Looking back, 2013 was a weak-ass year for me for music. I couldn’t even come up with more than eight albums to stick on my year-end list. This year — a much stronger entry, in my opinion — I have not ten, but eleven, entries! Now keep in mind that my canvas is pretty damn small, so I probably haven’t considered some of those avant-garde albums you’re sitting there rocking. You know, the German EDM weirdos, or the pseudo-lounge guy from Bed-Stuy or the instrumental doom metal band from Sweden, or whatever. But this is my list in no particular order. Not the best, necessarily. Just the stuff I like the best:
Hells to the yeah! I feel like this is what Chumped would yell at Belly and the ghost of Tanya Donelly’s 1993-95 experiment in estrogen-soaked indie rock. And then they’d tell her to grow a pair and would hit a power chord. Or maybe they’d thank her for blazing a trail and would go off to listen to another Pixies album (and maybe Kim’s side-project/main project, The Breeders). Speaking of breeding, I’m all for this female-singer-lead mid-90s indie rock revival lead by the awesomeness that is Swearin’ and Screaming Females. This is yet another strong entry in that category, and possibly the best of them all in terms of consistency. Which, after all, is an important part of reviewing an album. Because there are others out there who purport to hold up this 90s indie thing, like Yuck, for instance, who have one, maybe two songs in their albums that ape Dinosaur Jr. or some other indie touchstone. And those songs are great, but the rest of the album ends up being a milquetoast mess of muddy nothingness. But these guys (and gal) ride the pop punk, guitar rock thing right down the line, and while it certainly sounds reminiscent of the past, it brings it back in an amazingly fresh and pleasant way that will make any college radio die hard a huge fan.
Full disclosure: Ms. hipster is a drummer. I’ve always loved drummers. I’ve always loved drums. I love to hear drummers who are out to punish their equipment, pound their sticks to dust. I yawn at 4/4 humdrum. Fills and shit, that’s my thing. Pair that fast, hard charging indie musical drumming with chugging guitars and emotive, singing/yelling and you have the Mr. Hipster trifecta. Thank you Cloud Nothings for getting inside my head. From their last album, Attack On Memory, to Japandroids’ album, Celebration Rock, I find myself craving this dynamic so often, and so seldom getting it. Instead I get wimpy over-produced bullshit or drowned-in-sound reverb-heavy soft nonsense. I’m sure there’s a reason this post-hardcore, brawny music isn’t popular with the cooler millennials (they seem to shy away from music with balls) but the music, which always seems to be on the verge of veering out of control, makes me want to fist-pump in the worst way. Or go into the basement with a pair of old sticks and smash the hell out of Ms. Hipster’s kit until the cops break down the door and drag me off the rock ‘n’ roll jail. Call me a fool, call me a bro, but I ask again: why can’t intelligence and quality be paired with adrenaline?
PAWS: Youth Culture Forever
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Rollicking rock and roll out of Scotland that you can actually understand! It’s an interesting thing these days where bands can be throwbacks to both the 90s and a more classic era as well. After all, a lot of the indie rock from the 90s gave a nod to classic 50s and 60s rock music. And PAWS rides that line perfectly, with just enough reverby echo, chimey guitar and harmonizing to hit on that “old” sound and plenty of distortion and crunching guitar to put it right in the 90s indie rock pantheon. But the strongest part of the music is their melodies and hooks that manage to rise above your prototypical post-punk band and drive home the fact they are, at heart, a pop band. And god knows I’ve written enough of these reviews that mention I am not ashamed to say I love me some rock and roll hooks. And crazy drumming. Always with the crazy drumming. I’ve found myself obsessively listening to tracks 1-6 over and over again. And on the past couple listens, tracks 1-9. Though track 9, “Let’s All Go,” sounds more like blink-182 or some other 90s pop punk band than anything else on the album. And since pop punk is certainly a guilty pleasure of mine (I’m looking at you, Alkaline Trio), I’m just fine with that. To get an album on which 9 of 12 tracks are this awesome is a ridiculously impressive feat these days. Granted the last three tracks consist of 2 instrumental tracks (one of which is over 11:30) and a homespun acoustic track, so it’s difficult to judge those equally against the their way more fleshed out brethren. I’m super-impressed with this band and have read multiple accounts that claim their live show is not to be missed. I’ll be looking for them in my area in the hopes to hear them recreate this excellent album. One of my favorites of 2014 for sure.
There is something so perfectly nostalgic about this album for me that it escapes description. Maybe it’s like hanging out in a sweaty house in Van Nuys in the 80s listening to a friend of a friend’s high school band playing their hearts out and thinking that they somehow should be the biggest thing in the world. Like an earnest thought that they could totally play a double bill with Guns n’ Roses or The Replacements or at least the Ramones. You were a stupid teenager. What the hell did you know? And then along came emo and pop punk in the 90s and you were like, “wow, this shit speaks to me. It fucks me right in the heart.” You hear bands with their heavy bass lines and harmonies that are like dreamy do-wop for your punk ass and it’s hot. And it makes you want to get a guitar and put your bad poetry to music — with awesome hooks. Hells yeah! And you harbor a secret love of blink-182 and The Get Up Kids and everything pop emo but you hide it behind your Bracket and Guns n’ Wankers CDs just because. Then something like Joyce Manor comes along and you’re practically middle aged and it IS that stuff you loved from back then, but you needn’t feel shame because now, because now it’s cool. And it’s good. Real good.
The Hotelier: Home, Like Noplace Is There
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Who says emo’s dead? Certainly not the nice young men from Worcester, MA who are, pardon my French, emo as fuck. Lest you think this is a slight, I miss the days of earnest emotive post-punk girly-mannish screamo. And this, my friends, is a prime example of the genre. But the genre that leans way more to the pop-punk side and not the swirling math rock bent. Meaning that there are melodies to spare, group sung choruses and some melodic singing mixed with scorched throat in-tune yelling. You know it’s “emo” because there are songs about dying, suicide attempts and loneliness but in a totally punk rock way. Where else would you find the line “I called in sick from your funeral” or run across the made up word, “genderfucked?” Despite the somewhat dour subject matter, the album is relentlessly entertaining and engenders the desire for endless spins with its pop hooks buried in burn-it-down rock ‘n’ roll.
The production on this one took me a couple listens to get used to. The almost synth-like, trebly crunch of the drums and metallic overtones were so at odds with an album like Girls Can Tell, with its warm, tube amp mellowness that at first it was a bit jarring. It kind of sounds like it was recorded inside of one of those giant vats that they brew beers in. And then there is this harp-like sound on the second track, “Inside Out,” along with some space sounds and I’m like, “ooooh it’sThe Flaming Lips. That’s what’s going on here.” One quick check and this album was indeed produced by Dave Fridmann, the man behind the boards on just about every Lips album. Once I realized that fact things made more sense to me. The way more fleshed out sound of the band, the crunch, the almost retro sound of an era that really never existed. The songs are more reminiscent of their early stuff on Series of Sneaks, which is a great thing. The album crackles with life and, as a lot of the best Spoon songs do, reminds me of like an old west gun fight that suddenly breaks out into a waltz (listen to “Kick Knock Knock”). I think that’s why this band is so cool and so universally adored. They just play their music, and don’t put on any pretentions or try to be anything other than a cool Austin band that still can’t believe they’re allowed to be critical indie darlings all these years later. I’ve seen these guys play at small-ish clubs a few times now, but with this album, I only hope and pray that they make the rounds again to play these songs, which are just so bright and present, live and in an intimate environment that can quietly build the hype all over again.
Braid: No Coast
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I was honestly a little skeptical of what seemed like another nineties band trying to revisit similar territory they once pwned decades earlier. I mostly squint as I hit play, just hoping that these guys aren’t going to completely embarrass themselves. The thing is, real rock is on life support at this point anyway, so what could they possibly do but jump into the pit with the rest of the rock band corpses? And then these geezerly dudes start up and goddamn it if they don’t sound like they want to bring rock music back. They’re a little more cheery in their emo attack, putting pretty excellent, clean production behind sweet hooks, remarkable musicianship and an honest sense of wanting to make an enjoyable pop (in the best sense) rock record. I mean this album sounds good. Like good good. Like I played it for Mrs. Hipster and she was like “why have you kept this band from me?” good. It sounds like a more rocking version of Maritime and oddly, at a few points, like Foo Fighters. I mean it makes sense since these are no longer the lads they were in their late 90s heyday. The songs feel lived in and practiced, but still maintain those awesome break downs, staccato shifts and spidery guitar work that defined the genre. The rough edges have just been shaved down a bit, presenting less of a challenged listen and more of a consistent experience. Speaking of which, the track list is solid from front to back. Not a clunker in the bunch. I’ve found myself reaching for this album over and over again, which is rare for me with any album, and all I can do is marvel at the fact these guys have aged so appropriately with their audience. It’s like they said, “Here, Mr. H, here’s the album you can genuinely listen to without cursing the 24-year-old who’s rocking your socks off and feel okay about it. Because you’re old. You old fuck.”
I still hate the name of this band. Granted it’s better than Diarrhea Planet, Ugly Kid Joe or 4 Non Blondes. But barely. Luckily their music is way better than their moniker. I’m not really sure how to describe it other than a weird mashup of early Jane’s Addiction, Trail of Dead and The Replacements. I mean, holy shit, right? Right! I know you’re wondering how those three things could live in the same universe. And you’d be right to question, as it sounds super-bizarre. But, trust me, it’s not. They borrow from these bands — or at least they sound like it to my tone-deaf ass — but still manage to sound unlike all of them. As promised, they are all about the guitars and the cymbals. Whether one is eating the other or being eaten by the former (or is it the latter?) is beyond me, but their almost proggy approach to their complicated, but simple, Titus Andronicus by way of The Wrens Jersey brand of rock music shows that indie music can still make a six-minute song that isn’t a spiraling EDM wank or self-indulgent hissing mess. Writing music is hard, I’d imagine. And writing music that is both interesting and listenable is especially difficult. Usually it’s one or the other. With Cymbals Eat Guitars, you can have your cymbal and eat it too.
This irony here — or not so much irony, but pity — is that this is the album Wild Flag probably thought they were making. Or at least hoped they’d make. It’s no coincidence that Mary Timony, one-fourth of that super-group, grabs the reigns here and proves that sometimes the individuals within the super-group are better than the sum of the their parts (see Dan Beharas soloist versus of-late New Pornographers). Timony throws the (s)Ex into the Ex and rocks it old-school, combining your classic Joan Jett / Runaways thing with mid-nineties college indie rock. In fact, songs like “Beast” sound an awful lot like the more rocking tunes of Liz Phair’s circa 1993-94. Timony’s vocals, with her kind of monotone thing, are clearly influenced by Patti Smith. And the songs themselves are part Pretenderswith a dash of Ramones. The stuff feels a little out of time, especially with the dearth of straight rock ’n’ roll music these days. Like rock ’n’ roll that incorporates drums, a guitar, a bass and a singer with little to no studio nonsense or vocals fuzzed out beyond recognition — a technique I just fucking don’t understand. I mean, why bother being a singer in a band if you’re just going to bury your shit in hiss? You might as well unplug. I’m not going to go out and say that Ex Hex is gonna change your life. It’s not In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It’s not Neveremind. It’s not even necessarily the best woman-fronted album in the past couple of years, but it’s certainly one of my favorites of 2014 if not for the sheer fun nostalgia of it. And the pop hooks that it’s not afraid to throw out there. Indie music doesn’t need to be all mopey bullshit -— though I’m an emo apologist of the worst kind -— but can in fact be upbeat and celebratory in a way that doesn’t compromise the muscle. Not to mention that this album is amazingly consistent from track to track. This is not something indie albums are generally good at. It’s infinitely listenable from front to back and side to side. A real pleasure, I must say.
I have a love/hate relationship with modern rap. Mostly hate. With the whole mixtape thing, it feels like the market has been saturated with a bunch of assholes who have a laptop and absolutely nothing to say. How do I know you slang and shoot? You could be a kid in your basement in Sudbury, MA. Yo, man, yelling at your mom to get you a Dr. Pepper don’t make you hard. Nor do I really give a shit. There’s just too little of substance and dick this, gun that, molly and whatnot. And now I sound like my parents. But, seriously, rap kinda sucks in 2014. So along comes two Gen X dudes, who by all whatever should be completely irrelevant and run out of town as O.G. suckas — if these swag shitheads even know what that is. Instead, older white dudes like me appreciate them for trying to do something more than repeating the same thing 27 times in a song and calling it music. El-P, being an old white dude himself, has an appreciation for the art of hip-hop. The man is a dope producer and can make a tune sound intense and engaged, while highlighting all the things that make rap awesome. It’s a gnarly pastiche of sound and bass and almost a futuristic police state that he throws out there. No thin synths and kid bullshit here. I’m not terribly familiar with Killer Mike, but multiple listens bring his smarts to the forefront. I mean, at first I thought the guy was all about his dick and his potty-mouth, but based also on listening to a couple podcasts on which he appeared, I realize the guy is a craftsman, a guy who “gets” it. I mean the guy uses the word “pugnaciously.” That has to be a hip-hop first. It’s not surprising, for instance, that they pulled in Zack De La Rocha (late of Rage Against the Machine) to guest on one track, as there’s a good deal of the album that feels like a middle-finger protest. Against what, I couldn’t tell you, but there is certainly something about the album that doesn’t feel intensely frivolous like so much of the other fly-by-night shit out there. As the weeks pass, I am less and less engaged in the rap world, as I’m too old and tired to cut through the nonsense, but thank the hip-hop gods that albums like this come along to restore my faith in the art form.
Dads: I’ll Be the Tornado
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Something about Jersey inspires emotion. Very seldom do you get bands from The Jerz that don’t either tug at those emo heartstrings — like the original screamo act,Thursday — or hit you with that sunny nostalgia, likeYo La Tengo. I mean if you really break it down, the original NJ rocker himself, B. Springsteen, trades in nothing more than emotional nostalgia. So here are the oddly and mysteriously named Paramus band, Dads, neither of whom are, apparently, dads. They hit that emo thing often and they hit it hard. Sometimes, like even the best emo, it’s a little too on the nose with its lyrical whining, but they do a great approximated mash up of early Built to Spill, bands like CaP’n Jazz andAmerican football (neither of which I love, honestly) and a small nod to their more modern compatriots likeJapandroids and Patrick Stickles’ pained whelp. They really do a great job of mixing things up, swinging from one indie rock touchstone to another from song to song and doing a bang-up job on each. The album is amazingly listenable, even after multiple trips through the tracklist, especially for a band that purports to be a duo. I really do hate the band name, though, and fear that those out there with not a lot of creativity in their Googling will miss out on one of my favorite albums of the year just because these guys can write a song, but can’t name themselves worth a shit.