In an interview conducted in 2009, Kill Rock Stars founder Slim Moon described the label’s roster as being comprised of “outsiders,” saying, “[They were] doing things differently. I worked with a lot of bands who broke the rules of what was supposed to be a ‘rock band.’” A simple glance at the label’s roster supports his point. Whether they’re epoch-making albums by artists like Sleater-Kinney, Elliott Smith and The Decemberists or defiant boundary-pushers by Quix*O*Tic and OOIOO, the constant through every Kill Rock Stars release has been a rebellious spirit. That attitude remained intact after Portia Sabin assumed ownership of the label in 2006 and oversaw the release of instant classics by Thao, Grass Widow and Marnie Stern. Need help getting started? We asked the KRS staff to share their picks, and we added a few of our personal favorites to the list as well. And if all that’s not enough, you can get acquainted with the label’s rich history for free with this sampler.
Portia Sabin, Label Dude
Super dark and heavy, bass-driven album with Sherry Fraser at the helm. One of the great voices in rock that almost no one has heard.
Two very different singer/songwriters who manage to compliment and even elevate each other on this album. Terrific, unique songs that make people happy and make people think.
James Squeaky, Media Manager
Criminally underrated weird-folk album from 2002 that might have been huge if it had come out a few years later. This album has been on heavy rotation in my life the last decade; "Rich Bitch" is one of my favorite songs of the '00s.
It's hard to believe this album was made in 1996, because it sounds very modern. Which means it sounds like it was made in 1981. A very creative synth-pop album with interesting vocals, featuring a member of Unwound – but doesn't sound anything like Unwound.
Benjamin P. Parrish, Complaint Department
The third Marnie Stern studio album and also the best one (until Chronicles of Marnia is released in February). More mature songwriting, crazier shredding and insane drumming from Zach Hill. Includes the power ballad "Transparency is the New Mystery." I'm guessing everybody with good taste already owns this album, but buy it again anyway!
Jad and David fair of DIY institution Half Japanese sing 26 songs about monsters. One for each letter of the alphabet! A is for Abominable Snowman, B is for Bigfoot, and so on. I guess the X song is kind of cheating because it's about the "Man With X-Ray Eyes." Something for everybody on this one!
Gray G., Bad Cop
Beautiful, somewhat dark debut album from this Brooklyn quintet. The songs are introspective and atmospheric without being dreary. Every tune exhibits great songwriting, but the album amounts to more than the sum of its parts. It's best taken all in one sitting.
By far my favorite album from this band. I feel like this is the one that solidified and perfected their super-distinctive sound. "The Gymnast, High Above The Ground" may be my favorite song in the entire Kill Rock Stars catalog.
Melissa Stars, Social Media Manager / Avid Indoorsman
The album has everything that people love about this band: Blistering riffs, incredible harmonizing, dance-along beats and unforgettable songs. If you're looking for an introduction to the incredible all-out rockness of Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss, you only need to give this album one listen to know you're in the company of greatness.
Proving once again that female drummers seriously kick ass, Explode Into Colors' Lisa Schonberg delivers thumping beats that create a volatile foundation for the band's soaring post-rock. The unapologetic rhythms paired with ethereal vocals and driving guitar make for intense grooves that get your feet moving and your head bobbing.
John Lamm, Secret Weapon
The second release from Horse Feathers opens a window and fills your room with hope and bittersweetness. Justin Ringle's pained vocals, layered with beautifully-nuanced strings, banjo, and acoustic guitar, has that wonderful ability to transport you from being in your life into feeling like you're in a movie, complete with soundtrack. One of the more subtly powerful records in the KRS catalog.
I don't know if it's possible for a legendary record to still be under the radar, but Either/Or feels that way. With Elliott's guitar and his heartbreaking whispered lyrics over minimal drums and bass, it's Elliott's first prolonged forays into full-band instrumentation. To me, it's the record where Elliott knocks down the door between him and all the pantheon songwriters before him, and says he belongs. A truly great record that deserves to be listened to all the way through.
The Gossip's lead singer Beth Ditto, a milky-white mound of charisma and sass, topped the likes of Jack White and Thom Yorke on the NME's "Cool List" this year. The triumph may seem trite, but not for legions of punks who have been waiting for Ditto to get her due. And coolness effectively made Standing in the Way of Control what it is: groovy garage-punk shimmied upon a more refined dance floor, thanks to the crisp percussion of new drummer Hannah Billie. Meanwhile, Ditto worked off guitarist Brace Paine's attitude-laden riffs and delivered her southern goods with fierce aplomb. The result is crazy-sexy and yes, cool.
Delta 5 emerged from the same Leeds, England, post-punk scene as Gang of Four and the Mekons. All three bands clustered around the university's Fine Art department, which goes some way to explaining the almost conceptual starkness of Delta 5's sound and their unusual format (two basses, three female voices, one guitar, one drum kit).
Stern and clenched, Delta 5's minimalist punk-funk has obvious debts to Gang of Four. "Mind Your Own Business," their debut single, is a sister-song to "At Home He Feels Like a Tourist." Both tunes resemble diagrams of disco, bearing the same relationship to Chic and Earth Wind & Fire that an architect's blueprint bears to the finished building, or a skeleton has vis-á-vis a fully-fleshed body. The person-is-political lyric explores the tension between intimacy and autonomy, oscillating from bleakness ("listen to the distance between us") to the simultaneously absurd and disturbing chorus, "Can I have a taste of your ice cream?/ Can I lick the crumbs from your table?/ Can I interfere in your crisis?/ NO, MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS!" The sense of alienation is intensified by the way the unison vocals of Julz Sale, Bethan Peters and Ros Allen alternately mesh and slip out of alignment.
If "Mind" is one of UK post-punk's all-time most thrilling singles, the follow-up, "Anticipation" b/w "You," is close on its heels. "Anticipation" evokes the nervous excitement of sexual longing prior to consummation; "You" flashes forward to the getting-stale-and-slightly-sour stage of the settled, long-term relationship. Sales hurls out hilariously mundane accusations like, "Who left me behind at the bakers?/ Who likes sex only on Sunday?" "Try," their third single, also depicts a relationship in terms of friction and miscommunication, but is more poignant than recriminatory.
After these three brilliant singles for the legendary independent label Rough Trade, Delta 5 signed to a major label and cluttered up their sound with embellishments in a misguided bid for pop color. This compilation shrewdly bypasses that phase of failed crossover in favor of more spartan-sounding BBC Radio sessions and live performances from a 1980 Berkeley, California, gig, capturing the group's paradoxical vibe of dour exuberance and grim glee in its absolute prime.
There aren't many punk rock bands more straightforward, in some ways, than the Thermals; there also aren't many more smart and ambitious. One way to hear the Portland band's fourth album is as their toughest, sturdiest punk record yet, a fusillade of wired, hammering, fist-in-the-air anthems. Listen to it that way, and it's built around its title track, a declaration of victory ("Our enemies lie dead on the ground, and still we kick") with an irresistible "oh-way-oh" hook. But it's also a precisely crafted, despairing concept album that sets up its central conceit with its opening salvo, "When I Died," in which a man tries in vain to save himself by becoming a fish and returning to the ocean.
Recorded as a duo of core members Hutch Harris (singing and guitar) and Kathy Foster (bass and drums) — the same lineup that made an album as Hutch and Kathy before the Thermals began — Now We Can See is packed stem-to-stern with images of reverse evolution: too much water, disintegrating bodies, collective transformation and collective delusion. Harris's lyrics are often in the first-person plural, in the past tense, or both; they're more about the human condition than about a particular persona. They're also as punchy and bitter as a triple espresso, and you can almost smell the caffeine through the speakers as he declaims them.
As always, every Thermals song crams in as many foursquare, head-banging riffs as they can get away with, although this time they've augmented the basement-practice-space arrangements with a few subtle touches, like somebody walloping the bejesus out of a piano in the background of "You Dissolve." The album's even punctuated in the middle by the longest and most restrained Thermals song yet — nearly six minutes of "At the Bottom of the Sea," a slowly respiring variation on the Velvet Underground's "Ocean." That "restrained" is relative, of course: by the end, they've stomped on their fuzzboxes again, and Harris is yowling a repudiation of the air itself. You can hurl yourself around to Now We Can See, but it also rewards sitting very quietly and thinking about it.
As the sax-playing part of the two-woman frontline in X-Ray Spex, Lora Logic quickly became a name to drop during 1977. By the end of the year, though, she was out of the band and seemingly destined for obscurity. Happily, Logic realised there was more to punk than three-chord cliché and bounced back with her own band, Essential Logic. A one-off 45, "Aerosol Burns," notable for its two-sax front-line, and Logic's shrill, scat-style vocal peculiarities, confirmed that things were changing fast on the newly constituted 'Independent' scene. An album, Beat Rhythm News, followed a year later, refining the jazz-punk collision and wrapping it up in an odd but pleasingly treble-heavy production. It was offbeat, it was a mini-masterpiece, and it was largely ignored. Logic's 1982 solo set, Pedigree Charm, was similarly idiosyncratic — and the best of both, together with single cuts and more recent (though admittedly less stunning) recordings are gathered here.