Welcome to the annual Scholars & Rogues/Lullaby Pit Best CDs of the Year. I should be tired of saying this by now, but for the sake of tradition: it was a good year for music. An odd year, perhaps, but a good one. Rather than blather on setting the stage, let’s get right to it. This is the first post of three – the Gold LPs will be followed by the Platinum LPs and finally by the CD of the Year. And something a little special is going to happen in that post, so don’t miss it.
The Gold LPs
This year’s music seems to line up according to genre. Up first are three very worthy discs in the category of…
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: Beat The Devil’s Tattoo
I’m not sure I think the band has fully recaptured the verve that marked their first couple of releases, and I never much embraced their side trip into howling Americana. BtDT is darkish and more gritty than noisy, I suppose: one reviewer locates BtDT about halfway between those two moments in the band’s history, and that’s probably a fair summation. By now it’s hard to argue against the proposition that BRMC is one of the world’s very best bands. They have a distinct voice, a willingness to take chances, and lots of songwriting chops. A good combination that should serve them well for years to come.
The Black Ryder: Buy The Ticket, Take The Ride
One might argue that this Sydney-based outfit isn’t really doing anything new, but as we’ve noted before, there’s always value in doing a thing well no matter how many times it has been done before. So, in a nutshell, here’s some stripped-down black leather shoegazer with an occasional twanginess about it for flavor. Like all things truly cool, this CD is never in a hurry.
Jason & the Scorchers: Halcyon Times
Back in the ’80s there was this wonderful moment where, all at once, you had bands emerging from the same rootsy DNA and representing their particular corner of the country in ways that were clearly of a piece, but also distinctly regional. Boston gave us The Del Fuegos. NYC featured The Del-Lords and The Blasters. Maria McKee hauled her Southern C&W vibe vibe to LA and formed Lone Justice. Another part of LA produced Los Lobos. Wisconsin’s The BoDeans were brilliant for at least one record. My hometown had The Right Profile. And from Nashville came Jason & the Scorchers, the hardest working cowboys in rock and roll.
Through the years the Scorchers have come and gone, waxed and waned, comebacked and disappeared, with the occasional bit of solo hellraising from Jason Ringenberg in between. The unfortunate truth is that for all their talent and energy, they’ve never sustained their focus or managed to attract the size audience that they deserve. Hopefully this latest rampage, by far their best effort since maybe their 1985 debut, will change a bit of that. I know they’re oldsters and all, but when you consider the range of country, folk and Americana influenced indie out there getting far more attention than it deserves, surely there’s a market for guys that rock this damned hard.
BT: These Hopeful Machines
It’s a little hard to explain BT, but maybe if I ask you to think about how Delerium managed to intersect New Age, electronic, ambient with club and soft rock (especially in their monster collaboration with Sarah McLachlan) you’ll get an idea. These Hopeful Machines is part club, part trance, part glitch, and in places part rock fusion, and the collaborations with Rob Dickinson are worth the price of the CD all by themselves. Sometimes DJ/Producer types put stuff together in the name of experimentation (or in the name of just trying to be different) and it doesn’t work because they simply don’t integrate. Putting things side by side isn’t the same as putting them together. But BT takes all these disparate elements and forges them into something that’s truly unified and absolutely joyful to listen to.
Graham Parker: Imaginary Television
A basic premise: imagine television shows that don’t exist, then write theme songs for them. Or something like that. As Mark Deming suggests in the review linked above, GP may not be as angry as he once was, but he’s no less cynical. Imaginary Television isn’t the ambitious, defining moment that 2007′s Don’t Tell Columbus was, but it is an excellent collection of intelligent, well-crafted and deftly performed tunes. Parker is really a marvel – how many artists manage work that’s this relevant 35 years after their debut?
The answer: not many.
Hanson: Shout It Out
Yeah, I know. Hanson kids blah pop cute mmmbop kiddies blah precious blah blargh. Let’s be clear on some things. First off, Hanson was never anybody’s put-up job. They were actual musicians and actual singers writing actual songs even as kiddies. And while they were cute and precocious, they were never prefabricated product.
Second, that was then and this is now, and Shout It Out just flat delivers. Tee up the lead track, “Waiting For This.” Then see if you can sit still through “Thinking ‘Bout Somethin’.” Seriously. Hit YouTube and check the video, too – the Blues Brothers knockdown is more than a marketing gimmick – it’s a legit claim to a spot in a tradition that the boys (by the way, Zac is 25 now) have rightly earned.
From one end to the other, this disc is absolutely packed with fantastic songs and tight performances. Give it a chance. You’ll thank me.
The Well Wishers: Post Modern Romantic
As I’ve observed before, it’s easy enough to do power pop. Specifically, it’s easy to do it in ways that are derivative as hell. What’s tougher is to work a vein that’s been mined as thoroughly as the genre that probably begins somewhere in the vicinity of Buddy Holly, tracks through the Beach Boys, Beatles, Who, Big Star, Badfinger and Raspberries, flows on through fairly well-known names like The Posies and Matthew Sweet and empties out into the bottomless ocean that is the modern pop underground while managing to sound fresh and distinct.
Jeff Shelton (ex-Spinning Jennies) always does a nice job of it, though. 2008′s Jigsaw Days was fantastic and this year’s crunchy, catchy collection goes a long way toward reminding us why we fell in love with guitar pop in the first place.
Tame Impala: InnerSpeaker
Periodically somebody will send me a link to a band plying its craft in the world of “Psych Rock.” I’m usually underwhelmed. Either they can’t write songs, or they can’t quite master the delicate task of weaving signal through the noise, or they sound exactly like their favorite band, or they don’t sound lkek much of anything at all.
Tame Impala is a whole ‘nother case, though. They don’t let the conventions of the neo-fuzzy ’60s get in the way of the songs (which are actually quite well constructed) and they manage to reference their influences without falling captive to them. At various points something will remind you of Zep or Sabbath or perhaps Cream, and definitely the more psychedelic moments of The Fabs. This last part is what really sets them apart – the impact that The Beatles exert here assures a greater attention to songcraft than some of Tame Impala’s contemporaries exhibit. That makes all the difference in the world – if you were to attempt this sound without a dedication to song structure you’d be….well, a jam band, I suppose.
She & Him: Volume Two
Full disclosure: I’m in love with Zooey Deschanel. With that out of the way, her debut collab with M. Ward wandered back and forth between a Dusty Springfield/white ’60s girl group vibe and an overt infatuation with all things Patsy Cline. On Volume Two Patsy is exiled and Zooey devotes all her attentions to the pure pop ingenue things she does so, so very well. It’s charming as hell, it’s alluring, its sexy and enticing, and I like it a lot. That said, like most ’60s-influenced pure pop, it hangs close to the surface. I can’t help feeling like Zooey has some more depth to her, and she has such a marvelous voice that I find myself wishing she’d take some chances and stretch herself a bit.
Maybe on Volume Three….
Don Dixon: Don Dixon Sings The Jeffords Brothers
In the Carolinas it’s called “Beach Music,” and it has nothing to do with The Beach Boys. Instead, it’s an amalgam of ’60s dance R&B (thing Four Tops, Temptations, The Tams, etc.) and a horde of revivalists who do new music in the same style (like The Embers, The Catalinas, The Band of Oz, etc.) One such band is Dip Ferrell and the True Tones. Best I can figure (because reliable bio information on this point is hard to find) the Jeffords Brothers are the songwriting force in the band, and are old friends of Dixon’s.
It’s no secret that Don Dixon is a friend and that I regard him as one of the great underappreciated legends of American music. And it probably comes as no shock at all to learn that I really like this disc. It’s nice to see people keeping this tuneful, party-time little regional neo-R&B tradition alive, and it’s pure joy hearing Dixon work his around such great pop gems.
Ah, I miss Myrtle Beach…
Duffy’s debut was so fantastic, so hyped and so commercially successful (something like 8M copies) that expectations were bound to be through the roof for the follow-up. And historically, sophomore efforts have often slumped, even for the greatest of artists. I hate to call Endlessly a disappointment, though, because even though I don’t think it quite stacks up to Rockferry, I also think I’d like it a lot if I weren’t comparing it to Rockferry. And hey, a lot of critics like it a great deal…
In truth, the new release is probably more consistent (although I could certainly have done without a song insisting on keeping my baby – that’s been done, and famously; and don’t think I don’t recognize an “Unchained Melody” sendup when I hear one), but it lacks the memorable high spots (“Mercy,” “Stepping Stone”) of the debut.
In the end, though, this is a nice, well executed CD that has me wondering what she’ll do next. And as long as I’m looking ahead instead of slamming the door, we’re still on track.
Lucky Soul: A Coming Of Age
Given the vibrancy of the current neo-soul/R&B revival (and the number of acts involved in it) it’s a little hard to understand why more attention hasn’t been paid to one of the genre’s very best bands, Lucky Soul. Stylistically they live closer to the Dusty Springfield end of the spectrum than to the James Brown end, and in many respects are probably better and more consistent than the similar, but far more famous Duffy.
Their sophomore effort, A Coming of Age, is certainly superior to Duffy’s Endlessly in every single way – better songs, better performances, more consistent, higher highs, and so on. Catchy, pristinely produced, alternately swanky and vulnerable, but confident in the end, Lucky Soul’s latest really leaves only question: what next?
Nothing Rhymes with Orange: The Happiness Struggle
I’ve always wondered why so few people seem to know about NRWO. Maybe they’re put off by the name, and if so, that’s understandable. However, these guys have been around for several years, cranking out some of the more tuneful, atmospheric neo-’80s wave pop in the country. There’s nothing critically earth-shaking going on with The Happiness Struggle, just a very tight collection of indie-pop that fans of The Killers, MGMT and The Mary Onettes might appreciate.
The Flaws: Constant Adventure
The Flaws caught me a little off-guard with Constant Adventure. Their previous release fit neatly with bands like Interpol and Editors, and I was expecting more of the same. Instead, I encountered a CD that frequently makes me think more of Death Cab. This isn’t universally the case – tracks like “Make Good” remember their ’80s roots, but the band does appear to be interested in broadening its sound and evolving. I’m not sure I think they’re quite there yet, as the overall effect is uneven in spots, but Constant Adventure is certainly worthy of a Gold LP and I’m really looking forward to hearing where this particular creative journey takes us on their next release.
EPs of Note
As a rule we only rate full CDs, but there were some awfully nice (and promising) EPs coming across the transom this year.
Able Archer: Arc 01
The new project from Splitsville frontman Matt Huseman, Able Archer, sounds precisely nothing like Splitsville. Yeah, the pop sensibility is still there, as is the unyielding attention to detail, but Arc 01 (which is the first of three arcs that are going to eventually comprise a full CD, I’m told) sounds more like Radiohead and Coldplay, with at least one part that reminds me a lot of Queens of the Stone Age. It’s all very cool, as it tries to find itself, and this comes from a guy who doesn’t like Coldplay and who doesn’t listen to much Radiohead if it can be helped. I’m very much looking forward to the next two sections in 2011.
DoCo: Snow Clone EP
The Booth Brothers can by god play. As a rule, they tend to be fascinated by musical styles that I couldn’t care less about, but Snow Clone features what I think is the best song they’ve ever written. And, did I mention that they can by god play?
Snake Rattle Rattle Snake: Self Titled
My initial point of reference to SRRS is Kit Peltzel, who was the drummer for the late great Space Team Electra. SRRS is a little different animal, although it does lean toward a dark, ethereal moodiness. I’ve heard singer Hayley Helmericks compared to Grace Slick and I can’t say that I think that’s unfair. It’s a commanding, self-aware voice and it works nicely over the top of a trancy, tribal rhythm attack. I’ve heard enough tracks here and there to think that a full-length release can’t be far away. I hope.
Up next: The Platinum LPs…