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Music

Go! Fight! Win! Ash and the Art of Creative Resurrection

Ash were a great band that worse themselves down after releasing a new song every two weeks for a year. Tim Wheeler tells us how he got his groove back.


Ash

Kablammo!

Label: earMusic
US Release Date: 2015-06-09
UK Release Date: 2015-05-25
Wesbite
Amazon
iTunes

When the Irish alterna-punk trio Ash released Twilights of the Innocents in 2007, it was supposed to be their last album. From that point on, singer/songwriter Tim Wheeler and his band intended to release music to the public in a manner that reflected the prevailing listening habits of average consumer. With that, Ash mounted the lofty A-Z Series where subscribers were treated to a new track every two weeks for one year. The final package for the A-Z Series included 26 singles, 21 b-sides, 13 remixes, and 9 more acoustic/live tracks. Ash had succeeded in moving away from the traditional album format. They also nearly wore themselves out.

Drama, pressure, and burnout are nothing new to this band. Their history is checkered with lots of commercial ups and downs that put their musical consistency in an even more flattering light than if it had been smooth sailing all along. After a promising start with Trailer, Ash came close to flattening everyone's 1996 year-end lists with the smash album 1977 (an album bookended by the noise of a passing TIE Fighter and the sound of wet vomit). Recognition for the singles "Girl from Mars" and "Kung Fu" gave them a full touring schedule, one where Ash found that they hadn't set aside enough time to write songs for their follow-up. Even after hiring guitarist Charlotte Hatherley to help fill out the sound, a number of critics and fans felt that Nu-Clear Sounds was the sound of Ash cracking under pressure. Tim Wheeler had to learn his own coping techniques for writer's block the hard way: while everyone was watching.

By the time Ash reclaimed their ground with Free All Angels and Meltdown, Wheeler had learned how to ignore the pressure and just write songs in large quantities. This career strategy allegedly saved Ash from certain bankruptcy (more than one source claims that Free All Angels came along just when the band were down to their last £1,000). Ash and Hatherley parted ways after Meltdown. Back to being a three-piece, Wheeler, bassist Mark Hamilton and drummer Rick McMurray began to think of their music in less holistic terms. When they announced that Twilight of the Innocents was going to be their final album, fans mistook this to mean that the band was splitting up.

As much as everyone's listening habits have changed over the years, Wheeler just can't hide from the fact that he likes to make albums. Ash's album Kablammo! came to be after he became reacquainted with vinyl records, embracing the notion that you can kick off your album's second half with instrumental surf rock ("Evel Knievel") and end it with all the earnestness you can pull from the hair decade ("Bring Back the Summer"). In between it all are future Ash classics like "Machinery", "Free", "Hedonism" and the single "Cocoon". Tim Wheeler chatted with PopMatters about recording Kablammo! in Ash's private New York studio, how thinking about albums affects his writing and how a forthcoming Ash release might be coming sooner than we expect.

* * *

After Ash released Twilight of the Innocents, you had all decided to stop releasing music in the album format and instead focused on singles for the A-Z Series. What changed your mind to go back to that traditional album format?

I started getting back into albums again. I started to collect vinyl again. I started to rediscover it again after being very playlist-oriented for a few years. I think I was listening to music the same way everyone else was around 2007, 2008; just picking single tracks. I wasn't listening to full albums in the ways that I had used to. But then I started to have a bit more time at home and I started listening to full, complete albums and I found that my favorite way of doing that was on vinyl. Then I ended up making a Christmas record [This Is Christmas with Emma-Lee Moss, aka, Emmy the Great] and I made a solo record [Lost Domain]. With Ash, we actually said we wouldn't make another album, so it took us a while to sort of admit to ourselves that we should do it. So we went for it.

Was it hard to convince the other guys to go along with it?

A little, yeah. Doing the singles series was a long, crazy process. I think we were a bit exhausted at the end of that. Maybe by taking a break from it, it was quite nice to return to making an album. We had been in the cycle of album-tour-album for a long time before we did the singles series, so I think when we made Twilight, we had a tough time getting creatively excited about doing another album at that point. Having taken a break and done something really different meant that it felt refreshing to come back to it. It was also quite a challenge because we said we would never make another album so it's got to be really good if we are actually going to make one.

Does that change your writing at all?

Yeah, I think so. With the A-Z, when you're putting out single tracks, you aren't worrying about cohesion and there's also a real freedom to it and you can indulge any idea. When we make an album, we're kind of aware that it had to fit together and be really strong. It just took a different focus. And we were comparing it to our first and our third album [1977 and Free All Angels], which are our best-loved albums by our fans. It was a lot of pressure because you're thinking, It's got to be as good as those.

Now that you've done the A-Z thing and you've returned to the album with Kablammo!, which format do you think you prefer now?

I think probably an album. I think it's the easiest for people to come to. They're looking at a bunch of songs that have been curated specifically been put together to listen to in, say, 40 minutes. I really enjoyed the singles series, but it's quite a daunting thing for people to come to now because there are 26 tracks. It's about two hours' worth of music. I think it's great for people who were part of it at the time and were getting a track every two weeks. But maybe in hindsight it's a daunting project to get into, it's almost a triple album. We're just about to go out and tour with this new album and I think it's quite fun that there's going to be a bunch of songs that people will be have listened to a lot recently and will be excited to hear. Yeah, maybe I'll admit that I like the album [format] better now!

And producer Claudius Mittendorfer worked on that singles series?

Yeah, we've worked with him since 2007. He was an engineer on Twilight of the Innocents and he's been co-producing with us since then. He works with lots of other bands, so he mixes a lot of albums and he' been working on a few other records. I don't think [the singles series] was as hard for him as it was for us. I think he enjoyed it.

Speaking of songs fitting together, Kablammo! has "Moondust" followed by "Evel Knievel".

Right! Did you find that jarring?

Certainly not in a bad way.

We saw "Evel Knievel" as starting side two. Some people can imagine flipping a record over at that point. Although we think more of cohesion on this record, we do have quite a few styles we like to play in. I think our musical tastes are still quite schizophrenic. There probably is still a lot of freedom of the A-Z still with us in some ways.

Then there's the last song, "Bring Back the Summer".

It's almost like a 80s/"Kokomo"-Beach Boys kind of thing. It's got some electronic percussion. There's no real big guitars on it. It was a song I just came up with one day and I demoed it in that style. Although it's not a typical Ash track, it did have a nostalgia and charm to it. A lot of our best-known songs have been about summer and had a real summer feeling to them. We were looking back on our old Ash records with this [new] record and that track fits us. I feel like it's a sweet way to end a record, with a bit of nostalgia.

Do you have any particular fondness for the '80s-style production?

I think a lot of the A-Z stuff was influenced by new wave sounds and 80s sounds. I collected quite a lot of synths during that time, and drum machines. That track is the closest thing than could have been part of the A-Z series.

Turning back the clock to the time of Nu-Clear Sounds and Free All Angels, you suffered from a bit of writer's block. Is that something that bothers you anymore?

The worst was going into Nu-Clear Sounds. That was the hardest because 1977 had been pretty successful and we toured it for a long time. We did about a year and a half of touring and then I hadn't really written songs during that time because we were on such a crazy schedule. All that sudden I had to sit down and follow up a record that had been really successful but I was really out of practice. I think it was a bit of fear to start and fear to fail. I think it was on Free All Angels where I was determined not to let that happen. We gave ourselves a really good amount of time off to focus on the writing and try to come back.

Around that time we sort of learned tricks, which is mainly just to start writing without any worry about [whether] it's good or not. Just try to write every day. Eventually the good songs will come. Early on I used to fear that no songs would emerge, that I'd "lost it." I've since discovered that it's just a matter of writing a lot and you get back in practice and your mind is switched on and receptive to ideas. It'll start to come out in the songs. Someone from The Vaccines told me that he tries to write 20 songs in a day to kick writer's block at the start of a writing session. I really got into doing that, but I could only really write about seven or eight songs a day. I would do these really long 12-hour writing sessions quite frequently and quite a lot of the songs from the album came out of doing those speed-writing sessions.

Which ones?

I did about eight of those marathons: "Bring Back the Summer", "Evel Knievel", "Go! Fight! Win!", "Let's Ride", "Machinery", "Moondust", "Shutdown". [laughs] Eight of the tracks, probably! I found that to be really effective. It's really exhausting but it's really good.

You have a stateside studio, right?

Yeah, in New York. Actually right in Manhattan in Chelsea. Had it for probably nine years. We did Kablammo! there. The only thing we didn't do were some string sessions which we did in London.

What are some of the big differences between recording in Manhattan versus elsewhere?

One of the biggest factors is that it's our place and I can be here as late as I like. I can show up at whatever time suits me and be here as often as I like. I do like the enrgy of the city as well. I like that I can leave the studio at 4:00 in the morning and there's life around and I don't feel cut off from everything. New York has been home for almost ten years so I feel really comfortable here. I think people make a lot of sacrifices to live in New York because it's so expensive. I think it attracts quite interesting people who are very driven. A lot of creative people come here.

Do the other guys live in New York too?

Our drummer actually lives in Scotland, so he comes over and stays with me for ten days or two weeks and we do a lot of work. Then he goes home and comes back two months later. Our bass player Mark lives in Hokoben, NJ, so it's really close.

So you probably demo everything up before your drummer makes the long trip.

I kind of get them half written or half demoed and then we start to play them in the rehearsal room. That's how I know which songs to finish. We shape them up as a band, together.

Ash has existed as a trio and a quartet. Do you have trouble performing the quartet songs live?

I think we're very comfortable as a three-piece now. For a while we had Russell Lissack from Bloc Party playing with us on tour for a few additional guitar [parts]. Then we ended up doing a lot of touring as a three-piece, especially our recent touring in the states. There's only a couple of songs where there might be some things missing in the guitar side of things, but I think I've become quite comfortable in covering it all. Initially it was a bit more work for me, singing and playing guitar and having to play lead parts at the same time. But I think I'm good at it now [laughs]. When we made Kablammo!, we were trying to write it to make it sound really good as a three-piece as well. I didn't want to do too many guitar overdubs and I wanted to translate to live straightaway.

So is Ash ready to settle back into the album-tour-album cycle?

Yeah. I'd like to do another album soon-ish. We've got quite a lot of touring to do this year. It's important for us to take the time to write songs with the right strength. I could see us putting out another album in early 2017, maybe. There are quite a few good songs that we had to leave off [Kablammo!] for time, so I think we might put out a mini-album next year as well. I'd like to record one more song. There are six really good tracks sitting there, ready to go.

Do you ever do the hotel room demo thing?

Sometimes, yeah. Sometimes we tour in a van, sometimes we tour in a bus. In a bus, you can wake up in the city and there's a bit more time. I sort of doodle a little bit on my laptop as well, that's kind of more electronic kind of things. Sometimes [they] evolve into good Ash songs. In our current mode we're focusing on being a guitar band.

Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Woodstock each did their stint as a lonely Mexican cowboy, it seems. These and other things you didn't know about A Charlie Brown Christmas.

How Would You Like to Be the Director of Our Christmas Play?

It's really a beautiful little movie and has affected my life in numerous ways. For years, especially when we were poor, we always tried to find the littlest saddest Christmas tree possible. In fact, my son Eli has a Christmas tree set up right now that is just one single branch propped up in a juice bottle. And just a couple weeks ago we were at a wedding, everyone was dancing, and me and my wife Amy and my friend Garth started dancing like the Peanuts characters do in the Christmas special.

-- Comic artist James Kochalka.

Bill Melendez answers questions with the sort of vigor that men a third his age invest thousands in herbal supplements to achieve. He punctuates his speech with belly chuckles and comic strip taglines like "Oh, boy!" and "I tell 'ya!" With the reckless abandon that Melendez tosses out words like pleasure, it's clear that 41 years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of his favorite topics of conversation. "It changed my life," he states simply, "being involved with this silly little project."

Melendez celebrated his 90th birthday in November. "When I think of my last 40 or 50 years, I can't believe it," he says, capping off his comment with that inevitable one-man laugh track. The curly-mustachioed animator was born José Cuauhtemoc Melendez in Hermosillo, Mexico, in 1916. "I was literally a cowboy," he says. "From there, I crossed the border and started growing up. Just recently I went back, and when I got there I realized where my home was: across the border. When I was a little kid, I would have killed myself had I known such a thing was going to happen. I'm one of you. Whether you like it or not, I'm one of you."

Melendez recalls his blind leap into the world of animation as though the story's end still managed to catch him by surprise. "I was working in a lumberyard, and one of my mates said, 'Hey, I read in the paper that some guy up on Hyperion Avenue is hiring young guys like you who can draw.' So I went to this stranger and said, 'Hey, I understand someone here is hiring young artists.' The man asked me for my samples and I said I'd show them to him tomorrow. I went home that night and made the samples. I brought them in the next day, and he asked me what art school I went to. I'd never been to an art school. He said, 'Well, you have talent,' and he hired me to work in a place called Walt Disney."

Four years later, after lending his hand to Disney canon fodder like Bambi and Fantasia, and after fighting for his new country in World War II, he spent the next decade or so hunched over the drawing board, producing animated commercials and industrials by the thousands, including a number of spots featuring syndicated comic strip characters. Among them were the Peanuts characters.

Of all the Charlie Browns in the World, You're the Charlie Browniest.

I was around 10 when it first premiered, and seeing A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time was enough to prove even to a young child that a well-written thing is superior to most of what is out there. I'll probably be watching it again tonight or tomorrow, because I have a copy of it and a six-year-old daughter. She loves it.

-- Comic artist Gilbert Hernandez.

By 1959 Charles "Sparky" Schulz's Peanuts kids found themselves at the center of their first print advertising campaign, pushing Ford's new Falcon make of cars. As the story goes, the idea of using Schulz's characters came from a daughter of one of Ford's advertising people.

"I think Sparky was flattered when they wanted to use his characters, says Schulz's widow, Jean, who now is one of the driving forces behind the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. "It was a new way of extending his creativity. From the get-go Sparky always said a comic strip is a commercial venture. Newspapers put the comic strip in to sell newspapers. He would then bitterly say, 'No one considered comic strips art in the first place, so why would you get on your high horse about that?'"

When the time came for the characters to make their animated debut in a Ford commercial, Melendez was brought into the fold, and he brought along a cast of unknown child actors to voice the parts. The team reunited five years later, when Lee Mendelson, a filmmaker from San Francisco, requested two minutes worth of animation for a film he was shooting based on a Peanuts story line.

"I had done a Willie Mays documentary in 1963, A Man Named Mays, which had done really well," Mendelson says. "Then I was reading a Charlie Brown baseball strip, and the idea came to me: I've just done the world's greatest baseball player; now I'll do the world's worst." It's an old joke -- the same he used to open his 2000 coffee-table retrospective, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition -- but it's one for the ages. "Two years later Coca-Cola called, and I thought they were calling to do the documentary," Mendelson explains, "but they said, 'Have you guys ever thought about doing A Charlie Brown Christmas?' I said absolutely. And that's how I got in the animation business." His executive producer role on that film was the birth of a career now well into its fourth decade.

"So Lee called Sparky and said, 'Well, I just sold our Christmas show," explains Jean. "Sparky asked, 'What Christmas show?' and Lee said, 'The one we're going to write tomorrow." Sparky said, 'If we're going to do it, we need to have Bill.'"

Melendez was brought into direct, and as with the Ford commercial, he gave the parts of the Peanuts kids entirely to children, many of whom had never acted. Getting them to learn their roles was a trying task, given that Schulz's script had his characters regularly waxing philosophical and tossing off words like ailurophobia (a fear of felines, for the record). Melendez had to teach the young actors long portions of the script phonetically. "Sometimes they didn't understand a word," he remembers. "They'd say, 'Just tell me how you want it said.' Then they'd say it, and I'd turn to the engineer and ask if he recorded it. The kids were all startled when they got screen credit and happily startled when they started getting royalty checks."

Melendez's also tried to coach a voice actor for the part of Snoopy, whose lines were limited to a handful of non-words. "I recited Snoopy's lines for the actor, and the actor turned to the engineer and said, 'Did you record that? Just use what Bill has done. I don't want to repeat your words.' " This happy accident left Melendez playing the role of Snoopy and, later, his yellow bird companion Woodstock for the next 40 years.

For the film's soundtrack, Mendelson and Melendez embraced Schulz's love of jazz. "Driving back from Sparky's over the Golden Gate Bridge I heard a song called 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind,'" Mendelson writes in The Making of a Tradition. The song was written by Vince Guaraldi, a jazz pianist from the beatnik-dense San Francisco neighborhood of North Beach. It had won the musician a Grammy Award for best original jazz composition in 1962. Guaraldi enjoyed Schulz's script and happily accepted his invitation into the Charlie Brown Christmas fold.

This Doesn't Seem to Fit the Modern Spirit.

The one thing that has always bothered me about the Charlie Brown Christmas special is that the other kids never admit to Charlie Brown that he was right about the little tree. They ultimately accept the tree, but no one ever says, 'Well, Charlie Brown, I guess you were right all along. We were idiots.' However, it's still cool to see a mainstream children's program show that is so stridently nonsecular, which could never be done in this day and age. Linus gets some good face time with all that shepherd talk.

-- Pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman.

Beyond the inclusion of Schulz's cast of wildly popular characters, 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas seemed a production earmarked for failure. The special's small crew was given a mere six months between the film's conception and its maiden broadcast. At his own insistence, Schulz signed up to pen the script, his first attempt at a screenplay. "He said that if he was going to get screen credit for something, he wanted to be doing something," says Melendez. "He was very proud and curious and didn't want credit where he didn't deserve it."

Despite the Ford commercials that gave birth to the collaboration, and Coca-Cola's strong sponsorship presence in the special, Schulz's script centered around a pensive Charlie Brown attempting to find the true meaning of Christmas. "The 1960s were when Christmas first began to start the day after Thanksgiving," says Mendelson. "There was an irony to this, given the commercialization of the comics. That wasn't really his doing. He said, 'If people want to buy stuff, that's up to them. I'm not in the business of making stuff and selling it. I'm in the business of making a comic strip, and if people want products, then so be it.' "

"We're all a little schizophrenic in that way," adds Jean Schulz. "You live in this world, and you despair. If you think at all, you're always wrestling with this. I think that's exactly what Sparky was expressing." The special opens with a characteristically distraught Charlie Brown, speaking to the perpetually blanket-wielding Linus on a snow-covered version of the brick wall, the bald third-grader's preferred location for vocalizing his ever-present inner despair. "I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus," he begins. "Christmas is coming, but I don't feel happy."

In case that wasn't enough to threatren the film's commercial potential, the producers added one final nail to the prime time coffin: Schulz's script called for Linus to deliver a subdued monologue at the film's climax, a word-for-word recitation of Jesus's birth, taken from the Gospel of Luke. "Bill said, 'You can't have the Bible on television!' Sparky said, 'If we don't do it, who will?' By the time that Coca-Cola and CBS saw it, they had no choice but to play it. They had nothing else to put in there."

What the roomful of executives saw upon the first screening was a shock -- a slow and quiet semireligious, jazz-filled 25 minutes, voiced by a cast of inexperienced children, and, perhaps most unforgivably, without a laugh track. "They said, 'We'll play it once and that will be all. Good try,' " remembers Mendelson. "Bill and I thought we had ruined Charlie Brown forever when it was done. We kind of agreed with the network. One of the animators stood up in the back of the room -- he had had a couple of drinks -- and he said, 'It's going to run for a hundred years,' and then fell down. We all thought he was crazy, but he was more right than we were."

I Never Thought It Was Such a Bad Little Tree

That show is probably the closest I've ever come to having any interest in religion. That part where Linus quotes from the bible is extremely touching and very deftly handled. I was raised in a nonreligious household, and that was a moment that actually had some religious significance to it just because Schulz expressed it so well.

-- Comic artist Seth.

Upon its airing, the special received a 50 share. The network immediately ordered four more films from the team. "We watch it every year to make sure that it actually happened. We thought it would be on one time and be gone," Mendelson says. "The message is simple. Schulz wanted to do a show on the true meaning of Christmas. Any good writer like Schulz deals in truisms and things that are timeless. There are themes about unrequited love and bullies. They work as well now as they did in the 1960s, and they'll probably work for another 50 or 100 years as well."

"I think it touches something in the viewer. We didn't do it on purpose, but there's something ethnic about it," Melendez adds. Schulz expressed his own surprise that the film found its way into the canon of holiday classics. "He would say things like, 'I never thought it would be around 25 years later,'" Jean remembers. "One of the reasons that Christmas is so great is that back in 1965 there were no VCRs or DVDs, so you saw that show once, and you had to wait a whole year to see it again. And when it came on, it still held up. It was still charming."

Forty-one years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains a towering if unassuming presence in holiday TV. It's an oasis of sincerity, managing never to be drowned out by its overzealous neighbors' rush to cross-promote themselves. It's a quiet testament to what children's programming could be: introspective, unpretentious and, above all, respectful of the intelligence of its target audience. "Children's programs were held in low regard by everybody -- including me," says Melendez. "But I realized that it wasn't just for kids. I was dealing with adults. They were giving me suggestions and criticism."

For a film with an anticommercial message, A Charlie Brown Christmas produced its own market bonanza. But it still suggests the spirit of its writer, who sensed the real magic of Christmas was not in the spectacle of lights, commerce and big aluminum Christmas trees, but in those fleeting moments of silence, which seem to become rarer with each passing day. "They weren't afraid to have quiet," Jean says. "Most of the time when the kids are walking, it's very quiet. We came out of a new animated movie one day, and Sparky said, 'I missed the quiet places.'"

Over the years, the Schulz-Mendelson-Melendez team created more than 75 half-hour television specials and four feature films, and five Peanuts films have been made since Schulz's death, in 2000, at the age of 77. Outside of the films, Peanuts continues to be an incredibly lucrative license for its owners, United Features Syndicate. "If Sparky had the volume of stuff crossing through the office that we have today, it would have driven him nuts," laughs Jean. "He probably would have walked through the office and said, 'We're cutting all of the licensing off. I don't want to do it anymore.'"

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