Bar/None Records, the Hoboken, NJ indie label that helped launch the careers of Yo La Tengo, Freedy Johnston, of Montreal, and They Might Be Giants, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Founded in 1986 by Tom Prendergast and joined by Rage To Live singer Glenn Morrow, the label’s track record of oddball pop and alternative independent music (actual independent music mind you, none of this “indie” mumbo jumbo) is one of the most consistent and distinguished runs in all of independent music.
Its eclectic collection includes acapella reinterpretations of The Who, lounge music revivalists, and 808s glam folk-rockers. And that’s just the more accessible stuff.
Bar/None has also reissued classic albums by The Feelies and El Ten Eleven, and they have released albums by veteran acts such as 10,000 Maniacs, Juliana Hatfield, and Alex Chilton (Check out their blog for more on their history).
Below are 10 Bar/None releases that should be a part of everyone’s collection. This is only an introduction list, as there are many more albums to fall in love with from this label. These albums are listed in chronological order:
Rage To Live – Rage To Live (1986)
The very first Bar/None release, led by singer and eventual label head Glenn Morrow, who handled all the album’s promotion and publicity. This is where all the madness began.
They Might Be Giants – They Might Be Giants (1986)
All the elements that made They Might Be Giants so great were already present on its self-titled debut album, sometimes referred to as The Pink Album. With its smart, self-aware lyrics and new-wave sound (it’s hard to miss that drum machine), TMBG inadvertently invented the geek-pop genre that it would later perfect in the ’90s, but it all started here. TMBG also released their follow up, Lincoln, on Bar/None.
Yo La Tengo – Fakebook (1990)
NJ indie veterans and world’s greatest cover band had one of its first major breakthroughs with its only Bar/None release. Except for five tracks, the album is made up of covers that ranged from the obvious (The Kinks), to the surprising (Cat Stevens), to the weird (Daniel Johnston, before Kurt Cobain made him cool).
With just the right mix of charm and quirk, this record was the rock critic wet dream that gave the band enough validation (Rex Garvin & The Mighty Cravers!) to sustain their ongoing 30+ year career.
Freedy Johnston – Can You Fly (1992)
The Kansas singer-songwriter sold his grandfather’s farm to help finance his second album, which he wrote about in the opener “Trying to Tell You I Don’t Know.” It’s a good thing Johnston had the songs to back up his gamble. Robert Christgau called it a “perfect album,” and it’s cited in Tom Moon’s 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die.
of Montreal – Cherry Peel (1997)
Bar/None also launched the career of Kevin Barnes’ psychedelic pop project of Montreal. Known later for more involved and complex production and songwriting, Cherry Peel‘s charm came from its lo-fi songwriting that channeled the best of Guided Of Voices’ bursts of brilliance and Brian Wilson’s deceivingly sunny songwriting.
Even in the beginning, Barnes was a force to be reckoned with. 1999’s The Gay Parade was also released on Bar/None.
Petra Haden – Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out (2005)
An all acapella cover of a Who album sounds trivial and, in the wrong hands, regrettable. But singer, instrumentalist, and composer Petra Haden pulled it off using only her voice and clever multi-layering recording, with a cassette recorder given to her by Mike Watt. Though a fascinating technical achievement, the arrangements are actually enjoyable, and Haden manages to do the Who justice – even if there are no drums.
The Spinto Band – Nice and Nicely Done (2006)
New-wave is the name of the game on The Spinto Band’s fifth LP, except the Delaware six-piece also had the past 20 years of indie to incorporate into their fun, twitchy pop (imagine how much bigger this band would have been if Clap Your Hands Say Yeah made a more lasting impact musically). It’s colorful and uplifting, and it’s the rare indie record that’ll make you want to get up and dance.
The Front Bottoms – The Front Bottoms (2011)
Combining chamber pop with Yeah Yeah Yeahs-like grit, the Front Bottoms’ self-titled debut made the case that punk-rock drumming and confessional lyrics could coexist without being stuck with an emo tag. Also check out Talon of the Hawk, also released on Bar/None.
Alex Chilton – Electricity By Candlelight / NYC 2/13/97 (2013)
In 1997, the power went out during Chilton’s set at New York City’s Knitting Factory. Instead of calling it quits, an upbeat Chilton borrowed an acoustic guitar and started playing old country songs and covers of The Beach Boys, Joni Mitchell, and Loudon Wainwright III to a candle-lit room. Luckily, someone recorded the entire set.
It’s an intimate bootleg that catches the cult songwriter in rare form, playing with his audience instead of putting on a production (“Someone whistle a solo,” Chilton says in the middle of “Step Right This Way,” to which the audience obliges). It’s a wonderful mess from the man who made and inspired beautiful, messy music.
Ezra Furman – The Year Of No Returning (2013)
The one-two punch of this and Day of the Dog introduced the Chicago native to the world in grand, glittered style. Hints of Big Star, Neil Young, and Paul Westerberg’s solo work lurk in Furman’s songwriting, but it’s the passionate vocal presentation that allows Furman to act like the glam star he’s on his way to becoming.