Monday, December 8, 2008

What's Great in 2008? Rhyming, That's What!

As the year grimly trudges to an end, the yearly "Best Albums of '08" articles pop up on all blogs and legit publications. Who am I to challenge such a proud, self-aggrandizing time for music critics and "journalists." Many of these pieces have the Top Ten of the Year and since Bob Dylan didn't release an album this year, they'll actually have room for ten artists relevant this decade. Before I get to some of my choices, I have to lay out a little disclaimer. These are only albums that I have actually heard. I know there are other great punk albums out there but I didn't have the cash lying around to buy everything I wanted. That's right: buy. I'm staunchly anti-piracy when it comes to music (cruise ships and movie theater candy contrabanding are another story). I know millions of people do it and they have no moral objection to it, but I do, so I don't. I mean look: if your team just won the World Series, you don't have to tip over cars just because that's what other cities have done after championship wins. Philly fans won the World Series and the first thing that went through too many cheese-steak poisoned heads was "Der, Let's find a car and turn it over." The guido or guido apprentice then stumbled down Broad Street so he could find ONE car. At least in Detroit and Chicago, they tipped cars because the street was too crowded with people. Here, they just wanted to tell their kids, "Hey, little Rock, I tipped over this guy's Camry. Let's go throw rocks at dose gay tourists." Where was I? Oh yeah, mob mentality is for the meat brained. On with the music.
So, I don't exactly have ten albums, because while I bought more than ten albums this year, I know there were better ones out there than the ones I bought or heard legally, so I am just going to review the ones I liked. These are in an order consistent with the Mayan calendar:

Banner Pilot - Resignation Day
I'm not sure if I first hear Banner Pilot on the Punknews Fest 6 compilation or if it was shortly before that, but I instantly recognized that I would like this band. Vocals draw me in and lyrics encourage me to stay and this album did both. Lead singer Nick Johnson (not Nick Johnson) sings about the dark, chilly nights in Minneapolis drinking with friends, tired heartbreaks, and making big plans. I know I am just hurting things by making it sound like Counting Crows lyrics, but my words won't do it justice. Read these linear notes. I know a lot of small town kids will identify a lot of the situations in these tunes. This is the kind of music that makes high school bearable for a lot of outcasts. The band is currently recording another album and Twittering the experience.

LaGrecia - On Parallels
This artifact is a tragic little gem. LaGrecia was the third band for vocalist and lyricist Jason Shevchuk, formerly (and now currently) None More Black and Kid Dynamite (still not counting his metal band Bound). Before this album was even released by Suburban Home Records, he left the three-piece, leaving hundreds or thousands of albums with no band to tour, promote, and sell them. Why the sudden departure? It's his third band in about 9 or 10 years. He is never content. The reason this time though was because he dipped his pen in the company ink (company ink aka Dana Berkowitz played drums for the band). The songs on this album differed from other Shevchuk products in that it was more "indie" and experimental than a straight forward punk or melodic hardcore band. A couple of tracks, including Slower Than Manasses and Two Shotguns, have some jazz influence. It would have been fun to sing along with this band live, but we'll all have to settle for yelling in our car. Also, the album art by bassist Sal DellAquila is by far the best of any 2008 album, hands fucking down.

Lemuria - Get Better
Female lead singers have to walk a fine line. Unfairly or not, she has to maintain her femininity without being so "girly" that they are looked down upon by the majority of the punk audience. I suppose that's a gauntlet all successful women have to face but this album just made me think about it. (Co?)Lead singer Sheena Ozzella has strong, consistent vocals that still sound like they're sung by a girl. I wouldn't be surprised to find out she was a classically trained vocalist. And while a lot of female-fronted groups have their chick strutting around like she is on the short list to join the Pussycat Dolls, Ozzella isn't that kind of girl. The band's music is, rightfully so, the show. My preference for this album has fluctuated the few months I have been listening to it. When I first got it, I loved the sweet harmonies between Ozzella and drummer Alex Kerns. But the more I listened to it, I was a little turned off by the constant repetition in the lyrics. The choruses on almost all the songs are repeated to a point where I wonder if they ran out of lyrics. However, even later I grew to like that as well. I mean, despite the clear vocals, they're a punk band (or an indie band with punk aesthetic) and if it's something punk bands do well, it's make catchy anthems that are fun to sing along with live.

Murder By Death - Red of Tooth and Claw
Take a spaghetti western, make it darker, place random barrels of whiskey around (more than usual) then you are on your way to understanding the aesthetic created by Murder by Death's style of music and Red of Tooth and Claw is no different. It's hard to pigeon hole the sound. The two most distinctive aspects of the music are Adam Turla's baritone singing and the cello work by Sarah Balliet. Lyrics tend to focus on good versus evil and traveling themes. I also got to catch Murder By Death live this year and it was one of the most fun shows I have been attended in a long time. They deftly carry their studio sound to the stage. The band is reportedly working on a follow up to their concept album Who Will Survive, and What Will Be Left of Them for the near future. I can't wait to see what's in store for this talented group.

The Gaslight Anthem - Se├▒or and the Queen & The '59 Sound
While it's hard to pick an album of the year, the most impressive band of the the year is The Gaslight Anthem. They're everywhere and deservedly so. This band takes the best from The Bouncing Souls, The Clash, and Born to Ride-era Springsteen to make a sound that sounds fresh even with so many nods to other artists. They released a four-song EP on Sabot Records and later signed with SideOneDummy and released the full length heard 'round the world. The EP is a cleaner continuation of the debut Sink or Swim. The most noticeable aspect on The '59 Sound is the echo in the vocals. Lead singer Brian Fallon continually explains in interviews that the echo or reverb was a conscious choice to pay homage to albums produced in the late fifties and early sixties. While I still can't see the parallel between the production on this album and those of yesteryear, I like the atmosphere it creates. I had an opportunity to see this band open for Alkaline Trio, Thrice, and Rise Against. Unfortunately, they started their set exactly on time and I only got to see two songs (The Backseat and Angry Johnny and The Radio). While I was disappointed at the time, it says a lot about the band that those two songs were the highlight of an outstanding evening. I read somewhere that they are going to tour this Spring, so I'll make sure to catch the full set then. In the meantime, I'll continue to sing with my heroes, my arms in my bothers arms.

The Others:
Alkaline Trio - Agony & Irony
This was an imp
rovement over Crimson, but they have to shake that poppy, atmospheric crap. I even got the deluxe set to get the acoustic songs. Even that is only 70% good.

The Briggs - Come All You Madmen
The Briggs are a talented group that oftentimes take the street punk genre to new and fun places. Unfo
rtunately, even they fall victim to some of the limits of the style occasionally. This conflict is found on Come All You Madmen when a beautiful song like Molly can't even overcome the sickeningly silly This is L.A. It wouldn't have been so bad but they made that terrible track their single. C'mon guys, you're better than that.

Less Than Jake - GNA FLA
I still love this band. A few in
spired tracks including the single Does the Lion Still Roar are signs that they can still write new tunes that will get the crowd singing along. Unfortunately, the album is largely forgettable.

Chuck Ragan/Austin Lucas - Bristle Ridge
Mr. Ragan teams up with former Man Alive lead singer Austin Lucas and family to make a bluegrass album. The result is a tight album from two seasoned profession
als. If you are open minded enough to expand beyond the punk genre, check out this collaboration.

Shorebirds - It's Gonna Get Ugly
This mayfly of a band was the cocktease of the year. Matt Canino, formerly of Latterman, and
Chris Bauermeister, formerly of Jawbreaker, and some drummer formed this band that was not to be. As is Canino's M.O., the group disbanded but not before releasing an EP and this full length. I suppose this never came out in CD format, only a 12" vinyl, because, as Canino and/or his significant hipster girlfriend/entrepreneur stated: they're "a record label, not an MP3 label." Despite that reactionary, Luddite attitude, there are MP3s out there for sale on odd MP3 sites and there are torrents, but I have trouble believing that the band or label (Rumbletowne) sees any of that profit, so I'm not buying. Fortunately, I got to hear it on Punknews. Heartfelt music and trademarked strained vocals characterize this beautiful album.

Paint It Black - New Lexicon
Dan Yemin's contribution to the punk and hardcore community is undeniable. Lifetime, Kid Dynamite, and now Paint It Black have all been amazing bands. I just can't get into the latter. I can tell it's technically great, but as a whole I'm not into it. I guess I'm not hardcore.

Albums released that I haven't heard all the way through, but really want to:
Off With Their Heads - From The Bottom
The Riot Before - Fists Buried in Pockets
The Hold Steady - Stay Positive
The Tossers - On A Fine Spring Evening

2009 Anticipation:
Ben Nichols - The Last Pale Light In The West (the full length, 7 song mini-album released late 2008)
New Banner Pilot
New Lawrence Arms (hopefully)
New The Verbs (Redux)

Want some tracks from bands I discussed? Here you go:

I realize that I probably missed a lot, but whatever. Check out the two new blogs I added to my blog list: Walkoff Walk and Sound Scene Revolution.

Album images courtesy of Punknews.