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1. Glocca Morra, Just Married
Your mileage may vary, as this band has connected with me in a huge, unexpected way since the first time I played “Bedford Avenue,” then immediately played it several more times. But even if you don’t end up loving Glocca Morra as much I do, this is a truly excellent album. Just Married pairs math-rock-ish guitar compositions with hoarse, impassioned vocals in a way that recalls Cap’n Jazz or emo bands of that era. (iTunes claims they sound like Circle Jerks, Dead Boys and Black Flag, which I have no idea how they got, but do with that what you will.) And it’s a lyrically cohesive album as well about languishing where you live, confining yourself indoors and doing drugs to cope.
2. Japandroids, Celebration Rock
Celebration Rock isn’t much different from Japandroids’ last album Post-Nothing — same loud, fuzzed-out punk-duo sound, same black-and-white cover, even the same number of songs (eight). Instead it continues to make more of the same glorious noise as that last album that sounds like, as one song puts it, “waiting a generation’s bonfire to begin.” Like The Hold Steady, Japandroids’ lyrical preoccupations are youth on tracks like “Younger Us” and “The Nights of Wine and Roses.” It’s an exuberant piece of work, from the title to the sound of fireworks that open and close the record.
3. Swearin’, Swearin’
Just one year after P.S. Eliot’s break-up, the Crutchfield sisters already had new bands and released two individually excellent albums. Allison Crutchfield joined Swearin’, who released this record more in line with the fuzzy garage-rock sound of Sadie (the first sound we hear is an increasingly loud guitar and drums fading in). Occasionally, the album will slow down for moodier songs like “Divine Mimosa” and “Empty Head.” But for the most part, this is noisy, catchy Superchunk-esque indie rock on tracks like “Kenosha,” “Kill ‘Em with Kindness” and “Crashing,” which comes gratifyingly close to the song’s title.
4. Waxahatchee, American Weekend
I initially included this album with Swearin’ in last year’s best-of, but even though they’re both releases from the Crutchfield sisters, I decided this was unfair because they’re so different. If Swearin’ is closer to the louder, punk-ier Sadie, Waxahatchee takes the softer, more lo-fi sound of Introverted Romance in Our Troubled Minds. Indeed, American Weekend's recording is super lo-fi, but the quality matches the rawness of Katie Crutchfield's lovelorn lyrics (her love of Guided By Voices and Cat Power is evident here.) And I’m not a fan of quiet acoustic music, but I like this album a lot, particularly the quietly devastating “Bathtub.”
5. Sundials, When I Couldn’t Breathe
One of my favorite albums of the recent ’90s revival is this album by Richmond’s Sundials. There’s nothing necessarily groundbreaking here, just 13 unbelievably catchy, noisy, fun power-pop punk earworms. The song I always single out here is “New York Crunch,” which I like to call the best Weezer song in 16 years (it’s even about a country in Asia — who do you think you are, Rivers Cuomo?) But there’s several great tracks on this record, including “Completely Broken” and “Mosby Blues,” and if you’re a fan of bands like Pavement, Superchunk or Weezer, When I Couldn’t Breathe is a must-listen.
6. Toys That Kill, Fambly 42
Todd Congeliere is one of the hardest-working folks in punk — he’s in Toys That Kill, F.Y.P. and Underground Railroad to Candyland, not to mention solo work and running Recess Records — which makes me wonder if we take him for granted. Because this is a pretty excellent collection of 15 pop-punk gems. Congeliere displays his talent for matching deeply catchy punk melodies with bizarre, interesting lyrics on tracks like “Mobbed by the 3’s” and “Abort Me Mother Earth.” This review even compares it to Dillinger Four meets Guided by Voices, which I’m not sure I agree with, but should get you to download this album immediately.
7. John K. Samson, Provincial
This solo album is the closest we’ve gotten to a new Weakerthans record since 2007’s Reunion Tour. But when you’re as skilled a songwriter as Samson, I’ll take whatever I can get. A couple of upbeat, uptempo indie tracks here sound like the Weakerthans, such as “When I Write My Master’s Thesis,” a tale of a grad student’s troubles that’s as witty as that song title suggests. But the song I always point to on this record is “The Last And,” a chronicling of an aborted affair between a teacher and a principal that Samson says was subconsciously inspired by The Simpsons and is one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard.
8. Forgetters, Forgetters
The punk supergroup featuring Jawbreaker’s Blake Schwarzenbach and Against Me!’s Kevin Mahon (Bitchin’s Caroline Paquita had left by now, with Jawbox’s J. Robbins filling in on bass) follows up their great 2010 EP with this great full-length. Highlights include the moody keyboard of “Les Arrivistes,” the pouring rain intro of “Die By Your Own Hand” and “Hoop and Swan,” which recalls my favorite song off the EP, “Too Small to Fail.” The sound’s closer to Jets to Brazil than it is Jawbreaker or Against Me!, although there’s a punk energy to it. Either way, it’s my favorite thing Schwarzenbach’s done since Orange Rhyming Dictionary.
9. Hop Along, Get Disowned
I’ve been listening to Hop Along since 2005’s Freshman Year, and I’ve enjoyed seeing it grow into the band on Get Disowned. The first thing you likely notice when you hear Hop Along is Frances Quinlan, a lovely, unique voice that stood out among her punk contemporaries the same way Laura Stevenson or Katie Crutchfield did. But these are interesting, well-crafted songs as well, with my favorite moment being acoustic opener “Some Grace” bursting into “Tibetan Pop Stars.” And Quinlan is skilled at crafting oddly memorable lines like "I want to love something without it having to need me" on "Kids on the Boardwalk."
10. El-P, Cancer 4 Cure
Although this was a pretty great year for hip-hop, I feel like I must single out this album by maybe my favorite current rapper. Like 2007’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, Cancer 4 Cure is full of abrasive, aggressive, futuristic beats that sound like Philip K. Dick reads. We’re talking about a record with a song called “Drones Over Bklyn” that indeed kind of sounds like what a drone hovering over Brooklyn might blare. Yet it’s not all futuristic soundscapes — there’s straightforward tales like the harrowing "For My Upstairs Neighbor," about El-P telling his neighbor he won’t tell if she kills her abuser.
Also good: Although I initially threw it in with Cancer 4 Cure since El-P produced it, I want to separately acknowledge Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music, another great rap album and a prelude to this year’s awesome El-P/Killer Mike collaboration Run the Jewels. Rapper P.O.S.’ We Don’t Even Live Here is also a worthy follow-up to 2009’s Never Better, in particular “Fuck Your Stuff” and “Weird Friends.” Two great Canadian punk albums got a lot of attention this year: METZ’s self-titled debut album and White Lung’s Sorry. And The Mountain Goats’ Transcendental Youth is another solid album by the tireless John Darnielle.
Great but an EP: Big Eyes’ Back from the Moon is actually a single and not an EP, but I had to include two of the catchiest punk songs penned this year. And The Max Levine Ensemble’s Elephant in the Room is four songs dealing with sexism — which I guess is the “elephant in the room.” The standout track is “Last of the Assholes,” a devastatingly sad list of all the various indignities the song’s female subject has gone through.
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1. O Pioneers!!!, Neon Creeps
O Pioneers!!! was always a precarious act — members seemed to come and go until eventually the lineup was just frontman Eric Solomon and Tampa’s New Bruises, which at least meant I got to see them a lot — but they did leave behind this one terrific, permanent record. Musically, it’s a combination of gravelly voiced punk and unbelievably catchy, uptempo guitar. The lyrics, meanwhile, are an utterly relatable collection of freak-outs about debt, drama and anxiety — fitting for the economic climate of 2009. Special shout-out to “Stressing the Fuck Out,” which along with Cheap Girls’ “Hey Hey I’m Worn Out” got me through a stressed-out, worn-out time of my life.
2. Japandroids, Post-Nothing
I never really know how Pitchfork, Spin and so on settle on which punk bands are okay to like, but it does mean occasionally we get to agree on bands like Titus Andronicus, Fucked Up and Japandroids. On this record, the latter Vancouver duo makes lo-fi, fuzzed-out rock that’s still so loud and full it seems unbelievable that there’s only two of them. And not to use “some of the catchiest songs out there” again so quickly, but tracks like “Young Hearts Spark Fire” are so hook-filled and fun without losing any of their furious punk intensity. "These girls are all Bikini Kill, we need to rock to Bikini Island," Brian King sings on "Wet Hair" — thing is, they’re already kind of both.
3. P.S. Eliot, Introverted Romance in Our Troubled Minds
Katie and Allison Crutchfield are now getting some much-deserved success through their new projects Waxahatchee and Swearin’, but I first fell for the sisters’ music through this band and this album. (My girlfriend goes all the way back to The Ackleys.) Lo-fi punk in a completely different way than Japandroids, there’s a thoughtful tenderness on tracks like “Tennessee” and “Troubled Medium” that you don’t always see in punk. As much as I enjoy the garage-fuzz sound of the band, Crutchfield’s introspective, intelligent songwriting is really what stands out, and it’s no wonder to me that she’s caught on in a big way now.
4. Bomb the Music Industry!, Scrambles
By this point, you should know whether you love or hate Bomb the Music Industry!’s blips and bleeps, Jeff Rosenstock’s caterwauling and lyrical preoccupations with rent, growing up and anxiety. I’ve always loved it, but I feel there’s some maturation on Scrambles in the fuller-sounding musical arrangements as well as tracks like “Cold Chillin’ Cold’ Chillin” that don’t sound anything like the band had done before. But there’s still plenty of great classic-sounding BTMI! tracks like “Can I Pay My Rent in Fun?” and the piano hook of “25!” And “(Shut) Up the Punx” is probably the best punks-hating-on-shitty-punks tune that will ever be penned.
5. Cheap Girls, My Roaring 20’s
As the album title suggests, My Roaring 20’s is one of the great records about being in your twenties. Ian Graham sings about coping with credit cards, working minimum-wage jobs, struggling to keep contact with people and other subjects you wish weren’t utterly relatable, and yet are. As we’ve established before, “Hey Hey I’m Worn Out” meant a lot to me during a pretty exhausting time in my life. And musically, the album’s an even catchier version of the ’90s power pop on Find Me A Drink Home — “Hey Hey I’m Worn Out” and “All My Clean Friends” are particularly great.
6. Andrew Jackson Jihad, Can’t Maintain
I think you can classify Andrew Jackson Jihad fans in two categories — those who loved all their acoustic folk-punk stuff and lost interest after that, and those who loved it when they switched over to electric. I am firmly in the latter category, and Can’t Maintain is one of my favorite albums by them. Electric music fits their jittery, anxious temperament well, from the kick-off of “Heartilation” to the blistering “We Didn’t Come Here to Rock,” a response to armchair critics (perhaps the acoustic-only crowd?) And by mixing it up, it makes the acoustic tracks like the blunt response to an absent father “Who Are You?” hit even harder.
7. Shinobu, Strange Spring Air
This was a good year for Quote Unquote Records, with three of my favorite records and all of my favorite EPs coming from them. And although I don’t like this Shinobu album as much as Worstward Ho!,it’s still great. It similarly pairs literate, witty lyrics with frequently agreeable, occasionally abrasive indie rock (though even the most thrashing song here is “Sometimes I Wish I Were a Cat,” which is about wishing you were a cat.) Then there’s “Chase and Sanborn (A Quale of Friendship),” which could serve as a Shinobu theme song of sorts with its mission statement of “girls and coffee tasting, watching movies and wasting time.”
8. P.O.S., Never Better
I’m normally annoyed when people try to conflate rap into punk (Public Enemy weren’t the black Clash and Enter the 36 Chambers wasn’t one of the best ’90s punk records, they were their own great things.) But P.O.S. is an exception, seemingly dividing his influences between hip-hop and punk — singing a few lines of Fugazi’s “Five Corporations” on “Savion Glover” and featuring Jason Shevchuck on “Terrorish.” You can hear that combination on “Drumroll,” where P.O.S. spits over a speedy drum roll. But the more traditional hip-hop tracks are great as well, like “Low Light Low Life,” which features an awesome verse by Dessa.
9. Good Luck, Into Lake Griffy
Ginger Alford from One Reason and Matt Tobey from Matty Pop Chart formed Good Luck, who released this sunny, sweet, super-catchy album. Tracks like “How to Live Here,” “Come Home” and the Ted Leo-esque “West Wind Ride” evoke sweating in a basement show in the summer, smiling and singing along. There’s even a motif of sorts, as closer “Bringing Them Back to Life” reprises previous track “Stars Were Exploding” and views it from a different perspective. On “Pajammin,” Tobey sings that “the feeling’s spreading up to the ceiling when the band plays everyone’s favorite song,” and Into Lake Griffy, Good Luck created at least a few people’s new favorite song.
10. Future of the Left, Travels with Myself and Another
Now in a completely different sound from Good Luck: this album is bilious, bitter and blistering. This second album by the Wales group including Andy Falkous of Mclusky features enough loud, menacing guitar on every track to sate even Steve Albini. And like Mclusky, the lyrics and song titles are all very funny too, such as “Stand By Your Manatee.” The standout in both cases is “You Need Satan More Than He Needs You,” with sinister synths and a Satanist worrying about his ceremonies with the neuroses of Woody Allen, as he howls, “What kind of orgy leaves a sense of deeper love?”
Also good: Dear Landlord’s Dream Homes is 14 songs of anthems about depression, poverty and horrible living situations, with fist-pumping yet miserable choruses like “sometimes I’m wishing that this world would die.” I’ve mentioned before that I don’t care for quiet acoustic indie, but Smog has always been an exception and so is Bill Callahan’s Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, even as he goes sparer on gorgeous tracks like “Jim Cain” and “Too Many Birds.” Franz Nicolay’s Major General is another exception, in particular the beautiful “Cease-Fire, or Mrs. Norman Maine.” And it's not my favorite album of theirs, but I think The Mountain Goats’ The Life of the World to Come gets unfairly dismissed as the Christian album when it has some great songs like “Matthew 25:21.”
Great but an EP: Bomb the Music Industry!’s Jeff Rosenstock, Latterman’s Mike Campbell and Thousandaires’ Dave Garwacke formed a formidable ‘90s-throwback trio on Kudrow’s Lando, both on the fuzzed-out, super-catchy speediness of “Favreau” and the slow jam of “Commutilation.” The Max Levine Ensemble’s Ben Weasel EP recalls a different moment of the ‘90s — Hickey’s “split” with the Voodoo Glow Skulls — on this hilarious response to Weasel’s dissing of them on his radio show. With laser-like precision, they point out how pop-punk’s most nasal frontman is complaining about a band sounding too whiny, and how this supposed punk hero is really just a sad, aging jock. And finally, there’s The Wild’s self-titled debut EP. There’s nothing revolutionary about the record, just incredibly solid folk-punk — with “The City That Never Sleeps” remaining my favorite song by them.
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(Note: I like almost of these albums equally, and there wasn’t any front-runner favorite, so I’m just going to rank these alphabetically for now.)
1. Algernon Cadwallader, Some Kind of Cadwallader
As I like my “emo-punk” to lean closer on “punk,” Algernon Cadwallader’s combination of gorgeous guitar interplay and hoarse, impassioned singing is music to my ears. Specifically, the music of the Kinsellas — as this album is indebted to the screaming and non-sequitur lyrics of Cap’n Jazz as well as the lush instrumentation of American Football. But Algernon Cadwallader gives it an even faster punk energy, resulting in two-minute gems like the title track and “Katie’s Conscious.” I even enjoy the 13-minute instrumental “In Response to Irresponsibility,” and the list of “13-minute instrumentals I enjoy” is very small.
2. Cheap Girls, Find Me A Drink Home
I think around this time, bands were starting to pull their ’90s records out and think, “Oh shit, these are actually really good.” And arguably no one is better at it than Cheap Girls, who at various moments sound like The Lemonheads, The Smoking Popes, Dinosaur Jr. or Jawbreaker (the opening riff of “I Should Never” always reminds me of “Indictment.”) Out of this they fashioned 11 power-pop punk tracks that capture the mid-twenties malaise such as “Kind Of On Purpose” and “Stop Now. I just learned that the opening line of “Parking Lot” is in fact “are you standing up or sitting down,” not “are you standing up for sitting down, which is to me the perfect slacker anthem line. Oh well.
3. Dillinger Four, Civil War
This year, the Minneapolis pop-punk band put out their first record in six years since Situationist Comedy. And what Civil War lacks in divergence from Midwestern Songs of the Americas or Versus God in sound, samples or silly song titles, it makes up for in quality of the songs. The fan favorite is “Gainesville,” an ode to the city and the punk promenade Fest that it holds, with the hook of it “it feels like summer in October.” But there are a number of other gems on this album, such as the following tracks “Ode to the North American Snake Oil Distributor” or “MINIMUM WAGE IS A GATEWAY DRUG.”
4. Fucked Up, The Chemistry of Common Life
Fucked Up takes hardcore and the guttural howl of Damien “Pink Eyes” Abraham, stretches the songs out to five or six-minute mini-epics and adds in gorgeous guitar and interesting instrumentation. What you end up with is a kind of The Shape of Punk to Come for the new decade — “Golden Seal,” with its backing synths and horns, almost sounds like it could belong on that album. There’s some instrumentation I wonder if even Refused would’ve tried, like the bongo backbeat of “Magic Word” or the flute that opens and closes this album. So this is a pretty great record where beauty and brutality are in conflict with each other on tracks like “Son the Father” and “Black Albino Bones.”
5. The Hold Steady, Stay Positive
I think this might be my favorite Hold Steady album — it continues to document the boys and girls in America, but with a little more weary wisdom. There’s still plenty of uptempo rockers like “Constructive Summer” and “Stay Positive,” which lovingly name-drop Dillinger Four and 7 Seconds and espouse, well, constructive positivity. But there’s also “One For The Cutters,” a typical Hold Steady tale of townies and parties that takes a sinister turn with hilariously dark lyrics like “Daddy, do you know where your kids are? Sniffing on crystal in cute little cars, getting nailed against dumpsters behind townie bars.” And it ends with “Slapped Actress,” which uses the theater as an extended metaphor and gets in some mentions of Ybor City.
6. Laura Stevenson and the Cans, A Record
I’ve been listening to Laura Stevenson since she was putting up bare-bones demos with titles like “09/27/06 song” on Myspace. And although I’ve liked her new albums full of instrumentation too, there’s something about the sparse beauty of songs like “Nervous Rex” and “Beets Untitled.” There’s the Neutral Milk Hotel-esque “Landslide Song” and the ethereal “The Source and Sound,” but it’s largely just Stevenson. Mostly I remember my surprise that a member of Bomb the Music Industry! had such an utterly gorgeous voice, which coos and contorts in a way that for BTMI!’s cover, Jeff Rosenstock had to put his vocals on repeat to match her “and driiiiiive” on “A Shine To It.”
7. Lemuria, Get Better
Not long after Descendents’ Cool to Be You featured both “Nothing With You” and “One More Day,” here’s another pop-punk album about romance and death in the family. Opening track “Pants,” with its chorus of “I want my hands in your hair,” is another perfect love song like “Hours” sung sweetly by Sheena Ozzella. But there’s also darker tracks like “Yesterday’s Lunch” and “Dog,” which deal with the death of Alex Kerns’ father. As Kerns and Ozzella alternate vocal duties, their sound switches between notes of Discount and The Lemonheads for a very pleasing ’90s throwback-indie-punk sound.
8. The Mountain Goats, Heretic Pride
I’d known John Darnielle was a fan of metal, but I feel like this is the first Mountain Goats album where you can tell in the music. Even in their acoustic indie trappings, there’s a real intensity to songs like “Sax Rohmer #1” (“a rabbit gives up somewhere and a dozen hawks descend” sounds like a metal lyric) and the title track, which is like The Stranger's last line put to music. Then there's “Lovecraft in Brooklyn,” which rocks harder than anything the band had done up to that point. Of course, there's just plain gorgeous tracks like “San Bernardino” and the actual metal band-referencing song “Marduk T-Shirt Men's Room Incident,” so maybe this theory is going nowhere.
9. Off With Their Heads, From the Bottom
This is Off With Their Heads’ first full-length, if you don’t count Hospitals as a record (which I do). And like that release, From The Bottom is largely energetic pop-punk songs with miserable lyrics. We’re talking about an album that starts off with “I Am You” and Ryan Young growling “I’ll tell you why I fucking hate my life, and I’ll tell you why I can’t seem to get it right” and goes from there. Yet these depressing songs remain oddly invigorating — partially because they’re still super-fast, super-catchy punk tunes, partially because it creates a kind of catharsis, putting your darkest feelings upfront and dealing with it from there.
10. The Riot Before, Fists Buried in Pockets
Richmond’s The Riot Before plays streamlined, stripped-down punk and is good at it, but that’s not keeps me returning to this record. No, what really stands out is Brett Adams’ introspective, Blake Schwarzenbach-esque songwriting, as he looks toward immigration (“5 to 9”), religion (“Words Written Over Coffee”) and himself (“I Have My Books”). "Words Written Over Coffee" in particular is an amazingly well-written track about not exactly the most punk-friendly of subjects: admitting you had religious faith, then losing it. I think this commenter put it best: “Damn, hipster mullet can write.” Indeed he can.
Also good: I really like Bridge and Tunnel’s East/West, partially the first two tracks “Wartime Souvenirs” and “Call to the Comptroller’s Office,” just couldn’t find room for it on this list. Same with The Max Levine Ensemble’s OK Smartypants, which contains some insanely catchy tracks like “Aren’t All Songs Political? Aren’t All Songs Vaguely Self-Referential?” as well as punk cred in pissing Ben Weasel off. Pegasuses-XL’s The Antiphon is a electronic band featuring members of Bomb the Music Industry! and We Versus the Shark that sounds nothing like either but is pretty great — particularly the piano hook of “Marathon Mansion.” Titus Andronicus’ The Airing of Grievances isn’t as great as The Monitor, but establishes the epic, reference-loaded sound. Finally, We Versus the Shark’s Murmurmur is maybe the best cover album I’ve ever heard, with a great selection (Scratch Acid, Tom Waits,Television and Future of the Left.)
Great but an EP: So is The Measure [SA]’s Songs About People … And Fruit ‘N Shit considered an EP or a LP? God, I am bad at keeping track of these. Anyway, tracks like “Hello Bastards” and “Revisionist” are among the best, catchiest pop-punk tracks of recent years. And though I’m mostly ignoring singles collections with these lists, I should mention this year’s One Chapter in the Book and particularly their cover of “The Moment You Said Yes” is terrific.
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In this interview, I talk to David Combs, who plays in the Max Levine Ensemble and as Spoonboy. The Max Levine Ensemble just released a new EP Elephant in the Room, which has some great songs like “The Last of the Assholes” that deal with issues in sexism. In addition, they also put out the full-length OK Smartypants and the Ben Weasel EP— a response to Ben Weasel’s dissing of the band on his radio show and a prescient piece of work, considering what an asshole he proved himself to be. We talk about Elephant in the Room, Ben Weasel and running into Ian McKaye at a vegan pastry shop.