Archive for December, 2012

Hardiman’s Top 25 Albums of 2012

I decided to scrap my earlier idea of featuring only the albums I feel are truly “great” in this post.  I basically figured that there was so much good music out this year, it would probably be desirable to do a whole top 25 list.  These 25 are selected from the 44 newly-released albums I heard over the course of the year.  The first four are knockouts and instant classics, the creme de la creme.  Numbers 5 through 13 are also “great” albums in my opinion.  However, all 25 albums here are worth your time and money.  I own 17 of them already, and I hope to add the remainder to my collection as well.

1)  Ty Segall – Twins

The newest of the three albums Ty Segall released this year, Twins is in my opinion the best and is arguably his first masterpiece.  Without a single dud to be found in its track-list, Twins is a garage-punk knockout.  It’s got awesomely scuzzy guitar work, catchy songs, and vocals that shift between Segall’s trademark snarl and his falsetto, but also a bit of diversity to the music.  As a result, this album (along with several of the others below) did a lot to get me excited this year about the present and future of rock ‘n’ roll.

Sample track:  “Thank God for Sinners”

2)  Japandroids – Celebration Rock

A lot of outlets are listing this as one of their top albums of the year, and for good reason.  This album has a big, Earth-shaking sound.  It begins and ends with the sound of fireworks.  It contains 8 songs, all of them catchy, celebratory punk anthems with soaring pop-rock choruses.  With one guy on guitar and vocals, another guy on drums, and a band name that is misleading and terrible, Japandroids have created a dynamite rock ‘n’ roll album which I think hits the emotional highs and lows of being in your 20s, in the process proving that rockers can evoke emotions without playing whiny “emo.”  I almost don’t want to say too much about this album if you haven’t heard it yet, because I don’t want to spoil it.  “A House That Heaven Built” is the big single, but there isn’t a bad track on the album.  It’s a must-hear.

Sample track:  “Adrenaline Nightshift”

3)  Screaming Females – Ugly

As with the Japandroids album above, I almost don’t want to say too much about Ugly because I think its music speaks for itself.  Suffice it to say that Screaming Females are a band from New Brunswick, New Jersey, that Chris and I saw live in March.  A couple of months later, they released a new album called Ugly, and it’s a masterpiece.  Although they came up as more of a punk band, here the Screaming Females have produced an expert fusion of punk and metal.  The songwriting is impeccable, and there isn’t a bad track on album.  Either you’ll love singer-guitarist Marissa Paternoster’s voice or you’ll hate it, but if you love it, you’re going to love this album.  All I can say is that when I hear the beginning of opening track “It All Means Nothing,” I feel like it’s 1991 and I’m hearing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time.  Which is to say, Ugly feels like something special.

Sample track:  “Expire”

4)  Tame Impala – Lonerism

I played this one for you guys in the car last week, and hopefully you thought it was as awesome as I did.  I encourage you to listen again on your own.  Basically, with this Australian band, you should believe the hype; their music really is that good.  Somewhere online I saw someone say that Lonerism is basically a distillation of everything that’s good about psychedelic rock, and I personally agree with that statement.  I’ve listened to this album, front to back, again and again and it still wows me.  Although the two singles, the driving “Elephant” and lonely “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards,” are obvious highlights, most of the tracks feature dreamy vocals, gorgeous melodies, and a tasty arrangement of synthesizers and guitars, and do so quite impressively.  The music really benefits a lot from the busy live drumming, as well, which figures prominently on the woozy “Mind Mischief.”  Ultimately, when the worst criticism leveled at an album is that it’s a Beatles ripoff (and even that is probably mostly because frontman Kevin Parker’s voice is a dead ringer for John Lennon’s), you know you’ve got a jaw-droppingly great psychedelic rock album on your hands.

Sample track:  “Apocalypse Dreams”

5)  Thee Oh Sees – Putrifiers II

I know I’ve already shown you a bunch of music by this San Francisco band, but I really cannot emphasize enough how much I like this prolific band and especially this album, which seems to cover a lot of different styles and do it all rather well.  The fuzzy, upbeat “Hang a Picture” and the brisk, eerie “Lupine Dominus” are among the coolest songs I’ve heard this year.  But just to demonstrate that these guys can do cool things at a slower tempo as well, I’m presenting as a sample the creepy “Will We Be Scared?”  It starts out sounding like “zombie prom night,” eventually hits upon a strangely pretty falsetto chorus, and ambles towards the end with frontman John Dwyer’s sinister flute outro.

Sample track:  “Will We Be Scared?”

6)  Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan

Chris introduced me to this album when we driving back to New Jersey for Thanksgiving break.  I liked it the first time I heard it, but the second time I listened to it (about a week later) I began to appreciate it a lot more.  Swing Lo Magellan consists of a series of beautiful songs which aren’t trying to being arty for the sake of it.  My number one rule is that if it sounds good, it is good… and this sounds great.  The songs on this album sound simple even when they’re complicated, and their melodies stick with you even though the band isn’t creating a wall of sound.  If it seems that I’m struggling to describe this album, it’s because I am.  All I can say is that I really love this music, and that I think the female backing vocalists’ sweet harmonies complement frontman David Longstreth’s voice perfectly.  If you ask me about the various individual tracks, I’ll gush about those too.

Sample track:  “Dance for You”

7)  The Fresh & Onlys – Long Slow Dance

The Fresh & Onlys hail from the same San Francisco garage rock scene that’s home to Thee Oh Sees, Sic Alps, and Ty Segall, but this year they shifted their sound in a big way for their excellent third album, Long Slow Dance.  Switching labels, singer Tim Cohen and the rest of the band got out of the garage and created a slickly produced collection of romantic indie-pop-rock songs.  There’s nothing pretentious about it; it’s just beautiful music.  Highly recommended.

Sample track:  “Dream Girls”

8)  Goat – World Music

Here’s another great psychedelic rock album from 2012.  This is the recording debut of Goat, a band from Sweden with a hilarious and possibly bogus backstory.  Even if they aren’t really from a voodoo-haven speck on the map in the Swedish wastelands, the Goatman & company are still awesome because their African-influenced music is so entirely unlike anything else I’ve ever heard.  Sure, there are individual elements I can pick out as sounding like this or that, but as a whole package this album is quite unique and pretty magical.  You’ve got to hear it.

Sample track:  “Goathead”

9)  Sic Alps – Sic Alps

Another one of the best albums produced by the San Francisco garage-rock scene in 2012 was the self-titled third album from Mike Donovan and his Sic Alps.  For this record, Sic Alps moved out of the garage and recorded in an actual studio for the first time, and the move paid great dividends.  With the addition of strings to its staccato guitar, “Glyphs,” ends up somewhere between the Beatles’ “Glass Onion” and “I Am the Walrus.”  Meanwhile, a lot of the other music here recalls the Kinks’ late-’60s output.  “God Bless Her, I Miss Her,” “Moviehead,” “Wake Up, It’s Over II,” and “Polka Vat,” among others, actually have rather catchy melodies that stick with you more than you’ll initially realize.

Sample track:  “God Bless Her, I Miss Her”

10)  The Men – Open Your Heart

Part of what makes Open Your Heart such a cool rock album is how all over the map it is.  The Men cover a broad range of styles, although overall their preferences clearly skew towards punk.  Several of the tracks are entirely or primarily instrumental, but if anything those tracks are the most mesmerizing (especially “Oscillation”).  Of the songs with vocals, the opening one-two punch of “Turn It Around” and “Animal” are fun, turn-it-up rock ‘n’ roll, while the title track and “Ex-Dreams” add a little bit of emotional twinge to their revved-up punk.  And “Candy,” slotted in the middle of the album, sounds like it could have been on Sticky Fingers alongside “Dead Flowers.”  One thing about this album that struck me as unusual is that the mixing is a little unusual; on some tracks, the vocals are lower in the mix than is typical, as in shoegaze music (but what shoegaze band has ever applied that effect to a hardcore-punk type of song like “Animal”?), and on “Candy,” the lead guitar is noticeably lower in the mix than usual.  Kind of a cool bit of experimentation.

Sample track:  “Ex-Dreams”

11) Mark Lanegan Band – Blues Funeral

Fans of Mark Lanegan’s work with the Screaming Trees and his largely acoustic early solo work (like, you know, me) could be forgiven for viewing the addition of electronics to his sound with some skepticism.  But this is not a bid by Lanegan to insert himself into the mainstream sounds that all the kids are listening to these days; instead, the electronic musicians that Lanegan draws upon for inspiration are his own old favorites:  Kraftwerk and New Order.  The electronics on Blues Funeral make the album sound like it was recorded 15 years ago in the Portishead era, not in the 2012 Skrillex era.  But I don’t want to sound like I’m preoccupied with the electronic influences here, because their presence (or lack thereof) isn’t what makes this a great record.  Instead, it’s the awesome songs and their sweeping, dark sound and effect, primarily established by Lanegan’s always-amazing, whiskey-soaked, world-weary vocals.  This is the third non-Trees album of Lanegan’s that I’ve purchased, and it might be my favorite.

Sample track:  “Harborview Hospital”

12) Divine Fits – A Thing Called Divine Fits

This is the first album by a band which could be termed an “indie rock supergroup.”  Spoon frontman Britt Daniel and Dan Boeckner, who’s performed in the Wolf Parade and the Handsome Furs, split singing and songwriting duties, a la Elliott Smith and Neil Gust in Heatmiser (among other examples).  I guess it’s surprising that I like this as much as I do, since I don’t listen to any of these guys’ original bands (and although I’ve only tried a few tracks, I’ve never cared much for Spoon).  But as Divine Fits, they’ve grabbed their guitars and keyboards and created a very cool album of well-written pop-rock songs with a sound straight out of the late ’70s and early ’80s.  These songs fit neatly within the category of New Wave music, and it’s kind of refreshing to hear younger bands created music like this in 2012.  There’s no doubt in my mind that “Would That Not Be Nice,” “My Love Is Real,” and “Like Ice Cream,” among others, could have been radio hits 30 years ago.

Sample track:  “Baby Get Worse”

13) Django Django  Django Django

At first I was hesitant to give Django Django a shot, because I thought it was going to be off-putting avant-garde music.  As it turns out, it’s a genre-bending exercise in electro-psych-rock, and a weird one at that.  But the secret to this album’s greatness isn’t its unique sound (although there is that); it’s this band’s superior songwriting skill.  I read an internet comment somewhere describing Django Django’s sound as a fusion of Kraftwerk and the Beach Boys, and strangely enough that’s pretty close to the mark.

Sample track:  “WOR”

14) Norah Jones – Little Broken Hearts

If you had told me a year ago that one of my favorite albums of 2012 would be by Norah Jones, I never would have believed you.  When I was growing up, my dad loved playing her music in the car, and I would always wince when he put it on because I found her easy-listening/coffee-shop-jazz style interminably boring.  (I never had a problem with her smoky voice, though that was always my mom’s reason for demanding that my dad put something else on.)  Anyway, this spring, my dad mentioned that he’d bought the new Norah Jones album and that he didn’t like it.  My interest was piqued, as I remembered that she had worked with Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton, the great Gnarls Barkley production mastermind, on the new album.  Remember that album he put out with Daniele Luppi last year, Rome, which was supposed to be the culmination of his long-developing “spaghetti western” production style?  I would argue that Little Broken Hearts is the actual culmination of that process.  Jones and Burton have created a great set of songs here, all of which are a pleasure to listen to.  And just as Jones’ vocals made “Black,” “Problem Queen,” and “Season’s Trees” the highlights on Rome, so too are her vocals perfect for telling this album’s story of a relationship’s implosion.  The narrative culminates in the creepy “Miriam,” in which the protagonist murders “the other woman.”

Sample track:  “4 Broken Hearts”

15) Titus Andronicus – Local Business

Chris and I saw Titus Andronicus live at the Stone Pony in March, and they were great; moreover, I listened to their 2010 masterpiece, The Monitor, time and again this year.  So needless to say, I hotly anticipated the release of their third album, Local Business, in late October.  Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed, although I probably shouldn’t have been expecting them to replicate The Monitor.  The thing about Local Business is that while I like it a lot, only three songs — “In a Big City,” “In a Small Body,” and “Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape…” — rank among the band’s best work.  “The Electric Man” is a great novelty song.  And the rest is pretty good, but not great.  “Ecce Homo” and “Still Life with Hot Deuce on Silver Platter” are fun despite (or maybe because of) their lyrical complexities, but stray a little too close to pop-punk for my taste.  And for all the attention it’s received, “My Eating Disorder” just doesn’t have the staying power of the epics on Titus’ previous albums, in my opinion (I usually skip it).  But just because this isn’t a Great Record doesn’t mean it’s not worth buying; it’s been in heavy rotation in my car over the past couple months for sure.

Sample track:  “Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape with the Flood of Detritus”

16)  Ty Segall Band – Slaughterhouse

Slaughterhouse was the second of this year’s three Ty Segall albums and the inaugural release from the official Ty Segall Band.  It’s the heaviest, loudest, and most abrasive of the three, and while it’s lots of fun to listen to and likely has more staying power than Hair, it’s a bit spottier than Twins.  Its best songs, including but not limited to “I Bought My Eyes,” “Wave Goodbye,” and “Tell Me What’s Inside Your Heart,” stand as some of Segall’s best music, but a few other songs fall short of the same quality.  And the ten-minute noise experiment tacked on the end, “Fuzz War,” is as obnoxious and dumb an addition as “Spread Eagle Beagle” at the end of the Melvins’ Houdini — or, to pick a less obscure example for comparison, “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me” at the end of Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy.  But like Vitalogy, this is still a very good album overall despite its final track.

Sample track:  “Tell Me What’s Inside Your Heart”

17)  Mind Spiders Meltdown

Mind Spiders are a six-piece garage-punk band from Texas, and their second album, Meltdown, is an unsung highlight of 2012 rock.  They play fun little songs that rock hard and sound pretty much as great on record as they would live.  It’s uncomplicated but but exceptional at the same time, because Mind Spiders mastermind Mark Ryan has a talent for writing uncommonly catchy melodies that sets his band apart from many of their peers.  And so Meltdown succeeds because it sticks to its successful formula:  four-on-the-floor punky power-pop played with distorted guitars, keyboards that progress over the course of the album from ’60s-style organ to modern synthesizers, the power of two drummers playing in tandem, and weird double-tracked vocals that often seem to be talking about spiders.

Sample track:  “Fall in Line”

18) Royal Headache – Royal Headache

I’m really excited about the promise exhibited by this Australian band on their self-titled debut album.  Their sound is a unique one, though it’s hard to believe no one’s ever tried it before since it’s such a cool idea.  Basically, they play songs that typically sound like classic ’70s punk, except the vocals are straight out of ’60s soul.  Yes, it’s soul-punk, a combination of genres which seems calculated to appeal precisely to me; and the lead singer, who goes by the amusing nickname “Shogun,” truly has a wonderfully soulful voice.  The album is less than a half-hour long, and there are a number of weaker tracks that prevent me from designating this as a great album.  But on their best songs, Royal Headache sounds awesome.  I’m really looking forward to their next release, because I think these guys will make at least one great album in their career.

Sample track:  “Never Again”

19) Jack White – Blunderbuss

I slept on Blunderbuss, Jack White’s first solo album, until months after its release, partly because I didn’t think too highly of singles “Sixteen Saltines” and “Freedom at 21.”  When the White Stripes broke up, we joked that thereafter we could only hear Jack White play with better drumming; and while Meg White’s drumming is not missed, the two aforementioned songs for a long time struck me as middling White Stripes leftovers.  Needless to say, I’m glad I eventually gave the whole album a chance, because most of it doesn’t sound like those two songs at all (and both of those have grown on me, anyway).  This album is even more instrumentally diverse than Get Behind Me Satan.  There’s a whole lot of piano on this record, and occasionally there are strings and clarinets.  The title track is a country song (and a better one than “Little Ghost,” too).  The playing on “Hypocritical Kiss” is wonderful.  And “Weep Themselves to Sleep” is a tour de force.  Not everything here works, and a couple of clunkers towards the end make the album drag a bit.  But just as with a Raconteurs album (and probably to a greater extent in this case), it’s cool to hear White making music with a broader palette of sounds than the guitar-and-drums basics of the White Stripes’ discography.  The more I listen to this album, the more I dig it.

Sample track:  “Weep Themselves to Sleep”

20) Alabama Shakes – Boys and Girls

Blues-rock has long been a genre defined by white rockers honoring, taking, and building upon the music of black bluesmen.  It’s ironic, then, that the Alabama Shakes stick out as an atypical blues-rock band because their singer is black — and a black woman, no less.  Brittany Howard’s soulful vocal performance often evokes Al Green, while the rest of the band (who seem to have some pretty great chops) often evoke rootsy groups like Creedence.  In a year during which the outlook for mainstream rock looked dismayingly bleak, the debut Alabama Shakes album was one of the few bright spots.  Its timeless music can appeal to both me and my dad, both to the general public and to record collectors, both to Grammy voters and to Jack White (for whom the Shakes opened this year).  And that’s pretty cool.

Sample track:  “Hang Loose”

21)  The Soft Pack – Strapped

For Strapped, their second album, this San Diego garage-rock band filled out their sound with keyboards, saxophones, and horns; the move paid big dividends.  In love with the sound, I put this album in pretty heavy rotation in my car once it was released this fall.  The first 7 of its 12 tracks are all top-notch material, as the Soft Pack show their talent for writing terrific fast songs on “Saratoga,” “Second Look,” “They Say” (my personal favorite), “Chinatown,” and “Ray’s Mistake” while also mixing it up a little with the midtempo “Tallboy” and “Bobby Brown.”  (In “Bobby Brown,” which I featured as a Song of the Week in October, the band does a great job of using keys to approximate the sound of ’80s groups like the Time and throws in a killer sax solo for good measure; and the organ and sax transform “Tallboy,” a mildly clever sad song, into something beautiful.)  The eighth track, a funky instrumental called “Oxford Ave,” is cool, but I don’t find myself returning to it as much.  And the last four tracks are mostly pretty unmemorable, unfortunately.  Strapped is a good album, but a front-loaded one.

Sample track:  “Tallboy”

22)  Ty Segall & White Fence – Hair

The first of the three Ty Segall albums released this year was Hair, a collaboration with a guy named Tim Presley who performs under the pseudonym “White Fence.”  It makes for a very interesting 30 minutes of music, full of fun slices of psychedelia veering back and forth between loud and soft, wild and sweet.  Presley plays lead guitar and bass, while Segall drums and plays rhythm guitar.  There’s some great music here, but in my opinion the punk freakout that is Slaughterhouse and the master stroke that is Twins overshadow Hair just a tad and are the more vital two additions to Segall’s discography of the astonishing three superb ones made in 2012.

Sample track:  “Tongues”

23)  Soundgarden King Animal

In November, the world finally got to hear the comeback album by my favorite band of the ’90s (which during high school was my favorite band, period), a couple of years after they reunited to tour and record together for the first time in about 15 years.  If I were to rank the Soundgarden canon, I probably would put this one above Screaming Life/Fopp, Ultramega OK, and Loud Love, but below Badmotorfinger, Superunknown, and Down on the Upside (although it’s hard to choose between them!).  If I were ranking comeback albums by ’90s grunge/alt-rock bands, this is easily the best — it’s no contest.  Unlike Alice in Chains, Jane’s Addiction, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Stone Temple Pilots, to name a few, Soundgarden has succeeded in creating an album that is worthy of being included in your collection alongside the CDs from their original run.  They do this by writing songs that actually sound like Soundgarden songs, and not mediocre imitations or leftovers from Audioslave etc.  Overall, I think the album sounds pretty natural as a follow-up to “Down on the Upside,” moving back from that album’s cleaner sound a bit and moving back towards Soundgarden’s specific brand of grunge-metal established on earlier albums like Superunknown.  Kim Thayil’s distinctive guitar work, Middle Eastern inflections and all, still sounds good.  Matt Cameron’s drumming has been kept sharp by his years in Pearl Jam.  All four members of the band contribute to the songwriting, and there are weird time signature shifts aplenty.  Anyway, here are some highlights:  “Bones of Birds” sounds like “Blow Up the Outside World” crossed with the AiC song “Dirt.”  Album-closer “Rowing” is pretty unlike anything else in their catalog, with the Negro-spiritual-meets-drumbeat-from-“When the Levee Breaks” intro; it kind of reminds me of how the Screaming Trees closed their final album with a version of “Gospel Plow.”  And for my money the best four tracks on the album are all in a row:  “Non-State Actor,” “By Crooked Steps,” “A Thousand Days Before,” and “Blood on the Valley Floor.”  The album’s drawbacks are that Chris Cornell’s voice, while still excellent, isn’t quite what it used to be, and that something about the production doesn’t sound quite right.  But still, it really cannot be said enough how cool it is to have new Soundgarden songs to sort through.

Sample track:  “By Crooked Steps”

24)  Cloud Nothings Attack on Memory

I wavered back and forth on whether to include this angsty album in these year-reviewing highlights.  Attack on Memory received pretty much universal acclaim from music critics, who like to hold it up alongside the Japandroids’ record as evidence that 2012 did indeed produce some great guitar rock.  However, where on Celebration Rock I think highly of 8 out of 8 tracks, on Attack on Memory I only really like 3 out of 8.  So why, then, is this album in my top 25?  Well, I really, really like those three tracks:  the slow-building “No Future/No Past,” punk epic “Wasted Days,” and instrumental “Separation.”  Together, they would make a knockout EP.  The rest of the album sounds more like mid-’90s emo-leaning pop-punk (think Sunny Day Real Estate, not Fall Out Boy or whatever has received the “emo” tag more recently), and that’s basically not my cup of tea (although I can maybe see a song like “Stay Useless” becoming a guilty pleasure).  Nevertheless, I’m recommending you check out at least the three tracks I listed above, and especially “Wasted Days,” which despite its ’90s influences strikes me as a very 2012 kind of song.  If the Cloud Nothings write more songs like these three for their next album, I’ll likely have a higher opinion of it.

Sample track:  “Wasted Days”

25)  The Vaccines – The Vaccines Come of Age

This album is pretty much standard-issue 21st century British guitar pop-rock, and that’s okay in my book.  The album is a fun listen, although it has a couple of tracks I skip every time (chiefly “Ghost Town”).  I really like the uptempo slacker-anthem singles, “No Hope” and “Teenage Icon,” as well as the sort of “Telstar”-evoking love song “I Always Knew” and Britpop-done-right “Aftershave Ocean.”  The lead guitarist gets points, too, for the Duane Eddy-esque descending guitar lines in “Weirdo” and the slide guitar in my favorite track, “All in Vain.”  Unfortunately, not all of the songs are as good, and the album as a whole is weaker and less memorable than their first.  It’s still worth adding to your collection, though.

Sample track:  “No Hope”


2012 was, from my perspective, simultaneously a terrible year for music and a great year for music.  Let me explain.

What have been the major trends in popular music this year?  First and foremost, electronica went mainstream in a big way, highlighted by the widespread popularity of Electronic Dance Music (EDM).  Second, the genre of so-called “Alternative R&B,” as defined by Spin and led by singers like Frank Ocean and Miguel, arrived at its moment in the sun.  Third, hip-hop continued its mixtape mania, manufacturing an overabundance of mediocre material (or, perhaps more accurately, music that stylistically doesn’t appeal to me in the least).  And fourth, the internet this year repeatedly exploded the popularity of pop songs by previously unknown artists, transforming them into YouTube-fueled megahits; the prime examples were, in chronological order, Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know,” Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” and PSY’s “Gangnam Style.”  Other artists who surged from obscurity to chart dominance this year on the strength of a single big hit included Fun (“We Are Young”), Of Monsters and Men (“Little Talks”), and the Lumineers (“Ho Hey”).

Noticeably absent from this list of major trends is anything to do with rock music.  I would argue that this has been one of the worst-ever years for mainstream rock music.   Think about it.  What exciting things did mainstream rock bring us in 2012?  For our purposes, let’s set aside, regardless of merit, new albums by musicians whose primes were in the 1990s or earlier.  This encompasses the new records by Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Aerosmith, KISS, Van Halen, Rush, Husker Du’s Bob Mould, Dinosaur Jr., Soundgarden, the Smashing Pumpkins, and the Wallflowers.  Even if they’re still putting out good music, these artists are basically representative of the past.

So what’s new in mainstream rock (and yes, that includes anything under the now essentially meaningless umbrella of “alternative rock”)?  On the plus side, Jack White released his first solo album this April, and it’s mostly pretty good; and a few weeks earlier, one of his opening acts, the Alabama Shakes, released a promising debut that combines old-school soul with blues-rock.  But these are bright spots in a bleak overall picture.  2012 gave us a dismayingly bad Killers album, an unappealing Gaslight Anthem album, and an okay-but-forgettable Vaccines album.  For some reason, we were presented with no less than three new Green Day albums, released KISS-style.  The less said about those, the better; the same goes for Muse’s dubstep-prog experiment and the latest volume of Shinedown’s embarrassingly juvenile post-grunge garbage.  And meanwhile, the Americana/folk-rock style has continued to accumulate popularity, with the release of another so-bland-it’s-awful Mumford & Sons album, a poppier imitation from American Idol winner Phillip Phillips, and the self-titled debut from the Lumineers.  (Mumford’s Babel has been certified platinum, while The Lumineers went gold on the strength of platinum-hit single “Ho Hey.”)  Other than the above, I’m hard-pressed to think of anything else that emerged from 2012 mainstream rock, good or bad.  This shortage is reflected in the pages of Billboard, which has filled its empty rock charts with artists who probably don’t belong there (e.g. Fun, Of Monsters and Men, Ed Sheeran), and in the Grammy nominations, which had to reach back into late 2011 to find enough nominees for rock album of the year (selecting last year’s Mylo Xyloto by Coldplay and El Camino by the Black Keys).

So, given all of the above, one could conclude that this was a terrible year for fans of rock music.  But here’s the thing:  This was a great year for rock music; the good stuff just wasn’t popular.  I realize that statement can easily be dismissed as the “hipster” perspective, or at least the opinion of someone who avoids whatever music the masses happen to enjoy.  I hope that you will not dismiss it, and instead will perceive it as simply the perspective of a fan of rock ‘n’ roll music.  And as a fan of rock, I’m acknowledging that most good new rock music today falls under the “indie” umbrella.  I’m admitting that the masses’ musical tastes have shifted away from rock music towards electronic music, hip-hop, and now apparently even R&B.  And therefore I’m saying that in order to find the best rock music released today, you might have to dig a bit, but it’s out there, and a lot of it is exciting.

This is all basically a preamble for my next post, which will feature the 13 albums released in 2012 which I consider great.  I decided back in September to do a year-end “best of 2012” post, but I resolved not to set a fixed number of albums to highlight.  In other words, this was never going to be a “top 10”; if there were only three albums I considered great, I would only write about three.  But I heard more new music this year than in the past – I listened to 44 albums that were released in 2012 over the course of the year – and, of those, I consider 13 to be great, and another 16 to be at least worth a listen and perhaps worth adding to your library.  (Contrast that with 2011, which saw the release of 11 albums that I’ve added to my collection; of those, I would only call 4 or 5 of them great albums.)  I believe that many of these albums serve as evidence that rock ‘n’ roll is still an active, vibrant, and exciting genre in 2012.

“Best Albums of 2012” post coming soon.  In the meantime, as a reward for reading the preceding paragraphs, here’s one of the few great mainstream rock singles of 2012 – “Hold On” by the Alabama Shakes — if you haven’t already heard it.

For me, the best music videos and the funniest music videos are often one and the same.  Several pretty hilarious music videos were released this year, including of course those forubiquitous mega-hits “Call Me Maybe” and “Gangnam Style.”  But earlier in the year, right here in New Jersey, the Screaming Females shot a darkly humorous video for “It All Means Nothing,” the first track on their excellent new album, Ugly.  Now, it’s true that the ridiculous “Gangnam” video has the edge in the replay count and indeed has basically everything one could hope for in a goofy, foreign pop-music video.  Nevertheless, I have to give the overall edge to the hilariously twisted story of the “It All Means Nothing” video, which has the band’s bassist and drummer discover that singer-guitarist Marissa Paternoster has been cooking and eating cats.  After deliberating over how to stifle this horrifying habit (and drawing up some amusing charts to aid their decision-making process), the reluctant rhythm section settles on murder as the solution to their problem.  The saga continues in their video for “Leave It All Up To Me,” in which some of Paternoster’s Wiccan fans use their black magic to reanimate her corpse.  Zombie-Paternoster returns from her grave to seek revenge on her bandmates.  It’s a grisly storyline indeed, but the band does a good job of making it funny, leaving the impression that they could probably do a little sketch comedy if they weren’t so busy playing rock music all the time.

“It All Means Nothing”

“Leave It All Up To Me”

P.S.  And the 2012 runner-up in the “Best Music Video by a New Jersey Band Which Centers on a Darkly Humorous Murder Plot” category is… Real Estate’s “Easy.”  Surprisingly competitive category, apparently.

For the week of 12/10/2012…

“In My Mind” by Firehose

To follow up on Chris’s excellent introduction to the Minutemen earlier this week, I thought I’d post a little bit about their successor band, Firehose, with whom I am much more familiar.  The Minutemen were an important band in 1980s punk rock because, like several of the bands on the Black Flag-owned SST record label, they were pushing the boundaries of what it meant to play punk.  The Minutemen, Husker Du, and the Meat Puppets were all SST bands who decided that they didn’t want to be confined by the straitjacket standards of the hardcore punk scene, and in the mid-’80s began experimenting more with their music and going for something more melodic.  The death of lead singer and guitarist D. Boon in a 1985 car accident brought an end to the Minutemen, sadly, but opened the door for a new band called Firehose.

Ed Hawkins was an Ohio State student and big Minutemen fan who boldly traveled to California after Boon’s death to convince bassist Mike Watt and drummer George Hurley to keep making music.  Thus was born a new trio based on the Watt-Hurley rhythm section tandem and fronted by Hawkins himself; this band was christened “Firehose” in reference to the line in Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” which counsels avoidance of the riot police — “those who carry around a firehose.”  They too were signed to SST Records, which at this point was releasing music by bands that weren’t conforming to any punk template at all (notably Dinosaur Jr., Soundgarden, the Screaming Trees, and Sonic Youth).  Firehose, these labelmates, and other bands like Jane’s Addiction and the Replacements were all, in the late ’80s underground, shaping what ’90s alternative rock would sound like as a genre with mainstream popularity.

Firehose’s music is related to punk, but it’s mostly a lot freer and jazzier than that.  “In My Mind,” a track from their 1989 third album Fromohio, is one of their most upbeat, poppy, pleasant-sounding tunes, which is why I thought it would be a good starting point.  It starts out with a classic Mike Watt bassline, and then Hawkins comes in with a kind of spicy guitar part that resembles calypso music.  George Hurley’s drumming is very jazzy and complex throughout, making good use of his cymbals.  All things considered, this might be the best song on the album.  Elsewhere on the Fromohio track-list, you can hear some seriously cool basslines and time signature switches if you check out “Whisperin’ When Hollerin’” and “What Gets Heard.”  While their fourth LP, Flyin’ the Flannel, is probably a better record overall, either one is adequate for getting a sense of what makes Firehose such a good band.  These guys never really try to hit you with a wall of sound, and consequently, you’re able to appreciate the interplay between the instruments and the chemistry of the players that much more.

Now that I’ve said my piece, it’s finally time for me to delve deeper into the Minutemen.  Enjoy the music…

So much funky guitar. Its a shame that the lead singer of this band died in a tragic van accident. The bassist Mike Watt however is alive and kicking and is still up to making good music these days. This song pretty much epitomizes the Minutemen, short sweet and funky.

“Let the products sell themselves!” screams Boon as this funky track gets its legs going. As an ode against rampant consumerism this one takes the cake. “Fuck advertising, Psychological methods to sell should be destroyed!”

Made famous by the Jackass series Corona has become a cult favorite amongst most people who like doing stupid shit and explosions. The screaming treble is once again on showcase in this awesome, short, yet powerful song.

I was recently introduced to Double Nickels on the Dime by one of my professors and I have been addicted ever since. The entire album is comprised of under two minute funky punk freakout sessions. With this slower track the band gives us a brief history of how they got started. D. Boon the lead guitarist brilliantly negates any use of distortion on his guitar but gives the sound edge by eliminating all frequencies except the treble. More to come

“Cold Hands” by the Black Lips

The Black Lips are a garage rock band from Atlanta whose initial claim to fame was the wild and crazy nature of their live shows.  Like… outrageous, Iggy-Pop-during-the-Stooges’-early-years crazy.  Anyway, I like their sound and was charmed into buying their 2007 album, Good Bad Not Evil, at least partially by the title, which references the spoken interlude during the Shangri-Las’ “Give Him a Great Big Kiss,” a ’60s girl-group classic.  “Cold Hands” is currently my favorite song on the album.  The melody is infectious; the playing manages to be simultaneously breezy and serious; and the Dick Dale-style guitar solo is very cool.

For the week of 12/3/2012…

“Bits and Pieces” by the Dave Clark Five

The Dave Clark Five were one of the biggest bands of the British Invasion; my dad loves the pop music of that era, so naturally I grew up hearing a lot of Dave Clark’s music.  It’s likely that you think of the Rolling Stones and the Kinks as the major counterparts to the Beatles during the British Invasion, and those bands certainly have left a bigger mark on rock music.  However, the Dave Clark Five were actually the original “second band” of the Invasion, scoring the first non-Beatles British hit on the U.S. charts with “Glad All Over” in January 1964.  (In the U.K., it knocked “I Want To Hold Your Hand” out of the #1 spot!)  They quickly followed up that single with “Bits and Pieces,” which, like its predecessor, sold a million copies.  “Bits and Pieces” peaked at #2 on the U.K. chart and #4 on the U.S. charts; it was the second of seventeen Billboard Top 40 hits the band would notch before breaking up at the end of the decade.

I think that “Bits and Pieces” is far and away one of the best British Invasion songs recorded by a band other than the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, or the Kinks.  Here’s why:

First of all, like a number of Dave Clark Five songs, this really captures a raucous rock ‘n’ roll energy, despite being a pop hit.  It revives some of the ’50s wildness of Chuck Berry, Johnny Burnette, and Little Richard, and just feels like it pushed the envelope a bit more than the teen idol mush that had been dominating the radio in the interim.  Before each verse in “Bits and Pieces,” there’s a pause where all we hear is the clopping of boots as the band stomps out the beat; then drummer (and songwriter) Dave Clark pounds away at his snare drum to kick off the verse and the band begins to swing back and forth between two chords.  Whatever instrumentation there is, it’s all in service of that beat.  At the end of the song, there’s no fade-out; Clark’s snare intro returns and comes crashing down as the bassist plucks one last note.  The band rips through the whole thing in just under two minutes.

Second and most importantly, “Bits and Pieces” stands out from the other songs of the era about breakups’ aftermath — and there are plenty of them — because of how angry it is.  It’s not because of the lyrics.  Take the first verse:  “Since you left me and you said goodbye/All I do is sit and cry/You went away and left me misery/And that’s the way it’ll always be.”  These aren’t shocking lyrics; they’re pretty generic and could be taken from any number of ’60s songs.  But most songs with those lyrics would be slower, or sadder.  The message of the song would be that the singer is crushed, dejected, and misses his ex, that he wishes she would take him back.  But the DC5’s lead singer, Mike Smith, isn’t weepy here — he’s pissed off at the girl who’s dumped him.  His delivery of these lyrics falls somewhere between a shout and a howl.  He’s not sad that “that’s the way it’ll always be” — he’s enraged about it.  And where a post-breakup ballad might add a hint of bitterness with second verse lyrics like these — “You said you loved me and you’d always be mine/We’d be together til the end of time/Now you say it was just a game/But all you’re doing is leaving me in pain” — Smith makes the rawness of his wounds sound totally authentic, delivering that last line in what can only be described as a roar.  I suppose that when you put downbeat lyrics to  a decidedly upbeat song (the backing vocalists sound pretty happy about falling to pieces, don’t you think?), as a lead singer you’ve got to go for angry or bitter.

I guess what’s ultimately so interesting about “Bits and Pieces” is that while it’s quite of-its-era, it’s also kind of unique for its time.  That is, it has several elements that clearly date it to 1964 — the yakety sax; the halting attempt to play some organ chords during the bridge; and especially the sing-song, aren’t-their-accents-cute backing vocals.  But I’m hard-pressed to think of any other songs from this time period that channel such outright anger about getting dumped.