The music industry fucked up and they’re paying for it. Awesome. They were caught with their pants down when it came to rapidly changing audio technology and are currently getting much-needed blowback for putting out far too many shitty bands. Make no mistake, a lot of music made in 2003 was great and, as in the past, when the music industry’s reeling from is own gross misconduct, many more bands can slide under the radar and continue to grow instead of getting harvested for mass consumption. It’s still unfathomable to me that folks still go into a store and plunk down close to twenty dollars on a CD because they liked one song on the radio. I just don’t have that type of disposable income.
Poke around. There are some surprising finds to be made. The good news: the punk rock I know and love has been flourishing. Here are my top picks of the year, in no particular order. I didn’t restrict it solely to ten because I don’t need to kowtow to any honky numerical oppression.
Grabass Charlestons: The Greatest Story Ever Hula’d. Melody, sadness, reckless gambling, fists and fingers to the man, hard work, and the bros, not pros attitude make this one a keeper. Plunk Hula’d on right before their split with Billy Reese Peters from a year prior and you’ll be singing “suicide at eight bucks an hour!” in no time flat. Shirts off, dudes on. A power trio with a cactus-attacking, ultra-bendable bass player. http://www.grabasscharlestons.com/
The Soviettes: self-titled. I’ve never blamed blame pop punk as a genre. I just didn’t care for the deluge of limp, mediocre bands in the mid to late ’90s that hoisted its flag and shit on its porch. The Soviettes not only put new spark in a dying engine, their razor-sharp melodies and barbed Go-Go’s meet Bikini Kill (with all vowels included when mentioning gender) songs are seamless, fun, and personal without being accusatory or self-indulgent. They also take Clear Channel to task. http://www.the-soviettes.com/
The Riverboat Gamblers: Something to Crow About. One of highest criteria I have for a band is the ability for me to enjoy what they’re doing when I don’t really fancy the influences they pull from. Like Turbonegro, I can’t say I listen to The Sweet, but I’m glad those wacky Norwegians put it in their music to add new dimensions. The Riverboat Gamblers take the wankless, full-throttle essence of classic rock, taser it at full run, and knock its teeth out. I like classic rock when its bound, gagged, and abused. The Riverboat Gamblers deliver in spades. The first song is less than thirty seconds. Its chorus is “let’s eat.” They also have two very hummable tunes about suicide. http://www.theriverboatgamblers.com/
Sweet J.A.P.: Virgin Vibe. The Teengenerate comparison is hard to shake, and it’s sure as hell isn’t a dismissal. When a band comes along and smears the distinction between hardcore and garage, I’m all ears. I love sweet-sounding chaos. Since Scared of Chaka broke up and that ghetto wall wasn’t being rammed by them, Sweet J.A.P. have more than filled the void. Live, they’ve full fucking action, my friend. http://www.geocities.com/hideonnr/
Mea Culpa: They Put You in a Mask. It’s not hard to imagine Mea Culpa as the band that George Orwell would have started if were a punk from Seattle. Ultra-intelligent, contemporary, and not heavy handed would be good enough for me. The fact that they can make songs on par with the best of Stiff Little Fingers and the Swingin’ Utters, well, here’s an underrated gem. Guilt-free, street-infected rock’n’roll shenanigans and mindbombs. http://www.meaculpamusic.homestead.com/index.html
Knockout Pills: self-titled. This one’s a sleeper. I’ve been in Weird Lovemakers withdrawals and, at first, this record didn’t slake that thirst. Then it started to slowly wend its way to the turntable more and more. Maybe it’s the incredibly deep record collections these guys are tapping from. Maybe it has something to do with growing up in Lawrence Kansas, plugging The Embarrassment into The Mortal Micronotz. Maybe it has to do with long-ass drug binges and tapping into the unknown powers of having a front man known as The Archie Bunker of Punk Rock. One never knows the inner makeup, but if you’re looking for a punk record that could have been made in the sixties or a pop record from a slightly more gritty parallel plane, this is the ticket. The first song, “Reject Button,” should be played on construction sites and wrecking yards at quitting time instead of fuckin’ Led Zeppelin. http://www.knockoutpills.com/
The Tim Version: Prohibition Starts Tomorrow. Another policy I hold dearly is the instant disqualification clauses I have in music. Sure, I’m a dick, but these criteria rarely fail me. If you have an out-of-focus sunset on the cover of your album, you suck. (That’s never failed.) If you thank Jesus in the liner notes, no dice. (Except Circle One, but John Macias ended up being killed by a cop, so it balances out.) But the TimVersion’s lead singer, Russ, can wear flip flops and a Panama hat (two big negatives, right behind if you do a cappella in a break down or thank The Eagles in your liner notes) and rock the fuck out. Any band that has me rewriting my own rules is a powerhouse. You know how duct tape has one shiny side and one gummy side? The Tim Version are the gummy side. Not at all flashy, but rub it and have it stick and try not to pull any hair off with it. If you like Leatherface, gruff vocals, undeniable hooks, and some muted and sneaky stuff at work, there you have it. http://home.earthlink.net/~timversion/
Toys That Kill: Control the Sun. On the first several listens, I wasn’t as happy with this as their obviously a blister-on-your-ass first full length, The Citizen Abortion. It takes balls to not only change your name from FYP because your headspace is different, it takes huger nuts to not paint yourself into a musical corner after such a kickass debut. As I said with the Riverboat Gamblers, I see how this band uses the past (this time the Beatles) and stretches that taffy so much that your average listener would think I’m fuckin’ high, but it’s true. TTK are not only quietly shape shifting the possibilities and diameters for pop and punk, they’ve made a record that is slower, weirder, and more hypnotizing than their first. http://www.toysthatkill.com/
The Arrivals: Exsenator Orange. Straight-ahead, no pretense, from the land of Naked Raygun rock with a script and agenda of their own. At the beginning of their set, the dick bartender and dick soundman were harassing them to start because they wanted to go home. By the end of their enforced fourteen-minute set, both dicks apologized and offered them non-ass future shows. In those fourteen minutes, I felt like I was witnessing the secret formula for musical nuclear bombs. So tight, so explosive, and almost telepathic. http://www.thearrivalsrock.com/
Various Artists: Tower 13. Remember the days when bands didn’t pay to be on comps, or when there wasn’t the throw-away sampler disguised as a comp? Hostage Records does and pulls out all the stops. It’s a panoramic view of true punk rock bubbling out of Orange County, California in all its infected glory. Unlike most comps, I’m not playing DJ with this one by reaching for the tone arm to skip crappy tracks. This one sounds great all the way through. Proudly, vinyl only. http://www.hostagerecords.com/
Rocket From the Crypt: Live from Camp X-Ray. This is the RFTC album I’ve been waiting for since Circa? Now! Twelve songs, no duds, end of record. It hit me the hardest when I was driving through a flood, then sleet, then a mesmerizing ball of snow hovering above the truck that this is my soul music that talks to me in a language I already speak (with occasional horns). Try to listen to this and not want to punch your windshield out and/or learn how to dance, fancy-like. http://www.rftc.com/
The Ends: Sorry XOXOXO. I like the fact that if a band knows, at its core, that songwriting is their main propulsion, little things like new wave, street rock, oi, and other strictly musical nooses become irrelevant in their hands. I have a feeling their laser beam is still gaining focus, and this is a great introductory full-length. This gets played in tandem with Mea Culpa a bunch. http://www.theends.com/
Smogtown: Tales of Gross Pollution. It’s telling that a retrospective of this barely touring band’s career is as potent as it is. The early mixes are rougher and faster, and I already have most of these songs on various comps, seven-inches, and splits, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Smogtown were hometown heroes, like a real life version Repo Man (quirky, exciting, and both real and surreal at the same time) that lasted many fine years. If you’re looking for one of the finest artifacts of late ’90s, early ’00s California punk rock, here’s where you start your digging. http://www.hostagerecords.com/smogtown.html
Releases real close to getting on the list, and if it were a different day, they might have got on it. All of them are excellent in their own rights.
The Starvations: Get Well Soon
Randy: Welfare Problems
Strike Anywhere: Exit English
From Ashes Rise: Nightmares
Against Me!: As the Eternal Cowboy
Smut Peddlers: Ten Inch
Dead Things: Because Sometimes You Just Want to Ride Your Bike to the Show…
Chargers Street Gang: Through the Windshield
The Bananas: Nautical Rock’n’Roll
This Bike Is a Pipebomb: Front Seat Solidarity
The Tyrades: self-titled
Fleshies: The Sicilian
The Stitches: Twelve Imaginary Inches
House On Fire: self-titled. Alex, the former lead singer of Panthro UK United 13 is one intense dude who makes anger anthemic and pain a chorus, but in a way makes you feel that if he was starting an army, you’d join in one second flat.
Smalltown: Years, Months. Another contender for the Stiff Little Fingers crown. A trio of Scandinavians pull off spotless power pop for the drinking classes. http://come.to/smalltown
Broken Bottles: Not Pretty. This band is the difference between acting crazy (current-day Mike Ness who yells “who’s wearing black panties?” at every live show) and residing in the cuckoo’s nest (like Mommy’s Little Monster-era Mike Ness), and although, yes, Jes the Mess sounds like Mike Ness, Broken Bottles are Orange County punk rock personified. Fucked-up, radioactive, catchy-as-hell, crack-in-the-reactor California prototypes. The surprise of the EP is “I Want Problems,” an acoustic number that you don’t know if you should laugh with or cry along to. http://www.brokenbottles.com/home1.htm
This Is My Fist!: I Don’t Want to Startle You But They Are Going to Kill Most of Us. Melt the Avengers into Discount and Shotwell, sharpen the edge, and you’re getting the feel for this. Pure, sweet, snarly, dirty pop propulsion with matching political consciousness. Annie ties it all together with clarion vocals. http://thisismyfist.tripod.com/
The Marked Men: self-titled. Pitch perfect. It almost sounds like early, foul-teeth UK punk but born and bred on Killed By Death-style Texas hardcore. It’s catchy with Undertones-like bass lines, yet it’s much faster and gritty than hipster shoobie-do-wah-wah rock. They sound like they’re playing with lit firecrackers in their pants. http://www.themarkedmen.com/
The Minds: Rip Out Your Eyes. One could make the assessment that The Minds are half the Epoxies and half The Briefs. The comparison wouldn’t be that much off the mark, but that misses the paper cuts, the second-hand smoke, the strangulated cat-like keyboard, and the bright light you see when your head hits pavement. I’m being tricky here because their full length, Plastic Girls, is just as good but I didn’t have a space in the full-length list. Sooo stupid. They’re smarter than your average deviants.
Fucked Up: Baiting the Public. With the name, I first thought I’d be getting my ear belt-sanded off by some crust, but what Fucked Up deliver is highly inventive, melodic hardcore that has as much in common with Negative Approach as the Buzzcocks’ jangle, but played at exactly the same time. Oddly crisp undertones with aggression liberally slathered on top. Ends with a Big Boys-esque saxophone. Nice. http://www.derangedrecords.com/pages/bands/fu.html
Fleshies / Toys That Kill split. What a perfect match. The Cows-meets-AC/DC voltage of the Fleshies mere millimeters away from TTK’s Cheap Trick-with-its-guitars-in-a-socket ditty has harmonized whistling, an infectious chorus, and guitars that could hypnotize cobras. http://www.gcrecords.com/
FM Knives – two-way tie with Promotional Device and Keith Lavine / Valentine. Yes, they sound like The Buzzcocks more than the Buzzcocks have in a long time and I wasn’t ready for the Buzzcocks to lose their magic so soon, so call me a throwback for living in the past. Now I have an inkling why people get so into watching Civil War reenactment battles. http://www.fmknives.com/
Kill-a-Watts/ Sweet J.A.P. split. The glass-shattering Wisconsin teenage delinquency of the Kill-a-Watts usually annihilates anyone on the other side of the split, but Japan’s foreign exchange students residing in Minnesota prove that sushi and kung fu are able contenders to beer, brats, and cheese. If anyone comes up to you in bell bottoms and starts prattling on about, “Garage rock this, garage rock that,” have these four songs be your diplomatic “shut the hell up.” http://www.angelfire.com/wi/killawatts/
Stupor Stars: Bernadette b/w Born to Run. They’re huge in Mexico and shamelessly overlooked in the hometown of LA. What sealed the deal is that when I saw them live, I though, “Aw, crap. A tambourine.” Then lead signer, Rick, continued to beat it against his bald head the entire set, only to change it up and beat it on the ground. They’ve got the juice where they mix ’50s innocence to ’60s sleaze and ’00s energy. Rock’n’roll the way it should be played, so much so, the Bruce Springteen cover doesn’t bother me in the slightest. http://www.stuporstars.com/
Rivethead. I’m not sure what I have is even released, if it has a name, or what, but the guys handed me a CD with only their name on it back in June and I’ve played it over 200 times. This goes back to the sentiment with The Soviettes. Pop punk got a much-deserved bad rap for its bandwagon being overpopulated by a bunch of poo, but Rivethead’s power can’t be denied. With lines like, “we blew up a bank, and we offed some pigs, and after we overthrew the government, we kissed,” they offer the right balance of humor and conviction that was sorely missing. At first, I thought they cut a little too close to Screeching Weasel’s front lawn, but it became irrelevant after about ten spins. http://www.rivetheadpunk.com/
This list is a little bit broader, and I’m only limiting it to what I read this year – some old, some new.
Snakepit: (comic/zine) Ben draws three panels per every day of his life. It’s honest, quick to digest, addictive, and, at the end, it’s surprising how real and powerful a comic can be.
Barracuda: (zine) Sure, people know it as a magazine with pretty ladies, and it is, but unlike the old standard line of “I read it for the articles,” those pieces are the meat and potatoes for me. Well-told tales of inventors, explorers, innovators, and muckrakers fill its well-designed pages. You can’t find a more upright, no bullshit citizen than its editor, Jeff Fox. http://www.barracudamagazine.com/
Everyone in Silico: (book) Jim Monroe is not only one of the most productive, organized, and energetic independent publishers in the world, he’s a great writer, too. Jim really flexes his plot muscle in this one, telling the story from many different strands and weaving them all together in a science fiction book that’ll stand the test of time. http://www.nomediakings.net/
The Flivver King: (book) I was doing research on the connection between Henry Ford and the Nazis and found this phamplet-sized, union-made book written by Upton Sinclair via the extensive LA library system. It tells two stories – about Ford and one of his first workers – and by showing two sides, illuminates what simultaneous drives industrialists and the working class. The book is hard to find, but well worth the search.
Dude, Where’s My Country: (book) By pure happenstance, the airplane seat I occupied had this hardbound book in the pouch in front of it. Michael Moore seems to be going for more throats nowadays, cutting down a bit on the humor, providing extensive footnotes, and suggesting actual steps to changing the country, which I think are all for the better. I’m pinching myself that lots of people actually read this book. Cool. http://www.michaelmoore.com/
The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo: (book) The real-life person behind Hunter S. Thompson’s Samoan attorney in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was Oscar Zeta Acosta, and I dare say that Acosta talks about drugs, craziness, race relations, gender relations, and bodily functions with the best of them. It’s brutally honest, funny, and fast. If you can’t find this one, see if you can track down Revolt of the Cockroach People, which covers the East LA riots right before Acosta’s disappearance.
Tight Pants: (zine) Maddy is awesome. Spot-on punk rock references, unbridled enthusiasm, non-dogmatic realizations and erudition on class politics, and funny remembrances of her childhood make Tight Pants essential reading. I literally stop what I’m doing the day it comes in the mail and read it all the way through.
Go Metric!: (zine) Mike Faloon, along with Al Quint, are two people I trust with the holiest of holies – informing me on the next several records to seek out. Mike’s not only got his finger on the pulse of pop punk, but his writing style is understated, direct, and witty. I like the idea of sister publications. If you’re a fan of Razorcake, Go Metric! should be on your reading list too.
Suburban Voice: (zine) Al Quint is the patron saint of punk and hardcore. He’s the only one of the original punk zinesters still standing, having never thrown in the towel since his first issue. If you want the most well-formed ideas on hard, fast music, some of the best punk interviews ever conducted, and someone who isn’t shy of positive criticism, SV is the ticket.
Genetic Disorder: (zine) If you think the zine’s crazy, meet Larry in person. If he calls you a nark, tells you that he’s going to bury you in the desert, asks if you’re holding, or makes a beeline for the beer you’ve got in your hand, that’s just his way of saying hi. Genetic mixes the weirdness of San Diego and the brain melt of growing up in the Imperial Valley into well-told tales of paint huffing, satanism, and being broker than broke. http://www.geneticdisorder.net/
You Idiot! / Pick Your Poison: (zine) Nate Gangelhoff is finding his stride. From the stories he tells, I’m surprised he wasn’t decapitated as a kid or serving a long sentence in jail. What’s cool is seeing him make larger and larger connections and subtly giving his stories more and more weight. If you want insight into anti-drug video games and 99 Cent store finds, Nate’ll catch your ear. http://www.pickyourpoison.net/
It was kind of a weird year for music. Pegboy didn’t put out an album. Neither did Leatherface. Super Chinchilla Rescue Mission, Smogtown, the New Bomb Turks, and Dick Army all broke up. But that was okay. Life goes on. Bowling didn’t become any less fun, and burritos didn’t suddenly taste worse. I found new bands to catch my ear, new records to blow my mind.
1. Fleshies: The Sicilian. Two words: holy shit. Rock, but not in a “hot guitar licks” kind of way. Punk, but not in a “smash the state” kind of way. Dirty, but not crusty. Catchy, but not intentionally so. It’s kind of like the unholy alliance of Blatz, the Jesus Lizard, Led Zeppelin, and that one Mudhoney song that I like, but who the hell knows. Christ, what a record. http://www.fleshies.net/
2. Toys That Kill: Control the Sun. The only way that I can think of to describe this record would be “kind of like the Beatles, but good.” It’s essentially pop music warped by untold amounts of bong hits and filtered through the who-gives-a-shit punk rock filter in a way that rocks countless house parties across the nation. It’ll creep up on you and make you wet your pants. (As a side note, Toys That Kill and Fleshies have a split 7″ out on Geykido Comet Records. It slays the competition.)
3. The Grabass Charlestons: The Greatest Story Ever Hula’d. I rarely get this excited about a band, but I can’t help it. There’s nothing missing. Imagine a sweat-drenched Leatherface festering in the middle of a central Florida swamp. Nobody’s slacking, nobody’s wanking, nobody’s sober, and nobody’s bummed out. Whoo boy. Throw your arm around the person next to you and yell your lungs out, it’s time for some intergalactic homoerotica.
4. The Stun Guns: ?And There Was Nothing We Could Do About It. A few years ago, somebody made me a tape featuring the Stun Guns song “TV Tan.” It ruled. It was fast and sloppy, but with the precision sloppiness found only in some of the best bands this planet has ever known, like the Motards. It was catchier than their Florida pop punk brethren like the Crumbs, and that was saying something. When I could find no information about this band, I was bummed. How could a band this awesome just disappear into obscurity? Years passed. I saw this record in a record store and I bought it on sight. It surpassed my expectations. Twelve songs of sweet, sweet spazzy punk rock that doesn’t give a shit. Buy it.
5. Sharp Knife: self-titled. I think it would be a big disservice to this band to call them a low-key Fleshies, but that’s not entirely wrong. Filter out the grunge and hard rock tendencies, splice in some of whatever makes Chattanooga house parties so much fun, have them hand-screen the covers of their records, and you’ve got Sharp Knife. Screaming, sweating, pounding good times. http://www.geocities.com/sharpknifeispunk/
6. Onion Flavored Rings: self-titled. Four records on this list have hand-screened covers. Coincidence? No, not really. Enough of the glossed over crap that passes for underground punk. Bring back the bands that know that they’ll never be popular and laugh in the face of their own futility. Bring back the bands that don’t consider the term “spaz” an epithet. This record made me dance around like a retard and I was not ashamed in the least.http://do-boy.com/music/ofr/news/index.html
7. The Tim Version: Prohibition Starts Tomorrow & Floribraska. They’re dudes. They like beer. They rock. It’s a very simple equation. I don’t like CDs very much but Prohibition Starts Tomorrow is too good to leave off this list. Inspired drunkenness hasn’t sounded this good since Everready. They also put out a 10″ of acoustic country songs, including covers of the Flying Burrito Brothers and “1916” by Motorhead, and it rules too.
8. The Replacements: Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash. In all honesty, I listened to this record more than any record released in the past year. Way to go, 2003.
9. Kid Dynamite: Cheap Shots, Youth Anthems. I have to say, if Kid Dynamite put out a collection of their various belches and farts, it would kick ass many times over most of the stuff that came out this year. I’ve heard very few bands, especially hardcore bands, have this kind of power and cohesiveness.
10. The Motards: Stardom. I have to say, if the Motards put out a collection of their various belches and farts, it would kick ass many times over most of the stuff that came out this year. This band was the epitome of rock and roll while they were around, and listening to them now exposes just how limpwristed most of today’s alleged garage rock bands really are. http://www.mortvillerecords.com/
11. Rivethead: Attack of the Goddamn Vikings. I don’t know if this record came out in 2003, and it’s probably not even called Attack of the Goddamn Vikings, although that would be cool. Voltron style pop punk, they take the serious side of Screeching Weasel and couple it with the steamroller power of Dillinger Four. They don’t have time to fuck around.
12. The Soviettes: self-titled. Minneapolis hasn’t had this many good bands since the days of Man Sized Action and Soul Asylum (read with irony). They’re kind of like bubblegum that explodes when you chew it (which I think was on the old Inspector Gadget cartoon). They’ve got sharp hooks, but they’re propulsive and angry. It’s also really great that women in punk rock don’t have to resort to Bratmobile-style accusatory lyrics.
13. House on Fire: self-titled 7″. I don’t think I can say anything about this band or this record that will do them justice. Let’s just say that House on Fire doesn’t reside in the shadow of Alex’s last band, Panthro UK United 13. Seething melodic hardcore with lyrics that I almost want to get tattooed across my chest. Pure power.
14. The Ends: Sorry XOXOXO. A perfect example of a band blowing their influences out of the water. Really good ’77 pop punk, taking cues from bands like the Jam and the Saints, stabbing them in the chest with a shot of adrenalin and fast-forwarding them into the here and now. Snotty vocals, sharp guitars, and a rhythm section that never rests on its laurels.
15. I Excuse: Burn the Empty to Ash. A Japanese punk band that sounds like the Thumbs and Leatherface? I need to change my underwear. Tighly revved and yet raw as hell, I’m envious of people who live in Japan and get to see these guys on a regular basis.
1. Lightning Bolt
2. Dead Things
3. The Plungers
4. Minority Blues Band
5. I Excuse
8. Those Peabodys
9. Crucial Unit
10. The Tyrades
Texas Mafia: Moody, synthesized violin-rock that hits hard. The lyric I can’t get out of my head, “Wish I never laid eyes on you.”
The Grand Elegance: The Doors for a now generation. (Hey, I like The Doors!)
The Checkers: Pure pop heaven.
The Main Frame: New Order meets something else really good/cool from the 80s without sounding retro.
Miracle Chosuke: Broken up (again). Still, I want to thank them for getting back together — if only for a few months. Their songs are spaztic, one-minute bursts of Devo-like insanity.
The Orphans: Always hot. And they have the best live show stories. Like the time when their bassist Wade played with a broken arm and then cut an important artery and squirted blood all over the audience. Oh yeah, and of course he threw up, too. (I hear it was BBQ. Yum.)
Other music love:
The Rapture: Echoes. The onslaught of Cure rip-off bands has begun/contiues. But in a good way…
Ladytron: Light & Magic. I love it when bands wear matching outfits. Especially if it involves black turtlenecks. Oh yeah, and the music is rad, too. A not-so-robotic Kraftwerk.
Interpol: Turn On The Bright Lights. So beautiful. It’s been a year and I still can’t stop listening to it.
No Doubt box set. Laugh all you want. It makes dance.
Andy Gibb: Shadow Dancing. I had this when I was a kid and re-bought it on vinyl a couple of months ago. He had very white teeth, well-manicured and fluffy hair, and lovely satin shirts. It’s so wrong, but I love this album.
The Gossip: Movement. Soul sister! Beth Ditto’s got one mega set of pipes. And the music… so infectious.
Finally “getting” Siouxsie and Duran Duran.
Fine live moments:
The Let’s Get Rid of L.A. comp release show weekend at Juvee on the weekend it closed.
The Rolling Blackouts and The Flash Express as Spaceland during one of the Flash’s residencies.
The Starvations any and every time.
The Vanishing playing for 12 minutes at The Hemlock Tavern in San Francisco.
I liked a lot of shit last year. I gotta say, 2K3 wasn’t that bad for the headphones.
Ryan Adams: Rock N Roll / Love Is Hell, Pt. 1 / Love Is Hell, Pt. 2 (Lost Highway). I’ve heard a handful of stories about Rock N Roll, including a rumor that the label wanted an album which was more rock in nature. Adams, for his part, says the album came together organically as he and some friends screwed around in a studio and they simply liked the results better than the more reflective material which would become Love Is Hell. And sure, critics have been dog-piling on each other to name the references and influences here, but who fucking cares? Rock N Roll is a soaring, gorgeously crafted rock record – it’s grounded in everything from 1970s rock and power pop to records that came out last year (and made this list). What it boils down to is this – despite still being pigeon-holed as an alt-country musician, Adams is consistently making some of the most diverse, engaging and wry albums of this decade. Rock N Roll is simply the latest in this succession. Love Is Hell falls more along the vein of Adams’ earlier music – and really doesn’t inspire the same sort of name dropping critical frenzy even though the songs are actually better.
The Album Leaf: Seal Beach EP (Acuarela). Soothing, reflective, contemplative – like a fair number of other records on this list, this EP was meant to be heard on headphones. Jimmy LaValle’s work with The Album Leaf never fails to amaze, never fails to sound like incidental music for long nights that take their time in getting around to dawn – whether that’s a good thing or not is left up to the listener to decide. These five songs are atmospheric – sometimes sounding like the cries of seagulls, sometimes washing over skittering beats like waves rolling onto the shore. There’s nothing aggressive about this at all; it’s gentle enough for babies and lovers alike.
Alkaline Trio: Good Mourning (Vagrant). My initial notes about this record, while accurate, really didn’t capture the story. This album, in some ways, provided the musical soundtrack to the year for me. This is an album that I will forever associate with moments that I will never erase from my memory – kisses, hugs, phone calls and the like. As a result, I appreciate this album far more than most people would, and perhaps more than it deserves. While it isn’t a bad record by any stretch of the imagination, it is also not a great one – we are not, for example, talking about Sgt. Pepper’s or Pet Sounds or even, for that matter, Walk Among Us, an album referenced in “We’ve Had Enough.” This album just seems to provide the best realization and distillation of Alkaline Trio’s musical ideas to date. From start to finish, it is an outstandingly consistent and thoroughly enjoyable disc of blood-soaked love songs, razor blade tenderness and laconic humor which bears massive repeated listening.
Arab Strap: Monday At The Hug & Pint (Matador). Blatantly, overtly sexual music. Much like all art which catalogs degeneration and sinking to new lows (which isn’t necessarily as bad as people seem to think), this album can be uncomfortable to listen to as it details drunken nights of wanton fucking and the subsequent blinking, sun-blind hungover mornings of trying to piece things back together. It’s a compelling articulation of giving in to base impulses and realizing that turning over a new leaf is pointless as long as the old one still has some rotting left to do. I really wish this album had been out in 1997 because I don’t think I would have listened to anything else.
Atmosphere: Seven’s Travels (Rhymesayers). It’s difficult to hear a hip hop track like “Trying To Find A Balance” and not fall in love with the entire album. It’s self-effacing (“Atmosphere finally made a good record / Yeah, right, that shit almost sounds convincing”), self-aware (“‘Get real’ they tell me / If only they knew how real this life really gets”) and referential (alluding to “Magnolia,” Lifter Puller and a slew of other sources). There’s a great deal of lyrical skill here (“In the days of kings and queens / I was a jester”) and straight-up determination when he casts a hip hop show like a punk show (“You can’t achieve your goals if you don’t take that chance / So go pry open that trunk and get those amps”). And how can you not tip your hat to a rap album that takes its cues from watching pets instead of “Scarface”? Let’s side-step the independent music issue for a moment (Slug turned down major label deals and instead struck a distribution agreement with Epitaph so he could release his own record on his own label) and just sit quietly in appreciation of a hip hop record that isn’t about bling bling or Benjamins, has a lethally wicked sense of humor (Slug cribs from Ice Cube: “Yeah, I got some last words / Fuck all y’all / Stop writing raps / And go play volleyball”) and shout-outs to staying where you are – no matter how small or boring it may seem – and making something real happen. In that sense, this album is punk as hell, DIY as fuck and when Slug raps “Follow the dream doesn’t mean leave the love / Roam if you must but come home when you’ve seen enough,” it doesn’t seem that far away from the bands I’ve grown up loving.
Azure Ray: Hold On Love (Saddle Creek). Hold On Love finds Azure Ray in a slightly more experimental mode than the previous two full-lengths. This time around, Maria Taylor and Orenda Fink, certainly two of the most gifted songwriters currently working, add electronics – programmed beats, mostly – to the mix. This tinkering, while not a huge departure, yields mixed results. On the songs which diverge most widely from the band’s previous marks (such as “New Resolution”), the electronics are more of a distraction from Azure Ray’s musicianship and melodies. By contrast, “The Devil’s Feet” features electronic textures which add depth to the already moody atmosphere. However, as much as I dislike bands that record the same album repeatedly and people who only appreciate a band’s music when it repeats itself, it’s when Azure Ray returns to material closer to the preceding EP that this album truly shines. “The Drinks We Drank Last Night” is vintage Azure Ray – all harmonies and strings, gentle guitar plucking and delicate vocals – and the rest of the album falls into a similar vein. Although most albums which seem to stumble at the outset don’t belong on a list like this, there is such a wealth of outstanding songwriting here that even the rough sketches of what may turn out to be Azure Ray’s future musical direction can’t spend it all.
Belle And Sebastian: Dear Catastrophe Waitress (Matador). If the rest of this lilting, brilliant pop album didn’t exist, “Piazza, New York Catcher” would still have landed it on this list. However, the elements which make “Piazza” such a great song – an insanely catchy melody, clever lyrics questioning the sexuality of baseball players while referring to catchers and pitchers – are present on every track. While this isn’t necessarily an album which will change anyone’s life, it is an incredibly well-crafted collection of pop songs which is likely to stay in your head long after you’ve put something else in the CD player.
Black Cross: Art Offensive (Equal Vision). Angular, dissonant, edgy, bludgeoning power. This reminds me of the rock churned out by D.C. in the late 1980s and San Diego in the early 1990s in the form – pounding tempos, hammering away at the music like a prole with a nine-pound sledge. Grinding, furious guitar riffs with melody lines like fragmentation grenades with the pins pulled, ready to blow. Perhaps the thing I most appreciate about this record is how it abstracts politics – it seems inherently and innately political, yet this album’s politics are oblique, approaching topics from previously unimagined – yet still emotionally expressive and affecting – angles. Read into it what you will – it’s opaque enough to lend itself to a few slightly different interpretations but it’s also clear enough that carefully reading the lyrics should expose any remaining cyphers.
The Blood Brothers: Burn, Piano Island, Burn! (Artist Direct). This album is less like music and more like aggravated assault with guitars. There is nothing gentle or delicate about it. There is nothing subtle about it. It is a baseball bat of noise and dissonance applied liberally to the head. It’s a straight-up musical ass-whipping. Forget trying to decipher the lyrics; they seem to rely on imagery more than concrete details and you’ll need a sheet to actually understand what Jordan and Johnny are howling; as a result, reaching any understanding of this album is going to require a lot of analysis and breaking this code is going to take a lot of work.
Communique: A Crescent Honeymoon EP (Lookout!). After Jagged Thoughts came out, it was clear that American Steel was expanding its sonic palette with hues that were increasingly more subtle, shades that were likely to escape the notice of people who thought the band’s first album was all that they should ever strive to achieve. I suppose it was a foregone conclusion at that point that American Steel – at least in that incarnation – wasn’t long for the world and in 2002, the band called it a day. All of this ancient history is, for once, tremendously relevant to the discussion of Communique’s debut EP because Ryan, John and Rory continued playing music together and one of the songs that American Steel played on its final tours (“Love Unconditional”) appears here. Essentially, A Crescent Honeymoon seems like an extension of Jagged Thoughts; there’s less of a reggae influence here, but more of the 80s pop feel (including some piano and organ work) contained in American Steel songs like “Two Crooks” (which echoed the Pretenders). This EP is a soaring, ringing, glorious guitar-driven rock record which seems to take a fair number of cues from days when playing pop music required an actual band. I can’t wait to hear the Communique full-length, supposedly due in the first half of 2004.
DFA Compilation #1 (DFA) I usually don’t include compilations in my favorite albums lists, but this one is simply too good to pass up. Collecting a handful of songs previously released on 12″ and 7″ vinyl, this compilation provides an outstanding overview of whatever the fuck people are calling this no-wave dance-punk style. Four acts (The Juan Maclean, LCD Soundsystem, The Rapture and Black Dice), two songs from each – including Black Dice’s soon-to-be-legendary “Cone Toaster.”
Elliott: Song In The Air (Revelation). False Cathedrals was a stunning artistic achievement – Song In The Air is better. It’s soothing, gentle, drifting – it’s like the best elements of shoegaze (see Slowdive’s first album, only with more sonic layering and textures) combined with stately, elegiac strings (provided by members of The Rachel’s) and lush guitar tones that wash over the album like the ebb and flow of an ocean tide. Chris Higdon’s voice is as delicate as ever, floating above these musical structures, seemingly drifting on air. Unlike False Cathedrals, there are very few expressions of power or dynamics on this album (“Drag Like Pull” and “Away We Drift” stand out all the more because of this); this record seems to explore more tender, reflective space. In some ways, it doesn’t sound like an Elliott album at all – it doesn’t resemble an extension of the first two albums unless you focus solely on Elliott’s more atmospheric work – yet it’s also the most logical end point based on the directions that False Cathedrals suggested. And since this is Elliott’s last album, that seems to fit perfectly.
The Explosion: Sick Of Modern Art EP (Tarantulas). Ringing chords, inspired passion and a healthy sense of tradition. I can’t count how many times I’ve listened to The Explosion now (or, for that matter, how many times I’ve seen them). While this EP doesn’t present much in the way of stylistic advancements for them (just their own label), its sloganeering assaults on conformity, a lack of questioning and how we simply give up make it one of the best punk records of the year.
Fairweather: Lusitania (Equal Vision). I doubt Fairweather could release a bad album if they tried. I wrote about this album in great detail when it came out, and my opinions about this record have only grown stronger. It’s a gorgeous piece of shoegaze-inflected hardcore, echoing the early 90’s Scene That Celebrated Itself (see: My Bloody Valentine, Pale Saints, Chapterhouse, Ride) in its sound while still building on hardcore and punk traditions (including what sounds like a musical tip of the hat to Sonic Youth’s “Titanium Expose” in “Silent Jury”). Sadly, Fairweather called it quits recently so this is – barring anything unforeseen – the last release. Most bands should be so lucky as to call it a day and leave an album which is this good as their farewell.
Give Up The Ghost: We’re Down ‘Til We’re Underground (Equal Vision). Call this a sea change record. If, as some critics and pundits claimed, Background Music redefined hardcore, then this album is the equivalent of dynamiting the canon. We aren’t talking about a revision here – this is a revolution. While it still sounds like a hardcore record and it’s easy to draw a line between the debut and sophomore efforts and hear the progression of ideas, this musical younger brother is noisier and more angular – the experimentation hinted at on the last album is fleshed out here, fully realized but still only suggesting where this band is headed in the long run. I knew when I first heard it that this album was going to be flipping my lid for a long time. After seven or eight months, it hasn’t stopped yet.
Gunmoll: Board Of Rejection (No Idea). Complexity is forbidden; sincerity, a severe case of honesty and galloping tempos driving three chords are our current and abiding heroes. There’s nothing earth-shaking about this album – it doesn’t identify previously hidden paths of musical exploration. In fact, it echoes bands like Leatherface and Hot Water Music with its growling, shouted vocals, ringing guitar riffs and complicated bass lines, but there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that because Gunmoll executes these musical ideas flawlessly. Sometimes, heart-felt simplicity is required to achieve greatness. In this case, it’s the only thing necessary.
The Hidden Cameras: The Smell Of Our Own (Rough Trade). There’s something delicious suggestive about this overtly gay band releasing this album on a label called Rough Trade. Some of you may think about that for a moment and snicker. This album is explicit in nearly every way in which it is possible for an album to be explicit (it’s about as thematically subtle as Pansy Division), yet somehow manages to sound tender, delicate, gentle and beautiful. It’s as if Jon Ginoli wrote lyrics for Stephin Merritt to set to music, resulting in songs which sound like direction for a gay porn movie with a score that could have provided a backdrop for The Supremes.
Himsa: Courting Tragedy And Disaster (Prosthetic). If Slayer wound up fighting In Flames on-stage in a bar owned by Iron Maiden, you might well wind up with this record. Scorching metallic guitar work combines with blazing speed and incinerating musicianship to yield a pulverizing metal album. This is simply stunning, crushing shit. Simply put, this album fucking rules.
Jaga Jazzist: Animal Chin EP / The Stix (Gold Standard Laboratories / Ninja Tune). Hyperactive, skittering, drum-and-bass-inflected jazzcore. It’s dreamy, soothing and ethereal – when it doesn’t sound like incidental music for a grand mal seizure. It’s hard for instrumental pieces to get much better – or more interesting and explorative – than this.
The Jealous Sound: Kill Them With Kindness (Better Looking). The Jealous Sound’s introductory EP followed squarely in the footsteps of Knapsack and Sunday’s Best, bands which Blair Shehan and Pedro Benito were formerly members of and which seem to have steered the sound of those five songs. Almost two years of industry drama later, The Jealous Sound has finally released their debut full-length and it’s a ringing, hook-laden juggernaut of a pop record. From his days in Knapsack, Shehan has always shown a knack for writing emotional songs which tell a story or describe a situation without resorting to mawkish sentimentality; in short, without putting on a tight sweater and holding a campfire sing-along. Instead, these songs dramatize moments in sharply drawn outlines of times and places, situations and people. They allow room for interpretation, of molding and applying these songs and sentiments to fit your own life. They are simply great.
JR Ewing: Ride Paranoia (Gold Standard Laboratories). Chaotic, raucous, destructive rock ‘n’ roll. It’s angular, edgy and bludgeoning as hell, cutting off excess musical fat while tenderizing everything else. This is not gentle music by any stretch of the imagination. This is music for footage of huge bails – like missing the gap between two rooftops. And yes, it really does sound that big and yes, it really is that intense.
Ted Leo / Pharmacists: Hearts Of Oak (Lookout!). Very few albums this year featured lyrics that are the equal of anything on this record (The Weakerthans’ Reconstruction Site is the only one that springs to mind at this moment). Even fewer managed to blend lyrics which are this insightful, political and literary with music which inspires as much ass-shaking as this record does. With minimal decoding, it’s easy to read this album as a critique of politics at the beginning of the millennium, but I honestly wish Ted Leo had footnoted this record or provided a reading list somewhere. I know there are references to external sources here (including what seem like comments about the lasting detrimental effects of colonialism by checking T.E. Lawrence and Percival C. Wren’s “Beau Geste,” as well as what seems like a rebuke to Francis Fukuyama for claiming that the end of the Cold War and the ostensible victory of capitalism – and the corresponding lack of competing ideologies – constituted the end of history) but this album is so loaded with details that it seems pregnant with referentiality, a treasure map for those willing to follow where it leads. That alone makes it a singular artistic achievement.
Lightning Bolt: Wonderful Rainbow (Load). Think of this as musical trepanation gone too far – it’s the guitar rock equivalent of getting a Black And Decker lobotomy in a suburban garage. The external surroundings may appear normal but there’s a small temporary autonomous zone of largely instrumental chaos. The drums stutter and chatter, effectively forming a percussive solo which frequently replaces any semblance of a typical rhythm. The melodies – such as they are – seem to be carried by bass guitar and electronics. They’re dissonant and disjoined, screaming and howling, jittery and twitching. They’re like residents at an institution before the orderly passes out the Haldol. After a while, this album is simply so ear and mind-numbing that it results in what amounts to a trance-like state … and that’s when it really gets good.
Lucero: That Much Further West (Tiger Style). At first listen, this album is nowhere near as immediately gripping as “Tennessee,” and, at least on its surface, doesn’t seem to approach that record’s collection of perfect country-rock songs. However, after several dozen spins, its qualities become more apparent, the musical and stylistic progress more evident. While it’s true that very few of the tracks on this record pack as hard of a punch as “Sweet Little Thing”and it’s equally true that there are some seeming missteps here (particularly the grinding guitars on “Hate And Jealousy”), there are still dozens of tear-worthy chords here, solos which hurt and mournful organs that sound like some poor lonesome son of a bitch sat down with a bottle of whiskey and started trying to play the blues on the only instrument around. This album requires an investment of time to yield an appreciation; in some respects, dealing with it is like coming to terms with the complicated early stage of a relationship – flirting, misdirection, missed cues and mixed messages which eventually give way to something good and true which was well worth the effort to develop.
Melt-Banana: cell-scape (A-Zap). First of all, A-Zap only seems to release Melt-Banana albums and if you’d like to order them, you’re probably better off ordering through Midheaven, Melt-Banana’s North American distributor’s retail store. And with that said, this is an album that will polarize listeners into groups of people who love its noise, abrasion and spasms of riffs and those who run screaming. There simply is no middle ground. This album is really an unrelenting assault on the senses. Think Napalm Death, Black Dice, The Boredoms, Zeni Geva, John Zorn’s art-core – think extreme … not in the sense of rollerblading fuckups or stoned high school dropouts on 20″ BMX bikes, but in the sense of music which galvanizes an intense opinion immediately. It’s tough to describe what this is – in fact, it’s far easier to describe what it isn’t and that is poppy. If you’re in the mood for a challenging record which will likely alter the way you think of music, consider this. Just wear a diaper because you are entirely likely to shit yourself.
Prefuse 73: One Word Extinguisher / Extinguished: Outtakes (Warp). I’m not much of a hip hop head, but that’s okay because this doesn’t seem like much of a hip hop album (which probably means that it’s going to be a seminal album that determines the shape of hip hop to come), despite the presence of Mr. Lif and a handful of other rappers. Like DJ Shadow, Scott Herren, the mastermind behind this, seems fixated on taking a hammer to beats and breaking 1970s West Coast jazz into chunks that he can reassemble for his diabolical purposes. He also seems fascinated by brutalizing his compositions with electronics. Like Nobukazu Takemura’s works from 2003, nearly the entire album sounds like it’s skipping with barely enough continuity to keep a listener from returning it as defective. However, that’s what makes it interesting – these created errors have a logic all their own, stuttering and stumbling through song structures which might otherwise sound soothing and etheral but, in this framework, sound like spasmodic musical revolutions. What it all comes down to is that these songs seem like they’re staggering home from the studio, loaded with possibility and drunk on their own inventiveness. Extinguished: Outtakes collects the cast-away bits from One Word Extinguisher, often offering even more interesting snippets of music.
The Rachel’s: Systems / Layers (Quarterstick). If The Rachel’s release an album, it should be on any list which purports to collect the best or favorite albums of the year. This is modernized classical music in a non-traditional mode and while it makes extensive use of traditional classical instruments (piano parts which would only have sounded out of place in an Erik Satie or Arvo Part composition because they’re played more rapidly, viola, cello and the like), it also uses field recordings, drum sets, keyboards, bass, guitar and other instruments more suited for a rock ensemble … or The Weakerthans. You may like genres of music (be they punk, indie, emo, noise, hip hop, folk – whatever) but if these compositions don’t send chills up your spine, it’s quite likely that, regardless of what you may think to the contrary, you really don’t like music.
Rainer Maria: Long Knives Drawn (Polyvinyl). Beginning with a ringing, droning, guitar-driven introductory riff backed by a fair bit of syncopated tom work and periodic cymbal crashes, this album quickly storms into “Mystery And Misery,” a song which seems to be about misjudging relationships. Frankly, the entire album seems to focus on dysfunctional and disintegrating relationships and, frequently, the sexual ways in which those flaws are expressed. The outstanding hooks and melodies – mixed with the soaring, emotionally expressive vocals – make these themes and ideas easier to hear and absorb. Is this a break-up record? It may well be, but what it expresses even more poignantly is longing tinged with fears of starting over and a reluctance to give up just yet.
Strike Anywhere: Exit English (Jade Tree). Since the entire concept of punk rock being inherently political seems to have been lost in the midst of marketable boy bands playing three chords, Strike Anywhere – a band that would be essential in any era – seems all the more vital and