverging points mix seamlessly. The deeper meaning is secondary to the emotional reaction you have to it. Fuck the definitions and labels… how does it make you feel?

Now, if you are looking to pick this up on vinyl, then you have boat loads of choices… including a lucky lottery version. You can pre-order clear, purple and red. You can special order a pink copy from Urban Outfitters (1000 available). There is the regular black at your local record store….OR…

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If you did a pre-order from their label Matador, you may be one of the lucky !!!TWO!!!! to have received golden ticket green vinyl edition. One is being sold in the UK and the other in North America.

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I’d love to tell ya I’ve heard them all, but that just isn’t so. The pink Urban Outfitters is spinning on the turntable sounding like a mix between Duran Duran and a Texan version of Elton John (seriously… “I Ain’t The One” is just about as heartbreaking as “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word”). Which is to say, it sounds fantastic and I’m assuming the others do too… but you know… you’ll have to buy it to find out.

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I Really Needed This Right Now: Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate

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It’s been a crappy week in this ‘Year That Sucks.’ With darkened mood, I look to my turntable for a lifeline, something…anything to shine a bit of light into a world that no longer makes any sense. Nothing seems to work until a conversation I have with a friend leads me down a path to the record store.

You see, as per usual, I arrive late to the party. Somehow the floatation device I had been searching desperately for had been put on the shelves months ago and I failed to see it. In a black cover with a melting grey heart, I place my hopes on the vinyl circles within.

The needle strikes the groove and I’m gone. The O’Jays meet Pink Floyd in a drawn out sonic line in the sand. Slow and melodic “Cold Little Heart” creeps under the skin and my head sways to the rhythm. A lead guitar soars out over with the voice of angels in the background. It smacks me in the head as if I’m listening to Ennio Morricone in a Philadelphia setting. It’s new old soul. Visual images dance in front of my closed eyes. It’s neon shimmering lightly in the rain, sad and powerful simultaneously.

“Standing now Calling all the people here to see the show Calling for my demons now to let me go I need something, give me something wonderful”

Projecting. I’m projecting. Kiwanuka’s “Love & Hate” has said something that makes sense to me. Tears begin to flow. This art understands me… or do I it?

Fuck it!

Why overanalyze this?

I’m moved. I need this. It’s the soundtrack to this moment; music for broken people in broken times.

“One More Night” with its mix of horns and bass plays out with quiet desperation. Like a tired person who can’t stop walking. And, quite honestly, this is how the whole record is. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful.

Love & Hate isn’t your over-produced modern R&B. It’s organic, it rings with emotion, and it never feels like you are being sold some auto-tune cliché meant to promote sales over a genuine musical experience. It’s the one record this year that I am not only happy I purchased, but grateful to have found in the first place.

(Now if only I could get some tickets to his sold out show here in Toronto I might even crack a smile.)

Big Star + Rock Hall = An Inductee That Would Really Matter… or… Big Star – Complete Columbia: Live at University of Missouri

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A friend asked me “Why, of all the albums being released on Record Store Day 2016, are you waiting in line for a 90’s live album from a 70’s band?” The tone and nature of the question was meant to be mocking, as he loves to have lively music debates, particularly ones that push my buttons. However, instead of just reacting, I took a deep breath and thought about it. Then, just to be annoying I told him I would ‘write the answer.’ (hehehe…)

The reasons are three-fold.

Like many people, the album I first attach to a band tends to have the greatest impact. While I heard songs by Big Star from time to time, it wasn’t until the release of Columbia that I had a complete work in front of me which represented the band as a whole. A world opened up. Here was a collection of songs that didn’t need to be ‘epic’ stories of human struggle (ie. Bruce Springsteen) or carry images of Mordor (ie. Led Zeppelin) to have powerful depth. They also didn’t include anthem-like clichés to get people fist pumping in the air (pick your own example, as there are so many). “In The Street”, “Back Of A Car” and “September Gurls” leapt out of my speakers and made my own angst seem to matter. These songs were simple coming-of-age tales detailing everyday experiences without the ‘syrup’ provided by many of the ‘so-called’ classic rock bands of the day. Instead, Big Star gave us the kind of tunes that made you want to pick up a guitar and learn to play. Furthermore, you found yourself singing, not in some vain attempt to impress or attract anyone, but as an outlet to express yourself. Which is perhaps why I had been hearing covers of their songs by other artists as time went on; The Lemonheads, Matthew Sweet, The Bangles, The Posies, Teenage Fanclub and later Beck were all doing renditions of the songs of Alex Chilton or Chris Bell. The Replacements even wrote a song entitled “Alex Chilton”, dropping the line “never go far, without a little Big Star.” All of it was packed into this one album.

Next, this wasn’t an example of a band cashing in on fame. Big Star never had the kind of fame you could cash in on. Columbia was quite literally a concert put together by fans for fans and later released in a similar fashion. Two campus radio staffers at the University of Missouri quite literally asked Big Star alumni Jody Stephens if he would be willing to do a reunion show, and got a yes if Alex Chilton was up for it. Surprisingly, Chilton agreed and, with the addition of the Posies Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow to cover for Chris Bell (deceased) and Andy Hummel (left the music business), the band played an amazing set to (merely) an estimated 200 people. Yet even with a small venue, they managed to attract much of the music world. That show got glowing write-ups in all the major music magazines of the day. It was pretty unanimous amongst the press that those not lucky enough to be in attendance had missed something special. Fortunately, this record gives us a glimpse of a show that has attained somewhat legendary status.

Finally, Columbia solidifies my absolute belief that Big Star should be in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. All three of their initial studio releases (#1 Record, Radio City, Sister Lovers/Third) land consistently on various magazines’ Top Albums of all-time lists; all three are referenced by multiple generations of artists as being influential in their music; and all three are revered by fans lucky enough to have heard them as being close to their hearts. More importantly, their music has endured through the most insanely bad luck of any band in rock history. Their 1971 debut #1 Record was hailed as triumphant by music critics, but due to poor distribution and marketing by Stax, no one could find a copy to purchase, even when songs were played on the radio. Follow up Radio City suffered a similar fate, with Columbia records refusing to distribute the record because of a disagreement with their newly acquired Stax label. By the time Big Star released the gorgeous yet challenging Sister Lovers/Third, the band had completely disintegrated with only Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens remaining. They went their separate ways and that should have ended the story… but it didn’t.

Fans exchanged cassettes with Big Star tunes. Those in the know kept talking and searching until a market was created for re-releases. More than two decades removed from their first record and people were seeking them out based on little more than conversations and scratchy recordings emanating from a tape deck. By the early 90’s, Ryko had reissued Sister Lovers/Third and a put out a compilation of Chris Bell’s solo material, I Am The Cosmos. Then Columbia was released in 1993.  A tribute album was recorded by a virtual who’s who of 90’s alt-rock artists (ironically, it also suffered from bad luck and wasn’t released until years afterward). When Columbia was released, it may still have been hard to find the first two Big Star records in stores, but here were the songs; live, rough and glorious in their presentations. All members were taking on vocal duties, with Jon Auer doing an incredible job on the solo Chris Bell single “I Am The Cosmos.” As the 90’s continued, That 70’s Show used “In The Street” as their theme song and a new generation started to discover the band. Finally, their albums could be found in record stores.

Somehow, without radio backing or touring, people were seeking out this music.

Which brings me to the Rock Hall…

If, as I believe, rock ‘n’ roll is about more than money or popularity, then Big Star should be inducted and Columbia is a perfect example of why. Here is a band whose art transcended obscurity by nothing more than word of mouth and shared recordings. Without the help of corporate money and radio exposure, their music found a way to not only be heard, but in fact influence generations of future musicians. Hell, the entire sub-genre of “power-pop” can’t even be considered without Big Star being mentioned as its greatest practitioners. It is hard to picture the sounds of the 90’s alternative music scene without the influence of songs that Alex Chilton and Chris Bell provided. Then, you add the Big Star reunion to the mix.

Complete Columbia: Live at the University of Missouri 4/25/93 exemplifies the very idea that great music will find fans and that record sales are not as important as the art itself. On-stage that day in ’93 were two musicians who had created some music playing with two other musicians that had been directly inspired by it. Twenty years separating their careers, yet you could hear just how much Big Star had meant to the future of rock music. They weren’t just another band that you hummed along to distractedly on a transistor radio; they were the band you sought out and told anyone and everyone willing to listen that Big Star were “FUCKING AWESOME!!!”

So my friend… you ask me why I’m arriving early on RSD 2016 to line up for a copy of Columbia… or even, why they should be in the Rock Hall… well, it’s because Big Star created music that really matters… what other reason is there?

Warning: This album might make kids want to form a band… or Hinds – Leave Me Alone

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It doesn’t hurt to have hi profile friends (Black Keys, Libertines, the Strokes, Black Lips) and to be opening for some very popular bands. Then to get major label distribution (Sony) so that your music gets promoted and is easily available once the word is out is even better. However, the only thing that will really result in lasting appeal are a great bunch of songs. You either write them, have them written for you, or have things crafted so densely under production that singing the dictionary sounds like a hit ready for the mini-pops to cover. The later is usually what you see when youth get major label money and the results are generally fan bases popular amongst the pre-teen kids waiting for the next single by Selena Gomez or Cody Simpson.

It isn’t often that you see the exact opposite play out, but ‘holy crap’ it has and the effort has produced an outstanding record. Riding out of a sunrise with a sound that crosses the lo-fi glory of Sebadoh with the energy of the 5.6.7.8’s and the dreamscape of Best Coast, Hinds have created an LP that can relate as much to early rock ‘n’ roll as it does to modern alternative/indie sounds. All that and they’re still on an indie (with major distribution).

What is most appealing with Leave Me Alone are the moments that have the dual vocals of Carlotta Cosials and Ana Garcia Perrote playing off one another in a playful case of a mutual admiration society. The album opens with “Garden” which has them teaming up with vocals that are not the usual ‘call and answer’ or traded lines found in duets as much as a ‘sing-a-long’ jam with friends just having a great time. Live you often see bands have these moments but capturing it in a studio environment is rare. Which makes it all the more remarkable that they pull it off on a full albums worth of material.

Hinds do have a few tunes that capture the whole ‘dark and brooding’ thing, but their overall enthusiasm seems to jangle right past despair with a good nod and a wink. Thing is, it’s really hard to be in a negative mood listening to Hines… like a good friend they show up when you’re down and say nothing more than “get off your ass and let me buy you a drink” and everything feels better.

Great rock ‘n’ roll records don’t have to be complicated affairs. They don’t need to have producers with a track record, a billion dollar studio, or a video directed by a Hollywood ‘A list-er’. Leave Me Alone is a reminder that great music can come from kids with nothing more than the standard guitar, bass and drum mixed with a few crappy amps and a willingness to let the songs speak for themselves. In fact, I’m willing to bet that a few kids will hear this record and start bands of their own, and that would be about the highest compliment any band can get.

Barrettbites Top 10 “Super-Awesome” Songs of 2015

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Could you make a lasting impression in mere minutes? The kind of connection that lasts a lifetime completed in clicks of a second-hand. That’s what a great song does.

Of course, the best tunes have you forget time even exists until the last moment, when you wish they could go on for much longer… if only to recapture the feeling you just had. Instead we can only replay it; in some desperate attempt to keep that response (whatever it was) going.

 10. The Elwins – “Show Me How To Move”

Coming off like a cross between The Cars, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, and Motion City Soundtrack “Show Me How To Move” is an infectious little gem about life’s insecurities. It’s catchy enough to stay in your head for weeks without wearing out its welcome.

 9. Terra Lightfoot – “Never Will”

A pure blast of rock ‘n’ roll delivered from just down the QEW in Hamilton. Terra Lightfoot put together a record full of gems with “Never Will” leading the charge.

 8. City & Colour – “Lover Come Back”

The second single from If I Should Go Before You, “Lover Come Back” is an outstanding soul tinged tune harkening back to the days of Stax was the king of Memphis.

 7. Wolf Alice – “Moaning Lisa Smile”

On first listen, “Moaning Lisa Smile” sounds like it may have been dropped into us from 1992, with its nineties alt rock vibe. However, it was just the start to what turned out to be a great record. Can’t wait for more!

 6. Hollerado – “Firefly”

“Firefly” was a 7” single released on record store day as part of the coolest release of the day. Buy the little green vinyl, and get a download card for 111 songs. How many bands can say they released 10 albums worth of material with a 45 RPM.

 5. Nathaniel Rateliff & the Nightsweats – “S.O.B.”

Conjuring sounds ranging from Van Morrison to Elvis Presley, “S.O.B” was the single that started the ball rolling on a great record and rave reviews from everywhere Rateliff went to play.

 4. Cage The Elephant – “Mess Around”

It’s only been around for a few weeks, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t a great song. Full of influences ranging from the UK to San Francisco, it rides a great groove from start to finish.

 3. Courtney Barnett – “Pedestrain At Best”

Talk about a salvo! Barnett’s “Pedestrain At Best” is like a personal mission statement to music. She puts out songs that carry the confessional style of Paul Westerberg (the Replacements), the humour of David Lowery (Cracker, Camper Van Beethoven) and energy of the frickin Pixies.

 2. Alabama Shakes – “Don’t Wanna Fight”

Somewhere between soul, disco and straight up rock ‘n’ roll, “Don’t Wanna Fight” is the kind of tune that hits emotionally and has you singing along. Even my kids try hitting those high notes as we cruise the streets in the minivan.

 1. Beck – “Dreams”

Speaking of my kids, “Dreams” was their favourite of the year, as well as mine. Like the most memorable of Beck’s work, it had elements of hip-hop built into the rhythm, a great ‘wonky’ guitar riff, and lyrics that captured the imagination even when they seemingly made sense only within the context of a dream. Only wish it was supported by a full album.

 

Not Just Messin’ Around… or Cage The Elephant – Tell Me I’m Pretty

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It’s an interesting time to be Cage The Elephant. They could stick to their tried and true sound that has produced a number of alt-rock staples, or venture out to try something a little different. The risk for every artist is alienating old crowds while searching for new fans and retaining that wonderful feeling of loving what you do.

For inspiration, they have looked to the other side of the Atlantic and picked up influences ranging from the Beatles (“Sweetie Little Jean”) to Super Furry Animals (“Cry Baby”) and the Arctic Monkeys (“Mess Around”). To top that, they’ve got the ear of Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach at the controls, giving them sounds that ride sonic rhythms rather than relying on straight up indie-rock guitar. The result is a weird hybrid that welds together various pieces in some metaphoric ‘found object’ art instillation that is both strange yet incredibly accessible.

The old over-the-top swagger is exchanged for one of emphasis in the right places. It used to be that vocalist Matt Shultz would put out little vocal improvisations at a rate that would put James Brown to shame, but it seems Auerbach may have reined him in, allowing whole songs to catch the imagination. “Cold, Cold, Cold” is a perfect example; it’s a tune that has psychedelic flourishes that would be undermined by such displays. Instead, the fuzzed out guitar, classic 60’s style rhythm and haunting organ are allowed to drive home the mood.

Next you get a story of abuse set to a background of early rock ‘n’ roll sounds. “Punchin’ Bag” at its surface is a tale of someone who has ‘had enough’, but its musical tone conjures images created by the Sonics’ 1965 song “Strychnine” and its aggressive sinister sound.

Tell Me I’m Pretty is not content to be ‘just another’ alt-rock record to be quickly digested and tossed aside in a few months when the next ‘flavour’ arrives on shelves. It seeks to be a record that you keep coming back to; new sounds emerging on every subsequent listen; the kind of album that lives on in your consciousness and becomes a favourite.

Barrettbites Top Ten Spectacular Vinyl Releases of 2015

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Try as I might to live in denial of it, the music world has evolved into this digital place where music is consumed by means of digital downloads and streams in the millions. Still, there are those amongst us for whom vinyl has remained the preferred method of listening and enjoying our cherished music collection. The tactile nature of removing wax from a sleeve, gently dropping a needle on a spinning disc, sitting back in a chair and, finally investigating the album cover for bits of information that will further connect, and maybe even enhance the joy received when the music seeps into your consciousness.

For those of us caught up in vinyl, sometimes we are given opportunities to get rare and collectible records that are not only artistic expressions by the artists, but also the people who are creating the vinyl itself. Coloured vinyl not only sounds as great as the standard black, but stands out in the crowd for its unique look combined with awesome tunes. Here are ten outstanding examples of 2015 releases that took that extra step in not only releasing music, but providing incredible presentation too.

Lou Barlow – Brace The Wave

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Alternative lo-fi stalwart Lou Barlow (Sebadoh & Dinosaur Jr.) put out a solo work this year that not only sounded great, but also looked the part. Brace The Wave crashed the psyche with Barlow’s patented confusion and self loathing, dropping lines like “remember we were hipsters sleeping with our cats / young and thin and fucking crazy.” The album was desolate and beautiful in directing pain into expression. The vinyl itself had two variant editions. The first was sea foam green and the second was a combination of sea foam green and pink wax limited to 500 hand numbered copies. Needless to say, that 2nd option sold out quickly.

Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit And Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

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Seemingly a part of everyone’s best of 2015 list, Barnett topped that by landing four Grammy nominations a few days back. Sometimes… is the kind of record that you just can’t help but play over and over again, as wit and rock join forces. In a rather unique move, the album was released with 4 variant editions being sold in different geographical regions. North Americans had orange coloured vinyl combined with a 7” and turntable slip mat. Australia and New Zealand had heavyweight white vinyl. The UK got two variants which included versions that were 2 LPS’s of orange translucent vinyl or two yellow translucent LP’s.

Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color

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Not to be outdone by Courtney Barnett, not only does Sound & Color end up on every year end list and receive four Grammy nominations, but it also lands one of those nominations in the Album Of The Year category. Upon its initial release, Alabama Shakes put out a clear variant edition for mass release and a more exclusive white coloured edition on sale at Urban Outfitters outlets.

City & Colour – If I Should Go Before You

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Combining folk, soul, country and rock, Dallas Green and Co. put out a record that changes direction much like the seasons. It seems appropriate that they would also release four different variant editions for their fans. The first, sold through their website and at shows was on ‘black smoke’ vinyl. The second, also sold on their home page, was a very ‘holiday season’ looking two disc set on red followed by green vinyl. Only 300 were issued. The next set, limited to 1000 copies, was exclusive to Newbury Comics on two pieces of ‘coke bottle’ green 180 gram vinyl. Finally, from band’s store was the ‘Beauty Bundle’ box set. Limited to 1000 copies, it included two pieces of ‘bone’ colored 180 gram vinyl that plays at 45rpm, as well as a bunch of other goodies for the hardcore fan willing to drop $80.00.

Calexico – Edge Of The Sun

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Such is the landscape that Calexico creates in its musical atmosphere, it just isn’t enough for them to write a bunch of singular songs that are placed together to create an album. They carefully craft a soundtrack which puts together music to evoke an emotional response. Their blend of Mariachi-Americana brings up a south-west location, but the camera then pans towards the setting sun and you’re hooked. Set on two pieces of 180 gram vinyl, their single variant edition has one turquoise while the other is mint green coloured. Looks and sounds great.

Juliana Hatfield Three – Whatever, My Love

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A natural follow up to 1993’s Become What You Are, (which it is), Whatever, My Love flows with much more ease than any of Hatfield’s more recent work. Released through American Laundromat Records, Whatever, My Love had a printing of only 500 vinyl copies, split between a clear version (125) and a purple splatter variant (375).

Langhorne Slim & The Law – The Spirit Moves

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Slim is a bit of an eclectic master, with themes of joy and misery intermingling with equal passion. Essentially, he is fearless in bending songs around multiple influences. Horns play on a number of tracks and in a different way each time. On “Spirit Moves” he uses them as a counter melody, similar to Johnny Cash’s classic “Ring Of Fire” and then brings them back later for “Life’s A Bell” as a Memphis Horns/Stax/Otis Redding tool for emotional emphasis. With the ever present acoustic instruments, some songs drift towards sounds reminiscent of Nick Drake and Cat Stevens, but the album as a whole pulls everything back into that unique Langhorne Slim vision. The variant vinyl is ‘coke bottle’ clear matching the tone of the album cover.

Django Django – Born Under Saturn

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Riding slow moving waves of psychedelic electronica mixed with surf rock, Django Django deliver a record that is a thrill for your ears. Born Under Saturn is like taking a drive (as a passenger) in a convertible with a blindfold on; you don’t know where the hell you’re going but the journey sure feels incredible. They also had one of the most outstanding looking pieces of vinyl for their alternate editions having orange translucent vinyl with white splatter effect giving it a look of fireworks going off.

Metric – Pagans In Vegas

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Haines sticks mostly to the themes of broken relationships and rising back up after a fall. While this album might seem like a bit of rock ‘n’ roll cliché at times, Metric pulls off the desired impact of connecting us to the music. So when Haines’ vocals demand “the stars above” on early single “The Shade (I Want It All)”, the listener feels entitled to it as well. Metric put out two alternate vinyl versions of Pagans In Vegas. Sold through the band’s own web store, the first variant was on 1180 gram audiophile vinyl and limited to 1200 copies. The other, sold through Newbury Comics, was on white coloured vinyl and limited to 1000 copies.

Alvvays – Eponymous

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While this Alvvays debut record was technically a 2014 release, its steady rise in prominence has made it a 2015 staple. Led by the single “Archie, Marry Me”, Alvvays has created an album that is a damn fine ‘90’s – esque’ alt-rock record. In addition to the standard black vinyl sold through record stores, the band released four other versions. Included in the mix was electric blue, clear, orange and a pale blue splatter.