The value of tapes is their relative valuelessness: They’re cheap, easy to produce and disposable. Physical music allows for a level of visual artistry that digital tunes don’t, and touring bands can produce a batch of tapes to sell for $5 each to put toward gas and food while they’re on the road. This is especially important considering most bands that favor the cassette format also operate under a strict DIY ethos. There’s no shame or ethical compromise in selling something that costs less than a ticket for a show.
Despite the appearance of “novelty,” some of the year’s best releases have taken advantage of the cassette format. Here are 20 of the best.
Childbirth, It’s a Girl! (Help Yourself Records)
Seattle is a hotbed for inventive feminist punk — bands like Chastity Belt, Pony Time and Tacocat all craft smart, snotty songs about everything from UTIs to the results of taking too much Adderall. Childbirth is a supergroup of sorts — it contains members of all three of those bands. It’s a Girl! is their debut tape, and it’s one of the year’s best. A quick run through “I Only Fucked You as a Joke,” offers a summary of the band’s sociopolitical ideology using the method most effective of getting people’s attention: humor.
Pranked: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies (Riot Grrrl Pranks, Godmode Tapes)
New York’s Godmode label has issued a slew of strong releases this year, but none are quite like Pranked, a recording of a 1993 phone call in which three female students at Sarah Lawrence call GG Allin’s brother Merle under the pretense of trying to book the Murder Junkies for a feminist benefit show. As you might imagine, the situation escalates. At one point, Allin bellows, “We’re not going to open up for Bikini Kill, for Christ’s sake!” You can almost hear the ladies smile.
The Courtneys, “Lost Boys” (Burger Records)
Canadian outfit the Courtneys specialize in powerpop with an indie ethos, and their hooks are pure sunshine. Their songs pair ascending melodies with melancholy messages: “You’ll never get old/ You’ll never die/ And that makes me want to cry,” they sing in “Lost Boys,” highlighting both the sadness of relationships gone sour and the growth that comes from leaving them. Sometimes the most complicated emotions are best served in simple packages.
5 Seconds of Summer, “Pizza” (Capitol)
Australian pop-punk group 5 Seconds of Summer occupy a previously uncharted middle ground between punk rock and boy bands. They’re going on tour with One Direction for the second time this summer, and they write massive pop songs that sound as comfortable on Top 40 radio as they would on the Warped Tour. The Pizza tape offers proof that these teen heartthrobs know their punk history. As its title implies, the tape is an homage to everyone’s favorite food; sonically, it sounds more like Descendents than, say, American Idiot. Bands this popular rarely bother making cassettes; it’s saying something that 5 Seconds of Summer are earnestly pursuing the DIY signifiers of the punk bands that preceded them.
Fejhed, Fejhed (Chondritic Sound)
It’s hard to think of a more formidable contemporary noise label than Chondritic Sound. While there aren’t many sonic similarities between their releases — other than a general sense of doom and gloom — all of them are bound together by the common theme of sexual violence. Fejhed is the project of Hoax vocalist Jesse Sanes and Puce Mary’s Frederikke Hoffmeier. Frederikke’s music with Puce Mary tends toward industrial power electronics while Sanes fronted one of the most prolific hardcore bands of the last five years. Together, they write dirges for weirdos, noise for those who prefer being angry to being afraid.
Iceage, Live, April Fools Day, Tempe, AZ (Ascetic House)
Earlier this year, Tempe, Arizona, art collective Ascetic House unveiled The January Project, an ambitious undertaking in which they released a tape a day every day for the entire month of January. One of the best was Iceage’s “Burning Hand,” a live recording so sonically ragged and raw it accentuates the rough edges of the band’s snarling songs. It recalls the band’s earliest releases, the ones recorded in hot warehouses, where audio fidelity was secondary to power and passion.
Friendless Bummer, Militia (self-released)
Syracuse’s Friendless Bummer began life as a haunting surf rock band before pivoting into gloomy post-punk. You’d be forgiven for thinking the band was Scandinavian — frontman Ben Bondy’s voice is a dead-ringer for Iceage’s Elias Bender. If the band settles on a single, here’s hoping its “Black Leather,” a downtrodden love anthem that’s more S&M than gentle embrace.
Ukiah Drag, “Silver Mint” (Night People)
Ukiah Drag is what would happen if Destruction Unit spent less time with psychedelics and more time alone. If there’s any guitar genre bubbling under the surface, waiting for its moment, its “desert goth” — a bleak strain of punk that thrives in the oppressive heat of its sprawling desert location. With their crawling tempos and skeletal riffing, Ukiah Drag will lead the revolution…slowly.
Acid Fast, Rabid Moon (Protagonist Music)
Waxahatchee, Swearin, Radiator Hospital and Columbus’s All Dogs are foremost among the new crop of pop-punk bands poised for mainstream success, but close behind them is Acid Fast. If they weren’t from modern-day Oakland, you’d swear they were from ’90s Olympia. Their brand of nasally pop-punk is equal parts K Records and Midwest emo: quick, bratty and undeniably catchy.
Dorval & Devereaux, Dorval & Devereaux (Moon Glyph)
The Moon Glyph label is largely dedicated to showcasing bands that specialize in spacey, sleepy synth loops. At times, Dorval & Devereaux sound like a slowed-down Grimes — if her primary goal was to bring time to a standstill. Their debut tape is as therapeutic as it is hypnotizing, full of slow-moving synths that are eerie and dreamlike.
Age Coin, Hart Knit Part 1 and Hard Knit Part 2 (Posh Isolation)
The Posh Isolation label is one of Copenhagen’s strongest new labels, and Age Coin is the tape label’s hidden gem. The group writes fast-paced, anxious electronic music that works just as well at goth night at a gloomy Manhattan nightclub as it would as the soundtrack for art students experimenting with PCP.
Slow Pulse, Slow Pulse (Mirror Universe)
Austin, Texas, doesn’t seem like a natural home for minimal synthpop, but Slow Pulse is a stunning exception. “Hardware,” the first song on their self-titled cassette, broods and pulses; it even demonstrates a level of self-awareness — their art depends on technology, the “hardware” of the title.
Bad Coyotes, We Got Our Reasons (Sorry State)
It’s always impressive when a band can tip its hat to its influences without simply sounding like a direct copy. Bad Coyotes released We Got Our Reasons while on an East Coast tour, but the album’s sound is steeped in the music of their Bay Area home — think ’70s garage punk a la the Urinals. It’s pure energy from start to finish.
Frau, Demo (Tuff Enuff)
Simply put: Frau is the best punk band in London. Their songs roar like forest fires — big, crackling guitars topped with shrieking female vocals. A lot of punk is disposable; the only thing with an expiration date here is Frau’s tolerance for sexist bullshit.
Tony Molina, Dissed And Dismissed (Slumberland)
There is nothing better than a hardcore kid who discovers power pop. I like to imagine that one day, Tony Molina woke up and realized Thin Lizzy is The Most Important Band of All Time. He tried to write a song in the same vein and couldn’t; instead he stumbled into something that’s uniquely his own.
Various Artists, Why Diet When You Could Riot? (Tuff Enuff)
Tuff Enuff is a Brighton-based queer/feminist tape label. Every once in a while, they release comps (the one predating Why Diet was called I Know Why the Caged Grrrl Sings). It’s easy to gather what’s going on here: these are songs that are almost militant in their demands for equality. The best track comes from a band called “Skinny Girl Diet,” in which the female vocalist screams, “You’re fickle as shit” in the chorus. It doesn’t get more unvarnished or confrontational than that.
Malportado Kids, Mi Concha (self-released)
Certain genres don’t mesh, a tragic life lesson learned during the rap rock fiasco of the early-aughts. Marrying polarities gets even more complicated with regional/cultural music. Apparently no one told that to Malportado Kids, the Providence, RI-based punk/Cumbia fusion band. It’s dance music for kids in ripped Crass shirts.
Own Boo, Edie (Mirror Universe Tapes)
France might have invented Goth, but Italy perfected it. The site of democracy, romance and heartbreak: that’s where Own Boo resides. The Brescia-based band partners goth-y gloom with an uplifting message, building lead single “Edie” around the declaration: “I know where I’m going.”
Girlpool, Girlpool (self-titled)
Girlpool is the project of two teens, ages 17 and 18, named Cleo and Harmony. They write spare, hypnotic songs using only guitar and bass. Think an iOS7 version of early Liz Phair. They drink, they fuck and they’re not concerned with reactionary ideologies. The most striking line comes at the end of the record: “It’s not enough to watch a movie/ Eat me out to American Beauty.” All right!
Trances Farmer, Dixie Caps (Stones Throw)
Stones Throw often deals in hip-hop releases, which makes this Trances Farmer release especially bizarre. Dixie Caps is a four-track preview of an upcoming album, and by the sound of it, experimental loops and samples lie in the labels future. Much of what’s captured here could almost pass for a lost ambient record by Mac DeMarco.