Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What This Year Has Done To Us All: The Best Records of 2011.

Howdy cowpokes. So this has been one crazy year, eh? Eh? Political turmoil, economic despair, personal upheaval, this year had the whole plate of nachos with the guacamole and everything.

As for me, I moved back to Michigan (Ann Arbor/Ypsi) from Boston and that is going to have to be a whole other blog, because I have alot to say about that. Huge changes for me. As always, music mattered. It's the one constant in my life, and if you're reading this, maybe yours, too. I don't "have" religion, so I need a belief system. I betchya by golly wow that music is that system o' belief. And unlike Christianity, you can dance to it.

Here are my picks for the best ten albums I heard this year. I like alot of genres. I follow alot of different scenes and movements. I can tell you that while everything good is wholly underground these days, there are alot of great songs being written and alot of great music being made. I consider myself a Rock And Roll fan. And to me that encompasses Rockabilly, Blues, Soul, Metal, Country, Punk, Garage...anything fun and soulful, anything that sounds good loud. Anything with guitars, that is, as you will not find me listening to rap or techno or most modern pop music. Let us not dawdle any longer in the lobby of awesomeness. Let's walk right in the main entrance, shall we?

10) Wanda Jackson-The Party Ain't Over
Hometown hero Jack White did quite a number on Loretta Lynn's career a few years back, making her "relevant" again with a modern sounding album of country/rockabilly nuggets that went down smooth and nutritious, like a hot bean burrito on a winter's day. Pretty much the same deal with my fave female rockabilly singer, the one and only Wanda Jackson. In her mid 70s, Wanda is still full of life and rock'n'roll kicks, with a mega dose of country soul slathered on top. I've seen her live a few times in the last couple of years and she has always been a good time. Elvis thought so, too, back in the 50s when the two briefly dated. Jack White's energy and inventiveness is a present force on this record, but he doesn't step all over the main instrument here which is Wanda's growling hellkitten of a voice. She hasn't lost a single iota of firepower and man, I likes me some of that. It's a fun album, and if you like rockabilly and country sounds, you should own it.

9)Burzum- "Fallen"
You know, I almost put Amon Amarth's "Surtur Rising" on here instead. Because although this new Burzum release is a better album and way more interesting, Amon Amarth are sort of less challenging politically. An album made by mead swilling viking metalheads is sort of easier to wrap one's head around than an album made by a known racist and convicted murderer. These are the times we live in , folks. I probably don't have to tell you that Varg Vikernes, who is Burzum and plays every instrument on all Burzum records (for the most part), was convicted of burning churches in his home country of Norway as well as killing his former bandmate and modern Black Metal mastermind Euronymous back in the 90s. His politics have always leaned heavily to the right. Having said that, his music is often compelling and bordering on genius. This is Burzums' second release since Varg's release from prison (the Norwgian criminal system is, uh, very lenient), and while it is typically dense and challenging, it's much less so than any other Burzum album, and there are even moments of, dare I say it? Commercialization. Apparently this album was very influenced by the early recordings of the Cure, and despite being a metal album, this is obvious right away. There is a very attractive melancholy beauty here, despite the harshness of Varg's vocals and the tinny screech of his guitars. This album is perfect for walking or driving around on a quiet, overcast day, much like alot of 80s British Goth Rock. Don't get me wrong, it's still metal. The guitars are loud and staccato and the vocals are growled and screeched. But it's still kind of, well...pretty. Varg has even toned down his vaugely right wing lyrics for this album, in fact you'd be hard pressed to find one right wing statement. Whether this is a result of a rethinking of policy or just an attempt to sell more records, I don't know. I'm going to say I doubt it's a rethinking of policy. Either way, this is definitely Burzum's best album, and while I disagree with Varg's politics completely, I really, really like this album. If you can get past Varg's past, you'll probably dig it too.

8)Mayer Hawthorne- "How Do You Do"
Another Ann Arbor/Detroit homeboy, Mayer is sort of the smooth, Motown style equivalent to Boston's rowdy faux-Stax style soul shouter Eli "Paperboy" Reed. Reed gets into serious gutbucket territory ala southern 60s soul sounds, while Mayer sticks to smooth, shimmering, Motown style sophistication. This is a great album, not just because Snoop Dogg guests on it and does not rap but actually SINGS. It's a great album because Mayer is a true soul disciple and plays it close to home with a much needed modern day recycling of those classic all but forgotten 60s Motown sounds. People say he's a poser, but the proof is in the soul pudding. And this album, while never making you forget how great Motown was, is some pretty tasty soul pudding.

7)Graveyard- Hisingen Blues
Long hair, western shirts, bellbottoms, stoned-slack facial expressions, vintage guitars, and some of the most depressive, angry, sullen, haunted lyrics this side of the first Black Sabbath album? Sign me right the fuck up, Graveyard from Sweden! This record writhes and punches like the best 60s stoner rock/metal, but it does so with such an undercurrent of misery and paranoia that it actually out-glooms alot of the more obviously gloomy stuff from back then, and adds a thoroughly modern punky urgency to boot. And lest I forget, the songwriting is flawless. If you wish Soundgarden had brains, you'll like this album. If you wish Black Sabbath had better breath, you'll dig this swingin' platter. If you wish Pentagram had bothered to write songs while getting stoned before the recording session, this is the album for you.

6)Chris Isaak- Beyond The Sun
I've been a fan of Chris Isaak's gloomy sullen rockabilly-pop for years now. I've seen him live twice and actually met the man himself randomly wandering around Boston one summer day. Nice fella. Chris has always been an obvious rockabilly/country nut (I mean, look at his hair, man), and this double album of covers recorded at the famed Sun Studios in Memphis finally puts proof to that well known assumption. Covers of Elvis, Jerry Lee, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, etc etc are all given a modern sheen that amps up the game a bit. The world famous Sun Records slapback echo/delay is served in heaping helpings here, and Chris' amazing voice warmly glides through the songs in a natural way that few modern rockabilly singers could manage. The one slightly less shining moment is the Chris Isaak original that, while not a terrible song, does not sit well with the classic, timeless greatness of the covers. Ignore that, and you have one stomping, greasy hellfire of a party album. Simply sublime.

5)In Solitude- The World. The Flesh. The Devil.
Sweden's In Solitude bring me back to my pimply adolescent metal head days, both looking and sounding like the coolest NWOBHM band that never happened. A great occult/black metal/punk image, really solid, catchy ass songwriting and a huge King Diamond influence really seal the deal for me. I love, love, love this record. See my earlier piece on the band in my post "You Too Can Have The Stamina Of The Cavemen".

4)The Smoking Popes- This Is Only A Test
I've loved these Chicago pop punk legends ever since they opened for Morrissey on his 1993 "Your Arsenal" tour. The big hype then was that the Popes sounded like Morrissey singing for the Ramones, and that's still somewhat true, but as they've evolved as a band, they've become more sophisticated musically. The big criticism of their recent records is that they've started sounding like all the emo-pop-punk bands that they influenced. Not sure if that's true, because I don't listen to that kind of garbage juice. I do know that alot of bands like Dashboard Confessional or whoever have turned a love for the Popes' melancholy love lorn pop punk into a maudlin mock rock mope fest. But that's not the Popes' fault. This record could have been a huge joke, as it's...yes... a "concept" record, sung from the perspective of a high school kid. Yeah, that IS sort of lame, and it would have fallen flat without the glorious pop songwriting of the Caterer clan (three fourths of this band are related to each other by blood). The songs are GREAT, especially the exuberant "Punk Band", the story of a youngster finally finding some joy in the world as the singer of a high school punk band going on tour in a van. Uh, it's way better than it sounds.

3)Beady Eye- Different Gear, Still Speeding
I'm a huge Oasis fan and I don't care who knows it. The very British loud guitar pop of the Gallagher Bros will always have a special place in my blackened, stinking heart valves. They updated the British Invasion sounds of the 60s and became sort of a 90s version of the Who or Small Faces. NOT, as they'd prefer, a 90s version of the Beatles, but pretty good job nonetheless. This is Oasis' first album without their main songwriter, the elder Gallagher brother Noel. Noel is solely responsible for not only virtually every classic Oasis tune, but virtually every shitty Oasis tune as well. So the big question was could the lads pull it off without their songwriter? Answer is...pretty much. These songs sound very much like a punkier, faster Oasis. Liam Gallagher's snotty Johnny Rotten meets Johnny Lennon voice does tend to grate after awhile, without the warmer tones of his brother's voice to balance it out. Still, extremely derivative but awesome songs like "The Roller" and "Beatles And Stones" are loud, fun, and catchy as hell, with a really great vintage guitar buzz throughout. It's no "Definitely Maybe", but this album is definitely not the pile of shite some people hoped it would be.

2)Michael Monroe-Sensory Overdrive
As a sensitive, tiny, small town metal head I gravitated towards the glam-flash and rockin' power pop'n'roll tunes of mighty Finnish band Hanoi Rocks. They were my favorite band for years and years, and I wore out the grooves on every album they ever made several times. When I started listening to Hanoi, I realized that Motley Crue and Ratt probably weren't as great as I initially thought, and started on the road to learning about punk rock and classic rebel rock'n'roll. I have Hanoi to thank for alot of the music I got into. They changed my life and opened up new worlds to me. They were a truly great, great band. The post-Hanoi bands and projects of many of it's members were not always so great. Andy McCoy in particular kind of became a terminal let down. Michael Monroe, the singer who unfortunately inspired both Vince Neil and Axl Rose, fared better. Most of Mike's albums and projects throughout the years, with the exception of the truly horrible Jerusalem Slim, have ranged from the pretty good to the truly great. His last perfect album was under the band moniker Demolition 23, way back in the 90s. Until now. Drafting the songwriting talents of Ginger Wildheart (of the Wildhearts, another highly influential but largely unsung band)was the first brilliant move on Monroe's part. Getting two fifths of the revamped New York Dolls in the band was the second (including Mike's old Hanoi Rocks bassist the effervescent Sami Yaffa, now in the modern version of the reformed Dolls). The live shows of this line up are already legendary, and the album is close to perfect. A roaring riff monster of a hard rock record,this thing channels the Stooges, Alice Cooper, AC/DC, The Wildhearts, Dead Boys,and the UK Subs in only the finest ways. It is high voltage riff-punk of the highest order. The one song that lets up the pummel-age is the country-rock tinged "Gone Baby Gone" which, while not a bad song at all, sort of unwittingly rips off the Eagles rather than paying tribute to Gram Parsons,as any country rock tune should. The lyrical content of alot of these songs seems to deal with being an older rocker in a young hipster's world. Drug problems, aging, bad relationships,dead heroes, survival. It's pretty life affirming for an old rocker like me and likely an education for any young wannabe glam-punksters out there. An amazing return to form and a great rock album this is. "Chart the course we're on, flog that dying swan, aim that poison dart towards the center of your heart", indeed.

1)JD McPherson- "Signs And Signifiers"
I had no idea at all who this guy was six months ago, and now his new record is numero uno on my year end hit parade. JD is an Oklahoma born and based rockabilly cat best known for his previous band the Starkweather Boys. He hooked up with Chicago based rockabilly bassist Jimmy Sutton, who happened to own and run his own retro rockin' label, Hi Style Records. Add a few permutations of fate, some other rock'n'roll hoodoo and various jump blues calamities, and you have this album. It is a rocking, moody, fearsome, jumpin', jivin' and wailin' monster. The first thing that jumps out at you is this kid's voice, which sounds like it's coming out of a 300 pound black guy from the '40s, not a little white rockabilly geek. The second is the songwriting, which apes and reinvigorates 40s and 50s jump blues in a similar way to the way Eli Reed apes and reinvigorates 60s soul. You can sort of tell it's not the real thing if you have a trained ear, but even then, it really could be the good, old righteous stuff. Songs like the title track and " A Gentle Awakening" take JD's music out of the retro ghetto into something much more modern and relevant, while still retaining the vintage tone and feel. This guy would make an awesome duet partner for PJ Harvey, and I'd love to hear him tackle a Nick Cave song. Like pretty much all modern rockabilly cats, he cites punk rock as an early formative influence, as well as some English post punk. You can't hear this in his music, but you can feel it. I can't do justice to how great this record is in words, but maybe this'll help....

There you have my picks for the best of this past year. Anything else I need to check out?