I am Dave Grohl. I am Jack White. Prod me, pour a few beers in me and I’ll tell you the problem with pop and the problem with electronic music with even less grace than either of these men. Garage rock is better. Pop music does lack substance. I’ll make popists’ fingers fly and cry foul as they label me rockist, sexist and racist in 140 characters or less.
None, of the accusations would be true, except, maybe the rockist one. Politically, I’m practically a socialist and when it comes to hot-button social issues concerning race, class, and gender, I’m also pinned to the far left. Food stamps for the hungry! Health care for the needy! Fair and equal pay for all men and women! Abortion pills for everyone! Gay marriage for everyone!
Unlike Grohl and White, however, I won’t apologize for believing in rock music. I fell in love with rock music as a young man and have never found a style more suiting to me as a person. I remember the first time I heard the Clash on cassette tape and from that day my life forever changed. Everything else sounded insincere, or fake. The Phil Collins tape was in the garbage the next day.
Hip-hop, you’re cool. I have mad admiration for those artists and albums who shaped the Golden Age of Hip-Hop in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The music from that period rivals the punk explosion of the ’70s in terms of impact and change. The best records from both of those eras fucked with expectations, fucked with society, and fucked with your mind, and they put us all in a better place. Or, at least they tried their damnedest. It’s hard to change society through social commentary when those driving society can’t be bothered to listen to what’s really going down in the cities.
I feel pop music often sacrifices music and meaning for the sake of performance. Music does not need meat dresses and choreography to reach the minds of the masses. On the other end of the music and performance spectrum, electronic music has little performance value. A rave, and most live performances by electronic music artists are more akin to a rave than a traditional concert, does not focus on, hell, it hardly acknowledges, the person who created the music. The creator is either in a booth or on a dark stage, twisting knobs and pushing buttons that may or may not have any real use. The excitement of an electronic music show is found in the community and their reaction to the music. And the party helpers. Party helpers help.
I was there the first time ’round where EDM was electronica in the late ’90s early ’00s. I went to raves and large warehouse parties. I saw the stars of the day DJ in clubs and perform in large concert halls. I saw some of the same faces I had seen at punk rock shows a few years prior. There was a feeling that this was where the excitement was at, whether I had special party help in my system or not. In the end, it fizzled. Despite the considerable hype, electronica could never create a superstar for the American stage like Deadmau5 and Skrillex are today.
In many ways, the launch of I Rock Cleveland in 2006 was a direct result of me rediscovering my love for rock music. I had some bad party helpers. I had the first, of several bouts with depression and anxiety. With my heart racing on its own, I could no longer handle those relentless beats, and those calls to go higher. Rock and roll, on the other hand, had a grounding effect. Rock and roll understood me. And as long as I didn’t listen to too much Elliott Smith, I could find my way forward.
At a good rock show, and I’m not talking about an indie show with a band pained to be on stage, like they’d rather be delivering a dissertation in a lecture hall, buck naked, and a crowd of cross-armed hipsters too concerned about appearance to have fun, you can find the perfect balance between music, performance, and community. It’s there in the front row of a small club with speakers, beer, and sweat all in your face, and it’s powerfully addictive.
Every record I purchase and every concert I see is an attempt to get that feeling back — Feet trembling and gut rumbling from the bass, flailing arms and whipped hair; Others lost in a trance, or mad intent on getting closer; And the music, all bringing us closer in an imperfect, often times messy, embrace.
On rare nights you’re left speechless, keenly aware what you saw could never be communicated through a cell phone camera and a youtube. Other nights, you’re left with so much to say and not enough time to get it out, quickly ordering and re-ordering all of the nights Rock ‘N’ Roll changed your life. White Stripes at the Odeon. Jay Reatard at Now That’s Class. X at Peabody’s. Black Angels at the Beachland Tavern. Black Keys at the Beachland Tavern, different night. Mission of Burma and Times New Viking at the Grog Shop. Wild Flag goofing off and rocking out at the Pitchfork Music Festival. Black Keys and Black Angels at the same place, same night at the Agora. Ted Leo and Guided by Voices too many places and too many times to count, and Yo La Tengo, any time and every time they play out. Of course, there are bombs, too. But, that’s just an excuse for another trip to the record store and another late night.
Now, Mr White and Mr Grohl, should you no longer feel the front row is the place to be; if you feel the nose bleeds at a Lady Gaga show and a glimpse of a fancy dress and dance scene can provide the same high; If you’d rather dance like a horse than lay down a mean guitar riff which captures the grace and power of nature’s creations; If you feel the throbbing beats and churning masses of a rave can replace a well-timed stage dive, then, perhaps it’s time to ask why it is you continue to record, release, and tour. Is it love, art, or money?
Rock music, especially today, requires one to believe. You need to believe the feeling of hearing the Clash for the first time is attainable today; That the excitement you felt when your parents let you stay out late on a school night to see a band in the wrong part of town can be rekindled in the same neighborhood, now gentrified; That the thrill of your first stage dive can be relived by a new kid with no fear of a broken neck. Rock music is not dead, but keep apologizing for your beliefs and you might as well be the one to pen the epitaph.
Now, without apology, here are 25 (mostly) rock records that inspired me in 2012:
1 The Men – Open Your Heart In an age where artists rush themselves into the spotlight, thinking they’re one YouTube away from quitting their day jobs; In an age where magazines and websites are chasing the same dragon, churning out content without care to quality, hoping to earn reputation in between page views as they try to stake some claim to that new band’s fame, the album that hits both on a visceral and intellectual level is indeed rare. Open Your Heart is that album, a fully-formed vision and the antithesis of the technologically perfect record, auto-tuned and Mastered for iTunes; The album that answers the question, “Does Rock ‘N’ Roll still matter?” with both a fuck you and a yes.
2 Ty Segall – Twins For the songcraft and tunefulness exhibited on 2011′s Goodbye Bread, see the opening track, “Thank God for Sinners,” and the closer, “There is no Tomorrow.” For the gorilla stomp, proto-punk of 2012′s Ty Segall Band, there’s “You’re the Doctor,” “They Told me Too,” and “Love Fuzz,” a number which features a guitar melody lifted straight from The Stooge’s playbook. Lastly, if you’re looking for some classic, San Francisco style, psychedelic weirdness, there’s lead single, “The Hill.” It teases Age of Aquarius, only to take the listener on a tour of the gutters and alley ways of early punk rock, instead. And, through it all, Segall plays some killer guitar. Let’s not discount the killer guitar. Whether the song is more Iggy-like than Lennon-like in terms of composition, it’s accompanied by this burly, grungy sound, cranked well beyond the vocals and rhythm section, curdling like the thick, black smoke hanging over a broken down big rig, foreshadowing a righteous boom.
3 Baroness – Yellow and Green Yet, it’s not the abundance of potential singles that makes Yellow & Green one of the essential rock albums of the year. It’s what the band does in between those tracks. Showcasing an independence of thought and a disdain for genre conformity, principal John Baizley (rhythm guitar, lead vocals) with Peter Adams (lead guitar, vocals), Matt Maggioni (bass), and Allen Blickle (drums) are never short of ways to expand their own definition of heavy. “Twinkler,” for example finds the quartet venturing into elemental, drone-folk. While the soft-loud dynamics of “Eula,” recalls Radiohead in their simpler days. Later, the instrumental track, “Green Theme,” wields the unlikely combination of soothing, dream-pop melodies and majestic, maxed out guitar solos fit for a fireworks show with uncommon ability. Lastly, “Psalms Alive,” rides, shock of shocks, a choppy, electronic dance beat, a skittish bass rhythm and deliberate guitar chords for almost one minute and forty-five seconds before properly rocking. Those who were excused earlier will likely point to “Psalms Alive” and its successor, “Stretchmaker,” an intricate, classical guitar suite set to minimalist electronics, as the exact moment Baroness died to them.
Look, it’s neither easy nor comforting, to turn your back on history and forget everything you once knew as truth, like “Baroness are metal,” for example. The human brain, in fact, is wired to avoid such confrontations. Some will have a real choice to make: Is it better to trudge through the sludge of Baroness’ earlier work and relive the days when my favorite band still sounded like my favorite band, or to take on the more challenging, rule-breaking expansion of Yellow & Green, even if it isn’t inherently metal, and doesn’t deliver the same sort of thrills? For the rest of us, however, there’s a stereo and a stage ready to rock, because few, if any, have done it better in 2012 than Baroness.
4 Godspeed! you Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend Ascend Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! is Godspeed reformed, refocused and at its best. Even if the two drones are packaged separately, almost to be overlooked, they play a crucial role, too. During life’s greatest accomplishments and its most crushing defeats, one must remember to breathe. Five minutes of white noise between two, grand, epic, twenty minute symphonies provide such moments of respite from the heaviness of “Mladic,” and the triumph of “We Drift Like Worried Fire.”
5 Daughn Gibson – All Hell As for the music itself, he takes his cues from the classics, perfect for that robust voice of his which alternates between Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison, Nick Cave and Ian Curtis, but first gently, then absolutely fucks with the backing tracks. Where one would expect a cleanly picked guitar, pedal steel and a sharp slap on the drum kit, one finds perfectly spaced samples and looped instrumental tracks. Sometimes, those loops come from a gently strummed acoustic or a simple melody tapped out on piano. Other times, the instrumentation is much more difficult to place. Is that a toy piano, a harpsichord or something sampled from the Atari 2600? Is that a cowboy chorus, or Gibson’s own voice manipulated beyond recognition? Impressively, even as he takes his cues from Portishead’s incorporation of vintage spy themes into trip hop, DJ Shadow’s meticulous, cut and paste, reconstruction of hip-hop, and the wobbly, minimalistic strain of dubstep popularized by English originals Burial and James Blake, the soul of an outlaw remains. Between the beats, you’ll encounter tales of tough living, wrong loving, long nights, and loneliness.
6 Spiritualized – Sweet Heart Sweet Light Lead single, “Hey Jane,” is the culmination of a lifetime spent blending the blues, gospel, and psychedelic rock. With a sinewy guitar lead, like the sound of finely-tuned motorcars racing on a tightly-curved oval, one that is constant throughout the track’s near nine minutes, and an arrangement that gradually builds in complexity, a real bummer of a life becomes a whirling and ecstatic symphony. A similar strategy is used later on “Headin’ for the Top Now.” However, here the guitars are significantly gnarlier and the orchestration is more cacophonous. If “Hey Jane” was the triumph, then “Headin’ for the Top Now,” is from the time when the outcome was still very much an unknown.
7 King Tuff – S/T With a preference for ripped jeans, tees and baseball hats, King Tuff’s Kyle Thomas doesn’t look the part of rock star. Not even the rocker hair flowing behind that brim communicates rock style. It’s too scraggly and unkempt. And with song titles like “Alone and Stoned,” “Loser’s Wall,” and “Stupid Superstar,” one wouldn’t necessarily peg him as an especially ambitious musician, either. Maybe a slacker with an unhealthy pot and Doritos Locos Tacos habit, but not, definitely not a pop star.
Ah, but as often the case, first impressions can and do deceive. Not only does Thomas front King Tuff, but he had an earlier band, Happy Birthday, also release an album for Sub Pop, and he’s done two albums with the J Mascis, heavy-metal side project, Witch, all in the past six years. Just as surprising, the songs on King Tuff’s self-titled, second album reveal a man who’s practically a pop savant, able to incorporate any variety of grooves from the free-wheeling ’70s into his own brand of good time music for squares. It’s a sound that led Dave Marchese of Spin to compare him to a ball-cap wearing Marc Bolan, and one that turns the suggestion in the liner notes, “Dance ’til you fuckin’ die (heart KT heart)” into a natural reaction.
Nowhere is Thomas’ fun loving attitude more apparent than on “Keep on Movin,’” a playful track of salvaged ’70s, guitar-driven, dance-pop that would fit naturally along side a Bay City Rollers song on your next party playlist. Who knows? It could have been a direct response to the ‘Rollers first single, “Keep on Dancing.” Either way, it’s a number that all but calls for a video of oddballs doing their own versions of the Frankenstein, Creepy Crawl, and Spanish Fly on through the bridge and its luminescent guitars, on to the goofy sing-song, sing-a-long, and through to the final chorus.
8. OBN IIIs – S/T Throughout their self-titled, second album, the two guitar leads trade speedy, blues rock riffs through bar room brawls and white knuckle rides while front man, Orville Bateman Neeley, a take no shit kinda guy with a coarse voice in constant need of lozenge, barks orders. During “No Way to Rock ‘N’ Roll,” Neeley instructs “Let’s Go!” “Back to the Beginning!” “Double solo, my friends!” And that double solo rambles, but never veers, and wails, but doesn’t panic. It follows Neeley, Ron Asheton, and Johnny Thunders for no more than a few seconds, and then it’s back to business. Accomplished would be a good adjective. So would totally fuckin’ righteous.
9 Guided by Voices – Class Clown Spots a UFO On Sprout’s numbers especially, good enough for a record is no longer good enough. Songs like “Forever Until it Breaks” and “All of This Will Go,” have a sense of maturity and dedication to craft seldom evident in the ’90s. Then, there’s the title track, “Class Clown Spots a UFO,” which borrows the finely-tuned majesty of the Beach Boys on Pet Sounds, and “Keep It in Motion,” whose smooth, mid-tempo and clear vocals were done in the tradition of radio-ready power pop.
And when a track does show its rough edges, it’s not from lack of trying. Rather, rowdier numbers like “Hang Up and Try Again” and “Billy White,” both benefit by keeping Mitchell’s guitars blunt and bullying, like a series of gut punches. Similarly, “Tyson’s High School,” succeeds because it permits all of its guitar tracks to elbow themselves into the mix with power and purpose, each seemingly taking on one of the four P’s independent of the others in an epic schoolyard brawl destined for Youtube stardom with only an over-sized drum beat and Pollard’s comfortable drawl attempting to keep things in check. There are literally hundreds of ways a song like “Tyson’s High School” could be bungled, and most would involve trying to reign in the maddening din from that epic guitar fight.
10 Death Grips – Money Store …A suite of songs that are uncompromising, uncomfortable, and hard to ignore. Even at their most pop, as on “I’ve Seen Footage,” it’s hard to escape those feelings of claustrophobia and anxiety. Here, the ramblings of a street-corner philosopher are spliced with an old skool, hip-hop beat and sirens and guitars that sound like sirens or more sirens. It’s like watching a split screen of Cops with a mad man raving in the back seat and an old episode of Yo! MTV Raps showcasing the latest jam from Tone Loc. Or, Public Enemy remixed for the 21st Century. Or, the end of the world being broadcast right before your eyes, ultra violence and desperation, broken windows and fire fights. With Death Grips, the specifics may be be elusive, and the music may be hard to pin down, but the impact of their message is clear — Shit is not right here and this is the soundtrack.
11 Terry Malts – Killing Time Self-described as sounding like Black Flag Tambourine, or as I prefer to call it, Jesus and Mary and Johnny and Joey and Tommy and Dee Dee Chain, the San Francisco trio Terry Malts, a band equal parts punk and pop, but not punk-pop, have put together a chainsaw of an album in Killing Time quite unlike anything in recent memory. Sure, many have used a similar formula in the past — Stomp on the pedals until ears start to bleed and then hit ‘em with a likable melody, but few have written songs so effortless and memorable; Few have been so in tune in that perfectly out of tune, crunched, mashed and blasted to oblivion way as Phil Benson (bass/lead vocals), Corey Cunningham (guitar, backing vocals), and Nathan Sweatt (drums/backing vocals) are on their debut album for Slumberland Records.
And the lyrics, while certainly clever, never leave anyone out of the joke. You don’t have to have the right books on your bookshelf. You don’t have to have the right records in your record collection to enjoy these 14 songs. A soul might help, but even that one is optional. For in “Not a Christian,” Terry Malts have written the ultimate punk rock anthem for all of the atheists, agnostics, and humanists of the earth, a track which culminates in a wash of piercing guitars and whirl of words that read like a humanist manifesto: “If there’s no power over me/I take responsibility/All prayer is empty air when no one’s listening/There’s no god and there’s no master/There is no happy ever after/There is life, there is death/I live my life and do my best/To cherish all experience ’til I lay down to rest.”
12 Torche – Harmoniacraft Torche albums are unpredictable. In between “Kicking,” the first heavy rock hit of the album and the next two (“Smakes Are Charmed” and Skin Moth,”) there’s a big ball of bludgeon (“Reverse Inverted,”) evil Sabbath stoner rock (“In Pieces,”) and ’80s thrash metal (“Sky Trails.”) Each song is technically precise, intense and relentless. If being the masters of all things heavy is no longer good enough, the question now becomes what’s the band to do? 30 minute drones? Dance pop? A power ballad? How about they paint their faces like clowns and do a hip-hop collaboration? No thank you, oh hell no, no thank you, and I fucking hate clowns. Let’s stick with the heavy rock hits
13 National Suicide Day – Peacefield Tuesday night and the headphones are on, in the dark, with only a glow from the Indians and Tigers on the TV. I’m going through the website’s review queue, which is now eight albums strong, first Om and then this National Suicide Day album comes on, and I’m thinking, “Like I’m going to review all of these albums. What can I cut? What can I put off for a week or two?” And then, wham, “Fuck, man, why haven’t more bands run with the idea of two-ton heavy soul, like National Suicide Day?” And, wham, again, “Has there been a better Clevo album in the past five years?” It all kinda hit and it all came back like that — The series of shows this NEO trio played in around 2008-2009; The rippingest version of Neil Young’s “Down By the River” never put to tape; My mind blown, my neck whipped and morning bangovers; And then nothing until a Facebook update by National Suicide Day’s Lawrence Caswell earlier this year that read, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Look what I found today! The National Suicide Day master tapes.” To think Peacefield was almost lost to time.
14 Japandroids – Celebration Rock The rock anthem, that old Rock ‘N’ Roll standard birthed in the arenas of the ’70, popularized by the likes of The Boss and Jon Bon, bastardized by hair metal in the ’80s and emo in the ’90s and Nickelback, and co-opted by pop singers and punks alike, has seen a resurgence in recent years thanks to bands like The Hold Steady, The Gaslight Anthem and Japandroids who have taken a no nonsense approach to a form which once based its very existence on the notion of extravagance.
For Japandroids, this back to basics approach means there are no power ballads and the only frill to be found on Celebration Rock’s eight tracks is the occasional dramatic pause used to set up another round of drums like home run fireworks, ratcheting and ecstatic guitars, and a whole lotta “Whoas” and “Ohs.” They may channel the spirit of the Boss, but their roots are set firmly in punk rock and noise rock. Consequently, even as this album is basically one attempt to whisk a bummer away with the optimism of feel good rock followed by another, it never feels overwrought or too simplistic in its outlook. Brian King and David Prowse truly believe in the healing power of rock, and aren’t ashamed to profess their optimism as they recount challenging times in the most glorious way possible on songs like “Nights of Wine and Roses, “The House that Heaven Built,” and “Younger Us.” Put Celebration Rock on your turntable, or load this album on your car stereo, turn it up loud, and you’ll have a hard time disagreeing with them.
15 Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory Those decisions all come together and deliver the goods on songs like opening track, “No Future/No Past,” and “No Sentiment,” numbers sure to recall The Pixies at their dynamic, corrosive, and melodic best. They have the moaning vocals and minor keys, the soft/loud/soft dynamics (The type Nirvana made all the rage), and Gerycz’s forceful work behind the kit. Imagine a whirling dervish, or a man with four arms, or maybe eight arms, and those would be eight wild arms each with the strength of eight arms. He gives Cloud Nothings both the right type of kick to execute made for the mosh pit, melodic punk (“Stay Useless”) and the precision needed to carry out a near nine-minute excursion into early emo and space rock (“Wasted Days.”)
Meanwhile, the instrumental track, “Separation,” features rapid, angular guitars from Baldi and fellow guitarist, Joe Bayer, and Gerycz going ape shit on tom, snare, cymbal, and everything else within striking distance. The word angular to describe a guitar sound may have gone out of fashion when angular became shorthand for sounds like Sunny Day Real Estate, and by extension, sounds like a shit band trying to be Sunny Day Real Estate, but here, the term and the song work exceedingly well.
Surprisingly, for all the work on Attack on Memory meant to distance the band from its own past, it ends with the two tracks (“Our Plans” and “Cut You”) that provide the clearest bridge to their past incarnation as a basement pop band. Strip away the bigger sound, and these are your familiar, strum a few chords and soothe the broken heart, pop songs. Still, even as the album lingers with an attack on Attack on Memory instead of driving the point home, the message remains clear enough: That band you used to know, the one with the quaint, lo-fi pop songs is now a riveting, rock act, ready to leave its old digs behind for their rightfully earned place on the big stage
16 Guided by Voices – The Bears for Lunch So, yes, The Bears for Lunch is another collage rock album which hits all four P’s in the Robert Pollard guidebook to successful songwriting — Pop, psych, punk, and prog; An album amazing in both consistency and quality as it cuts between styles without warning, alternately touching in its sincerity and energetic beyond the band member’s years. Oh, and it happens to be the best Guided by Voices album since the last Guided by Voices album, and in all likelihood, until the next one, too.
17 Nude Beach – II Truth be told, I would have discussed Nude Beach a bit sooner if their name was something like Jack and the Snap-Backs or even Jesse and the Rippers and not Nude Beach, a name which conjures up visions of an indie kid with his mac making cutesy, primitive electronic music in his bedroom. Surprisingly, then, in “Walkin’ Down My Street,” this Brooklyn trio comes off like a low-rent incarnation of Tom Petty (especially in the vocals), or Thin Lizzy (check the boogie bass), or even The Storkes at times, albeit a version of The Strokes who have chosen the bar rock aesthetic over the skinny jeans life style. As a result, Nude Beach are just as refreshing for the postures they don’t take, and the facades they don’t bother to fake, as they are for their gritty, back to basics approach, where both dirt and melody have equal value and a chorus isn’t a chorus if one can’t tip back a beer and sing along
18 Royal Headache – S/T Seven words you will never hear on television: “And your next American Idol is Shogun.” And it’s not because the lead singer of the Australian garage-rock band, Royal Headache, couldn’t win a tv singing competition. On the contrary, the man who goes by Shogun has the pipes to rival some of the greatest male vocalists of all time, and if I was a producer looking for a ringer, he’d be on my speed dial. Dude’s got the scruff and scratch of a young Rod Stewart fronting the Faces and a range befitting other classic, blue-eyed soul singers from England like Steve Winwood or Van Morrison.
No, his problem is his name and his game. America would never fully embrace the lead singer of a no-frills, throwback rock band from down under unless his handlers convinced him to drop the band, drop the name, and follow Michael Bolton’s, cheese-lined road to fame, complete with a perm and soul-sucking romanticism for the daydreaming housewife.
Or would they? Adele is arguably the biggest pop star around and The Black Keys are one of the biggest rock bands around, and neither of them are breaking new ground. So, let’s hear it for Shogun and Royal Headache!?!
19 Redd Kross – Researching the Blues Clearly, a band like Redd Kross doesn’t return to the studio after a decade-long absence for pay days or choice spots on festival stages. The band’s favored genre, power pop, wasn’t a quick way to fame in 1997 and is even less of one today, as critics are far more likely to extoll the virtues of K-Pop or dubstep than admit there’s still charm to be found in the basic formula of guitar, voice, melody, and repeat. Rather, a band like Redd Kross returns for the sheer enjoyment of making music. It’s a fact evident in the title track, “Researching the Blues,” when its grunge-pop underpinnings of a firm bass line and stuttering guitar riffs right themselves for a rambunctious chorus, and even more so with “Stay Away from Downtown,” as Jeff McDonald’s feverish vocals are seemingly placed one beat ahead of the bar rock blasted by the rest of the band in a sly game of catch me if you can, only to align perfectly during its ecstatic burst of a refrain.
20 Heartless Bastards – Arrow Not to be outdone by that other throwback rock band birthed in the Buckeye State, Erika Wennerstrom and the Heartless Bastards have put together the kind of cohesive, all-purpose rock album in Arrows that’s rarely heard these days. Whether they’re playing back room blues, a honky-tonk shuffle, or a boogie inspired by Marc Bolan and T Rex, Wennerstrom’s voice and her bandmates accompaniments are up to the task.
And what a voice it is. Possessing a barroom voice with ballroom range, Wennerstrom easily alternates between smoky, seductive tones and more robust, boisterous notes, transforming even the simplest lines into profound statements. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the opening track, “Marathon,” an ode to the road, more poignant than the lyrics could ever suggest. “Although I ran so far/That I’d forgotten what I was running from/And time takes you so far/I am longing be back home/On this long way home.” It reads so plain. Yet, when Wennerstrom adds her thing and her backing band plays joins her with the same type of gusto, accentuating both the highs and lows, delivering a magnificently arching melody when she really cuts loose, it’s hard not to be stunned.
21 Jeff the Brotherhood – Hypnotic Nights Dan Auerbach knows a thing or two about big rock records. El Camino, the latest album released by his band, The Black Keys, eschewed the diverisity of blues, soul, hip-hop and classic rock found on its predecessor, Brothers, in favor of more arena-ready sounds with big guitar riffs aiming to cleanly reach the rafters. Perhaps, then, it isn’t such a surprise that this Jeff the Brotherhood record by Nashville brothers, Jake (guitar/vocals) and Jamin Orrall (drums), prodcued by Auerbach, exiles both the grunge and sludge of their Third Man 7″ and the wild, psychedelic freak-outs found on their Record Store Day 12″ EP to the fringes, allowing muscular power pop and slacker rock to reign in their stead. Details, like the motorik beat which opens both “Wood Ox,” and “Hypnotic Winter,” and the twisted modulation which squashes the last thirty seconds of “Staring at the Wall,” do hint at the brother’s ambition. And when Jake stomps the pedals, he does have a heavy and righteous, bulldozing, low-end tone, part Black Sabbath and part Black Keys, and one that is versatile enough for feel-good, summer numbers like “Six Pack.”
22 Spoek Mathambo – Father Creeper On his debut record for Sub Pop, South African Spoek Mathambo’s vision of township tech encompasses everything from rap, funk, soul, 8-bit electronic music, post-punk and pretty much every micro genre of popular music you can imagine. That can be a problem sometimes. Tracks often feel overstuffed with ideas, weighed down by their own ambition. You’ll find yourself talking to the stereo, “Just kill the bleeps and we’d have ourselves a real jam, man.” When he gets the mix just right, like on “Let Them Talk,” however, the results can be both audacious and stunning and you’ll be having an entirely different conversation, “More beats. More guitars. More rhymes. More everything!”
23 Lower Dens – Nootropics Pay no attention to any pictures you see of the band. They’re not the insufferable bores you imagine them to be. Sure, they may look like two librarians, two IT workers, and a very serious German dude, but they have these slick krautrock influences like Can and Kraftwerk and they’ve taken in a lot of Eno’s ambient work, too. Plus, lead singer, Jana Hunter has this sly and soulful voice, both sedate and sexy, like a survivor from the ’90s shoegazer scene.
24 Pop 1280 The Horror The Horror is dirty, no filthy, no filthy as fuck. The Horror is a brutal, bulldozing, skronky, scuzzy, and screechy, dystopian cyber-punk rock record steeped in the tradition of The Jesus Lizard, SST Records, and John Carpenter soundtracks where “Two dogs fucking” is both the opening line and perhaps the most comforting line on its two sides.
25 The xx – Coexist The XX’s first album, a 2009 self-titled affair, became the indie make-out album of the decade in large part due to its hushed, minimal approach to modern R&B which utilized clean guitar lines, slinky keys and whispered vocals traded between the boy-girl duo of Romy Madley-Croft and Jamie Smith. 2012′s follow-up, Coexist, will likely end up being the indie make-out album of 2012 for the very same reasons. So, if The XX’s first album got you 35 minutes of making out, then there’s no reason not to follow it with a spin of the second. That’s more than one hour of making out with minimal effort on your part. No flowers, no dinner, no booze, and no jewelery required. Just one word of warning: Be careful how you use The XX’s special make-out powers. My cats had that amorous look in their eyes Friday night. And before you say it, no, Kevin, we did not have a three-way make out. There was lots of petting and that’s it.
25 (Mostly) Rock Records You Need to Hear from 2012, a Spotify Playlist