Yep Roc has released more than 5,000 songs in its 15-year run. We’ve plundered the trove and uncovered 25 that help tell the story of the little big label in Haw River.
1. Mayflies USA, “Walking in a Straight Line” (Walking in a Straight Line)
If power pop has a spirit animal, it might be the bumblebee, a creature associated with sweetness, stinging and taking flight. The Mayflies do all that here, mixing honey with barbed guitars and achieving major liftoff. Built around a couple of sturdy chords and Matt McMichaels’ flinty delivery, this is as fine an example of the genre as you’ll find.
2. Fountains of Wayne, “Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart” (Sky Full of Holes)
After an opening image that portends goofy “Stacy’s Mom” territory (“Staring at the sun/with no pants on”), the tone turns bittersweet as lead singer Chris Collingwood issues a dire warning over a shimmering minor-key melody. Anchored by a woah-ooh-woah-oh hooksung by the kids, then by the suitsno one does suburban-mythical like Fountains of Wayne.
3. Two Dollar Pistols, “Gettin’ Gone” (You Ruined Everything)
Few Triangle musicians have a résumé as broad and as deep as John Howie Jr., who started out a punk-rock drummer and ended up a honky-tonk crooner. He still does both, actually, and a lot in between, but perhaps his most lasting mark was made fronting the hard-country Two Dollar Pistols, whose repertoire is well-represented by this Howie original.
4. Robyn Hitchcock, “Television” (Spooked)
It was a stroke of fortune that Hitchcock happened upon the unparalleled acoustic duo Gillian Welch & David Rawlings backstage at a show a decade ago, given that the encounter led to them recording an album together. Welch and Rawlings helped hush Hitchcock’s manic tendencies into a magical whisper, bringing his unique talent into intimate focus.
5. Nick Lowe, “Hope for Us All” (At My Age)
Lowe likes to present himself as the ultimate cad, but here he lets his guard down with one of the most true-to-life romantic songs anyone has ever recorded. He doesn’t revel in grandiose and unrealistic movie-screen love; instead, he’s simply grateful and amazed that he could “find someone to check his fall.” Hope for us all, indeed.
6. The Baseball Project, “Chin Music” (Vol. 2: High and Inside)
The secret to The Baseball Project is that it’s not just a gimmick (songs only about baseball) or an ’80s-survivors supergroup (members of R.E.M., Dream Syndicate and the Young Fresh Fellows). It works because they come up with really good material, such as this catchy little anthem from Steve Wynn about the pitcher’s tendency to brush the batter off the plate.
7. Paul Weller, “7&3 is the Striker’s Name” (Wake Up the Nation)
With one of the most distinctive voices in rock, Weller has acquired a bit of leathery gruffness since his days of leading The Jam, but his proudly British inflections and feisty insistence remain immediately recognizable. The reclusive Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine augments the song’s damaged Bo Diddley vibe with his otherworldly guitar textures.
8. Chuck Prophet, “Castro Halloween” (Temple Beautiful)
So George Harrison didn’t die after all; he’s just playing guitar in Prophet’s band. At least that’s what you’d swear from the moment a classic All Things Must Pass-styled riff rings out just 10 seconds into this radiant pop gem from the San Francisco singer-songwriter and electric guitarist extraordinaire, one of an album’s worth of songs saluting his city’s cultural legacies.
9. Dave Alvin, “Nine Volt Heart” (Ashgrove)
Music matters, and frequently it matters even more coming at you through tiny, tinny speakers. At least that’s the message this song seems to convey. It was co-written by Alvin and Rod Hodges of the Iguanas. A year before it appeared on Ashgrove, the song served as the ostensible title track for an Iguanas album released by Yep Roc.
10. Greg Brown, “Freak Flag” (Freak Flag)
Occupying a similar range and projecting a similar authority as Johnny Cash, Brown’s voice sounds like it was run over by a tractor, its rough grain proudly on display. On “Freak Flag,” the Iowa native leverages the banner first held aloft by Jimi Hendrix for a song that’s simultaneously a reminiscence, a patriotic paean and an exhortation to self-empowerment.
11. Chatham County Line, “Chip of a Star” (IV)
Sometimes the greatest songs come from the simplest little riffs. Banjo player Chandler Holt plucks out four notes in a major-key sequence that somehow brings forth beauty and wonder; the rest of the band builds out the magic from there, as singer Dave Wilson reaches for the stars and captures the chip of one for his beloved.
12. The Sadies, “A Simple Aspiration” (New Seasons)
Recorded in 2007, this one sure sounds like it was recorded in 1967, somewhere in Haight-Ashbury. Toronto band The Sadies specialize in throwback sounds, though they spike the material with subtle modern touches that keep their music from being mere nostalgia.
13. Chris Stamey, “Part One: Aviation – Kierkegaard” (Speed of Sound: Instrumental Remixes from Travels in the South)
Perhaps a corollary to Brian Eno’s ambient Music for Airports, Stamey’s instrumental reimagining of his Travels in the South album is kind of like Music for Airplanes, all revved up and ready for takeoff. There are voices on this track, but they’re used as instruments, in a classic Beach Boys-esque manner.
14. The Comas, “Tonight on the WB” (Conductor)
A bracing amalgam of caustic indie rock crunch and stately glam rock drama, “Tonight on the WB” opens with a feedback shard that bleeds into a lugubrious chug augmented by impeccably deployed power-chord blasts. Andy Herod’s high tenor, veering between stoner croon and snakebit shriek, pushes the song to a gloriously cathartic payoff.
15. Sloan, “The Answer Was You” (The Double Cross)
In their 20-year existence, this Nova Scotia foursome has become expert in spiking the basic power pop cocktail with new ingredients and mixing them with impeccable craft. “The Answer Was You” is an instant grabber that sinks its hooks in deeply, abetted by an athletic, chiseled bass line, a Mellotron and Chris Murphy’s soaring vocals.
16. Dexter Romweber, “Unharmonious” (Blues That Defy My Soul)
“All my life tryin’ to go the right way, I find myself keeping the wolves at bay,” Romweber bemoans in this two-minute mission statement from the darkside-rockabilly king of the Triangle (and perhaps the planet). The message is all hellfire and damnation, but the music charges right along giddily.
17. C.C. Adcock, “Stealin’ All Day” (Lafayette Marquis)
This Louisiana-born producer, songwriter and hot-shit guitarist draws on hypnotically distorted riffs and a heavy dose of bayou grit. Here he rides a figure that echoes the Chantays’ immortal surf-rocker “Pipeline,” and it’s easy to see why Yep Roc co-founder Glenn Dicker calls Adcock’s Lafayette Marquis “one of the coolest records we’ve done.”
18. Ron Sexsmith, “Brandy Alexander” (Exit Strategy for the Soul)
Co-written with fellow Canadian singer-songwriter Leslie Feist, this soulful celebration of dedicated drinking was inspired by the powerful concoction that John Lennon and Harry Nilsson were imbibing when they were tossed out of L.A.’s Troubadour. It boasts a horn-filled arrangement that recalls yet another Canadian outfit, The Band.
19. Tift Merritt, “Drifted Apart” (Traveling Alone)
Marc Ribot’s warm guitar tones and Eric Heywood’s pedal steel create their own melancholy weather system here. When Merritt’s voice meets that of Andrew Bird, who also adds violin, there’s a quick dance before he ascends to an Orbison-esque falsetto that melts against her clarion pipes. It is the sweet ache of heartbreak made palpable.
20. John Doe, “Twin Brother” (Forever Hasn’t Happened Yet)
Doe has had no shortage of great moments as a vocalist, from early X duets with Exene Cervenka (such as “Blue Spark”) to the band’s late-era highlights (“See How We Are”) as well as many memorable solo-career turns. But he may have never equaled the sorrow he conveys in this duet with Grant-Lee Phillips, his voice soaring as he laments, “If I could just hold you up, for a minute, for this moment…”
21. Tres Chicas, “My Love” (Bloom, Red & the Ordinary Girl)
Local heroines Tres Chicas cover Geraint Watkins, an underrated journeyman, Nick Lowe sideman and fellow Yep Roc recording artist. This beautifully sung, understated folk-rock nugget, written by a Brit but recorded by North Carolinians, does a good job of summing up Yep Roc: local but global, unassuming but attention-grabbing.
22. Gourds, “Steeple Full of Swallows” (Noble Creatures)
Thank the stars the Austin band went back and rescued this one, with a little help from their friends. Co-leader Kevin Russell unveiled it on an obscure early ’90s SXSW live compilation, which was where fellow Austin band the Damnations found it several years later and decided to cover it. The Gourds finally tracked their own version in 2007, and its beauty is special: “You must be the reason all the lights go down.”
23. Go-Betweens, “Streets of Your Town” (That Striped Sunlight Sound)
One of the hookiest tunes in the Go-Betweens’ oeuvre, this live version lacks the perhaps-excessive gleam of the original but gets closer to the action. Grant McLennan’s plain-spoken delivery is offset by biting lyrics that undercut the band’s “striped sunlight sound.” They paint a Lynchian vision of an innocuous-seeming suburbia that’s “full of battered wives.”
24. Minus 5, “The Days of Wine and Booze” (Down With Wilco)
Minus 5 leader Scott McCaughey teamed up with Wilco in 2004 mostly because they were longtime friends but also for the intriguing experimental possibilities the partnership afforded. This track was the most fruitful result, a spooky rabbit-hole excursion perhaps inspired by McCaughey and Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy’s shared fondness for the Handsome Family’s “So Much Wine.”
25. Whiskeytown, “Take Your Guns to Town” (Revival: Brunswick Stew & Pig Pickin’ compilation)
Track No. 1 on Yep Roc 001, this was among alt-country linchpin Whiskeytown’s earliest recordings, and although it also appeared on the odd-and-ends comp Rural Free Delivery (issued by Mood Food), it marked a pretty good starting point for the fledgling label. The comp also included tracks by the Backsliders, Six String Drag, Trailer Bride and many other mid-’90s Triangle roots-rock up-and-comers.