Here it is! Wait no more! The list that you’ve been waiting for a year to see…if you’re Scott Sellers, that is. (Everyone else, maybe not so much.)
It’s an odd list, as my lists usually are. As I get ever-older, I find myself listening to more and more punk and hardcore. It makes me feel younger, I suppose. So you’ll see some punk on this year’s list, but not a ton.
Alternative/indie stuff – What is that, “alternative?” What is “indie?” – tend to dominate, as per previous years. While popular music continues to be a cultural wasteland, utterly devoid of meaning and merit, there are a lot of alt/indie bands that are thriving, and who are finally getting attention. The collapse of the music industry – or the music industry’s traditional marketing model, at least – have opened doors for those bands in a way that would’ve never, ever happened, in years past. In Toronto alone, we’ve seen Fucked Up, Tokyo Police Club, Caribou, Crystal Castles, Owen Pallet and plenty more recently get deserved international recognition. That’s happened because the “industry” has atomized. It’s a good thing.
Anyway, enough of that. Here’s this year’s list. If you don’t like it, dissent in comments. Or go start your own frigging web site.
1. Bad Religion – Dissent of Man: A bunch of us saw them on their thirtieth anniversary tour, and they sound – and this album, their fifteenth, sounds – as vital and as angry as ever. Like The Empire Strikes First, Dissent of Man finds Bad Religion raging against Pax Americana, and the military-industrial complex, and (naturally) organized religion, but in a way that sounds as fresh and energetic as if it had been produced by some anarchic teenagers in a basement somewhere. It’s about as good, in fact, as anything on Suffer. They may be in their fifties, they may be multi-millionaires, they may even have doctorates, but Bad Religion haven’t let go of their angry young inner punks. Thank God, as it were.
2. Liars – Sisterworld: Most bands, at the end of the broadcast day, play it safe. Take Against Me!, for example (please). Can you believe that the Tom Gabel who wrote ‘Turn Those Clapping Hands Into Balled Fists’ is the same guy who could ever write a piece of over-produced, super-slick shite like ‘Because of the Shame’? I mean, Against Me! They should be shot for White Crosses! But I digress. Angus Andrew and the boys in Liars, meanwhile, have never lost the plot. They’ve never lost the thread. They know how to do what Against Me! and plenty of others have done – Andrew used to be the love interest of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs Karen O., for instance, and we saw their buddy Emily Haines of Metric at the bar when Liars played Lee’s Palace, a few weeks ago – but they don’t. They continue to write music, and produce records, which challenge you, and make you think, and which are proudly non-commercial They don’t pander. Sisterworld is one of their most bizarre and challenging albums yet – and that’s saying something. One of the last honest bands left in rock’n’roll.
3. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs: They’re an international smash, is Arcade Fire, but the band – and band leader Win Butler in particular – remain refreshingly suspicious of success. Check out this favourite lyric, plucked from their Summertime hit, and what Butler has to say about those legions of slavish Arcade Fire fans: “All the kids have always known that the emperor wears no clothes…but they bow down to him anyway. It’s better than being alone.” Ouch! Hear that, kids? Win doesn’t have the highest regard for your cognitive abilities! Personally – and going back to Johnny Rotten and Iggy Pop, and others – I am always impressed by an artist who is prepared to tell his or her audience to go fuck themselves. It suggests, among other things, that they consider ART to be more important than COMMERCE. It is risk-taking behaviour. And risk-takers always leave a mark in the sands of time. Arcade Fire is leaving a mark. (Look! I didn’t once mention they’re Canadian, and live in Montreal! Not once!)
4. The National – High Violet: The National are one of the weirdest bands ever. I mean, the lead singer, Matt Berninger, has a beard. Jesus! And he looks like a mild-mannered school teacher. The rest of the band are two pairs of mild-mannered brothers – the Dessners, and the Devendorfs – and they all got together in mild-mannered Cincinnati. Understandably, they wanted to get out of Ohio, so they moved to…Brooklyn, now a yuppie hotbed. My kids hate The National, because they think Berninger sounds totally disinterested in the subject-matter (whatever, er, that is), but ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ is one of the weirdest (but simultaneously wonderful) songs I have heard in years. Berninger’s lyrics are completely indecipherable – “I still owe money to the money to the money I owe…I never thought about love when I thought about home…The floors are falling out from everybody I know…I’m on a blood buzz, yes I am...” – but the melody lures you in, and keeps you there. And you wake up at night and the tune is still there. Mild-mannered, maybe, but important.
5. Surfer Blood – Astro Coast: When you come from West Palm Beach, and you don’t sound like Jimmy Buffet or some other similarly soul-destroying musical Horseman of the Apocalypse, it’s hard. Nobody takes you seriously. Surfer Blood – and, by the way, that is the coolest band name since the Brian Jonestown Massacre, or Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head – should be taken seriously. They’re on everyone’s year-end Top Ten lists, and Astro Coast is why. The album kicks off with the epic ‘Floating Vibes,’ which is what Dinosaur Jr. would have sounded like if they had had children with Jesus and Mary Chain, and with some Pavement DNA thrown in for good measure. Worth a spin, and more.
6. Hole – Nobody’s Daughter: Like Yoko Ono before her, I have always had a lot of the sympathy for Courtney Love. Yoko got blamed for breaking up the Beatles; Courtney got blamed for killing Cobain and Nirvana. (When, in both cases, it was really the men who were to blame. Usually is.) To say that rock’n’roll is a pantheon to misogyny would be to state the obvious – but Courtney (like Yoko) persists despite it. This new album sounds like a fusion of Live Through This and Celebrity Skin, both great sources of self-inspiration. The album’s most memorable track is ‘Skinny Little Bitch’ – wherein Courtney goes up one side of her youthful pretenders, and down the other: “You staggered here on broken glass, so I could kick your scrawny ass…And all the drugs and all the burns…What a nasty, nasty piece of work…Oh baby, does it hurt? Oh baby, just go slower…oh baby just go lower.” Wow! Jumpin’! And that’s not all: the riff is so thick and meaty, you could barbecue it for the whole family, and have enough left over for your in-laws. She may be a wreck, and she may be just this side of being committed, but – in so doing – Courtney Love is as great as all of the greatest rock’n’rollers. Male and female.
7. Social Distortion – Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes: I know, I know: Social D’s first album since 2004′s Sex, Love and Rock’n’Roll isn’t actually out yet. I know. But enough of it has leaked online to give us a sense that it sees Mike Ness – and, well, Mike Ness – offering up more of what has made Social Distortion one of the greatest punk bands ever: gritty, grimy, blue collar tales of lost love, and broken dreams. With every one a great tune. ‘Machine Gun Blues’ is classic Social D., with Ness adopting a gangster style, (which many try, but never really pull off). ’Machine Gun Blues’ is Number One on West Coast alternative radio, and if the rest of the album sounds like it – and I can attest to the fact that it does – Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes will make everyone forget (or disbelieving) that Ness and Co. have been doing this for more than thirty years. They’re as great as ever.
8. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest: When you get a good look at him, Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox is perhaps the most unlikely frontman ever: so tall and gangly, Cox makes your average NBA star look squat. Afflicted with Marfan Syndrome – which is characterized by abnormally long limbs, cardiovascular disease, plus awful eye and skin disorders – Cox doesn’t ever mope: he produces music that is profoundly ethereal and haunting, to be sure, but also deeply creative and different. If you love My Bloody Valentine, or Echo and the Bunnymen, or Bowie at his most eclectic, you’ll love what Cox does. He’s prolific and an actual musical pioneer.
9. Bouncing Souls – Ghosts On The Boardwalk: When you eyeball the Bouncing Souls onstage – as we did when they opened on Bad Religion’s aforementioned 30th anniversary tour – they’re a little hard to figure out. Backed by a tough-looking, tattooed, three-piece punk rhythm machine, lead singer Greg Attonito is slim, well-groomed and wears cardigans. Cardigans! In a punk band! But Attonito’s yelping, New Jersey drawl is uniquely suited to what Bouncing Souls d0 – which, in the main, is bouncy, soulful punk with lots of hooks. ’Ghosts on the Boardwalk’ is a lot of fun, it’s catchy, and it helps to keep Attonito in, er, cardigans. Buy it.
10. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – History of Modern: They’re back! They’re back! I saw these guys in Montreal with a bunch of friends in 1980. Thirty years ago! All of us had our favourite synth bands, back then, and OMD were mine. They got a wee bit too poppy for my tastes around the time of 1984′s Junk Culture (remember ‘Locomotion’?), but their earlier stuff reminded everyone that they owed as much to Joy Division as they did to Ultravox. Welcome back, boys. The world has changed, in the intervening years, but not in a particularly good way. You were missed.