Whenever I write a book, I kind of immerse myself in the subject matter. So, if I’m writing about Arab terrorism, like I did back in 1992, I don’t simultaneously re-read Slaughterhouse Five for the millionth time, because observations about chemical weapons, say, would have sounded a bit odd if the prose had Vonnegutian echoes. You know: “Another weapon of mass destruction. Another bombing. So it goes.” Likewise, I didn’t read a lot of upbeat fiction when I was writing Web of Hate, because my objective with that book was to rub readers’ faces in the grim reality of organized anti-Semitism and racism, and I wasn’t in the mood to cheer up anyone, myself included. When book-writing, everything – every book, every magazine article, every film I go to see – has to relate in some way to the subject-matter of the manuscript. (And, for those of you who want some advice about how to write and publish a book, here’s five tips, gratis: one, write every single day, without fai! l, and aim for at least 1,000 words; two, don’t watch TV, ever; three, marry a patient and understanding person, like I did; four, get a great agent, like I did; five, completely – and I mean completely – immerse yourself in the stuff you are writing about.)
Thus 2004. Apart from working, being a Dad, being a husband, and dealing with the loss of my father in June, my principal focus in the past year was Fury’s Hour, my little book about punk that Random House is publishing in August. What the year actually wasn’t: blogging, tormenting conservatives, baiting the Gomery Pyle Commission and Paul Martin’s B-team – those things were occasional amusing diversions, but not particularly time-consuming or ever hard to do. Mostly, I went to punk shows, I read books about punk, I listened to tons of punk music, and I interviewed dozens upon dozens of punks, young and old. 2004 was the punk year, more or less.
So 2004’s Top Ten albums list is, necessarily, affected by that. The only stuff that I regularly listened to, apart from punk, was old reggae – and reggae, as every true punk knows, is the music that is the alternative punk soundtrack (cf. the Clash, Stiff Little Fingers, the Ruts, the Slits, and so on). I could apologize, I guess, for the fact that punkish sounds dominate the list, but I won’t. As a punk (or aging punk) would say: it’s a free fucking web site, and you get what you pay for, etc. Make your own web site if you don’t like this one.
Here’s this year’s winners:
1. JOE STRUMMER AND THE MESCALEROS, Streetcore – London Calling came out at the end of 1979, remember that? And, when the doughheads at Rolling Stone called it the best rock’n’roll album of the 1980s, Joe Strummer (like a true punk) didn’t say thank you. He said: “But it was released in 1979.” I remembered that, and grinned, when I decided to be a doughead, too, and christen Joe Strummer’s last record – released in the latter part of 2003, and obtained by me in the last few days of 2003 – the best album of 2004. Not because the former Clash frontman died, too young and too soon, on December 22, 2002. Just because it is a extraordinary record that is a testament to Strummer’s genius: funny and sad, rockin’ and slow – and passionate from one end to the other. The highlight, for everyone, is his take on Marley’s ‘Redemption Song,’ which is better than the original – and which I still cannot listen to without getting misty-eyed. God bless you, Strummer.
2. BAD RELIGION, The Empire Strikes First – For not a few people, the George W. Bush years are a dark time: when selfishness, xenophobia and militarism are in the ascendancy – and when restraint, tolerance and respect are seen as symptoms of weakness. In an empire as fiercely illiberal as Bush Junior’s United States, it takes a lot of guts to be as fiercely liberal as Bad Religion, but they are. In their two decades of existence, the leading SoCal political punk powerhouse have rarely been as focussed as they are on this record: in every groove, TESF rages against the Bush Administration – and all of Bush’s proxies – with an intensity that is astonishing. In fact, if you ask me (and you have)The Empire Strikes First is one of the best punk albums of all time. Along with Strummer’s final effort, this is the one I listened to the most last year. Fucking amazing.
3. GREEN DAY, American Idiot – Until late this LP came out, and until a lot of friends hectored me into giving it a spin, I hadn’t listened to Green Day in a long, long time – something like a decade. After Dookie (or maybe because of Dookie) they seemed to lose their way. They were a tight little punk-pop threesome, sure, but did they actually believe in anything? I mean, even Blink had a raison d’etre – to wit, titties and penis jokes. But Green Day, who clearly possessed some smarts, were decidedly lacking in a mission statement. And then along came George W. Bush – the guy who has energized and revitalized the punk movement more than anyone before or since (even if he is wrecking the free world). Punks despise and loathe Dubya, and Green Day is no exception: on this record – mistakenly referred to as a “rock opera” by critics who hanker for nine-minute songs played by dinosaur rockers – Green Day kick the living snot out of the U.S. President, but never shirk their obligation to simultaneously crank out rockin’ tunes. They may be geriatric punks, but Green Day haven’t sounded this alive in years.
4. THE HIVES, Tyrannosaurus Hives – The members of Shit From Hell made a pilgrimage to see these dandified, fourth-generation Swedish punk rockers at the Phoenix this Summer and – even before the requisite river of Labatt product was inhaled – the verdict was unanimous: “The Hives are the best fucking live performers in rock’n’roll. They are rock gods.” And they are, truly. While Tyrannosaurus Hives isn’t a jaw-dropper, like their last waxing was, it’s still blistering, ballsy, wall-to-wall punk rock. And, like their spiritual punk grandaddies, the Ramones, the Hives sound dumb – or that’s what the uninitiated think, anyhow. But the rest of us (and those of us who were at the Phoenix that night), know that actually writing tunes this catchy, danceable, tight – and, occasionally, dumb – is a lot of hard work. And smart.
5. ELLIOTT SMITH, From a Basement on the Hill – I fucking hate the fact that he killed himself. I hate it. As with Kurt Cobain, or Ian Curtis, or whomever, it always leads to the same old shit: soulless ghouls churning out boxed sets and merch to cash in; 10,000 word purple-prose retrospectives in corporate rock magazines like Rolling Stone; and – worst of all – a bunch of new “fans” who actually believe the artist’s suicide validates, and improves upon, the artist’s work. That it adds meaning, somehow. Here’s the truth: as with Cobain, as with Curtis, former punk rocker Elliott Smith’s suffered from depression made manifestly worse by drug abuse. And, as with Cobain and Curtis, his suicide is only meaningful in this way: he is no longer around to make beautiful records like this one.
6. COURTNEY LOVE, America’s Sweetheart – She’s become the Hillbilly Heroin poster girl, I know, I know, but back when she was still an actual musician – and back when she still had some Hole-era punk blood flowing through her veins, and not just Oxy residue – Courtney Love rocked out, maaan. As with Yoko Ono and not a few other women, Love’s music was derided by sexists as inferior to (or written by) her dead male partner. But this glossy solo album, like Hole’s Live Through This, demonstrates that Courtney Love is a gifted composer – and, even more, a lyricist with a singularly biting (and self-critical) wit. People can’t stop watching her destroy herself; me, I hope she sticks around long enough to make another great album like this one.
7. FRANZ FERDINAND, Franz Ferdinand – Like all elitist snobs, I hate shit that is popular; I despise popular culture because it is, um, popular. I admit it. Coolness, to me, is always in inverse proportion to units sold. If a few million people like what you are doing musically, the chances are excellent that you suck. The exception that stomps all over said rule: Franz Ferdinand. Take a quintet of arty, skinny Glaswegians named after a World War One archduke; mix in copped Buzzcocks and Flop riffs; season with an ambiguous sexuality; and – voila! One of the year’s best-selling and best-sounding albums. Pretty much every cut here – and not just the hits, like the ubiquitous ‘Take Me Out’ – is terrific. They’re too popular, is FF, but I still listen to them more than I care to admit. File under guilty pleasure.
8. YEAH YEAH YEAHS, Fever To Tell – All of it is great, all of the composition is unique and creative and smart, just like on the last one. But if you must hear one thing before you die, make it Karen O singing ‘Maps.’ My God, what a song. What a voice.
9. VARIOUS PUNKS, Give ‘Em the Boot – Other year-end list-makers may shy away from compilations, but not me! This Hellcat punk-ska sampler can be yours for only about six bucks, but it’s worth plenty more. Where else can you find unreleased Rancid or Strummer songs – along with ooky-spooky rockbilly outfit Tiger Army, or great stuff by the Dropkick Murphys and Hepcat? There’s a reason why Strummer selected Hellcat to put out his Mescaleros-era stuff: it is a label with integrity and soul to spare. Buy this sampler now – and DON’T DOWNLOAD! The artists herein can ill-afford the lost income.
10. THE HOT NASTIES CD, The Hot Nasties – Er, just kidding. But if you want to buy one, contact firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll sell ya one, okay?
Happy New Year, punk rockers!