20. Copycat Killers — Cobra Verde
So yeah, this is a covers album, and maybe a strange choice for inclusion on this list. Here’s the thing though: when Cobra Verde releases *anything*, anyone who loves rock and roll played with heart, soul, grit, passion, fun, anger, and just pure joy needs to sit up and take notice. Although irrepressible self-promoting frontman John Petkovic prefers to call it a “record collector’s” disc, well, whatever. Cool thing is, CV takes originals from folks like Donna Summer, Mott The Hoople, The Rolling Stones, and, yes, Pink, and turns some familiar old chestnuts into distinct, Cobra Verde-esqe classics. This is simply one of the best rock and roll bands on the planet, and here’s hoping next year brings a disc of original material. Give the Pink cover “Get The Party Started” or Mott’s “Rock And Roll Queen” a shot.
19. Don’t Believe The Truth — Oasis
2005 marked the triumphant return of Liam Gallagher to his rightful position as one of rock’s great vocalists. For some reason, Our Kid felt the need over the past few Oasis discs to try to actually really attempt to sing well, and instead sounded bland and boring. On Truth, he junks all that bit, and returns to the sneering bratty-voiced imbecile that we all fell in love with on “Live Forever” and “Rock And Roll Star”. The other real news here is Noel Gallagher finally admitting he’s only got it in him to write about 5 or 6 good songs per album anymore, and allowing Liam and Andy Bell to contribute a few songs as well. The results are excellent. “A Bell Will Ring” rocks as hard as anything they’ve done in years; “Love Like A Bomb” is as good as anything off Morning Glory. Perhaps talk of their triumphant return to past glory is still a bit premature, but this disc at least proves that there’s life in these old Mancunians after all.
18. De Nova –The Redwalls
I’m firmly of the opinion that the greatest rock and roll band at their peak value was The Small Faces, circa 1966-67; they had it all, soul, fire, songwriting chops, and style. I’ve always wondered why no one (ok, outside of Blur) never really openly emulated them; hell every other band for a while wanted to be the Stones, or Kinks, or Beatles, or Who….why not The Small Faces? Along comes Chicago’s The Redwalls to fix all that. Ok, they’re totally derivative. And yeah, lead singer Logan Baren doesn’t really have Stevie Marriott’s blood-and-thunder soul voice. Still though, on songs like “Thank You”, “Robinson Crusoe”, and the house-shaking “It’s Alright”, they get more right than wrong, and manage to deliver a damn fun set of songs. Given that these kids are barely old enough to drink in many of the bars where they’re now playing, if they keep the momentum of the first half of De Nova and build off that, they might find themselves with something more than just rote imitation going on in the future. One of the most enjoyable little gems of the year, this. Check the band’s site at http://www.theredwalls.com/ There’s a little radio thingy if you click the music link that’ll let you listen to fairly hi-fi versions of “Thank You” and “Alright”.
17. The Best Little Secrets Are Kept — Louis XIV
Louis XIV used to be a pleasant little San Diego roots-pop band called Convoy. Nothing about that band sounds anything like what they’d become as 2005’s unabashed kings of glammy cock rock. There are plenty of “serious” rock critics out there who’ll decry this album for being such an obvious bit of goofy derivativeness…but they’re missing the forest for the trees. I know these songs are stupid. I know that the band sounds goofy when lead singer (and Nigel Tufnel lookalike) Jason Hill goes out of his way to try to sound like a combination of Mark E. Smith, Marc Bolan, and Johnny Rotten. I know I’m supposed to think this record sucks. Here’s the thing though: it doesn’t. By paying homage to the leering, oversexed history of rock and roll, these fellas have delivered a very fun, very dance-inducing bit of sugary silliness that isn’t for the parts of your brain that think, but rather for the parts of it that control more, uh, primal urges. http://www.louisxiv.net/home.php for full-length version of 4 songs.
16. Wilderness –Archer Prewitt
Just for maybe a week, even a day, maybe, I’d love to feel what it must feel like to be Chicago artist/guitarist/producer/songwriter Archer Prewitt. As a founding member of the legendary Coctails, and as current guitarist for The Sea and Cake, Prewitt ably demonstrated a brilliance on guitar that few of his generation came close to. Even more amazing: on his solo records (Wilderness being his fourth), he plays an entirely different style. Embracing classical (as in Brian Wilson, Nick Drake, and yes, Yes) rock/pop/folk influences, this record is simply one of the most lovely and graceful records to come out…well, since Prewitt’s last disc. Head here and click the little thingy in the upper righthand corner to hear the wonderful song “Leader”.
15. War Of The Wakening Phantoms — The High Dials
From the opening with the breathless rush of “The Holy Ground”, it becomes apparent that Montreal’s High Dials are making a conscious attempt to outgrow their origins as one of dozens of pleasant-sounding-but-sort-of-dull psychedelic pop bands. Bursting with keyboards and as beautiful a melody as they’ve ever written, they manage to continue that momentum through the edgy“Soul In Lust” and new wavey “Standhill Sands”. None of those songs quite prepare the senses for the epic, utterly too-wonderful-for-words onrushing genius of “Our Time Is Coming Soon”. That song, folks, is the single best song of the year in this writer’s opinion, a propulsive tornado of a song that ends with a Moon-ish drumfill close that takes the breath away. Sadly, the glory of that track seems to underscore the fact that nothing on the second half of Phantoms comes close to the excitement of the first half. Still, this is one of the most brilliantly talented groups out there, and if “Our Time Is Coming Soon” is any indication, they’ll eventually get around to writing the best album of the decade. Hopefully.
14. Picaresque — The Decemberists
My favorite thing about rock and roll is that no matter what you think you’ve heard and how many times you think you’ve heard a dozen other folks doing something, eventually a true original comes wending down the pike. There are few folks plying the rock trade right now more original than Decemberist frontman/songwriter Colin Meloy. With his songs that seem to tell gothic short stories cribbed from a class on Victorian lit and his ability to set those unlikely lyrics to beautifully catchy tunes, Meloy is pretty much working on a level that no one else is approaching. I penalized this disc about 10 spots because I think it to be the only disc on this list that I actually burnt out on during the course of the year; no matter how often I listen to the rest of the discs in this list, I never tire of them, so maybe there’s something with the Decemberists that ultimately fails to pass muster at a certain level–I dunno. What’s cool is that with the wonderfully goofy if topical “16 Military Wives”, Meloy seems to be mapping out a future territory for him to move into that builds on a formula that already works so well for what he does. If he can expand in that more topical direction, the sky is literally the limit on what the future holds. Try also “The Engine Driver”.
13. Easy Beat — Dr. Dog
Good lord. Given the amount of sniping, counter-sniping, bitchy hipster one-upmanship and general sturm und drang of controversy in the indie rock community over this disc, you’d expect it to be some edgy, pithy, angry socio-political bit of polemicism. It isn’t; it’s 5 shaggy good-natured dorks from Philly who had the misfortune of having the NY Times do a lengthy feature on them before they’d even released this record, calling them all sorts of overhyped nonsense. As you might expect in a scene that frequently is nothing more than and East Coast boy’s prep school run amok, the knives came out, and extra sharp. A certain hipper-than-thou website called the disc one of the worst things ever (yeah, guys, but that fragmentary tapeloop album of elevator doors opening and closing you put on your top 20 list last year was fucking brilliant; pitchforkmedia, take a bow), and the debate between fans and indie rock snobs threatens to obscure what is, essentially, a terrific little lo-fi rock album. Like the best moments of early Guided By Voices, Dr. Dog gives the impression that they actually sound like the Electric Light Orchestra…as recorded through a half-working dictabelt. There’s a lo-fi majesty to these songs that makes their somewhat excessive Beatlephilia fairly forgiveable. Forget the petty jealousies of folks who didn’t get signed to Rough Trade after one disc, listen to “Easy Beat” and “Wake Up” and decide for yourself.
12. Strange Geometry — The Clientele
The Clientele present me with a problem, and sometimes I wonder if it’s me, or the band, or something inbetween. See, in two or three song-doses, I can become utterly convinced that The Clientele are simply the greatest band on the planet. At about song number 6 in a row, though, my attention has wondered so far afield that I’m wanting to listen to something else. On Geometry, they bring all sorts of new influences and sounds to bear in an attempt to alleviate that fatigue. The muted, often tinny production of past releases has been toned down, and groovy new avenues like Motown (witness the Smokey Robinson homage of “E.M.P.T.Y.”) and Phil Spector allowed to peek into what is still a fairly claustrophobic sound. Dense and uncompromising or not, a song like “Since K Got Over Me” is worth the purchase of the disc all by itself.
11. Red, White, & Black — The Bellrays
A couple of questions that come to mind listening to this disc: 1.) Why aren’t the Bellrays a household name around a country that could do that with The White Stripes, and 2.) For that matter, why can’t this band even find anyone to release their albums in their own country, the USA? Hey, I’ll admit, when you say “Imagine a loud garage-rock guitar band with a black female singer belting out like Tina Turner in her heyday”, there’s a certain percentage of the population who aren’t gonna be able to see how that’d work, and be turned off. But I’d be willing to bet that there’d be an even bigger percentage of folks out there who, after hearing a song like “Revolution Get Down” or “Black Is The Color” would see how it’d work brilliantly. Head Bellray Lisa Kekaula possesses one hell of a vocal instrument (name sound familiar? Yeah, that’s Lisa taking lead vox on the Basement Jaxx’s “Good Luck”), and the fact that guitarist Tony Fate’s Black Flag guitar rips can hang with her are a testament to the greatness that is the Bellrays. Penalized about five spots because this disc originally came out overseas in very limited quantities on a defunct label in 2003, but didn’t hit their native shores in the States until this January. Also penalized for having a few too many tracks that lack the inspiration of the core of the record…but still. When the Bellrays are on, they are so fucking on.
10. Ocean’s Apart — The Go-Betweens
Does everyone have a musical blind spot with regards to certain artists? I have a buddy who is a die-hard Britpop fan; Oasis, Stone Roses, Supergrass, Travis, Keane…you name it, he’s pretty down with it. Except Blur; ask him about Blur and his answer is along the lines of “Yeah they’re good, but…”I’m the same way about Australian cult pop legends The Go-Betweens. As a worshipper at the altar of smart, overly literate (to the point of geekishness) clever pop music, once someone finds out I’m into Game Theory, XTC, or The Chills, they immediately want to talk about Robert Forster and Grant McLennan’s nifty little outfit, and invariably I’m stuck admitting that try as I might, I’ve never been able to get into 16 Lover’s Lane, which is like having a metal fan admit that he just doesn’t care much for Pyromania. I’ve tried, really I have, since the week it first came out up until a few years ago when I finally gave up for good.When the band re-formed after a 12-year hiatus a few years ago, it offered me a new chance to try to “get” these two fellows, removed from whatever state of mind I was in back in the day that seemed to block me away from them. It’s taken a few records, but I think I’m finally converted. Ocean’s Apart opens with the frenetic diminished chord churn of “Here Comes A City”. That the band can swing from that right into the lush and beautiful “Finding You” proves that McLennan and Forster are a songwriting tandem that easily transcends the contribution of either person. The best descriptor for this lovely, affecting record is “pastoral”, and that feeling comes in layers and layers that reveal more of themselves with repeated listens. In fact, few records that came out this year so richly reward the audience for coming back to them again and again the way Ocean’s Apart does; what at first blush sounds like a pleasant-sounding bit of background music ends up revealing more raw emotion than most groups can manage in an entire career.
9. Howl — The Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
Since the BRMC began their rock and roll lives as ultra-hip black-jacketed waifs playing Jesus & Mary Chain-inspired guitar noise Britpop (despite the fact that the three Rebels happen to be Californians), they’ve been tagged as being artful poseurs, rank imitators sounding the notes without necessarily understanding the melody. When they pretty much scrapped their signature sound and recast themselves with an overt Exile On Main St meets No Depression roots and blues sound, the “howling”, if you’ll excuse the pun, came loudest from critics who knew better and were trying to “protect” us poor dumb listeners from this obvious intellectual theft and fakery. In the past, the BRMC plundered the sound of late-’80’s noise pop, and now they’re doing cheap imitations of Mick Taylor-era Stones and alt-country.So here’s the challenge: please name for me how exactly the countrified ramblings of the BRMC are in any way shape or form different from those of Uncle Tupelo or Whiskeytown or The Bottle Rockets. See, I don’t want to burst any bubbles, but Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy never worked as either Coal Miners or Moonshiners. Jeff was so proud of his hometown roots in “Screen Door” that he moved to Chicago the first chance he got. They’d tell you as much, too. What those acts were doing was playing music in a style they enjoyed based on records they listened to as kids. Again though. Tell me how Howl is somehow less authentic than anything on Bloodshot Records or anything Lucinda Williams ever wrote. Because if all those folks are doing is playing music that they grew up listening to, perhaps I oughta mention that BRMC frontman Robert Levon Been is the son of Michael Been of ’80’s roots rockers, The Call (Dad works for son as traveling soundman and confidant). And, as name might suggest, Dad named son after a member of The Band. And raised his son listening to that seminal group, as well as Dylan, the Stones, etc. etc. Hell, by virtue of The Call including Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson as sidemen on their albums, I’d say that The Black Rebel Motorcycle Club have maybe *more* a claim to “authenticity” on this sound than the other folks I mentioned earlier.Let me help you out. See, I think the BRMC are different from many of their alt-country contemporaries in one key way: they write better songs and sing them better than about 99.9% of their more “authentic” counterparts. “Ain’t No Easy Way” manages to combine acoustic guitars, fiddles, banjos, harmonicas, and a filthy slide guitar with a massive stomping drumbeat that manages to square those traditional elements into a rock context that is thoroughly modern. “Devil’s Waitin'” aims for a classic Robert Johnson feel, and gets close enough for rock, while “Fault Line” takes an acoustic Uncle Tupelo feel and updates it with lyrics that have nothing to do with Coal Miners…unless said miners are wrestling with a nasty drug habit. “Weight Of The World” is probably my favorite track here, managing a slowly-building verse that erupts into a gorgeous chorus; more than any other song here, it shows that The BRMC aren’t a bunch of soulless imitators of style, but actually understand quite a bit about what they’re doing. Check out their Myspace page to hear “Easy Way”, “Fault Line”, “Devil’s Waitin'” and “Shuffle Your Feet”.
8. Jeff Hanson — Jeff Hanson
Rock and Roll has always been an accomodating home to men with oddly feminine voices. Guys like Geddy Lee (Rush), Jon Anderson (Yes), and David Surkamp (Pavlov’s Dog) managed to make careers despite (or perhaps because of) their rather odd, high-register voices. Along comes Jeff Hanson though, a fairly portly Green Bay Packers fan from the midwest who sounds so much like a chick singing that unless you knew otherwise, you’d swear that no grown adult male on the planet could sound like this.Thing is, it could be a gimmick, but it isn’t. Jeff Hanson sings like a girl (and every interview with the poor guy, that’s the first thing that comes up, and you have to figure that as patient and acommodating as he is with the question by now he’s got to be awfully sick of it.) Deal. He also writes beautiful folk-pop melodies of stripe that Elliott Smith hadn’t approached in years. Hanson’s also something of a music prodigy. On guitar, his finger-picking and tonal brightness suggest a long-dead folk rocker who everyone in this genre gets compared to and whom I won’t name since that’s awfully damn unfair. But still, Hansons sounds like He Who Must Not Be Mentioned, and you and I both know who that is, and you’ll hear it to on a song like “This Time It Will” or “Now We Know.Hanson could be a one-trick pony here, and it’s much to his credit that he isn’t. He could easily play his voice off as a gimmick and try to sell records to the same sorts of folks who paid nickels to see bearded ladies back in the day (hey, people actually willingly spent money for Wesley Willis records once, too). Hanson knows his way around a song, and this album is full to bursting with gorgeous pop hooks and stunning arrangements (the opener, for example, “Losing A Year”, spends its first three minutes as a spare minimalist dirge, before exploding into a welter of loud guitar and drums for the final verses; “Welcome Here” zips along with a 3/4 time signature but still seems like it’d be a bitch to waltz to). Forget the voice. Here’s a guy who writes beautiful, memorable songs, supplies all his own instrumentation, and puts them over with a wide-eyed sincerity that few out there can match. The sky seems the limit for Hanson’s talent.
7. Home For Orphans — The Reigning Sound
Didja know that legendary Memphis rock band Big Star released an album of new material this year? Didja know that other than a couple of yeoman efforts from the “newer” members (who happen to be The Posies) of the band, that new Big Star disc sort of sucks? Yeah. It does.Once upon a when, Alex Chilton and his crew helped to sort of define a blue-eyed soul thing down there in Memphis, where they played rock with a sort of soulfulness you didn’t necessarily hear in their contemporaries. Thankfully, since it seems Alex was done with all that sometime around 1887 or so, he was at least cool enough to pass it along to some newer blood so they could carry the baton. Memphian Greg Cartwright has been making soulful, if extremely loud, rock and roll for the better part of around 15 years now, first as Greg Oblivian in The Oblivians, and now as the frontman for The Reigning Sound.Here’s the thing about The Reigning Sound. They’re loud and raw (though never primitive like the Oblivians) and loose. And that’s cool. This here Orphans album, though, is none of those things. Clocking in at a mere 28 minutes, this is supposed to be just “outtakes”…stuff that either didn’t fit on 2004’s Too Much Guitar, or alternate versions of songs from that disc, or covers, or whatever.So it’s a throwaways disc. Orphaned songs, if you will. Here’s the deal though: throwaways or not, these songs, so much quieter and more contemplative than Reigning Sound’s usual fare, end up being actually a bit more powerful to me than when they’re playing the same songs loud and fast. For one thing, the first thing you’ll notice here is that Greg Cartwright can really, really, really sing. I’m still trying to place his vocal inflection here, but putting it somewhere between early Van Morrison and Jackson Browne seems very close.What really sets these songs apart is that while they’re quiet, reflective songs about loneliness, failed relationships, and love gone wrong…they aren’t what you’d expect. See, normally in quiet songs dealing with that subject material, there’s a certain wimpishness, vulnerability, and, well…whiny-ness that exists as an inherent part and parcel of such subject matter. Now, I’m not decrying the wimpishness, vulnerability or wuss-factor here; I’m a fan, really, I am. But after listening to everyone from the wonderful Death Cab For Cutie to the insufferable Coldplay do the “I’m hurt and I’m vulnerable” love ballad, the songs of Greg Cartwright and The Reigning Sound are almost like a slap in the face. These are quiet, introspective songs that are…well…manly. Adult. Perhaps “world-weary” is too strong a phrase, but they’re definitely informed by a sense that the writer has lived a healthy adult life, and is able to articulate healthy adult concerns about life and love and heartbreak in adult ways that hit like a ton of bricks. If you’re a fan of the way Paul Westerberg used to put words and phrases together when he was a Replacement, this is your album. Cartwright seems almost effortless in tossing off lines like “Love is a funny thing/Don’t know it’s real until it’s caused you pain”. When he admonishes an on-and-off lover to “Honey, get your foot out of my door” before telling her “If you can’t give me everything/Don’t you give me nothin’ at all/If you find someone new this time/I won’t be here at all”, it’s tough talk backed up by lines in the verse like “You told me lies when I was young/But I’m not young anymore” that let you know he isn’t being ironic–he fucking means it. That isn’t to say that Cartwright lacks a heart. On their version of “Without You” (which might be the most abjectly sad, cryin’-in-your beer song The Byrds ever wrote), the tight-as-a-duck’s-ass rhythm section, spare guitar, and pounding organ behind Cartwright’s most restrained vocal sound like nothing so much as Booker T. & The MG’s backing Nick Drake. It’s a breathtaking version of a song I thought Holsapple & Stamey had wrung all the emotion out of 15 years ago. Whether The Reigning Sound’s next disc returns them to the raucous form of previous work, or continues in this vein, this odds-n-sods collection is too important–too terrific–to dismiss.
6. Separation Sunday — The Hold Steady
When you read a review of either of The Hold Steady’s two releases, massive amount of ink (or pixels) get spilled relating that Craig Finn is some kind of brilliant, crazy, stream-of-consciousness poet yada yada yada. That’s all great, and it might be true, but plenty of gifted, stream-of-conscious lyrical wits have wandered in and out of rock and roll and made half the impact The Hold Steady have made in their scant 2-year existence.So I’m not gonna lead with that. Instead, I’m gonna point out that full-time keyboard player Franz Nicolay didn’t join the band until all the songs on Separation Sunday had already been written, and had only a few weeks to add piano, organ and other keyboardy treatments to songs that were “done”. Kudos to the band for realizing they needed a guy like Franz, and double that to Franz himself for making his contributions sound like organic parts of the music that were there from the first jam session. And, frankly, kudos to all the guys in the band who aren’t Craig Finn. Tad Kubler creates massive chunks of classic arena metal guitar that can stand right next to anything Def Leppard or AC/DC managed in their primes (“Banging Camp” for instance…or “Your Little Hoodrat Friend”). Galen Polivka and and new drummer Bobby Drake form as solid a rhythm section as the E Street band ever had. And yeah, then there’s Craig Finn. I keep reading about the brilliance of the garbled syntax and internal rhymes and out-of-nowhere reference dropping…with at least three prominent online publications drawing a similarity between his unique vocal delivery of his unique lyrics and a rambling drunk at a bar. I think they’re supposing they’re flattering Mr. Finn. Apparently these writers haven’t met many rambling drunks at bars.In any event, I think that’s a silly equation to arrive at. Anyone who’s ever mastered, say, a rudimentary understanding of freshman English is going to be able to follow along that Sunday tells the story of a suburban teenage girl who is apparently impressionable enough to be with the wrong crowd, get reborn in religion, fall in again with the wrong crowd, and then maybe die and be reborn. And while the conflict of religion vs. rebellion has a long history in rock and soul music (see Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and 90% of the Stax/Volt or Atlantic R&B singles from the late 1960’s), it seems that since “Whiskey Bottle”, there really hasn’t been too much going on in the cool rock sector in that tradition. With that in mind, and perhaps because there seems to be so little competition working this ground, I’d still have to say that on Separation Sunday you’re going to hear lyrics and words sung that come closer to sheer poetry than anything rock and roll has produced in a long, long, time.
5. Coles Corner — Richard Hawley
Here’s a record that with a few more years of perspective, I could easily look back on and decide that it towers over everything else on this list. Richard Hawley is so freakishly, astonishingly gifted as a songwriter, lyricist, arranger, musician, and singer that his roots as a guitarist in a second-tier Britpop band (The Longpigs) and a session guitarist (Pulp, among others) are almost impossible to take at face value. I cannot imagine how he was able to apparently sit on his monumental gift for so long, allowing others the spotlight.Reading a Richard Hawley review–in between the superlatives, at least–you’ll see favorable references to Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Scott Walker, and yes, even Frank Sinatra. That reflects that Hawley possesses an incredible collection of pop music recorded from just before the British Invasion and going back to the postwar, post-big band period. I think it’s safe to say that he not only has heard a lot of the music from that era, he’s also absorbed it to a degree that rote imitators like Michael Buble never will. Coles Corner makes it abundantly clear that Mr. Hawley not only listens to those records, he soaks them into his subcoonscious the way Einstein soaked in numbers growing up. As a result, when Hawley writes a song, it captures a sense of place, but without sounding like someone writing slavish imitations. It allows him to draw on influences, and then make something of them that is wholly from the man himself.That complete understanding lets him to easily move from disparate settings with elegant ease, allowing the songs on this record to co-exist side-by-side as if Frank Sinatra songs (the title track was made for The Chairman, or Tony Bennett, or Dean Martin) were perfectly natural next to old Sun Records sides (“Just Like The Rain”) or pre-1960 rock ballads (“Hotel Room”).Trying to find a weak track here is impossible. Just when things maybe start to get a bit too familiar in the middle of the disc, the gorgeous Sinatra-esque “The Ocean” comes sweeping out, with its slow build into a majestic, full orchestra love song. From there, Hawley delivers the prettiest song he’s ever done, the utterly lovely “Born Under A Bad Sign”…….and then things get darker. Weirder. “I Sleep Alone” suddenly brings the Johnny Cash influence front-and-center, and Hawley’s guitar brilliance shows through. From here on out, the record takes on an almost gloomy and bizarre, folkier, feeling. “Tonight” is the sparest melody on the disc, with the most-impassioned vocal upfront and rather naked and exposed…much like the lyrics of the song. “Wading Through The Water” sounds like it could’ve been straight from early Elvis’ gospel period, while “Who’s Going to Show Your Pretty Little Feet” could’ve come from Johnny Cash’s last album. The album closes with the instrumental “Last Orders”, which shows that Hawley is probably familiar with the work of avant-math rockers like Rachels or Gastr Del Sol. Drenched in reverb, built around a slow piano figure, with walls of weird noise echoing throughout, it closes this lovely record with a flourish of inspired genius.There’s so much to say about Coles Corner which I haven’t. I haven’t mentioned the lyrical sense that comes straight from Ray Davies’ “Waterloo Sunset” period (Cole’s Corner is a real corner in Hawley’s native Sheffield, a place where couples have “met up” for decades and decades). I haven’t mentioned the production, which is maybe the best on any disc you’ll hear this year or any other. I also haven’t mentioned Hawley’s voice, a deep, expressive baritone that conjures up images of a lone crooner working a tattered cigarette to death in a torch-song bar in heaven. I also haven’t mentioned that this disc might be the single greatest makeout album since Roxy Music’s Avalon…trust me fellas when I say that the ladies respond to this disc. Head on over to the the album’s site, where there are extended clips of everything here, plus the video to “The Ocean” to be experienced.
4. Gimme Fiction — Spoon
They added strings. They added more keyboards and piano and organ. They added backing vocals in spots. Spoon did all these things. So, the neatest trick the band pulls off on Gimme Fiction might be that they still know how to make empty space, notes not played, parts of songs left out…they know how to use these things like another instrument.Spoon does this better than anyone since the early halcyon days of Graham Parker & The Rumour, understanding that leaving big noticeable chunks out of songs, handled right, can deliver a sense of excitement and tension that including those things never could. Britt Daniels and his fellow Spoon-ians made that easy on themselves on the wonderful Girls Can Tell and Kill The Moonlight by keeping the arrangements rudimentary and simple. On Fiction, though, with nearly 2 1/2 years to raise expectations, they continue down the path suggested by Moonlight by adding more and more to their core sound. The brilliance of this disc is that Daniels still gets the whole “less is more” aesthetic that brought the band to the brink of fame.So…the disc opens with “Beast And Dragon Adored”, which manages a brilliant pop hook built on a descending 4-note melody scale repeating over and over until they finally let it out on an chorus that’s nothing short of anthemic. “I Turn My Camera On” opens with a 2-note guitar figure that sounds like they’re about to do “Purple Haze”, but then doesn’t deviate from that simplicity while Daniels does his best to channel “Emotional Rescue” into indie rock glory. Spoon’s great gift might be their ability to grab melody “fragments” and build tense, challenging songs from them. These “fragments” are familiar enough that we think we know where they’re going with them….and then we’re usually surprised at where we actually end up. Thus, “My Mathematical Mind” begins with a brilliant, barrelling piano figure that sounds like a Billy Preston bridge…and while it sure seems like that figure should lead to something else, instead the band just repeats it over and over (with increasing bits of jagged guitar noise slashing through) while Daniels’ rips through one of his most pointed vocals as he tries to stay atop that musical riff that keeps building and building. It anchors this album in a brilliant moment that only Spoon would think to deliver.Elsewhere, a pulsing bass and whomping snare carry on like a tape loop through the final 2 minutes of “Was It You” to brilliant effect (again, always building and adding). The sublime “The Two Sides Of Monsieur Valentine” offers up the most “normal”-sounding song of the entire record, and proves that Daniels has the songsmithing chops to carry off a standard rock and roll song as well as anyone. With their ability to seemingly add and yet continue to subtract, Spoon makes Gimme Fiction one of the most sonically interesting albums of the last few years.
3. The Alternative To Love — Brendan Benson
With really, really, really good guitar pop stuff, I have to admit I’m totally asea as far as how it might strike the ears of others. I know that I’m digging it bigtime….but then I consider that there’s probably some disconnect in my head that others don’t have to worry about, and that when they hear a song from an amazingly talented guy like Brendan Benson, they’ll react with a shrug and a “whatever” and I’ll realize I don’t know shit and that I should probably stop writing about music altogether. And then I’ll put a song like Benson’s “Easy” on a mix CD for an indie hipster party, and when that song comes on, damn near everyone in the room wants to know “who the fuck is that, dude? That song ruuuules!” It is at moments like that where I feel validated that a gorgeous melody hook and an ability to write a middle eight in a minor key of the major key verse is damn near a universal for those of us raised during the rock era. So, if I can at least establish in my own little brain that Brendan Benson is cool, I’m going to throw this out there: he’s the best purveyor of power pop on the planet right now. “Power Pop” is a damn dirty word in music circles, and has been ever since it acquired a connotation linking it to shit that wasn’t even good enough to be as bad as “My Sharona”. It evokes images of guys in mullets with skinny leather ties singing with Eric Carmen vocal inflections about “romance” with all the savvy of an fifth-grader who’s just played his first game of Truth or Dare. But screw it. In memory of the late (“late” meaning “dead”, not “no longer a band” although that’s a total surety, too) Exploding Hearts, I’m reclaiming power pop for guys like Brendan Benson, Jon Brion, and chicks like Aimee Mann and Tracy Bonham. I’m talking about folks who are smart enough to write real adult lyrics about real adult romantic concerns and then wed them to hook-filled, instantly memorable melodies. I’m talking about the music guys like Brendan Benson create. Only now that Scott Miller has called it a day, there may not be “guys like Brendan Benson” out there. He might be the only one. A sentiment I hear from a lot of geezers my age is something along the lines of “they don’t write ’em like they used to” or “music nowadays sucks”. Then said geezer creeps back into his cave with his safe Simon & Garfunkel or Beatles or whatever…and all I can think is that it must be frustrating for fellows like Brendan Benson that people like that exist. I mean, the first time I heard the initial keyboard figure to “Cold Hands (Warm Heart)”, I thought it was among the most ingenious bits of pop tunesmithery I’d ever heard. Let me be clear here: if you could send Mr. Benson back in time to 1967, he’d play “Cold Hands” for Messrs. Lennon & McCartney, and they’d both fall over backwards. He’s that good. The Ford Motor Company agrees–they’ve added Benson’s “Cold Hands (Warm Heart)” to their ad campaign, and that song is now all over TV. So yeah, if you ever blissed out to anything The Beatles, The Who, or anyone influenced by those fellows produced, you really owe it to yourself to check out Brendan Benson, because he transcends categories, so obvious is his gift (I should add that if you saw Brendan Benson walking down a street, you’d assume he was a homeless guy). Brendan, a Detroit native, is apparently working on an album with fellow Detroiter Jack White (of that Stipes band), who is a great admirer. That disc is scheduled to come out sometime in 2006. Here’s betting that it has a very good chance of making this list next year.One more cool thing about Brendan Benson: if you point your web browser to http://www.brendanbenson.com you can hear this album in its entirety.
2. If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry — Marah
There is a great and beautiful mythology built around the American Bar Band. Those of us who piss away too much of our lives thinking about music fantasize about the perfect bar band, and their ability to transcend being “just” a bar band to heights unscalable by mere mortals. In that respect, perhaps Bruce Springsteen & The E Street were the greatest bar band of all time, rising to greater heights than maybe they deserved because during the bloat and pretention of the 1970’s, they recalled for a generation the reason they fell in love with rock and roll all along.Nowadays, you’re likely to hear records by a variety of fine folks like Bright Eyes, The Arcade Fire, or Clap Your Hands Say Yeah heralded as being among the best and brightest this generation has to offer, and perhaps the folks saying those things are right. I’d just like to add that when I listen to those records, I maybe hear a little bit of “bloat”. I kinda hear a little bit of “pretentiousness” (okay, none of those bands or anyone else in that same vein has recorded side 2 of Tales Of Topographic Oceans, so there’s every chance I’m overreacting.)But then there’s Marah. They are the antidote to bloat. You play a song like “The Demon Of White Sadness” next to anything by those aforementioned bands, and to these ears it sure brings the word “fraud” to mind. As far as Marah is concerned, I’ve been hearing about them for over 5 years now. Last year, I saw a bunch of great reviews for their album 20,000 Streets Under The Sky, but that disc never clicked with me. Nothing in their catalog did, really. I just found all their previous stuff to be incredibly over-produced, and I never got the raves this Philadelphia band seemed to be garnering from certain quarters. In the runup to the release of this album, I read that this disc was recorded in a series of one-takes and live in the studio, and that finally seemed to do the trick for me “getting” them. Removed from studio gimmickry, Marah finally put out the great album that critics have predicted from them for years in 2005. Read no further: if you were ever moved by any song recorded by Mr. Springsteen….or by The Replacements…or by The Rolling Stones….well, stop reading and run, don’t walk, to your local cool record store and buy a copy of If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry. The core of Marah are brothers Dave and Sergei Beilenko. Serge provides the populist guitar brilliance, while brother Dave writes lyrics that are easy to miss on first blush…but on repeated listens come as close to Paul Westerberg brilliance as anyone’s managed in recent years. Hell, when Dave sings, he almost sounds like a young Westerberg….without trying to. That’s a good thing, in case you’re keeping score.If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry is full-to-bursting with brilliant marriages of words to music like “Sooner Or Later”, “The Hustle”, “The Demon Of White Sadness” (Jesus, how great is that song). They do the character sketch better than anyone else in rock right now, as witnessed by “The Dishwasher’s Dream”, “City Of Dreams” and “Walt Whitman Bridge” (and if anyone’s written a verse as subtle and moving as Dave Bielenko on that latter song, “Got a leather wallet on a chain/ Got a picture of my lover’s lips before they dried up under my kiss/ A prayer in my heart I’m too scared to recite/ Oughtta toss that stale loaf of words to the birds as a monument to my whole life”, I missed it.)Marah is the real deal. They’re four Philly guys who look like they oughta be car mechanics. They’re the kind of band that people who really, really, love rock and roll ought to embrace and pull close to their hearts. There’s no other band on the planet who so completely “gets it” than Marah. This might be last great rock and roll band on the planet. If you truly love rock and roll, this album is as essential as oxygen. Although it didn’t make my number one, no other album on my list goes straight into my heart the way this one does.
1. Aim Right For The Holes In Their Lives — Novillero
Invariably, it’s damn near impossible for me to think of this Winnipeg band without also having fellow Canadian popsters The New Pornographers come to mind. Both groups put out critically lauded albums this year, but right there we have our first difference between these two groups: Novillero deserved their good press, while The New Pornographers did not, much as that hurts to say. Novillero’s disc has catchier, funnier, punchier songs than anything on the New Porns disc, for starters.But let’s not mince words, here. With the first verse of the first song on Aim Right For The Holes In Their Lives, Novillero say more than The New Pornographers have said (or, more precisely, not said) in three albums: “The laissez-fair system is not quite working out/The focus is too much on the gains and the losses”. By marrying Gang Of Four hyperliterate political awareness to insanely catchy (and muscular) songs, Novillero announce right from the starting gate that they’re taking everyone on, whether they represent corporate greed or warmongering politicians. All of which is great…but politically aware rock, frankly, sucks usually. Novillero escape this by writing what are simply the best rock and roll songs of this year on their second album. Take for an example “The Hypothesist”. Starting with a spare piano and vocal, you’re thinking “Yeah, this song is ok, I guess…” and then suddenly the full horn section comes crashing into the mix on the chorus and “The Hypothesist” is transformed into one of 2005’s best songs (and yet, it isn’t even the best track on this amazing record.)Novillero seem to organically understand what makes rock music great. They get that the sound of music uncontrolled is exciting, Lots of bands have understood this–and there are a decent number of examples of rock bands who’ve managed to put out records where it sounds as if the band is falling apart to satisfy the “uncontrolled” thing, and those discs have sounded great. But they haven’t sounded like Novillero. See, these guys understand that “uncontrolled” can mean raw emotion and feeling, that “uncontrolled” can be having your song become an amazingly cathartic raveup like on the latter third of “The Art Of Carrying On”. I well remember a conversation with my friend Marc back in 1990. He was opining that the Jesus Jones song “Right Here Right Now” was maybe the worst thing ever, and not because, you know, Jesus Jones really sucked. No, his reasoning went further; he wondered openly about the morality of the song: “Hey, look at how the world is changing for the better! Hey, look at me sitting here on my couch watching it all happen on TV instead of being willing to do a damn thing to be a part of it!” I don’t think Marc (or I) thought that people needed to be standing atop the Berlin Wall with sledge hammers, but hey…folks could at least vote and shit, you know? Somehow, I think that Novillero songwriter Rod Slaughter must’ve channeled that conversation on “Morally Deficient Business”. Railing with sarcasm and pure venom at those who can’t be bothered to give a shit about the world around them, he spits out the sarcastic and caustic chorus of “I just sit here minding my morally deficient business/Watching the world pass nonchalantly by”, and it becomes an anthem opposed to apathy and smug satisfaction that also happens to be have a melody line that’ll stick in your head for the rest of your life.What Novillero does so well that puts them atop my list this year is that they manage to do so many things so well: no one else this year wrote catchier songs with more intelligent lyrics and played them with a toughness, verve, and punk swagger the way Novillero did. No one else sounded like they cared so much about the world around them the way Novillero did. No one else expressed that concern in ways that are both inherently ass-shakeable and tunefully brilliant the way these Canadian fellows did. And no other record this year was so completely devoid of a single weak track. Put Aim For The Holes In Their Lives on, and you can just let it run, with its Zombies meets The Jam soulfulness and piss and vinegar. More than any other record this year, Novillero rewards every part of the human spirit. They’ll give you goosebumps with how kickass they sound. Their lyrics will make you think. They’ll tuck melodies away in your subconcious that you’ll never be able to shake. In a year of great music, no one was greater than Novillero.
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