The WEAX Top 5 Albums of 2011

We Are Augustines

Rise Ye Sunken Ships

The album started life as the follow-up to Pela’s critically acclaimed CD Anytown Graffiti, and ended up as We Are Augustines’ rousing tribute to overcoming the unimaginable.

The Library

The King of Silverlake

A song cycle full of startling moments when you realize someone is hurt far more than they let on.  The sweet, dreamy vocals and the shoegaze tempos offer an appealing juxtaposition to the just-below-the-surface heartbreak. 

The Vaccines

What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?

Equal parts Ramones and JAMC with all kinds of gothic reverb tossed into the mix.  Add in singer Justin Young’s brilliantly glib lyrics and appealing baritone and you just might have England’s next big thing

Beastie Boys

Hot Sauce Committee Part Two

With classic albums like Paul’s Boutique, Check Your Head and Ill Communication, the Beastie Boys have already assured themselves a place on raps Mount Rushmore.  Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, does nothing to take away from that legacy. 

Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin

Tape Club

The list of great B-side collections is about as long as the list of good Nicolas Cage films. Sure Tape Club is a little long (26 songs) and contains a few pointless demos, but buried in the mud is an indie-rock gem.

 

November 2011

Brite Futures

Dark Past

The fact that Brite Futures used to call themselves Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head should tell you all you need to know about these young Seattle hipsters. They’re fun, quirky and never seem to take themselves too seriously. Their first proper album under their new name is called Dark Past. The title refers to the difficult recent years with record label disputes, but the album is anything but a downer. It’s perfectly crafted indie-pop party music.

 

October 2011

Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin

Tape Club

The list of great B-side collections is about as long as the list of good Nicolas Cage films. A bad shop teacher could count them on one mangled hand. In fact, compilations of B-sides, rarities and demos rarely rate as more than a footnote in a great band’s discography. Hopefully, when the final history of Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin is written, Tape Club will fare better. Songs like “Let’s Get Tired,” “Letter Divine,” and “Bended” would not have been out of place on one of their proper albums. That’s not to say there aren’t surprises on Tape Club. “Yellow Missing Signs” features SSLYBY in full synth mode, and “Bastard of Rome” is unexpectedly heavy riff-rock. Sure Tape Club is a little long (26 songs) and contains a few pointless demos, but buried in the mud is an indie-rock gem.

 

September 2011

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

Hysterical

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah are in many ways the quintessential indie band. Their debut album was self-released in 2005, and they quickly became the darlings of the indie-rock blogosphere. Today, after the bands long hiatus, bloggers have all found new bandwagons. Not to worry. CYHSY’s third album, Hysterical, should bring them back in droves. The new songs are a diverse collection of jubilant pop delivered with confidence and creativity.  

Download: “Same Mistake”, Misspent Youth”, “Into Your Alien Arms”, “Ketamine and Ecstasy”

 

August 2011

We Are Augustines

Rise Ye Sunken Ships

Not many albums are as aptly named as We Are Augustines debut disc Rise Ye Sunken Ships. The album started life as the follow-up to Pela’s critically acclaimed CD Anytown Graffiti. Just as Pela was collapsing under the weight of their own potential, singer Billy McCarthy’s brother committed suicide (his mother also committed suicide years earlier). Pela did not survive the storm, but McCarthy and Pela bassist Eric Sanderson eventually finished the album as We Are Augustines. The songs on Rise Ye Sunken Ships document singer Billy McCarthy’s harrowing will to survive the nightmares. But it’s not a sullen singer/songwriter pity party. Songs like “Augustines”, “Headlong into the Abyss” and “Book of James” are what steel-jawed determination sounds like.

Download:  The whole damn thing.

 

July 2011

The Library

The King of Silverlake

Don’t let the familiar melodies and loose, jangly pop of the Library’s new album fool you.  There are some bad vibes buried in The King of Silverlake.  The album is full of those startling moments when you realize someone is hurt far more than they let on.  The sweet, dreamy vocals and the shoegaze tempos offer an appealing juxtaposition to the just-below-the-surface heartbreak. 

Download:  “Sometimes I Wish”, “When I Loved You”, “Sheila”, “Getting Over Getting Older”

 

June 2011

The Vaccines

What Did You Expect from the Vaccines?

We have a fantastic deal with Great Britain.  We ship them our best music, their best bands reinterpret it, and send it back.  Everybody wins.  This time around The Vaccines are remodeling surf music.  What we’ve gotten back is what surf music would have sounded like if it never stopped raining in California.  The Vaccines debut album What Did You Expect From The Vaccines is equal parts Ramones and JAMC with all kinds of gothic reverb tossed into the mix.  Add in singer Justin Young’s brilliantly glib lyrics and appealing baritone and you just might have England’s next big thing.

Download:  “If You Wanna”, “Wetsuit”, “Norgaard”, “Post Break-Up Sex”, “Wolf Pack”

May 2011

Beastie Boys

Hot Sauce Committee Part Two

In 1986 the Beastie Boys seemed like a lock for the One-Hit Wonder Club alongside The Chicago Bears Shufflin' Crew and The Del Fuegos.   25 years later the joke’s on us.   With classic albums like Paul’s Boutique, Check Your Head and Ill Communication, the Beastie Boys have already assured themselves a place on raps Mount Rushmore.  Hot Sauce Committee Part Two does nothing to take away from that legacy.  Mike D (Michael Diamond), MCA (Adam Yauch), and Ad-Rock (Adam Horovitz) are perfectly at ease being themselves.  They smartly refuse to incorporate contemporary hip-hop trends, and the result is old school fun.  You can forgive them for bragging and name checking themselves on seemingly every track not because they’ve earned it, but because they do it with tongue firmly in cheek, and because they practically invented it.

Download:  “Make Some Noise”, “OK”,  “Too Many Rappers”, “Here’s a Little Something For Ya”

 

April 2011

Maritime

Human Hearts

Maritime has an absolute hit with their fourth CD, Human Hearts. The band has managed to maintain a sound that is equal parts gritty, catchy, and seasoned. Minor-key angst mixes with pop sensibilities and the maturity of a band that has “been there and done that”. 

Download:  "The Peopling of London"   “It’s Casual”   " Paraphernalia”   “Air Arizona”   "Annihilation Eyes”

 

March 2011

Dom

Sun Bronzed Greek Gods

Dom's first CD was finished just 5 months after the band formed in Worcester, Massachussets. Sun Bronzed Greek Gods is a relentless, energetic tidal wave of low-fi indie pop. Fuzzy guitars, swirling synth, and vocals that won’t leave your head combine to form a CD not quickly forgotten.  Imagine what MGMT's second album should have sounded like and you've got a pretty good idea how awesome Sun Bronzed Greek Gods is.

Download:  "Hunny",  "Jesus",  "Living in America "

 

February 2011

Tokyo Police Club

Champ

At what age is nostalgia appropriate?  Certainly not your 20’s, but that’s not stopping Tokyo Police Club.  On their second album, Champ, the band elevates nostalgia to high art by reminiscing moments almost as they happen.  Whether it’s relationships or favorite meals the band has already looked back and didn’t really enjoy themselves.  But you will.  Champ is a blast.

Download:  "Favorite Food",  "Wait Up (Boots of Danger)",  "Bambi",  "End of a Spark"

 

The WEAX Top 5 Albums of 2010

1.  Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin

Let It Sway

Let It Sway is perfect, graceful and intelligent.  Nothing feels forced.  Great lyrics, monster hooks, and comfortable sounds are everywhere.  Clearly, SSLYBY are ready for the indie rock big leagues.  Despite their name.

 

2.  Foals

Total Life Forever

The bands second album Total Life Forever is less experimental than their first, but no less thrilling.   Forget the sophomore slump. 

 

3.  The National

High Violet

2005’s Alligator and 2007’s Boxer are absolute indie-rock classics. High Violet completes the trifecta.  The National might just be the best band in America. 

 

4.  Stellastarr

Civilized

Civilized is classic post-punk with a surprising amount of melody (“Freak Out”), longing (“Tokyo Sky”) and humor (“Zombie Prom”). 

 

5.  The Cure

Disintegration (Deluxe Reissue)

The Cure’s 1989 masterpiece ignores every instinct toward conventional pop music. The songs are long, dark and slim on catchy choruses. Yet it remains the most compelling album in rock history, and inexplicably spawned a hit single (“Love Song”).

 

Honorable Mentions

Ok Go Of the Blue Colour of the Sky

The Hold Steady Heaven is Whenever

 

November 2010

Gentleman Auction House

The Rules Were Handed Down

Normally it takes time for a great band to hit its stride.  Gentleman Auction House is the rare exception.  Their 2008 album Alphabet Graveyard is one of the great overlooked indie-rock albums of the last decade, and the follow-up EP, Christmas in Love, makes holiday music downright listenable.  No small feat.   But what’s truly amazing about GAH is that they were always this good.  Their self-produced debut EP The Rules Where Handed Down is an absolute gem.  The highlight is “Off Like a Parade Through the Leaves”.  It just might be the most bittersweet break-up song ever written. 

Download:  “The Rules Were Handed Down”, “Hospital or Heaven”, “Off Like a Parade Through the Leaves”, “Our Angry Town Runs Them Out”  

 

October 2010

Sounds Under Radio

My Communist Heart

If you’ve been wishing for an American indie/rock version of Muse we have two thoughts:  1) You have oddly specific wishes.  2) You will want to check out the Austin, Texas band Sounds Under Radio.  Their latest is an EP titled My Communist Heart and it delivers all of Muse’s melodrama and anthemic choruses with a dash of American grit.

 

September 2010

Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin

Let It Sway

All the great band names are apparently taken.  Thankfully Missouri’s indie-pop heroes Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin (SSLYBY) are soldiering on anyway.    Their third proper album Let It Sway is perfect, graceful and intelligent.  And why not?  It was produced by a guy who knows a thing or two about good indie rock, Death Cab’s Chris Walla.  But the real star is the band’s songwriting.  Nothing on Let It Sway feels forced.  Great lyrics, monster hooks, and comfortable sounds are everywhere.  Clearly, SSLYBY are ready for the indie rock big leagues.  Despite their name.

Download: "Back In The Saddle", "Sink/Let It Sway", "Banned (By The Man)", "My Terrible Personality", "Everlyn", "Stuart Gets Lost Dans Le Metro", "All Hail Dracula!", "Critical Drain"

 

August 2010

The Hold Steady

Heaven is Whenever

Someday someone somewhere will condense The Hold Steady’s oeuvre into an Oscar-worthy screenplay.  The tale of Holly, Gideon, and Charlemagne has everything.    Murder, religious allegory, sex, drugs, booze, horse racing and an endless parade of misguided teens descending into the great dark American night.   Singer and songwriter Craig Finn may or may not know where his disjointed story is headed or whether the puzzle pieces even make a picture.  It doesn’t matter.  Heaven is Whenever is full of the devastating details Hold Steady fans have come to expect from every fist-pumping anthem and heartbreaking ballad.  If you download only one song from Heaven is Whenever make it "A Slight Discomfort" and thank me later.

 

July 2010

Foals

Total Life Forever

Foals debut Antidotes was easily one of the most promising albums of 2008.  It was unique, hyperactive and thrilling.  How would they handle the sophomore jinx?  Pretty good as it turns out.  The bands second album Total Life Forever is less experimental but no less thrilling.   While the grooves and the songwriting are more straightforward the bands playing still sets them apart.  Foals use guitars unlike any other band, and their rhythm section is simply the best in rock.  Songs like “Miami” and “Black Gold” are hits with a vaguely 80’s feel (think Oingo Boingo meets the Thompson Twins).  The cinematic ballad “Spanish Sahara” is unlike anything they’ve done before.   Forget the sophomore slump.  Foals aim high with Total Life Forever and hit their mark.

 

June 2010

The Cure

Disintegration (Deluxe Edition)

The Cure’s 1989 masterpiece ignores every instinct toward conventional pop music. The songs are long, dark and slim on catchy choruses. Yet it remains the most compelling album in rock history, and inexplicably spawned a hit single (“Love Song”). No Cure album, before or since, has sounded quite like it. The drums are hypnotic and the instruments and vocals weave around one another like snakes in slow motion. The album begins with hushed wind chimes before exploding into a crush of synthesizers. “Lullaby” is a childhood fairy tale twisted into an art house horror flick. The 10-minute poisoned-lover lament “Same Deep Water As You” might be the most depressing song ever committed to tape. And on the galloping title track Smith nearly breaks down while singing a eulogy to a strung-out friend. The entire album has the uncomfortable feel of an unsolicited confession. 

 

May 2010

The National

High Violet


Sure we haven’t heard the whole thing yet, but with a track record like The National certain assumptions are allowed.  2005’s Alligator and 2007’s Boxer are absolute classics, and based on the tracks available online, High Violet is another success.  “Runaway” follows in the dark footsteps of “The Geese of Beverly Road” and the first single “Bloodbuzz Ohio” is loud, depressing and perfect.  Too bad we haven’t heard the whole thing yet (we’re looking at you record company promo people).

 

April 2010

Shout Out Louds

Work


With Work this Swedish indie outfit begins to separate themselves from the endless Cure comparisons that plagued their early work.  Beyond containing the band's best, most efficient songwriting, the album projects a cool punch that is unforced.  Catchy, powerful and confident.

 

March 2010

Ok Go

Of the Blue Colour of the Sky


The guys from the treadmill video are back and they are obsessed with Prince.  You read that right.  Band leader Damian Kulash still writes the kind of overly compressed power pop that buries the needle from the first chord, but he’s added a healthy dose of sexy funk on Of the Blue Colour of the SkyPurple Rain meets Badfinger.

 

February 2010

Stellastarr*

Civilized


After two critically acclaimed albums, these New-Yorkers actually went back to their day jobs.  On purpose!  Who are we to argue with the results.  Civilized is classic post-punk with a surprising amount of melody (“Freak Out”), longing (“Tokyo Sky”) and humor (“Zombie Prom”). 

 

The WEAX Top 5 Albums of 2009

1. Bishop Allen
GRRR…

Bishop Allen is often criticized for being too clever. With so much popular music mired in unrelenting stupidity (I′m looking at you Nickelback) why would we want to quash intelligence? Songs like "The Ancient Commonsense of Things" and "Cue the Elephants" are innocent, intelligent and damn fun to sing along too.

2. Gentleman Auction House
Alphabet Graveyard

When was the last time you heard a good indie/alternative song written by someone you thought might actually be happy? I′ll wait.

3. Metric
Fantasies

This Canadian band′s fourth album is sexy, sweet, smart and full of polished post–punk swagger. Singer Emily Haines is rock music′s next great front woman.

4. Guilt By Association
Vol. 2

Conceived by Engine Room Recordings, Guilt By Association brings together a variety of indie artists to cover their favorite guilty pleasure. Listening to Guilt By Association it′s hard not to come to the somewhat disconcerting conclusion that buried under all the dated production and gimmicks some bad songs might just be good. Who knew?

5. Kings of Leon
Only by the Night

The albums opener "Closer" slithers like a reptilian stalker. "Crawl" is pure Leppelin power. And the brilliant "Manhattan" manages to blend U2–like soundscapes, New Order–style bass lines, and a drum groove worthy of KC and Sunshine Band.

Honorable Mentions

Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

Jets Overhead - No Nations

 

November 2009

Brand New
Daisy

Brand New - Daisy

Brand New′s latest, Daisy, opens with an old and worn–out recording of a sacred hymn that eventually gives way to the loud, distorted, power chords of "Vices", and doesn′t let up from there.  When the catchiest tune on the album is about a funeral ("At the Bottom") you know it′s going to be a hard listen.  Daisy is nothing short of an assault on mind, soul, and body. But nothing worth having comes easy. The songs flow through style and structure in a painted chaos that′s perfectly synched. "Sink" is Nirvana′s soft/loud dynamic on steroids. "Bought a Bride" drips with paranoid dread. And the title track takes disenchantment and low self esteem to new heights.  It′s often been said that there′s a fine line between genius and insanity. While the band may be in straight–jackets, Daisy is genius.

 

October 2009

Gentleman Auction House
Alphabet Graveyard

GAH - Alphabet Graveyard

Gentleman Auction House came out of St. Louis in 2005 and have gotten bigger every year, both in terms of success and gross tonnage.  At one point the band had 7 members, including 2 drummers! On their first full–length album, Alphabet Graveyard, this bigger–is–better approach works just fine. Singer/songwriter Eric Enger likes his pop with lots of big beats, percussion, horns, rapid–fire lyrics and more uplifting choruses then most bands will sing in a whole career.  Still what makes Alphabet Graveyard so genuine is how Enger mixes GAH′s upbeat wall of sound with stories that are actually happy ("Call it Casual," "You and Me, Madly," and "We Used to Dream About Bridges"). When darkness does creeps in on songs like "The Book of Matches" and "I Sleep in a Bed of Scissor Arms" the stories are still fun.  When was the last time you heard a good indie/alternative song written by someone you thought might actually be happy? I′ll wait.

September 2009

Kings of Leon
Only By The Night

KOL - Only by the night

Don′t call Nashville′s Kings of Leon a "southern rock" band.  Southern rock is a worn out, cliché laden genre and Kings of Leon deserve better.

On their fourth album, Only by the Night, Kings of Leon have completely resisted the temptation to lower themselves to southern rock.  Vocalist Caleb Followill is equal parts Steve Perry and Ronnie Van Zant (minus the melodramatic schlock and redneck bravado).  The rest of the Followill family (2 brothers and a cousin) help by pushing the music into bold and interesting directions.

The albums opener "Closer" slithers like a reptilian stalker.  "Crawl" is pure Leppelin power.  And the brilliant "Manhattan" manages to blend U2–like soundscapes, New Order–style bass lines, and a drum groove worthy of KC and the Sunshine Band. 

That′s a lot of lofty influences.  Just don’t call them southern rock.

August 2009

Faith No More
Angel Dust

Faith No More - Angel Dust

Like the Voynich Manuscript and the Antikythera Mechanism, Faith No More′s 1992 album Angel Dust is an historical mystery that may never be solved.

A band with a metal guitarist, a classical pianist, a funk rhythm section and voice actor should not even function, let alone record one of the best albums of the 1990′s. Faith No More is often given credit (or blame) for creating the much maligned rap/metal genre with their third album The Real Thing and the breakthrough hit "Epic". The follow–up, Angel Dust, took that adventurousness to new heights by incorporating subtle jazz/hip hop flourishes and more of singer Mike Patton′s unique personality.

Throughout Angel Dust Patton moves seamlessly from a heavy metal growl, to a rap, to a sweetly crooned melody. It′s impossible to tell whether the musical genre–hopping mirrors Patton′s whiplash vocal performances, or vice versa. Either way it works.

Songs like "Midlife Crisis" and "Everything’s Ruined" tackle postmodern angst like Radiohead with a side of funk. "Be Aggressive" is a fractured take on female empowerment, or a lewd cheerleader fantasy. Overall, Angel Dust is genre-bending genius or the world’s best collection of happy accidents. Either way it works.

June 2009

Green Day
21st Century Breakdown

Green Day

Punk is dead. Or so say any number of fifty–something former punks. And they may be right. The anti–glory and fervor of perfect, beautiful, harmonious rebellion that flourished in the late 1970′s has certainly lost some cultural relevancy.

Unfortunately, punk rock has been reduced to a label – something to sell vapid excuses for punk records. However, there is light barely visible on the horizon, and it shines Green. Green Day′s newest LP 21st Century Breakdown is certainly the most "punk rock" album to come out of a major label in nearly a decade.

But, like its predecessor, American Idiot, the album is a sort of rock–opera. Tracks such as "Know Your Enemy", for those familiar with Green Day′s back catalog, sound as if they were reworked versions of old Dookie songs. 21st Century Breakdown, however, is more mature than the punk revival Green Day pioneered in the 90′s because it draws from a broader range of influences.

1970′s Queen style crescendos and key changes can be found throughout, but this is no way takes away from the overall punk feel of the album. Punk purists may challenge the whole idea that Green Day is still punk, and, in some respects they are right, but sometimes the most punk thing to do is to release an album that challenges preconceived notions.

After all, what’s so punk about playing the same damn thing for thirty years?

MS

May 2009

Pedro the Lion
The Only Reason I Feel Secure

Pedro The Lion

Pedro the Lion is the brainchild of singer/songwriter/bearded–prophet David Bazan. Getting their start in the late 90′s Christian music scene, their first EP was released on the "not–officially Christian" label Tooth and Nail Records.

This garnered them immense praise in the Christian music community, and hordes of churched kids traded their lunch money for their music. However, doubt quickly crept into Bazan′s songwriting. Ultimately Pedro the Lion was rejected by the very industry that had at first embraced them.

Released in 1999, The Only Reason I Feel Secure is their second EP, and it is undoubtedly coming from a place of confused loyalty. While not a religious album, Bazan is clearly a man on the edge of failing faith gazing at overwhelming doubt. Themes of love, faith, anger, bitterness, and hope sit next to one another as though they have nowhere else to go.

The album opens with the immensely powerful "Criticism as Inspiration", which is a perfect example of Bazan′s conflicted stories. Another noteworthy track is the satirical yet honest "Letter From a Concerned Follower".

For those unfamiliar with Bazan′s work, this track would be the perfect gateway drug. The most powerful track on the album is the closer, a rearranged, stripped down rendition of the seminal Christian hymn "Be Thou My Vision". For some, the religious themes may be hard to stomach, but for Bazan faith does not come without immense doubt.

MS

April 2009

Bishop Allen
GRRR...

Bishop Allen

Bishop Allen is often criticized for being too clever. With so much popular music mired in unrelenting stupidity (I′m looking at you Nickelback) why would we want to quash intelligence?

Even if Bishop Allen are sometimes too witty for their own good, who could blame them? The bands core members, Justin Rice and Christian Rudder, attended Harvard for God′s sake!

Thankfully Bishop Allen never let their intellect devolve into pretentiousness. Their new album GRRR… is filled with the jangly guitars and innocent melodies that define indie–pop. While that genre can sometimes sound juvenile, Rice and Rudder′s expanded vocabulary gives GRRR… a decidedly adult feel.

Songs like "The Ancient Commonsense of Things" and "Cue the Elephants" are innocent, intelligent and damn fun to sing along too.

 

March 2009

Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles
The Stars Are Out

Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles

I don´t know when it started or how it became so rampant, but it seems that you can no longer describe a band without the use of a hyphen. Pop–rock, Alt–rock, Indie–rock, Modern–rock, Garage–rock, Grunge–rock, Punk–rock.

Once upon a time I assume there were just rock bands. A long forgotten Rosetta Stone for popular music. These bands sang unpretentious songs with blues roots and strong backbeats about spurned lovers, rebellion, and just loving rock–n–roll.

So what if Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles aren´t breaking new ground with the non–hyphenated rock on their third album The Stars Are Out. It sounds so effortless and fun that you find yourself wondering why more bands don’t do it. The answer is simple: It´s harder then it sounds.

Borges has a perfect voice for rock, landing somewhere between Sheryl Crow and Joan Jett with a hint of heartland twang for good measure. Her band, the Broken Singles, might just be the worlds most perfectly crafted bar band. Professional, raucous and smart enough to know who the star really is. RocknRoll. No hyphens.

February 2009

Guilt By Association
Vol. 2

Guilt By Association - Vol 2.

How can a CD which includes songs by Billy Joel, Phil Collins, New Edition, Toto and Laura Branigan be the album of the month? Are we insane? It’s a who’s who of adult-contemporary schlock. The sort of mix you’d hear pouring out of the speakers of your grandfather’s Buick in between Paul Harvey News and Comment and commercials for Metamucil.

Amazingly, Guilt By Association Vol. 2 is an album any indie-rock hipster would be proud to have in his collection. Conceived by Engine Room Recordings, Guilt By Association brings together a variety of indie artists to cover their favorite guilty pleasure.

While indie artists often do ironic covers of dreadful songs during their live shows, this compilation rises above the snickering by being totally sincere. Takka Takka’s take on Phil Collins “In the Air Tonight” is haunting and frazzled. Justin Timberlake’s "LoveStoned/I Think She Knows" is stripped bare and sung with quiet desperation by Kaki King. New Edition’s awful hit “Cool it Now” and Toto’s overly dramatic “Africa” are played with understated confidence by Robbers on High Street and Lowry respectively.

Listening to Guilt By Association it’s hard not to come to the somewhat disconcerting conclusion that buried under all the dated production and gimmicks some bad songs might just be good. Who knew?

January 2009

Ryan Adams and the Cardinals
Cardinology

Ryan Adams and the Cardinals

Country music is dead. Gone are the days of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, of Willie Nelson and Loretta Lynn, replaced by a music scene full of people that still think Larry the Cable Guy is funny.

There is a saving grace, however, and it bursts from the soul of Ryan Adams. Ryan Adams and his band The Cardinals have been releasing albums for years now, and with each one their sound seems to become more and more refined. Cardinology is no exception. It’s balls to the wall rock and roll infused with bleeding heart country that will have you banging your head and raising your horns only to cry your eyes out minutes later. Songs like “Magick” rock as hard and as fast as any modern rock act, and yet songs like “Fix It” and “Crossed Out Name” would appeal to your grandparents.

The highlight of the album is the heart-wrenching last song, “Stop”. While being a relatively simple ballad, it seems to hold the power of even more complex arrangements. In listening, one can almost draw a parallel to Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt” just by the pure feeling and soul of it.

At the end of the day, Cardinology is just a darn good alt-country album, and that, sir, ain’t nothin’ to be ashamed of.

The Top 5 Albums of 2008

#1 Album

Solo recording artist Conor Oberst

Conor Oberst
Conor Oberst

This self-titled solo album is so good that in many ways it surpasses the greatness of Oberst’s day job as Bright Eyes. The album was recorded in a few spiritual weeks on location in Mexico with a group of friends dubbed The Mystic Valley Band. The result sounds more focused than almost the entire Bright Eyes catalogue.

#2 Album of 2008

The Hold Steady
Stay Positive

If the Sex Pistols swallowed the East Street Band, a handful of religious pamphlets, and the collected works of Brett Easton Ellis, the satisfied belch would sound like Stay Positive. As always, the greatness of The Hold Steady is the dense storytelling of singer/songwriter Craig Finn. His lurid comic/tragic junkie tales contain the sort of unexpected details that come from first hand experience, or a great writer’s imagination.

#3 Album of 2008

R.E.M.
Accelerate

As a general rule good things happen when great rock bands are desperate and pissed-off. After the lagging sales and poor reviews of their last few albums R.E.M. is both. New producer Jacknife Lee has the good sense to get out of the way as R.E.M. gnash their teeth at everything from former lovers to George Bush.

#4 Album of 2008

The 59 Sound - The Gaslight Anthem

The '59 Sound
The Gaslight Anthem

Songwriter Brian Fallon actually manages to capture the eloquence and grandeur of Springsteen, without devolving into parody. While the songs all dance around vague tragedies, the heart of the The ’59 Sound is the redemptive powers of rock-n-roll.

#5 Album of 2008

Neil Halstead
Oh! Mighty Engine

With no bombastic drumming, crunchy guitar riffs or strutting persona to hide behind, each song must live and die on its merits. Thanks to the beauty of the melodies and the subtlety of the lyrics, Oh! Mighty Engine delivers. The sound you hear when it’s over is the collective groan of a million discouraged songwriters who will never write an album as good as Oh! Mighty Engine.

August 2008

One Day as a Lion
One Day as a Lion

One of rock music’s great tragedies is that for 8 years we didn’t have Rage Against The Machine to turn the screw on the George W. Bush administration. We’ll just have to enjoy One Day As A Lion serenading them out the door. One Day As A Lion is the brainchild of former Mars Volta drummer Jon Theodore and Rage Against The Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha. While One Day As A Lion lack the full-body punch of their former outfits, they are able to make impressively gritty funk using only Theodore’s gift for groove and de la Rocha’s guitar-like keyboard noise. But, like Rage Against The Machine, the element that burns brightest is the combustible lyrics of de la Rocha. It’s more then simple fire breathing. The title track and the single “Wild International” are less commentary and more raw documentary. Both songs detail the people, places and psyches damaged by years of war, torture, wiretaps and moral decay. Good thing this is an EP, because an albums worth would incite riots. Jh

July 2008

The Hold Steady
Stay Positive

If the Sex Pistols swallowed the East Street Band, a handful of religious pamphlets, and the collected works of Brett Easton Ellis, the satisfied belch would sound a lot like The Hold Steady’s new album Stay Positive. As always, the greatness of The Hold Steady isn’t in the vicious crunch of the guitars or the surprising beauty of the keyboards, but in the dense storytelling of singer/songwriter Craig Finn. His lurid comic/tragic junkie tales contain the sort of unexpected details that come from first hand experience, or a great writer’s imagination. Like a lot of great novels, much of Stay Positive is obsessed with amoral people searching for a moral center. For Finn it seems to always come back to religion, and always ends in unasked for scars (“Both Crosses”, “Lord, I’m Discouraged). That’s not to say the band isn’t having any fun. On “Sequestered in Memphis” Finn’s knack for eliciting sympathy for even the most loathsome characters is nothing short of astonishing. Being interrogated by the cops never sounded like so much fun.

June 2008

Oppenheimer
Take the Whole Midrange and Boost It

If the Sex Pistols swallowed the East Street Band, a handful of religious pamphlets, and the collected works of Brett Easton Ellis, the satisfied belch would sound a lot like The Hold Steady’s new album Stay Positive. As always, the greatness of The Hold Steady isn’t in the vicious crunch of the guitars or the surprising beauty of the keyboards, but in the dense storytelling of singer/songwriter Craig Finn. His lurid comic/tragic junkie tales contain the sort of unexpected details that come from first hand experience, or a great writer’s imagination. Like a lot of great novels, much of Stay Positive is obsessed with amoral people searching for a moral center. For Finn it seems to always come back to religion, and always ends in unasked for scars (“Both Crosses”, “Lord, I’m Discouraged). That’s not to say the band isn’t having any fun. On “Sequestered in Memphis” Finn’s knack for eliciting sympathy for even the most loathsome characters is nothing short of astonishing. Being interrogated by the cops never sounded like so much fun.

Jh

May 2008

R.E.M. Accelerate

As a general rule good things happen when great rock bands are desperate and pissed-off. After the lagging sales and poor reviews of their last few albums R.E.M. is both. Gone are the slow, vague headphone meditations of 2001’s Reveal and 2004’s Around the Sun. Instead, Accelerate is pure, unprocessed punk energy. New producer Jacknife Lee has the good sense to get out of the way as R.E.M. gnashes their teeth at everything from former lovers to George Bush. The seething “Living Well is the Best Revenge” and “Horse to Water” might be the angriest songs R.E.M. has ever recorded. The distorted drums and menacing organ in “Houston” perfectly frame the rage and paranoia of a Hurricane Katrina victim (“If the storm doesn't kill me the government will”). Even the ballad “Hallow Man” carries an unexpected touch of venom. Aging rock bands are not supposed to make albums this good.

April 2008

Kathleen Edwards Asking For Flowers

The record company drivel that accompanied the latest album from Canadian alt-country firebrand Kathleen Edwards paints a picture of an artist living in perfect domestic bliss.  During the 3 years since her last release, Back to You, Edwards learned to play the piano, worked at a winery, started jogging, and took up gardening.  Thank God none of this tranquility made its way on to her latest album Asking For Flowers.  Instead, the album is a monument to bad decisions and almost redeemable lovers.  As always, Edward’s potency is in her smart and blunt lyrics.  She moves beyond the I-been-wronged country chick clichés, and details dark and painful scenes with heartbreaking acceptance.  That Edwards sings in a fragile voice that always seems to be searching for strength only makes the narratives more compelling.  While Nashville churns out cartoonish country songs about boots and tractors, Kathleen Edwards and her alt-country peers are making the kind of gritty, honest music that drew people to country music in the first place. 

February 2008

Robert Francis One By One

Like all great young artists, singer/songwriter Robert Francis demonstrates remarkably uncluttered observation skills despite his lack of experience (or maybe because of it).  On the song "Little Girl" Francis sings, "you're a little too young and a little too smart/probably the best candidate for a broken heart" but he could just as easily be singing about himself. At only 19, Francis lacks the age for the lifetime of regrets and heart break he sings about on the title track, yet he pulls it off with ease and grace.  Musically One By One is restrained and low key allowing Francis’ songwriting to take center stage.  Despite the fact that the albums artwork bears more then a passing resemblance to Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin', Francis manages to sidestep the “next Dylan” kiss-of-death by bringing a California country vibe to the album. One By One has the feel of driving home from a funeral with the top down.  For all the sadness present it’s impossible to imagine that the sun wasn't shining when the songs were recorded.

January 2008

Band of Horses Cease To Begin

Band of Horses has a thing about ghosts.  Not the Scooby-Doo/Poltergeist kind that haunt old houses, but the personal sort that haunt your old house.  Their second album Cease to Begin is a bitter-sweet take on the past with a lot more bitter than sweet.  Thankfully singer Ben Bridwell crafts melodies so engaging that even the darkest moments hint at the veiled grin that comes with distance and time.  Musically Band of Horses mixes the lush appeal of latter-day Britpop with a dash of southern charm.  And they’ve done it without an ounce of fluff.  Cease to Begin’s 10 tracks zip by in a tidy 35-minutes, and there’s not a dud among them.  This refreshing brevity adds depth to the album by leaving more questions then answers:  Is it possible to be haunted by something that hasn’t happened yet?  Can we ever really shed our emotional baggage?  How can one of the sweetest love songs ever written bear the name of a retired German-born NBA small forward (“Detlef Schrempf”)?  Alas, the final threads of banjo in “Window Blues” are like watching a charming storyteller leave the party before we get any satisfying answers.   The songs on Cease to Begin are so innate and well crafted that you can’t believe there isn’t just one more.

December 2007

Soulsavers It's Not How Far You Fall, It's the Way You Land

Soulsavers might not be the first artists to examine the two most alluring themes in religion:  Redemption and Damnation.  What sets It’s Not How Far You Fall, It’s The Way You Land apart is the understanding that the struggle between them is a solitary one.  Here that lonely voice is the gravely bass-baritone of grunge legend Mark Lanegan.  Lanegan features prominently on 8 of the albums 11 tracks and they are clearly the standouts.  The sounds and melodies of “Revival” are so recognizable they might just be encoded in our collective DNA.  Like a well-loved but long forgotten lullaby.  On "Kingdoms Of Rain" Lanegan’s voice carries the weight of a million disappointments in a way a younger voice couldn’t even begin to touch.  It’s a worthy sequel to Johnny Cash’s version of “Hurt”.   Other songs like “Ghosts of You and Me” and “Jesus of Nothing” blend the disparate sounds of trip-hop and blues in ways that are both haunting and erotic.  It’s Not How Far You Fall… finishes with a spectacular cover of the often overlooked Rolling Stones classic “No Expectations”.  The song’s casual resignation is the perfect way to close this weighty album. 

November 2007

Nada Surf Let Go

How does an alt-rock band from the mid-nineties succeed when their only “hit” is a gimmicky novelty song featuring sardonic advice to teens in a spoken word arrangement?   They don’t, even when they deserve to.  Nada Surf will likely always be associated with their 1996 single “Popular” even if it isn’t at all indicative of their catalog.  In fact, when Nada Surf’s record label discovered that the band made no attempt to repeat the formula on their second album, they were unceremoniously dumped.   While the follow-up did eventually get released on an indie label, it wasn’t until 2003’s Let Go that we heard the bands true potential.   The best songs on Let Go dance deviously around a theme until singer Matthew Caws finds just the right lyric and melody to bring it home.  The albums opening track “Blizzard of ‘77” is slightly psychedelic and vague until Caws works up the nerve to declare, “I miss you more than I knew…”   Musically Let Go is a virtual tour of subtle influences.  Punk makes an appearance on “Happy Kid.”  “Hi-Speed Soul” and “Killians Red” feature a new-wave vibe, and Paul McCartney’s melodic touch emerges on “Blonde on Blonde” and “La Pour Cas.”  But, like the Beatles, the glue is Nada Surf’s impeccable pop instincts.  There are hooks and hits all over Let Go.  Not that any record executive would notice.

October 2007

Pela Anytown Graffiti

One of the enduring mysteries of the modern music industry is why so many great bands and great albums languish in obscurity while Bon Jovi continues to make money.  Any music nerd worth his weight in bootlegs can name hundreds of bands and albums more worthy of attention.  Pela’s Anytown Graffiti certainly qualifies.    The album shines with the kind of loose, swing-for-the-fences qualities that can make indie rock positively gripping.   Imagine Coldplay with a little more punk and a lot less writers block, or U2 without all that stuffy stoicism and politics.  Lead singer Billy McCarthy wails with a confidence and machismo way above his weight class while the band reaches for the sort of dramatic crescendos that bring arenas to their feet.  When the shuffle of “Waiting on the Stairs” finally explodes into rock-n-roll bliss, or halfway through the galloping sing-a-long of “Cavalry” it’s hard to understand why Pela isn’t selling out arenas all over the world.   Until then, music nerds will have to be content to enjoy the goosebumps alone. 

September 2007 - Classic

Rage Against the Machine The Battle of Los Angeles

It’s hard to reconcile how one of the most political (and left leaning) bands in more than a generation never released an album during the George W. Bush Administration. Terrorism, war, illegal wiretaps, corporate greed, political corruption, immigration disputes…What exactly is Rage Against the Machine waiting for? Nothing as it turns out. They covered those subjects and more two years before Bush would take office. In fact, 1999’s The Battle of Los Angeles is so prophetic it’s chilling. Lead singer Zack de la Rocha was singing about oil dependence back when a gallon of gas was under $2. Today the lyrics in “Calm Like a Bomb” would earn him a one-way ticket to Gitmo for a week of water boarding with Dick Cheney.  But despite its diverse and inflammatory subject matter, one theme emerges.  Power – who has it and who does not. What happens when a poor, oppressed, uneducated, or disenfranchised populace has had enough.  When de la Rocha screams, “This is no oasis!” at the end of “Ashes in the Fall” he’s not telling us to run for our lives.  He’s ordering us to turn and fight. Musically, Rage’s mix of punk, hip-hop and funk never sounded tighter. The music and message are focused like a laser beam, and the powerful should be terrified. The Battle of Los Angeles could easily inspire a revolt, or at least an impeachment. A fire in the master’s house is set.

August 2007

Interpol Our Love to Admire

Calling Paul Banks lyrics “a little oblique” is a bit like saying Britney Spears “just hasn’t been herself lately”. Take the intro to the song “All Fired Up”: I dream of you draped in wires/And leaning on the breaks/As I leave you with restless liars and dealers on the take. I don’t know what he’s singing about, but I’m sure it doesn’t end well. Such is the Interpol experience. While Our Love to Admire is hardly a stylistic departure from 2004’s Antics, there are some subtle and rewarding variations. One is the refreshing directness of songs like the drug-weary “Rest My Chemistry” and the bored-lover anthem “No I in Threesome”. There are also some restrained musical additions like the dusting of piano in “Pace is the Trick” and some unexpected harmonica on the album-opener “Pioneer to the Falls”. But the growth that made Antics such a vast improvement over their cloudy debut album is everywhere on Our Love to Admire. The melodies are crisp and memorable, bassist Carlos D and drummer Sam Fogarino are easily the tightest rhythm section in rock, and the unexpected changes and unconventional song structures reward repeat listens. Together Interpol continues to be one of the few truly distinctive bands on the mainstream alternative scene. Sadly, alternative bands that disregard the typical alt-rock cookie cutters are rarely rewarded commercially. But isn’t that why we have alternative rock?

July 2007

The National Boxer

For the most part, modern popular music was born when adolescent British hooligans discovered American blues and twisted its dark, sexual emotion into rock-n-roll.  That magic interplay between America and Great Britain continues to this day. And it works both ways. There is hardly a musical trend that can’t be made better by shipping it, one way or the other, across the Atlantic.   Such is the case with the British post-punk movement of the late 70’s. It may have taken nearly 30 years, but America is finally taking the cavernous sound and tortured baritones of Ian Curtis and Joy Division and bending them into something great. With their fourth proper album the Brooklyn-based indie rock band The National have married the politics, wide-open spaces, and gluttony of America to the gloomy precision of British goth. And the results are dramatic.  Matt Berninger and company have created an anthemic yet subtle ode to the ache of missing out and bliss of not knowing what’s really happening. It’s the perfect soundtrack to this country’s three favorite pastimes fear, paranoia, and occasionally, love.

June 2007

The Cure Disintegration

Nothing about The Cure’s 1989 masterpiece Disintegration could ever be called typical. Cure mastermind Robert Smith seemed to ignore every instinct toward conventional pop music (and he has many). The songs are too long, too dark and too short on catchy choruses. The entire album is an A&R mans worst nightmare. Yet it remains the most compelling album in rock history, and inexplicably spawned a hit single (“Love Song”). Despite The Cure’s vast back catalog, Disintegration was a singular achievement. No Cure album, before or since, has sounded quite like it. The drums are hypnotic and the instrument and vocal melodies weave around one another like snakes in slow motion. But despite the albums coherent sound, each song still manages to be unique. The album begins with “Plainsong’s” hushed lonely wind chimes before exploding into a crush of synthesizers that could knock the wind out of you. “Lullaby” is a childhood fairy tale twisted into an arthouse horror flick. The 10-minute poisoned-lover lament “Same Deep Water As You” might be the most depressing song ever committed to tape. And on the galloping title track Smith nearly breaks down while singing a eulogy to a strung-out liar. The entire album has the uncomfortable feel of an unsolicited confession.  Smith is not just telling you sad, sinister secrets about “a friend.” He’s telling you about himself.

May 2007

Arcade Fire Neon Bible

The second album from this seven-member indie rock collective is all about the art of the veiled menace. Whether it’s war (“mirror mirror on the wall show me where the bombs will fall”), the government (“And when you finally disappear we'll just say you were never here”), or nature (“The sound is not asleep, it's moving under my feet”) there is always a nameless threat lurking just out of earshot. But husband and wife songwriters Win Butler and Régine Chassagne save their most interesting venom for the subject of religious fanaticism. It’s no small irony that most of Neon Bible was recorded in a church. Yet, despite the weight of subject matter and the crushing pipe organ in songs like "Black Mirror", "Intervention" and "My Body is a Cage", the music still manages to be uplifting. This is how Springsteen would have sounded if a cloud of radiation were slowly making its way to Asbury Park. The characters on Neon Bible aren’t just escaping authority figures and dead-end futures. They’re fleeing for their lives. Keep the car running indeed.

April 2007


Modest Mouse We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank

Modest Mouse leader Isaac Brock has spent the last decade redefining “optimist” and “pessimist” by challenging what it means to be either. The inside cover of the bands spectacular new album We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank simply says “We Were Lucky.”  In fact, Brock has turned himself into one of rock music’s premier lyricists mining this kind of contradiction. Every cloud on We Were Dead... has a silver lining (“the dashboard melted, but we still have the radio”), and every silver lining has a dark cloud (“We made ourselves a pillar, but we just used it as a crutch”). The back-and-forth of the lyrics is mirrored by the sound of Brock’s singing.  One minute he’s sweet and sincere, the next he’s barking the albums nautical themes like an angry David Bryne.  It’s as if the open ocean offers Brock salvation and peace as well as chaos and despair. And it’s impossible to tell which one he likes more.

March 2007

Neko Case Fox Confessor Brings the Flood

Dark, rich, forceful and hypnotic—Neko Case is what a great red wine would sound like if it could sing. Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is one of those rare occasions when the authority and attentiveness of the songwriting is actually equal to the sheer beauty of the singer’s voice.  Call it a kind of gothic Americana. On the title track and the sublime “John Saw That Number” Case twists her gospel touch into a dark, hot, southern apocalypse. Her gorgeous harmonies and unconventional song structures are all infused with reverbs that are equal parts lush and lonely. Still, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is more than just a platform for Case’s voice.  She plays multiple instruments and writes most of her own songs. Her lyrics are poetic and insightful which is a welcome change from the school-girl, bubblegum-soda platitudes that most of today’s great vocalists seem content to sing (I’m looking at you Christina Aguilera!). On “Margaret Vs. Pauline” Case weaves a pair of character sketches into an ode to populism and female jealously (“One left her sweater sittin' on the train/The other lost three fingers at the cannery/Everything's so easy for Pauline”). Later, on the title track, Case wonders, “Who married me to these orphaned blues?” I don’t know, but I’m glad they did. 

February 2007

The Hold Steady Boys and Girls in America

What do alcohol, drugs, religion and long-gone teenage crushes sound like? They sound like The Hold Steady. This New York-by-way-of Minneapolis band manages to combine the raw guitar power of Never Mind the Bollocks with the somber story telling of Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. Lead singer and songwriter Craig Finn (sounding exactly like Sordid Humor’s Tom Barnes) spits out his lines like a guy telling stories in a bar. And what great stories they are. Finn’s keen observations, subtle wit and seemingly endless parade of heartbreaking junkies reveal how engaging and poetic a downward spiral can be.  But it’s the many overt references to religion (“lost in fog and love and faithless fear/I've had kisses that make Judas seem sincere”) that turn Boys and Girls in America into a mature rock masterpiece. Every character is looking for redemption, and each one passes a church on the way to the bar.