At the risk of alienating and outraging vast swaths of music fans, there's really no polite way to refer to bands with a career spanning fifteen years plus as a whole. So here are ten "oldster" bands -- written by a self-proclaimed oldster -- that kept making great records long after their hipster days were over.
Rather than merely rest on laurels and rock-star status, these bands, some of them influential and plenty famous in their own right, have weathered the perils of fortune and both good and bad record reviews, deserved and otherwise. (Check out Yo La Tengo on this list, which is scheduled to play the Westword Music Showcase on June 18. Tickets are still available. -ed.)
10. Pierced Arrows Fred and Toody Cole have been married since the late '60s. Fred had already had a semi-successful career as a rock-and-roller in the Lollipop Shop before discovering and making punk rock. In the early '80s, the Coles formed the Rats, a noteworthy punk band in the classic vein melded with a bit of Fred's garage-rock origins. But it was in 1987, when the Coles started Dead Moon, that their belated legendary status became solidified. When Dead Moon broke up in 2006, the Coles didn't spend much time losing steam, and instead headed forward in their current band Pierced Arrows. Anyone who's seen that band can safely say that Fred and Toody haven't exactly mellowed with age, and a quick listen to its 2010 album, Descending Shadows, is enough to convince anyone with a functioning sense of the spirit of rock and roll that the most individual and ferocious music is often made by people who refuse to give up their dreams and surrender their creative urges despite age, having children and relative lack of widespread commercial success.
Key track: "Paranoia"
9. Meat Puppets Had Michael Azerrad written another chapter of his already sprawling account of thirteen of the most important and influential bands of the American rock underground, Our Band Could Be Your Life, one would hope it would be on this respected and storied Phoenix outfit. The self-titled debut album sounded like punk made by people who were inspired by that movement without necessarily wanting to follow directly in its footsteps. After touring around the country on the early hardcore circuit, the Meat Puppets more or less decided the most punk thing to do was to give the stylistic middle finger to all of the people who heaped abuse and phlegm upon them by releasing a countrified psychedelic followup in Meat Puppets II. A bona fide classic in its own right, Meat Puppets II can't be strictly placed in any genre other than its own, especially for the time of its release -- more akin to its contemporaries Green on Red and a possible influence on Thin White Rope. But, really, a marvel of inventive songwriting and soundscaping from beginning to end. The Pups' second chapter came in 1994, when the song "Backwater" became a pop hit at a time when the recording industry was still in disarray in the wake of that whole "alternative" thing of the early '90s. This year, Meat Puppets released Lollipop, a strong sign that Curt Kirkwood and the rest of the band have lost none of its ability to write solid pop songs injected with elements of the weird and the warped to keep things interesting. Subversive with a palatable exterior.
Key track: "Shave It"
8. Yo La Tengo Ira Kaplan has been a music journalist who penned articles for numerous publications. He was also involved in the legendary, and still extant, small club Maxwell's in Hoboken. For that alone, Kaplan may have had his own sort of influence on the development of underground music in America. But when he started Yo La Tengo in 1984 with his wife, Georgia Hubley, the band would go on to be one of the most critically acclaimed bands of the last thirty years. The group's debut album, Ride the Tiger, bore the stamp of its producer and session bassist, Clint Conley, of one of Yo La Tengo's main influences, Mission of Burma. In 1993, Yo La Tengo began its long-term relationship with Matador Records with the release of Painful, debuting a sound the group has evolved since -- spacious introspection punctuated by sonic intensity to match the emotional impact of the moment. Twelve albums into its career with the release of Popular Songs in 2009, one hears the influence of this trio across a wide spectrum of underground rock today, whether the musicians know it or not.
Key track: "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind"
7. The Church Often thought of as an '80s band, The Church had been releasing interesting albums since its 1981 debut, Of Skins and Heart, before its breakthrough release, 1988's Starfish. Good thing these guys didn't bother with the idea that just because you don't keep having worldwide hit singles doesn't mean you should stop developing as a band and give up music entirely. If anything, much of the Australian band's best material has come since 1988, including 2009's noteworthy release, Untitled #23. Not being content to write the same formula again and again and challenging themselves as songwriters and artists, the bandmembers have continued to inspire themselves with what they can do as songwriters and with the diversity of talent within the group. Anyone who saw that 2009 tour for Untitled #23 can attest to the fact that the Church hasn't really lost its power and charisma as a live band.
Key track: "Happenstance"
6. Mercury Rev Shortly after forming Mercury Rev in 1989, Jonathan Donohue ended up joining The Flaming Lips for a couple of albums and some touring but ultimately returned home to New York. From its 1991 debut, Yerself Is Steam, to its latest albums, 2008's Snowflake Midnight and Strange Attractor, Rev has forged a path of constant exploration of sound and story-telling that has included Grasshopper inventing the Tettix Wave Accumulator -- a customer synthesizer/sampler used on recordings but impractical to use live. Rev's seemingly wide-eyed wonder at the possibilities open to anyone willing to take chances and play around with how sound is created, manipulated, recorded, performed and presented, visually as well as sonically, is obvious in its performances and albums. This ability to reinvent itself without necessarily throwing out what has always made this band interesting -- a core of solid pop songwriting informed by concepts out of the avant-garde -- continues to make the latest Rev releases worth seeking out.
Key track: "Dream of a Young Girl as a Flower"
5. Wire While most of its brethren have run out of not only ideas but of steam too, Wire seems to come back regularly with some new and interesting take on its singular musical leanings. With its nervy and endlessly inventive 1977 debut, Pink Flag, Wire revealed itself one of the earliest bands inspired by punk willing to embrace its art school background and "dinosaurs" like Pink Floyd. This became even more apparent with 1978's Chairs Missing and 1979's 154 --an arc of musical development scarcely seen before and not often since. At the dawn of the new millennium, no one would have guessed Wire would return with a set of EP's showcasing a band that sounded like it took the fury of thrash and hardcore but used it to make aggressive artsy songs as found on the Read and Burn series. The subsequent tour revealed that Wire still very much had a fire in its collective belly. In 2011, Wire put out its latest record, Red Barked Trees, to mixed reviews but the album itself displayed that a band thirty-five years into its career could still take chances and alienate those expecting more of exactly the same.
Key track: "Comet"
4. The Fall Another "older" band, The Fall has twenty-eight full-length albums to its name including 2010's Your Future Our Clutter. It's often been said of The Fall that its albums are "always different, always the same." That's probably only because band leader Mark E. Smith has guided the band all along in various permutations of The Fall's willingness to bring together elements that shouldn't work but always seem to in the end. The influence of The Fall on such a wide array of bands who have gone on to influence other bands in their own right make this venerable Manchester outfit one of the cornerstone foundational acts still going while producing music that continues to fascinate and confuse fans and critics alike. What could be a better indication of an important artist not resting on its laurels?
Key track: "Bury Pts. 1 +3"
3. Stereolab Though technically now on indefinite hiatus, there's no doubt band principles Laetitia Sadier and Tim Gane and friends will return to this long-standing project sometime down the line. Taking strands of lounge, minimalism and krautrock and injecting them with a loose, punk-ified aesthetic, Stereolab, too, has made it easier for any band to go beyond a basic rock and roll formula, even by the standards of the "alternative" era, and be taken seriously. Literate and political, Stereolab may make serious commentary on the nature of the modern human condition, but its sound may just be of that revolution Emma Goldman talked about where there would be dancing. After the tragic death of Mary Hansen in 2002, Stereolab bounced back with some of the best material of its career over the course of the ensuing five releases.
Key track: "Eye of the Volcano"
2. Sonic Youth Say what you want about Sonic Youth, but its ability to write good, if not always groundbreaking, songs for the last thirty or so years is remarkable. A lot of artists who discover a kind of formula for attracting even modest crowd never grow beyond that. And Sonic Youth, while widely considered an influential band on underground, especially experimental, music today doesn't often play stadiums because its music is still fundamentally alienating to many would be listeners because it remains rooted in a sound that is outside the mainstream. From the beginning, the members of Sonic Youth have been active members of an underground musical community precisely because inspiration is where you find it and that connection to the real underground that continues to today has kept the band's songwriting infused with a spark of freshness. 2009's The Eternal may not have exactly lit the critical world on fire but its sophistication and musical gyrations can't be dismissed as phoning it in. Besides that, a band that continues to introduce the world to interesting art and music on the forefront of its development through direct advocacy will always be relevant.
Key track: "What We Know"
After almost 30 years, Wayne Coyne is still having a ball. He is also in a ball.
1. The Flaming Lips For twenty-eight years, The Flaming Lips has proven itself to be one of the most consistently interesting and innovative pop bands going. Most groups would have been happy to keep milking the level of development the Lips attained on 1990's In a Priest Driven Ambulance but that wasn't to be in this band's case. Partly because of seemingly bad timing on members dropping out of the band at key points in its career and partly because Wayne Coyne's restless imagination and driven work ethic has ensured that his creative efforts yielded results before the band moved on to another chapter in its history. Well-documented in the film The Fearless Freaks, the story of The Flaming Lips is in itself a great American tale of tragedy, achievement and a legacy of the realization of creative dreams. Though largely known for a fluke hit with "She Don't Use Jelly" from 1993's Transmissions From the Satellite Heart, the Lips managed to hold on to a loyal fan-base throughout its career because you simply couldn't predict exactly what the band would do next. From its quadraphonic sound experiment album Zaireeka to the groundbreaking recording process of The Soft Bulletin to the break from a trajectory of sonic ideas begun with the latter album with the release of 2009's Embryonic, the Lips have proven to be a band not only worth listening to be one that inspires its listeners by first inspiring itself not to wallow in creative stagnation.
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Key track: "See the Leaves"
If you liked this list, read "Top ten retro metal bands currently melting faces and minds," also by Tom Murphy.