Here it is – the annual Scott Sellers’ Top Album list! Scott’s the only guy who reads the damn thing, anyway. The rest of you can go straight to Hell.
1. Fucked Up – David Comes to Life: The Toronto band is found on the cover of the new Spin, where they also top the best-of-2011 list. In fact, Fucked Up top a bunch of other folks’ lists, too, because this record could have been a historic failure, but isn’t. It’s a rock opera, of sorts, and the narrative is hard to follow, as with all rock operas (Ever tried to figure out the Who’s ‘Tommy’? Seriously?). What I found so astonishing about this outing is that they are a (a) still hardcore but (b) composing songs that have complexity and ambition unlike anything ever seen in the punk genre (possible exception: Richard Hell and the Voidoid’s first LP, and Television’s Marquee Moon). Among other things, that’s hard to do. One of the greatest bands on the planet.
2. Social Distortion – Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes: Since the late Seventies, when they got started, Social D. has really been just Mike Ness and his backing band. But that’s okay. Despite getting on in years, and despite a brief hiatus in the Eighties when Ness’ drug and criminal woes caught up with him, Social D. have consistently remained one of the most tuneful and respected punk outfits around. There’s a reason, too, why you have heard Hard Times songs throughout 2011 – they’re great, catchy, punk rock tunes. The subject-matter is standard Social D. fare – Mike’s stories about how he’s messed up his life – but it’s still a terrific record. If you don’t like your stuff as hardcore as me, Social Distortion is a safe alternative: there’s blues here, rockabilly, punk and even a bit of country feel. A keeper.
3. Eddie Vedder – Ukelele Songs: It takes a lot of balls to release a record made up entirely of a hard rock legend singing along to the ukelele. I mean, Pearl Jam’s lead singer? With ukelele? But he pulls it off. With just about anyone else, it would have smacked of self-indulgence, or worse. But Vedder – who, along with Pearl Jam, is an artist before he is an entertainer – draws you into it, creating a feel that suggests it’s just you and him, and no one else. If you close your eyes, it’s as if he’s sitting on the end of his bed in his room, playing and singing, while you lay on the floor and listen. A huge acheievement, this.
4. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake: I’ve interviewed plenty of smart rock’n’roll women over the years – Pat Benatar, Tori Amos and the Slits’ Ari Up – but Harvey is one interview that would be truly intimidating. Since the late Eighties, she’s been a genius-level musical innovator, one who musicians speak of with reverence. For me, her stuff pulses with menace – as in ‘Down By the Water’ on To Bring You My Love, which is the creepiest song since ‘Hamburger Lady’ by Throbbing Gristle. Let England Shake is, mainly, a compelling musical case made against war – and Harvey goes back to Gallipoli, no less, to do it. She is a bona fide genius, and remains intimidating to lesser mortals like me.
5. Rise Against – Endgame: Grudgingly, I went to see them at Edgefest this past Summer with Lala. To me, the fact that they were headlining at a rawk’n’role festival out near Toronto’s airport – sponsored by a bunch of big multinational corporations, no less – signaled the end was nigh. How could the finest punk band to emerge from Chicago since Naked Raygun agree to such a thing? The drunken jocks stumbling around us made my mood even darker. But when Rise Against finally took to the stage to play a lot of what is on Endgame, they restored punk rock faith: they’re just as passionate, and as committed – about the environment, about peace, about social justice – as ever. And the fact that a lot of the drunken jocks knew every lyric, and were singing along, gave me some small measure of hope. Perhaps we’re not all doomed, after all.
6. Mumford and Sons – Sigh No More: They’ve gotten too big, too fast, and I suspect their sophomore effort will be a case of lunch bag letdown. But this, honestly, is a powerful, heart-felt folky-rocky record, one which will stand the test of time. I detest award shows, but I was amused to see the Brit band receive a Grammy nomination for ‘Little Lion Man.’ Wouldn’t it be a scream if they won, and got to play that amazing chorus onstage? “But it was not your fault but mine, and it was your heart on the line…I really fucked it up this time, didn’t I, my dear?” The album Sigh No More has sold like proverbial hot cakes, but it’s still a worthwhile addition to any snob hipster’s record collection. These guys have the spark, banjos and all.
7. The Strokes – Angles: They got pretty full of themselves, for a while there, and heroin (and ego) delayed their return to the Top of the Pops. But the New York hipsters are back, and with a record that should totally suck, but totally doesn’t. Like all the best big rock acts, the band hates the lead singer, and vice-versa – lead crooner Julian Casablancas actually recorded all of his vocals when the rest of the group wasn’t around, and only agreed to mingle with them for a few group photo sessions – but the tension makes for a great record. Lead single ‘Under the Cover of Darkness’ recalled their earlier stuff, and suggested that the album would bristle with the sort of Tom Verlaine-like guitar work that made Is This It so remarkable. And the album does bristle. They’re not done yet, the Strokes.
8. REM – Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage: They were everything to me, everything, when I first heard ‘Radio Free Europe’ circa 1984. I moved back home to Calgary for law school, and those first four REM records were the soundtrack to my life in those days. I loved REM not despite of Michael Stipes’ mumbling, but because of it; I loved them because Peter Buck wore his musical influences on his puffy sleeves, and in fact often played along with his musical influences (Robyn Hitchcock, the Replacements, Billy Bragg and the Eels). This is a compilation, but it reminds you – or should – about what a fucking brilliant band these guys were, before they went and lost the narrative. ‘Gardening At Night,’ ‘So. Central Rain’ and ‘Radio Free Europe’ are here, but I would have liked ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ and ‘Wendell Gee,’ too. Anyway: they went out a bit late, but the right way.
9. Urge Overkill – Rock’n’Roll Submarine: Their album Saturation was on continual rotation when I did the 1993 federal Liberal Party war room. So much so that my brother Marc Laframboise called our little office “saturation plaza,” which sounded right. Anyway, after a long, long absence, the mondo-weirdo Chicago band are back, sans the great Blackie Onassis (lost to drugs and, later, L.A.), and this record is as fun and as cock-rocky as their earlier efforts. They played the Horseshoe, a few months back, and Nash Kato and Eddie ‘King’ Roeser were front and centre, having a great old time, and seemingly not regretting any of the (many) lost opportunities over the years. Submarine is an unexpected gem, unexpected because I’d thought UO were no more. They’re back! Will an effective LPC war room ever be? Hmmm.
10. SFH – WDYHM: I don’t know if we’re still a band, some days, but our new LP – recorded over many painful months in the Summer and Fall of 2011 – is, for us, not as much of a total embarrassment as we reckoned. It’s coming out on vinyl and iTunes, soon, and it has a song on it that I wrote from Tim Hudak’s perspective on the province (‘Onterrible,’ which is what Hudak thinks of it, and would do to it). Anyway, you may think Why Do You Hate Me sucks, but whatever. We’re putting out 500 copies of the vinyl version, and that’s it. Here’s a demo mix of one tune that kicks off the record, ‘The Truth.’