For 20 years Polyvinyl Records has persevered as one of the premiere destinations for quality American emo, providing stiff competition for the likes of Jade Tree, Vagrant and Deep Elm along the way with classic titles from such celebrated groups as Braid, Paris, Texas and Rainer Maria.
Since its beginning as a zine made by highshoolers covering the growing music scene in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., the label that Matt Lunsford and Darcie Knight built has exponentially outgrown its homegrown punk roots.
The reach Polyvinyl enjoys today may still be rooted in emo, but they’ve gone on to sign acts who’ve helped them boldly expand their creative scope to include electronic music, folk, country, power-pop, post-hardcore and even psychedelic glam.
To commemorate the last two decades of Polyvinyl’s evolution from a bedroom operation to one of the most respected indie-rock labels in the United States, we’ve selected 10 of the company’s most innovative releases.
Given the cornucopia of great titles they released in 2016, it looks like we’re well on our way to celebrating future anniversaries in the decades to come.
Ohio’s Aloha are Polyvinyl’s Leonard Cohen, having spent the entirety of their career on the label. According to their bosses, the group is the only act they signed based solely on a demo tape they received in the mail.
As recent as this year, Aloha continue to supply the imprint with some of its best music with the release of the excellent Little Windows Cut Right Through this past spring.
But of all the hard work they’ve delivered over the last two decades, few captures the Aloha essence quite like their 1999 EP The Great Communicators, The Interpreters, The Nonbelievers, a melding of complex rhythms and undeniable melodies that suggests what Tortoise could have sounded like had they kept up the aesthetic that made us fall in love with them in the first place.
I used to write a monthly albums column for this free New York City culture magazine called SHOUT NY back in the late ’90s/early 2000s. And one of perhaps my favorite records that I wrote up from that period was the brilliant third album from Philadelphia’s Matt Pond PA.
“Atmospheric, acoustic and teeming with some of the loveliest orchestrations since Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, The Green Fury is a beautiful, uplifting collection of music” was the quote pulled from my review that is up on the Polyvinyl website as we speak—one of the only digital footprints of my work for that magazine.
Fifteen years later, those sentiments still ring true when listening to the slacker majesty of songs like “City Plan” and “Jefferson”. They were Modest Mouse with more of a Jack Nitzsche sense and sensibility, and The Green Fury is Pond’s After the Gold Rush.
Volcano, I’m Still Excited!!, s/t LP (2004)
Mark Duplass might be widely regarded in the now as the grand puba of mumblecore cinema, not to mention the star of both FX’s hit sitcom The League and the sadly cancelled HBO comedy series Togetherness.
But one year before he broke into celluloid with The Puffy Chair, he served as the frontman for Volcano, I’m Still Excited!!, whose sole eponymous full-length from 2004 is another Polyvinyl LP which should be far more regarded than it is in modern music.
Produced by Andy Sharp of Mates of State, these short, sharp songs for guitar, keyboard and drums combine the influences of Stiff Records and Scat-era GBV to create a truly distinctive strain of emo that mirrors the nuanced template of feelings Duplass expresses in his work for TV and film, making this album as treasured a crossover success as the Rilo Kiley catalog (and arguably just as enjoyable).
Milwaukee’s Pele were one of the earliest and most adventurous groups on board during Polyvinyl’s salad days—an instrumental post-rock act who provided an air of avant-garde mystery to the emo-heavy imprint.
Following the band’s dissolution in 2004, key members Chris Rosenau and Jon Meuller made their even-more experimental side project Collections of Colonies of Bees their primary focus, utilizing their sway at Polyvinyl to help them liberate their next album, Customer, later that year.
This record, simply put, is live IDM at its finest, crafted from a pair of unsung heroes whose names should be as synonymous with glitch as Tom Jenkinson and Kieran Hebden.
When Portland, Oregon’s 31Knots signed to Polyvinyl in 2005, they brought a new sense of danger to the label’s sound. The trio’s third album Talk Like Blood, outside perhaps the reissues of John Davis’s pre-Q And Not U outfit Corm, is without question the heaviest album on the label.
There’s a cautioned sense of brutality in the way the group mashes up the motions of emo with the most explosive elements of prog rock and math-core that comes together like a Frankenstein’s monster built with the spare parts of Fragile by Yes, Polvo’s Shapes and Jets to Brazil’s Orange Rhyming Dictionary and rips out of your speakers accordingly.
Their last album, the prophetically titled Trump Harm, came out in 2011 and is equally as good. But it’s been a long five years that have gone by, and the winds of change are whipping up a serious shit storm in our country. Now more than ever, we could use a new Knots landing.
In his misguided review on Allmusic.com, music critic Tim Sendra dismissed the third album from Milwaukee’s Decibully as “a depressingly generic and forgettable album from a band that seemed destined for better things.”
Had he perhaps given a deeper listen to Sing Out, America! he would have clearly seen those “better things” were already present in the scope of these 10 songs that took the template of emo and scattered it across the fields of glitch rock and abstract alt-country in a pop-savvy way that suggested what Crowded House could have sounded like had they went the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot route in the early 2000s.
On their third album, Toronto’s Picastro connected with the likes of Polyvinyl all-stars Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart and Owen Pallett to help lead singer Liz Hysen and company achieve this magnificent middle ground between Tarnation-era Paula Frazer and The Books on songs like “All Erase” and “Stair Keeper”.
It’s a balance that achieves a supernova sense of resolve by the closing track, a drastically tranquilized version of The Fall’s “Older Lover” from 1981’s Slates 10-inch where Stewart and Hysen laconically harmonize in a muted sense of impending doom that lurches deeper into your listening zone the closer it achieves its full 5:32 duration.
For over 15 years, Springfield, Missouri’s SSLYBY has been not only one of the most underrated acts on the Polyvinyl label, but in the realm of American rock in general.
Their catalog is a lost treasure chest of quality early-2000s indie-pop that shimmers in the same way the solo work of Jon Brion or The Anniversary, only a little more bookish in the best possible sense.
All their albums are worth checking out, but the one to start off with is 2011’s Tape Club, a career-spanning collection of b-sides, home demos and outtakes that serves as a perfect primer for exploring the oeuvre of this outstanding group who deserves way more recognition than they’ve received by the hipster bubble of cool for all this time.
While everyone was waiting for Matt Sharp to reunite with Weezer, the former co-charge of The Blue Album and Pinkerton did his fans one better in 2014 by reviving his celebrated synth-pop outfit The Rentals and releasing Lost in Alphaville, a far more brilliant third album than his former band’s The Green Album ever was.
Produced by renowned producer/film composer Dave Sardy (who has worked with everyone from Cop Shoot Cop to Jay-Z) and featuring a fantastic new lineup flanked by Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius, Ozma guitarist Ryen Slegr, The Section Quartet’s Lauren Chipman and Patrick Carney of the Black Keys, Alphaville sidesteps the European leanings of 1999’s Seven More Minutes and goes right for the sweet spot that made 1995’s Return of the Rentals so much fun.
The opportunity to work with Sharp was most likely the real reason behind Ric Ocasek’s decision to produce the first Weezer LP.
The Blue Mountains of Australia and the Blue Ridge Mountains of the American Appalachians are on completely opposite ends of the planet. But somehow singer/songwriter Julia Jacklin brings these two mystical ranges closer together than they’ve ever been with her gorgeous debut album from 2016, Don’t Let The Kids Win.
Recorded in New Zealand’s Sitting Room studios with renowned Kiwi indie producer Ben Edwards, the 25-year-old might have been raised on music like Britney Spears and Evanescence, but songs like “Motherland” and “LA Dream” inhabit a dark sense of grace between the promise of Gillian Welch’s Revival and the uneasiness of Cat Power’s Moon Pix, delivering an absolutely haunting collection of proto-mountain folk that deserves the kind of attention that the drab Margo Price LP received this year. Even more so.
Don’t Let the Kids Win is one of the dark horse gems of 2016, and a prime example of the vigor of Polyvinyl’s growing faction of strong female acts on its roster.