By Tony Bonyata
Some of the most challenging music of the year emerged from new independently produced artists. In fact, two of the ten albums chosen here are debut efforts from young emerging indie artists (actually three - if you consider that Bob Dylan's Live at The Gaslight 1962 was recorded around the same time as his own debut effort for Columbia Records).
Two of the groups that made this year's cut are from Canada - a country that seems to be bursting at the seams with fresh new talent. Only one act is from the U.K., while the majority of the rest hail from the Midwest (three from Detroit, one from Minnesota and two from our own backyard of Southeast Wisconsin).
Drum roll, Please...
10) The Sights - The Sights (Scratchie Records)
Although they've been lumped in with garage rocking Detroit brethren such as The Go and The White Stripes, The Sights actually have more in common with classic pop rock than they do with the dirty sounds that have been reverbing out of the Motor City over the last few years.
That's not to say The Sight's don't rock hard, because as this efficient trio - consisting of Eddie Baranek (vocals / guitar), Mike Trombley (drums) and newcomer Bobby Emmett (organ / bass) - proves on their self-titled third full-length release, they're more than capability of making a loud ruckus. From the bluesier stomps of "Just Got Robbed" "Will I Be True?" and "Frozen Nose," along with Baranek's '70s arena rock guitar leads, these guys know how to (as one of Detroit's more famous sons, The MC5, once proclaimed) kick out the jams
But the sweet pop rock of numbers such as the irresistible "Suited Fine," the jaunty "Scratch My Name In Sin," "Waiting On A Friend" and "Baby's Knocking Me Down" showcases this promising act as bright, articulate pop songwriters. In fact, their knack for hammering out one catchy tune after another is, at times, reminiscent of Harry Nilsson, Lennon/McCartney and Cheap Trick in their prime, without ever directly lifting from any of them.
While this Motor City threesome still has enough 10W-30 grade rock pumping through their veins, they've also got enough sweet rock tunes hopped on sugar and caffeine to make this effort appealing to both fans of down-and-dirty rock & roll and classic '60s AM pop.
9) The New Pornographers - Twin Cinemas (Matador Records)
How does a band follow-up one of the most pleasing platters of pure pop bliss ever put to disc? When you're the Vancouver-based New Pornographers you keep a good portion of what worked in the past (expertly crafted pop songs filled with one intoxicating hook after another, all beautifully layered with keys, guitars and sticky-sweet harmonies carefully extracted from the inner wall of a honeycomb), while, at the same time, pushing the boundaries of what power-pop can be.
And that's exactly what The New Pornographers have done on their latest full-length release Twin Cinema. While the immediacy of this effort doesn't whip you into a swift headlock, forcing you to happily sing along with every song - something their two previous albums (2000's Mass Romantic and 2003's Electric Version) did with a wicked glee - that's not to imply that this album is any less engaging or entertaining.
Fans of the whip-smart Electric Version will immediately gravitate to songs such as the opening title track, as well as the peppy "Star Bodies," "Jackie, Dressed In Cobras," which borrows a welcome British Invasion guitar-line, and "Three or Four," featuring the double lead vocals of the angelic Neko Case and the latest addition to the band - Newman's 23-year niece Kathryn Calder. But just when the path starts feeling a bit familiar, Newman and company find a fork in the road and head for uncharted territory with the more introspective "The Bones Of An Idol," which starts out innocently enough with Case handling the lead vocals before it closes with a sprawling, majestic ending. Equally interesting is the challenging beauty of "The Bleeding Heart Show," which, by the song's coda, perfectly melds western pop sensibilities with African tribal choral music. Even the irresistible "Sing Me Spanish Techno," which incorporates a ridiculously wonderful amount of different musical parts within the song's four-minute structure, finds the band building muscle mass while stretching their limbs.
8) Brendan Benson - The Alternative to Love (V2 Records)
While Brendan Benson may not like the singer / songwriter label that's so often attached to his name, with clever lyrics (most noticeably about love and heartbreak), catchy pop compositions and live shows that often features the singer performing alone with his guitar, it's a hard label to shake. (Never mind that he had also released a four-song CD entitled Folk Singer EP a few years back.)
On the Detroit-by-way-of-Louisiana musician's third full length release, The Alternative To Love, Benson again revisits the Beatle-esque pop from his 2002 effort Lapalco, only this time around it's even a bit sunnier and more immediate.
Like his previous efforts Benson tackles all of the musical duties himself - overdubbing twin guitars, swirling keys and lush harmonies. And, like his previous efforts, this one-man-band comes off sounding as organically natural as a tight-knit group of five.
Warm harmonies and jaunty rhythms abound on both the charming title track and "What I'm Looking For," while songs such as the guitar-driven opening number and first single "Spit It Out," "Gold Into Straw" and "Get It Together" are flexed with whip-smart hooks and indelible melodies that proves how adept this artist is at cranking out near-perfect power-pop songs.
On the forthcoming follow-up single "Cold Hands (Warm Heart)" Benson coos over a haunting, yet light-hearted melody that (if radio programmers knew their stuff like they did thirty years ago) should carry the number directly into the top of the charts. Ditto for the undeniable "Feel Like Myself," complete with a synth line straight out of The Cars' backseat and vocal hook guaranteed to stay with you for days.
7) The Eels - Blinking Lights and Other Revelations (Vagrant Records)
On The Eels latest full-length album, Blinking Lights and other revelations, bandleader Mark Oliver Everett, who goes by the simpler moniker E, has followed up his back catalogue of dark, emotionally charged alternative-rock with a sprawling thirty-three song collection filled with as much hope as it is remorse.
This weighty two-CD effort was recorded in E's Los Angeles basement studio over the last couple of years. Although Eels is basically a one-man band with a revolving cast of characters, E has secured a strong stable of session guests for his latest effort. Longtime fan Tom Waits adds guttural moans on "Going Fetal," while R.E.M.'s guitarist Peter Buck inflects a ghostly dobro line to the number "To Lick Your Boots" (co-written by E and Buck). Also making a rare appearance is The Lovin' Spoonful's John Sebastian, who adds a beautiful autoharp on the sweet instrumental "Dusk: A Peach In The Orchard," a song which he also co-wrote with the Eels' frontman.
As E states, these songs are about hanging onto his remaining shreds of sanity and the blue sky that comes the day after a terrible storm. After having dealt with the simultaneous suicide of his older sister and terminal illness of his mother, which heavily influenced his 1998 album Electro-Shock Blues, many of the songs on Blinking Lights and other revelations point towards a more positive outlook on life. With fun-loving numbers such as the happy-go-lucky, Wurlitzer-driven "Going Fetal," the peppy "Losing Streak" and especially the irresistible pop gem "Hey Man (Now You're Really Living) it appears that, along with that blue sky, there may also be a little sunshine peering down on this brooding, introspective artist.
Of course, there's also a wealth of haunted sonnets and melodic melancholy for those who just aren't quite ready for the harsh light of daybreak. While numbers such as "I'm Going To Pretend that I Didn't Break Your Heart" and "Understanding Salesman" leave the same pang in the pit of your gut as Beck's entire Sea Change album did, there's also many introspective songs that are brimming with hope, such as "Things The Grandchildren Should Know," "To Lick Your Boots" and the reoccurring "Theme From Blinking Lights," which dapples a bit of sunshine throughout.
"My kind of love is an ugly love, but it's real and lasts a long, long time," E admits at one point near the end of this emotional ride. And like his love, the engaging music of Blinking Lights and other revelations is also guaranteed to last a long, long time.
6) The White Stripes - Get Behind Me Satan (V2 Records)
On the Detroit duo's fifth full-length album Get Behind Me Satan (a line borrowed from Matthew 16:22, 23) singer, songwriter and guitarist Jack White has offered up a collection of expertly crafted compositions that stand amongst some of his strongest to date. While the styles exercised here - hornswoggled country, gutbucket blues, spastic rock & roll and heartfelt acoustic ballads - have all received healthy workouts on the twosome's previous efforts, the main difference on ...Satan is that Jack has downplayed his explosive guitar in exchange for a piano that taunts, teases and seduces the majority of the numbers throughout.
Like it's predecessor Elephant, which immediately opened with the stampeding hit "Seven Nation Army," Get Behind Me Satan pops the clutch straight into the riff-driven, hell-bent scorcher "Blue Orchid." The only two other numbers to predominately feature White unleashing his big, ballsy guitar sound are the bluesy swagger of "Red Rain," where he revisits the devilish slide guitar from their 1999 version of Son House's 1929 number "Death Letter." The entire album was said to have only taken two weeks to record and the raw urgency and immediacy is most apparent on the rough-hewn, blues-went-a-courtin' monstrosity of "Instinct Blues."
Never one to leave out a wonderful ballad, White delivers the beautifully frail "Forever For Her (Is Over for Me)" lightly spiced with marimba, an instrument which also lends a Caribbean breeze to the juxtaposing lilt of Jack's voice with Meg's percussive thunder crash on "The Nurse."
"And all the chickens get it, and the singing canaries get it. Even strawberries get it. So why don't you?," White howls at one point. And after listening to this challenging album that continues to broaden The White Stripes' palette of rock, there's no good reason not to get it.
5) Bob Dylan - Live at The Gaslight 1962
While far from newly recorded, this gem of a live recording has finally been given the proper release it's deserved for the last four decades. This is a rare live recording of a young folk singer named Bob Dylan who just landed in NYC - via Hibbing, MN - with little more than his acoustic guitar, harmonica and knapsack full of verse that would help define a generation. The club was the Gaslight in the bohemian district of Greenwich Village and this particular performance is raw, simple, emotional and nothing short of pure magic - showcasing this twenty-two year old artist as a mere mortal before attaining myth-like status.
Along with the earliest surviving recordings of "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" and "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" are Dylan's retellings of rural folk songs and ballads, such as the haunting "John Brown" and "Moonshiner," the strutting number "The Cuckoo" and the lowdown, dustbowl blues of "West Texas."
While hardcore Dylan-philes probably already own a bootleg copy of this, this exquisitely remastered version instantly makes any unofficial recording obsolete.
This CD is a must for lovers of Dylan, folk, blues or anyone even remotely interested in the history of 20th Century music. Do yourself a favor and buy it.
4) Decibully - Sing Out America! (Polyvinyl Records)
Mixing the hip country-twang of early Wilco along with the black-hearted folk of Nick Drake and the heavenly heights reached by Radiohead, the Milwaukee septet Decibully delivers a moving collection of songs that are atmospheric, engaging and, quite often, unforgettable on their third full-length effort entitled Sing Out America!
While Decibully's songs bare the earthy stains of banjo, lap steel guitar and Rhodes organ, the compositions ethereally float above the Americana soundscapes - with numbers such as "Rid Of Me At Last," "Sing Out! Sing Out! Sing Out!," complete with the unbridled electric guitar sounds of Neil Young's Crazy Horse, and the catchy "Notes To Our Leaders" that are both real to the touch and eerily specter-like at the same time.
While the arrangements and musicianship are beautifully executed throughout, the band's secret weapon is singer William J. Seidel, who has one of the most beguiling, enlightening vocals in the business. Haunting harmonies weave in and out of the sumptuous a cappella gem "Temptation," after Seidel reaches deep inside himself to deliver the heartfelt falsetto of "Megan & Magill," along with the aching vocals of Thom Yorke on opener "I'm Gonna Tell You." While the band adds a bit more muscle on the rocking "Penny, Look Down," Seidel's pop tendencies become evident as he delivers a delicious, psychedelic Lennon-esque vocal during the number's chorus.
3) The Doves - Some Cities (Capitol Records)
A little over a half-decade since the demise of Britpop as a major influence on the musical landscape, the Manchester band Doves give reason to rejoice in the new sounds emerging from across the pond.
On their third album Some Cities the trio has tighten the reigns for their most direct and satisfying effort to date. Although vocalist / bassist Jimi Goodwin, guitarist Jez Williams and twin brother drummer Andy Williams have purposely set out for "that band in a room sound," they in no way have sacrificed their own traditional musical values for a newfound, stripped-down honesty. While heavenly pop melodies and Goodwin's deep, rich vocals help cut-to-the-quick of these songs, they also still retain the otherworldly atmospheres and stunning production values of their two preceding albums.
There are so many immediate songs that grab you, such as "Walk In The Fire," "Black And White Town," "Almost Forgot Myself" and the knockout opening title track, that by the end of this eleven-track journey, you're ready to start it all over again. But there are also a couple of wallflowers, such as the haunting dirge of the piano-blessed "Shadows of Salford" and the etherealness of the closing track "Ambition," whose inner beauty is only revealed over time.
Despite the fact that Doves don't mirror the sounds of fellow Mancunians, such as The Smiths, Stone Roses, New Order and other bands to emerge from the influential Factory Records, they still somehow posses that cool, detached vibe - even if only buried deep within the soul of the songs. If it can be said that their music resembles anyone else's, then Coldplay, U2 and OK Computer-era Radiohead would come closest to the tip of the tongue. But despite an album of spacious, majestic and, at times, nearly epic pop music, there is also a sense of firm-footed realness that sidesteps some of the pomp and pretenses of these other bands.
2) SundayRunners - SundayRunners (Machine Records)
For those who thought that beautifully crafted, hook-filled and expertly executed pop rock was a thing of the past, think again, because the Chicago-based rock band SundayRunners have just produced an amazing album overflowing with thought-provoking and often innocent lyrics, tight song structures, warm vocals and edgy guitars, all held together by a vividly rich production.
From the upbeat pop that graces this album on songs such as "Half My Height," "Everlasting Sun" and the opening track "Elected" (which, with its optimistic message of hope and trust, proves to be the perfect antidote to all of the the political mudslinging surrounding the Presidential Election this year) to the more introspective and haunting numbers "1993" and "Floor Toms Fall Away" to the lush melody and comforting harmonies that float ethereally over the skittish beat on the intoxicating "Memories Left At Sea," Diderrich and company have created the perfect modern rock soundtrack to a wide range of human emotions.
Whether other great bands such as Radiohead and The Pixies had a direct impact on Diderrich's songwriting or not, there's no denying some amount of influence exuded on the musician on songs such as the otherworldly "Into Your Head" and the punchy "Lip Biter"(respectively). But aside from these subtle persuasions, the true testament to Diderrich's talent lies in the fact that the majority of these compositions are uniquely his own.
1) Wolf Parade - Apologies to the Queen Mary (Sub Pop Records)
Believe the hype. If you dug The Arcade Fire's Funeral album last year you're going to flip for fellow Canadians Wolf Parade. But then again this Montreal-based quartet's full-length debut Apologies to the Queen Mary also offers up enough diversity that even if the aforementioned band's music didn't knock your socks off, Wolf Parade's refreshing blend of spastic vocal deliveries, energetic rhythms, eclectic structures and engaging rock arrangements, certainly will.
Mixing left-of-center pop with indie-rock and tossing in the occasional whiff of garage rock ("Shine A Light" and "It's a Curse"), thespian prog-rock for Generation Starbucks ("Same Ghost Every Night") and even a bit of alt-country-turned-popster-era Wilco ("This Heart's On Fire") this engaging Canadian rock quartet is the band of the year. Nice job, hosers.
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