To celebrate Polyvinyl’s 20th anniversary, Already Heard has paid tribute to the hugely influential tastemakers by picking ten of our favourite albums from the label, which should serve as the perfect introduction if you want to know more about one of the label’s that helped shape the Midwest sound.
After starting out as a zine in 1994 before growing into a record label two years later, Polyvinyl has diversified its roster over the last 20 years, incorporating more electronica and psychadelia to complement their traditional indie-rock sound. Of course, selecting just ten albums is nigh on impossible, but we feel you won’t go far wrong with this ten of the best.
Congratulations Matt and Darcie Lunsford and all at team PV, and Happy Birthday Polyvinyl!
American Football – American Football
Probably the best example of word of mouth success in the internet age, American Football’s growth is testament to the fact that great music will always find an audience. Mike Kinsella often seems bemused at the enduring popularity of American Football’s 1999 self-titled debut, yet there’s no doubt it has created a monstrous legacy. Gorgeously arranged and layered with light and shade, it’s a wonderfully airy record that still delights to this day. Ostensibly a studio project, a reunion in 2014 saw the group take to the stage on a mammoth world tour, while next month the band will be releasing their first new material in 16 years. We cannot wait…
Beach Slang – The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us
Thanks to two killer EPs and a must-see live show, there was already a considerable buzz about Beach Slang ahead of their debut. Yet, at the time, the decision to release on Polyvinyl – a label which has diversified greatly since its indie-rock roots – came a little out of left-field. In hindsight it is a winning combination, with Beach Slang far exceeding already lofty expectations with an album packed with positivity and some of the most infectious, life-affirming, indie-punk songs this side of Japandroids’ ‘Celebration Rock’.
Braid – Frame & Canvas
One of Polyvinyl’s first breakout successes, ‘Frame & Canvas’ helped put the label on the map as well as helping to crystallise the Midwest emo sound. Formed by Bob Nanna, with co-vocalist Chris Broach joining shortly after, Braid had pretty much nailed their sound by the time they released their third album, 1998’s ‘Frame & Canvas’. Just one year later the band would call it quits (until a reunion more than a decade later). Consequently, at the time, few people got to see Braid perform the songs off ‘Frame & Canvas’ live, helping to build the legacy and mystique of an album which has remained enduringly popular – and influential – to this day.
Japandroids – Celebration Rock
‘Celebration Rock’ starts with the sound of a firework display, ends with the sound of a firework display and carries on like the soundtrack to a firework display in the intervening 35 minutes. Like the best life-affirming albums ‘Celebration Rock’ is essentially one long album about living life with no regrets and the epitome of Japandroids’ leave-it-all-on-stage approach to music. Just the right side of over-the-top – “Hitch-hiked to hell and back”, just one of the many ostentatious remarks by the Canadian duo – it’s the sort of album that makes you glad to be alive. It’s an interesting release in the context of Polyvinyl too – certainly more ‘punk’ than anything they’d done in recent memory, but proof the Lunsfords still have a keen ear for bands that kick ass.
Mates of State – Team Boo
Mates of State always felt like a touch of chaos theory on Polyvinyl’s serious roster, especially in the pre of Montreal era. They’d already released two albums prior to 2003’s ‘Team Boo’, but it’s on this glorious concoction of keyboard, drums and hyperactive vocals that Jason Hammel and Kori Gardner delivered a high watermark for Polyvinyl. The husband and wife duo are utterly charming and entirely captivating throughout, unleashing a riot of yelped vocals, nonsensical lyrics and twisted but hugely infectious pop songs. And, just when you think you’ve got Mates of State licked, they drop ‘Parachutes (Funeral Song)’ and ‘An Experiment’, two songs so heartbreakingly beautiful they’ll knock you sideways.
Owen – At Home With Owen
Owen’s fourth full length for Polyvinyl, 2006’s excellent ‘At Home With Owen’, was a key turning point for Chicago’s Mike Kinsellla. Offering the same biting lyricism as previous efforts, ‘At Home With Owen’ also shines thanks to a cleaner production and more sonic experimentation. Vocally, Kinsella had never sounded more charming, but the clean edges in no way compromise the quality of the songs. Lyrically, the album effortlessly bounces from savage honesty to playful irreverence, but is coloured by Kinsella turning 30 and meeting his now wife. A much broader album than anything Kinsella had done previously, ‘At Home With Owen’ serves as the bridge between his itinerant youth and settled future.
Rainer Maria – Long Knives Drawn
While it’s well accepted that emo was male dominated – and thankfully that’s starting to change – there was still female representation from bands like the Rocking Horse Winner and Wisconsin’s Rainer Maria. Another band to bring initial success to the fledgling Polyvinyl label, 2003’s ‘Long Knives Drawn’, the fourth album from Caithlin De Marrais, Kyle Fischer and William Kuehn’s literate indie-rockers, is probably the best of an outstanding discography. Rainer Maria reformed in 2014, meaning we can’t wait to potentially hear some new material from the enduringly popular trio soon.
Saturday Looks Good To Me – Every Night
There’s something quite magical about the perfect pop record, yet few pop records are as perfect or magical as Saturday Looks Good To Me’s ‘Every Night’. Driven by the vision of Fred Thomas, listening to ‘Every Night’ is like looking through a kaleidoscope at the pop music of the last 60 years. Duelling boy-girl vocals constantly battle for attention, harmonies soar and melodies fly. In fact, ‘Every Night’ is so choc-full of highlights it borders on greed. Yet, no matter how much you gorge, you will never get sick of its charms thanks to the acerbic undercurrent that flows beneath. Combine this with an irreverent heart, bold delivery and astonishing production and you’ve got the winning combination for an album that can make your spirit swell or bring you to the edge of tears at every turn.
Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin – Broom
Journalists are often told to avoid hyperbole, which makes describing ‘Broom’ something of a challenge, not least of all as it possesses the single greatest song you’ve likely never heard. Some ten years after its release ‘I Am Warm & Powerful’ can still make you feel warm, powerful and a million other things during its oh-so-brief 2:40 run-time. And, while ‘I Am Warm & Powerful’ is the jewel, it is so in a sea of glistening gold. ‘Broom’ is filled with gorgeous, winsome indie pop, part Shins, part Elliott Smith yet utterly captivating from start to finish.
Volcano, I’m Still Excited!! – Volcano, I’m Still Excited!!
Something of a forgotten gem, Volcano, I’m Still Excited!! burned out fast and bright, releasing just a demo EP, a single full-length and a tour EP before calling it quits. A riot of keyboards – thanks in part to vocalist Mark Duplass’ chronic tendonitis, which forced him to give up guitar – ‘Volcano…’ is at times wonderfully textured at others maniacally overactive, yet never unfocused. Heralded as a favourite by bands such as Johnny Foreigner, it still stands up to scrutiny today as a visionary piece of musical art. Post V,ISE!!, Duplass found himself as a pioneer of the mumblecore cinema movement. Since then he’s made silver screen gold as director of the excellent ‘Jeff, Who Lives At Home’, producer/star of the twisted ‘The One I Love’ and unhinged weirdo/possible scientific genius Kenneth Calloway in ‘Safety Not Guaranteed’. All of which seem quite apt when compared to the impudent noise created by Volcano, I’m Still Excited!!
The ten albums selected above should all be of interest to Already Heard’s readership, but agreeing on ten essential albums from such an incredibly rich discography is almost impossible. Want to delve deeper? Then this lot should be your next stop:
Alvvays – Alvvays
Aloha – Some Echoes
Architectures in Helsinki – Places like This
Decibully – Sing Out America!
Deerhoof – La Isla Bonita
Headlights – Kill them with Kindness
Of Montreal – The Sunlandic Twins
Owls – Two
Pele – The Nudes
Sunday’s Best – Poised to Break
The Dodos – Carrier
Words by Rob Mair and Shane Sanderson.