More than any other year of I Rock Cleveland’s Year End Extravaganza Bonanza, the 25 albums compiled in this list represent both the albums which I’ve personally enjoyed the most, and the albums which I hold in the highest critical regard. There are no consensus picks (Sorry, Fleet Foxes), no popular picks (Sorry, TV on the Radio, I really, really tried this time), and no My Morning Jacket (Sorry dudes, your album was pretty much awful). Instead, you’ll find 25 albums of rock, pop, and folk which soundtracked my year, and hopefully, soundtracked much of your year as well. If not, well, let’s say you’ve got some catching up to do…
Oh, holy mother of rock, Black Mountain slays. F*ckin’ A, do they slay. The guitars on “Tyrants” and “Bright Lights” are some of the biggest and baddest around. Yet, their ability to ROCK (all caps for emphasis) is not what makes In the Future one of the essential Rock ‘N’ Roll albums of this decade. Neither is it the voice of Amber Webber. As a foil to guitarist/vocalist Stephen McBean, and sometimes lead, her haunting, ethereal calls are wicked enough to wake the dead, but they’re not responsible for making this album a classic. No, it’s their patience. Yes, you read that right, it’s their patience. Although they trade in the music of the devil, they are blessed with the patience of saints, never rushing themselves to the big pay off. Amid all of the Pink Floyd keyboard salutes, and all of the gigantic guitar explosions, they retain a keen sense of balance, knowing when to keep a groove breathing barely above the murky, mucky muck and when to hit the pedals and rattle the room with a sinister storm of sound. Blazing, then teasing. Building tension, only to let it dissipate. Lulling the listener to comfort, then abruptly unleashing a furious, evil spell. You can see the dark clouds gathering over the horizon. You can feel the bad vibes in the air. Bad sh*t’s comin’, and you don’t know when it’s gonna hit. [I Rock Cleveland 1.22.08]
2. Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds
Dig Lazarus Dig!
At 50 years old, Nick Cave should be aging gracefully, trying his best not to tarnish his legacy, and getting the band back together only to play county fairs, air shows, and rib cook offs whenever the boys in the band need some extra coin. He shouldn’t be this relevant. He shouldn’t be releasing career defining albums this late in his career, year after year, first with Grinderman, and now with The Bad Seeds. To be fair, Cave’s late career renaissance really began on the 2004 double album, Abbatoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus, with the raw, primal guitar attack of Grinderman, serving to howl and scowl that point home. On that album, Cave became the masculine, mega man, driven by emotion, and empowered by instinct. Yet, as lead single, “No Pussy Blues,” showed, behind that hairy beast of a manly man, was someone surprisingly vulnerable, frustrated in his attempts to bed the object of his desire.
On Dig Lazarus Dig, with a full compliment of Bad Seeds behind him, the volume and bravado may be toned down a bit, but Cave’s lyrics remain razor sharp as he takes on the role of urban poet popularized by Lou Reed and Jim Carroll, chronicling the travails of a cast of undesirables drugging, struggling, and stumbling their way through life in these great United States. [I Rock Cleveland 5.05.08]
The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull
While Earth may be rightly labeled as one of the forefathers of doom, that steamrolling, slow and foreboding form of metal, don’t let that tag scare you. Chances are if bands like Earth came from a different scene, one not steeped in the heavy sound of the Melvins, then this genre would have a much more innocuous name, something like post-rock, perhaps. Yet, even if we disregard that creepy signifier, there is still something ominous about Earth’s latest release for Southern Lord, The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull. Each number seems to foreshadow some bad a** shoot out about to go down on the dusty, wind swept streets of the Old West. Every note carefully creeps out of the speakers, measuring their stride, taking their time to live, since, surely, one man’s going to find himself on the other side by the end of the song. However, the explosion you might expect, never comes. For Earth, it’s all about the build up, that slow, steady, and heavy build up. On “Omens and Portents 1: The Driver,” the heavy, sustained vibe is augmented by noted jazz guitarist, Bill Frissell, who adds texture to the ever present, low-end rumble supplied by guitarist Dylan Carlson. Come to think of it, maybe there is something to that word, doom. This isn’t exactly “Shiny Happy People.” [I Rock Cleveland 6.30.08]
MP3: Earth – The Driver
For a band who have a made a name for themselves by recording layer upon layer of scuzz, sludge, and fuzz, Smile opens rather unexpectedly with the drop of a needle, one blast of fuzz, then quaint sounds of “Flower, Sun, Rain” piping quietly, as if the listener is off in a separate room from the stereo. It’s not until the second verse that things become a little more clear, but it’s still not the squalor you’d expect, for that you have to wait nearly six minutes. Then, there it is, that wondrous, glorious, thick, heavy sludge from the heavens. [I Rock Cleveland 5.05.08]
Starting with the release of 2007’s “Year of the Pig” single, Fucked Up have exhibited a willingness to not only rewrite the rule book of modern punk, but to desecrate it with any manner of things not considered punk, including, but certainly not limited to progressive rock, jazz, and krautrock. With The Chemistry of Common Life, the band aren’t as overt in their subversion of modern punk rock rules. Well, there is that flute solo that introduces The Chemistry of Common Life, and two ambient interludes, but aside from those things, which are pretty overt, they’re not as obvious. On “Crooked Head” the band layer one guitar track on top of another, run them forwards, backwards, any which way but loose, and in the process create something akin to a mashup of the Beatles’ White Album and Black Flag’s Damaged. A similar strategy on “No Epiphany” results in what could be best described as a hardcore Dark Side of the Moon.
Even with all the talk about saving punk, re-inventing punk, or not being punk at all, Fucked Up are a hardcore band at heart. The throat shredding vocals of Pink Eyes (Damian Abraham) sound as if the man brushes with bleach, and rinses out with Draino. Plus, there’s any number of tracks (“Twice Born,” “Black Albino Bones,” and “The Chemistry of Common Life,” to name a few) perfect for a night of stomping, bashing, and any other matter ultra violence. Just don’t listen too closely to the lyrics, else you might find yourself stomping in your black boots to words better suited for things like examining the existential issues inherent with the human condition, when considering a modern world overrun with unchecked materialism and senseless violence. [I Rock Cleveland 10.06.08]
What the Dutchess and The Duke do can hardly be called new. People have been singing folk tunes for as long as man has set words to music. And few would label this duo as innovators. The Dutchess (Kimberly Morrison) and The Duke (Jesse Lortz) have been kicking around in various garage, punk, and garage punk bands in the Pacific Northwest for a few years now. Yet, when the two come together, and sing those songs with such raw language, and such real emotion, and with such honest harmonies, they transcend those humble roots. This isn’t twisted folk, or freaky folk, lo-fi or weird America. It’s just plain folk music with a guitar or two, a little flute, the occasional tap of a drum, and hint of Rolling Stones. [I Rock Cleveland 07.09.08]
Everything about Vampire Weekend seems so wrong (Even the stuff I can’t verify to be true like the limousines, investments, hotel rooms, dry cleaners, no whip, sugar-free vanilla lattes from Starbucks, and the part about being well-off). That is, until you actually listen to their debut disc, and you learn these Columbia kids know a thing or two about crafting clean melodies and writing catchy songs. They work world sounds so effortlessly into the mix that it feels uncalculated, almost naive, and instead of obscuring a melody in pitched, trebly feedback, or awkward, overloaded arrangements, they openly embrace it. You don’t need to know what an “Oxford Comma” is, or when to use it properly, to appreciate vocalist Ezra Koenig’s easy croon, drummer Christopher Tomson’s Stewart Copeland-like staggered beat, and how it builds gracefully from simple to splendid. Then, consider “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” the number responsible for the vast majority of those Paul Simon Graceland comparisons, where Koenig displays his acute understanding of African guitar melodies over Tomson and bassist Chris Biao’s full, dynamic rhythms replete with congas and bongos. [I RockCleveland 1.28.08]
Songs in A & E
If Jason Pierce sounds a bit worse for the wear on Spiritualized’s sixth album, Songs in A & E, there’s good reason. Recording was interrupted when Pierce was hospitalized with double pneumonia and nearly died, twice. His voice now sounds weathered, and weary, and consequently, those common Spiritualized subjects like love, death, God, and drugs carry a much heavier weight. It’s hard not to be moved by a somber songs like “Death Takes a Fiddle,” even more so when you realize its accompaniment is the sound of the very device that saved his life: a respirator.
Still, even with the extra gravity provided by Pierce’s brush with death, the beauty and transcendence found throughout Songs in A & E, doesn’t come from his message, but how he frames sounds around that message. On one song his soul’s on fire, another, it’s his heart. It’s as if his meeting with the reaper inspired him to revisit The World’s Worst High School Poetry, Vol 1. Yet, as ordinary and cliche as some of his lines may be, he more than makes up for it with masterful string arrangements, delicately and precisely complementing his melodies, and simultaneously exposing the big, awkward, and brutish arrangements of his peers (Yes, Arcade Fire, I’m talking about you, again), as the work of amateurs. Both poignant and emotional, the arrangements on songs like “Soul on Fire,” “Sitting on Fire,” “Waves Crash Down,” and “Borrowed your Gun,” convey fear, uncertainty, and ultimately the hope and redemption that he must have felt those days in the hospital, and does so in a manner much clearer and much more powerful than his words ever could. [I Rock Cleveland 6.16.08]
9. Jay Reatard
To some, Jay Reatard is a Rock ‘N’ Roll anti-hero, to others he’s an egotistical jerk, yet regardless of what you think of the man’s personality, there’s little denying the fact that he has the gift to recreate the perfect three-minute pop song time and time again. Even before signing on to Matador Records for his highly successful limited edition 7″ single series, Jay Reatard (born Jay Lindsay) had already built quite a reputation among the garage and punk underground, first for his work with the Reatards, later with the Lost Sounds, and most recently as a solo artist for In The Red Records where he released one highly regarded solo album (Blood Visions) and a similarly regarded singles collection (Jay Reatard Singles ’06-’07).
It was through those 2007 singles that Lindsay first started to move away from the 60 seconds and a cloud of dust style which punctuated Blood Visions and his famously succinct, fifteen minute live shows. It’s a progression which continues on this collection, Matador Singles ’08. On “See Saw” he evokes images of a young Elvis Costello, railing against the state of radio, and with “Always Wanting More,” he mixes that early Stiff Records, metropolitan new-wave sound, with a shot of Devo-like robot rock. No longer limited to just new-wave and punk, you even hear traces of Eighties college rock icons, The Violent Femmes, when Lindsay ditches his white flying V for an acoustic guitar on “An Ugly Death.” [I Rock Cleveland 10.13.08]
As (Robert) Griffin leads his band through any variety of styles, including avant, art-rock (“Fake Your Own Death”), two shots and a stack of amps barroom rock (“F*ck Your Self Esteem” and ‘”You’re Obviously The One,”‘) and hard charging, punk fueled aggression (“Crush Me” “Favorite Hospital” and “I Will Comment,”) one constant is his guitarwork. It’s so dynamic it’s almost a liability. On “I Will Comment” there’s a passage that sounds as if it was lifted straight from one of Boston’s solid gold radio hits. While, “We’ve Only Just Tasted The Wine,” with its hot, Southern guitar licks, comes off like having your Wilco with a side of Skynyrd. Other times, his riffs recall the jarring, abstract work of Thurston Moore and J. Mascis. And in some cases, as on Disc 2’s, “The Year of The Donk,” Griffin covers all these styles and more. Here he uses The Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” as a starting point, and proceeds to cover some 40 years of modern guitar (classic rock, punk rock, art rock, even jazz fusion) in one song. Indulgent? Yes, but you have to give the band credit for having the balls to step out of genre, out of their comfort zone, and believe in themselves enough to leave it all out there for the listener. [I Rock Cleveland 9.15.08]
Yes, GentlemanJesse’s self titled record plays like thirteen times Nick Lowe’s “Cruel to be Kind,” but you know what? That song ruled. And you know what else? Every one of Jesse’s thirteen iterations rules, too. You can tell me that you’ve heard it before, and there’s nothing new to be found in the early 80’s new wave/power pop sound. Fine, but then you have to tell me why this CD keeps finding it’s way back into my soundsystem. It’s not by chance and it’s not by choice. It’s that damn good. [I Rock Cleveland 09.23.08]
For LA’s No Age, this is a case of the hype getting it right. Their signature sound has been well documented — take one part My Bloody Valentine (or Sonic Youth, depending on your taste in commonly cited modern music influences) and one part West Coast DIY punk. Sometimes No Age will take this formula and tease the listener with an ambient intro before they rock the f*ck out, and other times, they’re content to noodle for a few minutes without the rocking the f*ck out part. Mostly, this duo of Randy Randall and Dean Sprunt, just know how to write a killer Rock ‘N’ Roll songs. Whether it’s the Strokes inspired, tight jean wiggle of “Eraser,” the alt-rock blast of “Teen Creeps,” or the unabashed power pop of “Brain Burner,” dudes can jam with the best of them. These tunes may be buried in fuzz, obscured by white noise, and tempered by a decidedly lo-fi aesthetic, but they’re present and waiting for a stereo to blast them out in all their loud, ragged glory. [I Rock Cleveland 05.28.08]
YOUTUBE: No Age – Eraser
To Pitchfork’s credit, they weren’t totally wrong about Deerhunter, they simply got ahead of themselves. Cryptograms isn’t an album worthy of lofty praise, it’s the follow up, Microcastle. No longer is an intricate soundscape the end, rather, those soundscapes, while still present, merely serve as a starting point for Cox’s new found confidence as a vocalist as well as his quickly developing sense of pop melody.
The bubbly bass line and terse guitar clips added to the sweepy statics on “Never Stops,” recall both The Breeders and Sonic Youth. While the light sweet melody of “Little Kids” suggests Cox has been boning up on his history of early British Invasion bands, like the Kinks. On the title track, Cox reaches even further back in the annals of Rock ‘N’ Roll history, and takes a page from American doo-wop as he crafts an old high school dance theme fitting for kids too awkward to ever get asked to their Senior Prom.
While all these moments point to a more focused and more capable band, it’s on “Nothing Ever Happened,” that Deerhunter really deliver on their promise. Opening with bass line reminiscent of good-time soul music, it quickly gives way to moody, brooding verses and glistening guitars common to the ’90s alt rock explosion. At the two and-a-half minute mark, the band explodes with their best Sonic Youth as a shifting cloud of sound meets fuzzy, wailing guitars. It’s neither wasted ambiance, nor tiresome noodling, but the exact moment when Cox and the rest of the band realize they don’t have to choose between being a pop band or a noise band. They can be both. [I Rock Cleveland 11.03.08]
To his credit, Danger Mouse’s production on Attack and Release, largely stays out of the way — there are no electronic drum loops, air sirens, or annoying 8 bit sounds. Instead, he allows the Keys to do what they do best — lay down nasty grooves on guitar and drums, while he fleshes out the intros, outros, and bridges, giving them a much fuller sound than they’ve ever enjoyed. Take “I Got Mine,” for example, where Auerbach and Carney rock an old time riff fit for a haunted hollow, with the production adding backwards tracks and assorted spookies between the verses. A similar approach is taken with the first single, “Strange Times.” Auerbach has his six string set to kill, Carney’s hitting the kit with power and precision, and it’s just like any other Black Keys single, until the chorus comes and the jeepers and creepers work they way into the mix. [I Rock Cleveland 4.21.08]
YOUTUBE: The Black Keys – Strange Times
The band’s most varied work to date. There’s the heavy, impetuous doom metal of opening track, “Doomsdayer’s Holiday,” and the softer ambient textures of “Acid Rain,” and “The Natural Man,” which have more in common with a trip back to the days of sunny, West Coast, psychedelia than a trip to Calcutta. While “Immediate Mate” uses a combination of slow moving blues and acid jazz, similar to the recent work of the influential, drone band, Earth. Reincarnated, and rejuvenated, Doomsdayer’s Holiday is hardly a harbinger of destruction the demon woman so profoundly announces on its cover, rather, it’s a clear signal that Grails is ready to stake their claim as one of modern music’s premier instrumental acts. [I Rock Cleveland 10.13.08]
Now, implying Times New Viking haven’t changed their tune, and claiming they’ve gone and recorded the same album the third time are not the same thing. The production is still dominated by fuzz and hiss, and recording levels are still redder than red, but as their melodies have gotten tighter and their song writing has gotten stronger, it’s becoming more and more difficult for them to hide behind the snap, crackle, and pop of their trusted, busted sound. [I Rock Cleveland 1.22.08]
With a rickety ramble, tamble and the steady hiss of an old analog recorder, Sic Alps have done to psychedelic rock what fellow lo-fi adherents, Times New Viking, did to indie pop — that is they stripped it of its natural shine, deconstructed the parts worth saving, and in the process found obscure melodies dying to get out. [I Rock Cleveland 08.12.08]
MP3: Sic Alps – Bathman
For those of us who’ve been following the Canadian rock band Sloan over the past decade and a half, it’s damn near unfathomable that they don’t have a bigger reputation here in the states. All they’ve done is release one solid rock album after another, and when that formal got stale, they blew the whole thing up with the quick hitting, 30 songs on a single disc, Never Hear the End of It. Now, rejuvenated and back at the top of their game, the four songwriters in Sloan (Jay Ferguson, Chris Murphy, Patrick Pentland, and Andrew Scott), narrowed their scope, and produced a follow in Parallel Play, much more concise than its predecessor, but just as satisfying with its abundance of pop hooks and big guitar riffs. [I Rock Cleveland 7.07.08]
YOUTUBE: Sloan – Believe in Me
19. Boston Spaceships
The Guided by Voices fan will be pleasantly surprised. “Go For The Exit” is a holdover from those Guided by Voices days, and it’s simple melody will reaffirm what you’ve always known, but have neglected in recent years: Pollard is a songwriting genius, when he’s focused. Like Richard Ashcroft and The Verve, Pollard is an artist who seems to need a band to reel in his impulses. The prog rock Pollard, the one with the deep, overly dramatic, bellowing voice, only makes the rare appearance on “North 11 AM” and “Still in Rome.” While the pop Pollard, the one who could write a hit song on the can, every morning, appears numerous times (“You Satisfy Me”, “Two Girl Area” and “Andy Playboy” to name a few). Plus, as a bonus, Brown Submarine, kicks off with the big riff, arena rock Uncle Bob in “Winston’s Atomic Bird.” [I Rock Cleveland 9.23.08]
It ebbs and flows, fakes out and freaks out, rocks and retreats with a wide dynamic range, and has a general sense of unpredictability, not in the what the f*ck is this band doing now kind of way, but in a good way, where the listener is kept on the edge anticipating what could come next. There’s the garage rock rave ups (“Queen and The Jokester” and “Kill Me Now”), some psychedelic swamp boogie (“Saved”), and a much needed come down (“Dead Soldiers.”)
Speaking of unpredictability, Take Shape’s highlight, “Don’t Know What I’ve Been On,” thrives on it. In another band’s hands, it would be nothing more than a loose, jangly, psychedelic pop number. Yet, the Yawns take this basic pop number, and twist it and stretch it with a series of wild and free guitar solos which make repeated attempts to completely eliminate any memory of the opening melody. They start, stop, then rock. Start, stop, then rock. They continually tease the listener, and just when you think the interstellar freak out will win, there it is. The opening melody returns, slight, delicate, and a little worse for the wear. What an amazing ride! [I Rock Cleveland 8.15.08]
Taking their name (and some stylistic cues) from The Velvet Underground, The Black Angels’ debut disc, Passover, dove deeply into the dark, dirty, and seedy side of psychedelic rock. A striking combination of fierce, primal drums, omnipresent drones, and huge, memorable guitar riffs, drove ominous and aggressive numbers like “Young Men Dead” and “Black Grease.” For their follow up, Directions to See a Ghost, the Black Angels have chosen to take a more methodical and measured approach. Whereas many of Passover’s signature songs, like “Black Grease,” came out with all guitars blazing, the big moments on Directions to See a Ghost often come via numbers like the 8 1/2 minute “Never/Ever,” where the band gives as much attention to setting up a haunting mood with tone, texture, and detail as they do to the grand, guitar and organ freak out that punctuates this track. [I Rock Cleveland 05.28.08]
22. The Verve
(On Your Own)
With reports of Ashcroft and McCabe already sparring on stage, there’s a good chance this reunion will last for one album, or just as long as The Verve’s reunion after 1995’s A Northern Soul. So, it’s best to take Forth for what it is: More than the embarrassment of many reunion albums, it’s the triumphant return by a band, who despite lyrical misgivings, and a hearty appetite for pills, are still capable of creating a complex, wonderful, and all-encompassing wall of sound to satiate your speakers. [I Rock Cleveland 9.08.08]
23. Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan
Sunday at Devil Dirt
Quite honestly, I could listen to Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan sing an album consisting entirely of press releases for the next big thing from NYC, clinical trials of the newest treatments for athlete’s foot, or the police blotter from the newspaper of one traffic light, a few hundred people, Ohio. Lanegan’s voice is worn, weathered, and resilient, while Campbell is light, sprite-like, and uplifting. Together, they can sing just about anything, and the fact that they choose to sing delicate, front porch folk songs like “Trouble,” makes their latest album, Sunday At The Devil Dirt, all the better. [I Rock Cleveland 12.10.08]
24. Army Navy
It would fit in rather nicely next to tracks by Matthew Sweet, Jellyfish, The Gigolo Aunts, The Posies, Redd Kross, Zumpano, and the other artists who contributed to the Rhino power pop collection, Poptopia, Power Pop Classics of the ’90s, had it been released, oh, some ten years ago. Hell, if I didn’t know better, I’d swear Don Fleming, the producer behind Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque and The Posies’ Frosting on the Beater, had manned the controls. I say all of this knowing full well that for some of you describing Army Navy as ’90s power pop means you’ll never click play, but for those of us that like guitars, glistening melodies, and songs about girls, it doesn’t get much better than this one. [I Rock Cleveland 10.20.08]
It’s not nearly as manic as the band’s last release, 2007’s Mapmaker, where the Brooklyn noise makers crafted huge punk anthems out of an ungangly assortment of glitchy electronics. Here, they’ve taken a more nuanced approach. One where there’s space (something that was a rare commodity on Mapmaker), and one where the electronics, once overwhelming the ears with their unpredictable squelches, are much more restrained. The result is Parts & Labor’s most melodic, and most accessible work to date. [I Rock Cleveland 7.16.08]