Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Look Back: The Best Music of 2010

2010 was one of the best years of my life. I fell in love, stumbled upon the greatest summer job that I could ever have asked for, and was graced by more unforgettable moments than I could ever fit into the space of this (already lengthy) blog post. As far as music was concerned, I think 2010 was a good year, if not a great one. I spent much of the summer listening to playlists, mixtapes, or older music (the back catalog of number-one-slot-winner Chad Perrone, which includes a few stellar records with his former band Averi, pretty much dominated the first few months), and that meant that, while there were many brilliant life moments for me in 2010, many of them were not actually accompanied by albums on this list. Still, what 2010 lacked in emotional connections, it made up for in pure eclecticism. The slate of records below is the most versatile and illustrious I have ever recorded as my personal favorites: the top ten alone ranges from a complete unknown independent singer/songwriter to the solo record from one of music's most recognizable frontmen, from emo/alternative legends to indie rock superstars, and from a platinum selling pop-country songstress to hip-hop's most flawed and fascinating figure. In other areas, the music that I listened to the most represented a full-bodied enthrallment into the career and work of Bruce Springsteen (who himself re-issued 1978's Darkness on the Edge of Town, with a slew of b-sides), and this list boasts more Boss-indebted acts that I ever again expect to see in a single year. Looking back, there were albums that lost ground, albums that gained it, and records (the top three) that remained as important to me as I expected they would.

1. Chad Perrone - Release

I’ve spent the better part of the past decade looking for music that connects to me in a personal way, music that appeals to my heart first and foremost. It’s obvious that all of my favorite albums are made up of great songs (in my opinion, anyway), but they’ve also played as soundtrack for some pretty unforgettable times of my life, whether they were personal crises or simply the trials of growing up and trying to figure out who I wanted to be. Two summers ago, just as I was falling in love for the first time, this record came into my life. When I had to go back to school and was forced to do the long distance relationship thing (and to work a job I hated during a semester where everything I’d loved about college the year before seemed to evaporate into thin air), this record hit me like a ton of bricks. Perrone sings about getting older, about moving on from things that once meant the world to us, whether they be places or relationships. He sings about love found, lost, broken and unrequited, and he sings about the pain of separation, and all of those things felt comforting to me. When I heard his desperation on “Under Different Circumstances,” it was like I’d written the song myself about my own experiences: I can still feel every single word he belts out in that song, after hundreds of plays. And “Here For Good,” where he writes about his hometown and his friends who he’s had to say goodbye to, that song collided with me in a year where my best friend in the world packed up and moved to New York, where my hometown started to slip away, and where high school seemed no more than a distant memory. As I drove towards Kalamazoo at the end of that summer, it was this record I listened to, and it cut to the core of me. I was driving towards the place that was supposed to be teaching me what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, but I was driving away from the person who I knew I wanted to spend it with with. By the time the heartbreaking “So This Is How It Ends” hit, I was in tears, drowning in uncertainty, despair, and love: every time I listen to this record, that whirlwind of emotions captures me again, somewhere between the tremendous hooks, the heart-on-your-sleeve lyrical content, and Perrone’s unparalleled vocal prowess, and I can’t help but get choked up.

Key Tracks: “Under Different Circumstances,” “The Walking Dead,” “Anything or Anyone”

2. Jimmy Eat World - Invented

It’s still hard for me to separate Invented from the ridiculous anticipation I laid upon it leading up to its release. Jimmy Eat World, perhaps even more than Butch Walker, is a band that I have an idealistic approach to. My most definitive times listening to them undoubtedly came with Futures, a record that changed my life (and some ways, saved it), and every time a new JEW record comes along, I have hopes that it will make me feel the same way I did in the fall of 2004. Invented was the closest they’ve come. It was hyped by some as Futures Part II, and so of course, I had a picture of it in my head that the real thing couldn’t possibly match. I wanted it to be the soundtrack of my life, I wanted it to top Futures, I wanted it to be the record that would skyrocket into my all time top five and the one I’d want to feel again, years after the fact. Invented wasn’t that album, but it was still a damn good one, full of great songs that draw comparisons to every era of the band’s career, and despite the fact that I never had the kind of vast personal connection to it that I formed with Futures, it’s still a record I could listen to on any day and be impressed by. After all, have guitars ever sounded as big as they do on “Evidence”? Has Jim ever been as innovative lyrically as he is on songs like “Cut,” where he sings from a female point of view? And does the one-two punch of “Invented” and “Mixtape” not stand in line with the band’s tradition of closing albums out in epic fashion? All told, this is a truly spectacular album, probably their most consistent to date, and the fact that it doesn’t quite live up to their best work says more about the immense love I have for the band than it does for any weakness in their latter day music.

Key tracks: "Heart is Hard to Find," "Invented," "Mixtape"

3. Butch Walker - I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart

Butch Walker has been my mainstay favorite artist ever since I first heard his 2004 masterpiece Letters, and anytime an album of his turns up, it’s a guaranteed album of the year contender. Since the power-pop infused break-up songs that fueled Letters, Butch has adopted Bowie-esque glam-rock (The Rise & Fall...) and plentiful folk and classic rock influences (2008’s fantastic Sycamore Meadows). In 2010, he made this record, which I now regard as probably his weakest full-length: it still landed in my number three slot. Butch, traditionally a solo writer, turns to his bandmates in The Black Widows (think Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers or Elvis Costello’s Attractions) for inspiration and musical ideas, and the resulting set of songs is both loaded with his fingerprints and strikingly different than anything else he’s done before. The folk influences hang around center stage here, with Butch taking his newly minted backing band into the realms of alt-country (album highlight “Don’t You Think Someone Should Take You Home,” “Canadian Ten”), country-rock rave ups (“She Likes Hair Bands”), and acoustic lullabies (“Be Good Until Then”).  He references Johnny Cash on the raucous “Days/Months/Years,” brings a requisite amount of twang into the near-anthemic opener “Trash Day,” and even did a tongue-in-cheek cover of Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” as a one-off iTunes single around the time this record hit the streets (a “joke” that actually got him – and his banjolin arrangement of the song – on TV with Swift herself during the 2010 Grammy Broadcast). But while his respect for the Nashville-scene runs deep, Walker has never been a single-style kind of guy, and he fills in the corners here with gorgeous splashes of Beatles pop (“Pretty Melody,” “House of Cards”) and stunning explosions of vocal harmony (“Stripped Down Version”) that almost make me want to forget that Butch has made better albums.

Key Tracks: “Don’t You Think Someone Should Take You Home,” “She Likes Hair Bands,” “Days/Months/Years”

4. The Gaslight Anthem - American Slang

After the brilliance of 2008’s The ’59 Sound, it took me a long time to truly appreciate the greatness of American Slang. I can still remember the day it leaked, over a month and a half ahead of it’s June release date, and coinciding perfectly with the final week or two of my freshman year of college. By all means, the themes of youth, fading and lost, should have fit perfectly with my mindset at the time, but as many times as I listened (and I played the album a solid dozen times, front-to-back, on that first day), I couldn’t find the same musical allure that ’59 had; I couldn’t find the desperation that had made “The Backseat” such an indelible closer; and I missed the Springsteen references, the constant worship of one of my all-time musical heroes. I wrote the record off, filed it off as disappointing, as repetitive and a bit boring, and put it away, robbing my summer months of what could have been a truly transcendent soundtrack. Months later, as December descended upon my and I struggled to come up with the initial version of this very list, American Slang came back to me. And for whatever reason, what many had declared a summer album for the ages only clicked with me as I drove through my snow-covered hometown, letting the tremendous guitar hooks of songs like “Orphans” and “Old Haunts” wash over me, glancing out across the ice-covered bay as I drove home with the melancholic strains of “We Did it When We Were Young” serving as soundtrack, or realizing, for the first time, how great it sounded to hear Brian Fallon adopt classic soul and Motown influences like he once adopted the E Street Band (“Bring it On”). Now, two years later, I can put on American Slang for a summer road trip, feel the title track’s hook and guitar lick pour out of my speakers, and know what people meant when they were writing about this record back around release time. That said, this summer album will always hit me the hardest in the winter, when it can really take me back to those days and nights where I first fell in love with it.

Key Tracks: “We Did it When We Were Young,” “American Slang,” “The Queen of Lower Chelsea” 

5. Brandon Flowers - Flamingo

The Killers needed a break after 2008, the year where Day & Age, their third record, inspired everything from viciously hostile critical assessments to a Rolling Stone Readers Poll which named it that best album of the year. My opinion on the album was somewhere in between those two extremes: I was disappointed, but not horribly so. I thought the album was high on style and low on compelling musical ideas, but that it still had some great songs. The band tried to blend the Springsteen-inspired heartland rock of Sam's Town with the synth-heavy, Vegas-centered pop that made Hot Fuss such a smash, but the combination was awkward. They were trying to please everyone, trying to do damage control on frontman Brandon Flowers’ hubristic claim that Sam’s Town would be "one of the greatest records of the last 20 years," and attempting to atone for all of the "sins" that Rolling Stone had cited in their 2.5 star review for that same record. The problem was that the band, Flowers at least, didn’t want to just go back to the successful formula of Hot Fuss: Flowers wanted to explore the Springsteen influence further, and that showed through in the fact that Day & Age’s finest moments (“A Dustland Fairytale,” “This is Your Life”) were essentially an evolution of the Sam’s Town sound. So when his band decided to take their long deserved break, Flowers turned around and made a solo album that is, among other things, his most consistent and concise work to date. There are certainly big moments here, moments like “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” and “Crossfire,” where the sound of Dave Keuning’s roaring guitar might have elevated the proceedings even higher. But more often, Flowers veers towards songs that would not have quite worked within the confines of his band, whether he’s re-writing Springsteen’s mournful “Point Blank” (on “Playing With Fire”), spinning subtle yet epic slowburners (“On the Floor”), or bringing in Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis for an effortlessly gorgeous duet (“Hard Enough”).

Key Tracks: “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas,” “Hard Enough,” “On the Floor” 

6. Cary Brothers - Under Control

When I finally discovered Cary Brothers’ 2007 LP Who You Are in the summer if 2009, it immediately skyrocketed into the upper echelons of my all-time favorite albums list. The songs had a vulnerable and yet powerful atmosphere about them, and they resonated with me so perfectly at the time that, for a few weeks, I listened to nothing else. That set of songs came along a week or so before my family had to put my first dog to sleep: those who have never truly loved a pet will view that statement as trivial, but for me, it was the first experience I'd really had with death. Her name was Jessie, and she'd been there for over 14 years of my life. Needless to say, since that was the summer following my high school graduation, I'd grown up with her. Back when I was a boy, my parents used to joke that Jessie was my "nanny," but she was really just a good friend, a constant companion that I could always count on being there, waiting for me when I got up in the morning or home from school every afternoon. The loss was devastating for me, and the delicate beauty of Who We Are became instrumental in getting me through the grief and onto the next chapter of my life - few albums have ever had a more personal place in my heart. The follow-up is nearly as good, and makes a case for Brothers as one of the best singer-songwriters in the game today. Opener “Ghost Town” rests in an unsettling ambiance of synths and pianos (befitting its title) before launching into a massive chorus, while “Belong,” with its crashing piano chords and an epic, chilling vocal build, positions itself as a unique and deeply expressive love song. “Someday” rests in the same new wavy vein that made “The Last One” such an irresistible number off this album’s predecessor, “Break off the Bow” shows that Brothers can write a hook as well as anyone, and album closer “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” is a haunting acoustic number that makes me want to hit play all over again, every time through. And always, Brothers writes with an honest and entirely palpable emotional strength, giving us songs that sound so autobiographical, so perfectly cinematic, that it feels like they could have soundtracked moments of our lives, even if those moments have already passed.

Key Tracks: “Ghost Town,” “Belong,” “Someday”

7. Taylor Swift - Speak Now

It only took a few short years for Taylor Swift to rise from heartbroken teenager to one of pop music’s most bankable icons. She made the transition on her girl-next-door demeanor, the strongly relatable aspect of her lyrics, and a knack for delivering an infectious mix of pop hooks and country twang that made her a crossover sensation waiting to happen. Swift didn’t escape the voyage unscathed though, battling through cruel encounters (the Kanye West VMA debacle), critical lambasting (comments concerning her performance at the 2010 Grammy Awards, where she also took the top prize), and premature tabloid relationships (an especially doomed fling with John Mayer), all of which threatened to tarnish her spotless, innocent reputation and image. All of those things and more serve as songwriting fuel on Swift’s third full-length, the aptly titled Speak Now, which notched over a million album sales in its first week back in 2010. And while countless music snobs would write Swift off as a bubblegum commercial princess, to do so would ignore the fact that Speak Now is a traditional country music record masquerading as a pop music flagship. The band sounds explosive and organic, the arrangements overflowing and blissful, and the vocal harmonies ring with life. It doesn’t hurt that the songs are incredibly well-executed, or that Taylor, who wrote every word and every indelible hook on the record, sounds more mature, forceful, charismatic, and emotionally centered than ever before. The result is one of the finest pop albums in recent memory, a record that is served equally well by rootsy twang (“Mine” and “Mean”), dance-floor rundowns (“The Story of Us”), rock ‘n’ roll kiss-offs (“Better Than Revenge”), emotional acoustic breakdowns (“Last Kiss”), pure school-girl pop songs ("Sparks Fly"), or pitch-perfect anthems (“Long Live”). Liking Taylor Swift may not be cool, but when the albums sound this good, who the hell even gives a shit?

Key Tracks: “Dear John,” “Last Kiss,” “Long Live” 

8. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Speaking of Mr. West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy earned rave reviews last year upon its release, along with perfect scores aplenty and album of the year titles across the board. It didn’t get those things because it was a perfect record: there are flaws here, as in any album, and if you look hard enough, you will find them, but you’d be missing the point. Fantasy earned such acclaim because it is a hip hop album for people who both love and hate hip hop, a rap record for people who have never enjoyed more than a few songs in the genre (like myself), and a pop album for an era where the label of “pop music” has been so utterly defaced and slandered that we’ve almost forgotten what it means. It’s all delivered by an artist who’s more of textbook rock star than just about anyone making music today, a guy who combines massive melodic hooks (“Dark Fantasy,” “All of the Lights”), indubitable flow and towering hubris (“Power”), and deeply humanized self-reflection (“Runaway”) to form a sound that nobody can touch. So while I wouldn’t call My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy perfect, it remains a record that defies criticism, one so universally appealing and so easily likable (in complete contrast to it’s creator, a complicated and flawed, but insanely talented individual) that it’s damn near impossible to stop listening to it once you’ve started. 

Key Tracks: "Power," "Runaway," "Lost in the World"

9. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

The Arcade Fire have always had a taste for the grandiose and the dramatic: how could they not after coming out of the gate with 2004’s Funeral, a loose concept record about life, death, community, and healing that stands as one of the greatest albums in modern music? It also spawned some of the best songs, like the infectious “Rebellion (Lies)” or, especially, the rousing, tearful “Wake Up,” with its expansive “whoa oh” melody and Win Butler’s massively emotional vocal delivery.  The band never quite reach those heights on their third full-length, but they put the same qualities to work elsewhere, constructing a record that aims to be a document of what it is to live, love, and work in the modern middle class. They do it fairly effortlessly throughout, melding Springsteenian lyrical themes with musical ideas that land somewhere between U2-sized stadium-sweep (“City With No Children”) and sunsoaked, California folk (“Wasted Hours,” “Deep Blue”). Themes coalesce on “Suburban War,” the album centerpiece where the tension in the narrative’s love story reaches a breaking point. “Choose your side, I’ll choose my side” Butler sings, as the song reaches its cinematic climax, a battle of instrumental ambition that ranks as one of the most musically striking moments of the year. That same tension returns as the album climbs towards its grand finale on the two-parter that is “Sprawl.” The tracks play out as a conversation between lovers, pitting Butler (“Sprawl I (Flatland)”) against wife and co-vocalist Régine Chassagne in “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains” as the two come to terms with their struggle. The former piece is a haunting acoustic number, almost harrowing in its grim atmosphere, the latter a disco-charged rave-up, reminiscent of the Bee Gees and Blondie in sound, but aligning more with Springsteen in words. The two singers both come to the same conclusion, that the boundless hope and opportunity of youth is gone, replaced by responsibility, bills to pay, stagnant suburban life, and dreams dead or dying. It plays like a Darkness on the Edge of Town or The River for a new generation, and although Funeral might be the better record, this one is arguably just as resonant. The fact that it picked up a surprise Album of the Year win at the 2011 Grammy Awards was just the cherry on top.

Key Tracks: "City With No Children," "Suburban War," "Sprawl II"

10. Valencia - Dancing With A Ghost

Shane Henderson has always been an immensely personal and visceral songwriter, from the shattering eulogy for a lost love that he delivered on When the Flowers Bloom (with side-project The Promise of Redemption) to the sadly nostalgic summertime hooks he was slinging on Valencia’s sophomore album, We All Need a Reason to Believe. Dancing With A Ghost may not be his best work to date, but it’s hard to find faults in this slick, short and sweet collection of songs that ranked as the best pop-punk album of 2010. Of course, we still get the bouncy, catchy pop-punk tunes that wouldn't have been out of place in some nostalgic teen movie ("Days Go By," "The Way"), but it's Henderson's shots at maturity that really resonate. The band shifts from Springsteenian-sized sweep (the title track) to rapidfire punk-rock ("Stop Searching"), hitting upon gorgeously executed power pop ("Spinning Out") and massive arena-ready anthems ("Losing Sleep") along the way. The latter, recorded at the end of a long studio session, rings the truest, with Henderson shredding what's left of his voice in one of his most powerful performances to date: "So if you checked the weather report, then why the fuck are we driving north?/You know we're headed into the storm to finish what we started," he sings: it's hard not to belt along with him.

Key Tracks: "Spinning Out," "Losing Sleep," "The Way"
11. Donovan Woods - The Widowmaker

Just as every year has its summer soundtrack, every year also has its “winter singer/songwriter" for me: in 2008, it was Bon Iver, in 2009, Michael McDermott, and in 2010, the title belonged to Donovan Woods. One listen to this record will leave no doubt as to why that is, since Woods possesses the kind of warm yet fragile voice that feels so comforting around the holidays. He’s also a damn-good songwriter, showing himself off as equally adept with bitter acoustic rockers ("Won't Come Back") and gorgeous, nostalgic ballads ("No Time Has Passed"). But even beyond the immediate standouts, this record is a profusion of gorgeously subtle melodies, fascinating lyrical perspectives, and the beautiful snowfall of Woods' guitar playing, accented occasionally with icy piano lines ("Jail"), lo-fi production ("Lord, I'm Tryin'"), or any variety of harmonicas, drums, banjos, or other folk music requisites. Due to it's strongly seasonal appeal, The Widowmaker will never be one of my most played records, but when I do throw it in rotation, it captures me completely. 

12. The National - High Violet
Matt Berninger might have the most distinctive voice of anyone in music right now, a dark, deep, charismatic baritone that no one could replicate without sounding like a caricature, and on The National’s fifth full-length, that voice proves to be both their biggest strength and their greatest limitation. There are songs here that Berninger’s voice can’t sell, songs that come across as mediocre or dull on record, but which have reached much greater heights in other hands (“Anyone’s Ghost," a relative throwaway, became unexpectedly haunting when Silver Swans covered it last fall). But when the formula works, the band hits home run after home run. Just listen to the gorgeous indie-pop of songs like “England,” “Runaway,” or “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”, the lo-fi crescendo of opener “Terrible Love”, or the straight-up anthem that is “Bloodbuzz Ohio”. Throughout each style, Beringer sings in a voice that is all at once warm, comforting, richly nostalgic, and deeply sympathetic. He imbues his lyrics (which often discuss the mundane, everyday struggles of normal people) with a knowing and relatable purport, taking us on an emotional journey that constantly stresses to listeners that they are not alone. I think that’s why The National have gained so much respect within the indie community: because more than just about any band out there, they’re a group of down-to-earth, everyday guys who people can see as their friends, their family...or even their self.

Key Tracks: "Terrible Love," "Bloodbuzz Ohio," "England"

13. The Hold Steady - Heaven is Whenever
When the high-rise vocal harmonies explode on staples like “The Weekenders” or “Hurricane J,” this album sounds like summer. Everything else about this band, about Craig Finn’s literate lyricism, about his bellowing vocal style, about the Springsteenian sweep of their earlier records (like 2006's career-defining Boys & Girls in America), or about former member Franz Nicolay’s sorely missed piano lines, it all evaporates under the epic enormity of this album’s best moments. Fans wrote it off and critics gave it a lukewarm response, but in my eyes, summer albums are rarely more palpable or perfect than this one. Just listen to the dusky slide guitar on opener “The Sweet Part of the City, the scorching guitar solo in “Soft in the Center,” the raucous clarinet solo in “Barely Breathing” – and yes, the expansive, anthemic hooks of the two aforementioned staples – and you will understand. These are just a few of the moments here that evoke that summertime atmosphere, that feeling of late night drives, sunset rock festivals, fireworks across the night sky, hangouts with friends, or spontaneous road trips down a sunburned state highway, belting along to your favorite songs. This album seeks to be a companion for each of those situations, and whether or not it’s the best that Finn and The Hold Steady have offered thus far is immaterial for that reason alone.

Key Tracks: "Soft in the Center," "The Weekenders," "Hurricane J"

14. Anberlin - Dark Is The Way, Light Is A Place

Anberlin took a lot of flak on this record, their fifth full-length and their second on a major label. I can recall the initial stream, where many fans immediately pointed out a repetitive musical and lyrical songwriting style that was a vast departure from some of their earlier work (one need look no further than Cities closer “Fin” to know why the criticism was at least somewhat warranted). Despite that, though, Dark is the Way, Light is a Place remains, for me, the best and most consistent album these guys have ever made. Brandon O’Brien mans the boards, bringing a slicker and more poppy studio sheen to the proceedings, but the commercialization suits their interests well, adding a requisite amount of punch to dark rockers like “We Owe This to Ourselves” and “Closer” – both haunting and hard-hitting  – and then giving the album’s highlight (“Impossible”) a U2-esque, stadium-ready atmosphere. The chiming “You Belong Here” is reminiscent of both Coldplay and Clarity-era Jimmy Eat World, with lead vocalist Stephen Christian (always an impressive frontman, both in vocal range and emotional aggression) letting his voice soar on an anthemic chorus. The album, in ten tracks, does what none of Anberlin’s records have ever done before, hitting perfectly consistent ground on a tracklist stacked with memorable moments, from the relationship that shatters on “Art of War” to the rousing percussion build-up of “Pray Tell,” all the way to the tortured slow-burning acoustics of “Down.” Then there’s “Take Me (As You Found Me),” an irresistible love song that recalls ‘90s radio rock ballads to a tee. And while the band has vowed to go back to a more aggressive style with their next album (called Vital, out this October), I’ll merely be hoping for a record with as many soaring hooks and confessional moments as this one.

Key Tracks: "Impossible," "Take Me (As You Found Me)," "Down"

15. Jesse Malin – Love It To Life

I've never felt as strongly about Jesse Malin, a New York-based rocker, as my brother has, and that remained true with the release of his fourth full-length in 2010. While he named this record as the second or third best of the year, I struggled to find the same appeal in it as I had found (after a time) with Glitter in the Gutter or The Fine Art of Self-Destruction. But that's not to say it's not a solid exercise: right from the ringing, Clash-esque guitar that kicks off "Burning the Bowery," this record is a blistering, raucous display of punk-rock attitude and Springsteen storytelling. Malin, with his unique vocal whine and throwback songwriting style, is basically a collision of a dozen different classic rock heroes, from Joe Strummer to Lou Reed, from Mick Jagger to Paul Westerberg, and while his songs aren't as great as they have been in the past (nor is there a Springsteen appearance to spice things up, like there was on Gutter's "Broken Radio), there is still plenty to love here. The wall of sound on "All the Way to Moscow," the ringing, Oasis-esque guitar solo on "St. Mark's Sunset," or the gorgeous melodic elegy of "The Archer" are just a few of the highlights. Occasionally, the muddy production hampers the effectiveness of the music, but for a guy who obviously idolizes bands like The Replacements, it almost feels like that aesthetic might be intentional.

Key Tracks: "Burning the Bowery," "The Archer," "Revelations"

16. The Alternate Routes - Lately
Equal parts Counting Crows and U2, these roots-rock throwback boys have released a trio of records, each with soaring melodies, nostalgic guitar solos, and raucous classic rock energy. Lately might be their best work to date, encompassing everything from bluesy jam band atmospherics ("Love the Way") to lilting folk balladry ("Raincoat"). The arena rock tendencies are probably the most satisfying though: the album opens with a towering intro track, a colossal swell of organ, guitar, and keyboard ambiance that builds until it collapses into album-highlight "Carry Me Home." Vocalist Tim Warren establishes himself as one of the most talented frontmen in the genre here, belting out a gorgeous, towering power-ballad that would be as well fit for stadiums as it is for late-night road trips. And the penultimate number, the shimmering "Two of a Kind," sounds like it could have been penned by Bono, circa The Unforgettable Fire. But even beyond their obvious strengths, the Routes acquit themselves quite well: "Just the Same" sounds like the kind of sunny alt-rock song that would have captivated the airwaves back in 1997 or so, "Tell Me Your Name" boasts an indulgent, shout-along chorus truly meant for a live show, and "Rocking Chair" has the kind of charismatic momentum needed to kick the album into high gear after it's mid-tempo overture. It's not a band or an album many people have taken notice of over the years, but revisiting Lately today, for the first time in months, I love it even more than I did the first time I heard it.

Key Tracks: "Carry Me Home," "Just the Same," "Two of a Kind"

17. Black Lab - Two Strangers

Ever since these '90s one hit wonders made a resounding return with 2005’s See the Sun, a collection of bright pop hooks and tortured moments of heartbreak, Black Lab have been one of the most confusing bands on my "favorite artists" roster. Since that album, they’ve churned out more of my favorite songs than just about anyone, hitting me at the perfect time with classics like “Weightless,” “Mine Again,” “Circus Lights,” and “Remember,” but they've never quite had the consistency with their records to truly become an all-time great. Still Paul Durham, the frontman and brains of the operation, has a knack for baring his soul in immensely catchy pop rock songs, and Two Strangers might be his most accomplished work to date. There’s something about songs like “This Ship Goes Down Deep” and “Love to Love You” that just hits me in the perfect place, whether they’re arousing memories of past summers, or simply connecting themselves to the place and time that I’m in right now. And that’s to say nothing about Durham’s strength as a pop songwriter, which shows itself in spades with nearly every song on this record, from the anguished rockers (“Start a Fire”),  to the yearning power ballads (“Always”), all the way down to the elegiac, acoustic torch songs  (“Say Goodbye”). Perhaps best of all is “The Pain is Gone,” which, despite a common chord progression and a couple lyrical cliches, thrives on the strength of Durham’s utterly passionate delivery. Perhaps that’s why I love these guys so much: even if they’re not the most original or innovative songwriters, they more than make up for that in conviction, and in their best songs, I can always see a piece of myself reflected back at me.

Key Tracks: "This Ship Goes Down Deep," "The Pain is Gone," "Love to Love You"  

18. Sara Bareilles – Kaleidoscope Heart

In 2008, when Bareilles hit the airwaves with the infectious “Love Song,” the hook masked what was, in essence, a fuck you to the singer’s major label. It was a tirade against an overly commercialized system that tried to wrest creative control out of her hands, and rather ironically, it became an almost ubiquitous hit. On the follow-up album, the label hands almost entire creative control over to Bareilles, and the result is a catchy, creative, and endlessly heartfelt collection of songs that expose their songwriter’s quirks and indulgences to a backdrop of slick, bombastic pop production. The hooks are effortless (see the single “King of Anything” or the proper opener “Uncharted”), but the truly breathtaking moments are the ones where Bareilles drops the tempo. Multi-tracked vocals create an expansive a cappella texture on the introductory title track, while “Hold My Heart” displays an achingly gorgeous melody and vocal, and "Basket Case" is a masterclass in acoustic resignation. But the centerpiece is a “Breathe Again,” an expressive piano ballad that feels like it has soundtracked a hundred separate late night drives for me. “Car is parked, bags are packed/But what kind of heart doesn’t look back?/At the comfortable glow from the porch/The one I will still call yours,” she sings at the outset: the imagery is perfect, the sadness palpable, and the nostalgic rivers that it inspires transform it into one of the most personal and powerful “leaving songs” I’ve ever heard.

Key Tracks: "King of Anything," "Basket Case," "Breathe Again"

19. The Tallest Man on Earth – The Wild Hunt

The Tallest Man on Earth (the moniker for Swedish singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson) is just about as no-frills as folk music gets. Throughout the majority of The Wild Hunt, his second LP, Matsson uses little more than his acoustic guitar, his accomplished lyrical ability, and his harsh, yet richly emotional vocal style, but there’s never a moment where the sound doesn’t work. Matsson distinguishes himself among the modern singer-songwriting crowd not by trying anything new, but by looking back: his music evokes the sound and fury of early Dylan records like The Times They Are A-Changin’ and The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, complete with the imperfect vocal whine and sparse, basic production. The result is a record that is predictable, but entrancing, derivative, but fiercely gorgeous. Songs like "Burden of Tomorrow," "King of Spain," and "Thousand Ways" crackle and burn with charisma, passionate energy, and palpable emotion. And when Mattson closes things out with a power ballad of all things ("Kids on the Run"), played on a broken down, out-of-tune piano, it sounds like the guy could actually be the voice of his generation. His 2012 return (There's No Leaving Now) saw him playing it safe and delivering this same brand of pretty folk, but I have hopes that he will realize what he is capable of next time out.

Key Tracks: "A Thousand Ways," "Burden of Tomorrow," "Kids on the Run"

20. I Can Make a Mess Like Nobody's Business  – The World We Know

Ace Enders is a prolific guy: in recent years, The Early November frontman has quietly built up quite the catalog, releasing (at least) one record a year across three or four separate projects. 2010's The World We Know is quite possibly his best work to date, an almost impossibly gorgeous record of tortured break-up songs that, at its best moments, hits with unparalleled emotive force. Opener "Sleep Means Sleeping" finds Enders joined by a haunting female voice, amidst an array of electronic sounds and orchestral sweep, while the dream-pop loops that open "Old Man" indicate the direction of the song, as Enders layers components on top of one another to create a stunning symphony of sound. I remember the first time I heard this record: I was home for a weekend around Easter time in the spring of 2010, and my year had, for the most part, been devoid of new albums or musical discoveries. I checked this out on a whim, and as I made the three hour drive back to school, everything about the record, from the personal power of it, to the all-encompassing production and interconnected flow, hit me like a bomb. "Telling Me Goodbye" hit the hardest: it's a farewell to a loved one, a confession of regret for taking that person for granted, and a stirring, heart-shattering reminder of the brevity of life. Enders gives himself over entirely to the emotional swell, and by the end of the song, I was in tears. The World We Know doesn't quite sustain that force throughout, but when it reaches that level, the inconsistencies just fade away.

Key Tracks: "Old Man," "You're Not So Good At Talking Anymore," "Telling Me Goodbye"

21. Wakey!Wakey! – Almost Everything I Wish I'd Said The Last Time I Saw You

I discovered Michael Grubbs back in the summer of 2008, though I can't exactly recall how I stumbled upon his music. He didn't have an album out at the time, but what was available (a mixtape of covers and a few odd tracks on his Myspace page) was fantastic. The two pieces `that hit me the hardest - a tune called "Brooklyn" and an earnest piano take on Foo Fighters' "Everlong" - made their way onto numerous mixtapes that season, and I made a note to keep an eye out for Grubbs and his Wakey!Wakey! project in following years. When he dropped Almost Everything... in early 2010, I snagged it almost immediately, and I wasn't disappointed. Piano rock doesn't get a lot better than the opener ("Almost Everything," with ringing keyboard licks and a bombastic string arrangement), but that's only the tip of the iceberg for a record that explores surprisingly eclectic territory. Take the breezy island-pop of "Twenty Two," the McCartney-esque slow-burn of "Dance So Good," or the ice-cold grooves of "Feral Love." That same versatility can also prove to be a bit frustrating, but when the album does settle into a groove (the final three tracks), the results are quite pleasant, like on the gorgeous "Light Outside," the yearning "Car Crash," or the jarring, anthemic "Take it Like a Man." It's not an album I revisit much as a whole, and the songs never add up to more than the sum of their (wildly varied) parts, but there are a lot of great moments here.

Key Tracks: "Almost Everything," "Light Outside," "Take it Like a Man"

22. Motion City Soundtrack – My Dinosaur Life

Motion City Soundtrack has a lot of records that are better than this one (including this year's Go, which is on a collision course with my end-of-the-year top ten), but while My Dinosaur Life suffers from inconsistency, occasionally generic modern rock tropes, and numerous grating choruses ("Delirium," "@!#?@!"), frontman Justin Pierre stumbles upon a few of his best songs in the process. "Her Words Destroyed My Planet" is how a modern rock single should sound, while "The Weakends" provides a bruising and scorching finale, "Worker Bee" comes roaring out of the gates with a ferocity that is impossible to forget, and "Pulp Fiction" is about as signature Motion City Soundtrack as songs come. On the whole, My Dinosaur Life is a manifestation of Motion City Soundtrack's more "aggressive" side, and while I prefer their poppier records (again, Go, but also 2007's Even if it Kills Me), the occasional trips to more subdued territory are welcome. Case in point is the existentially ponderous "Skin and Bones" - one of the band's best songs to date, and the highlight of a challenging and confusing, but ultimately rewarding record.

Key Tracks: "Her Words Destroyed My Planet," "Skin and Bones," "The Weakends"

23. Ryan Bingham & The Dead Horses - Junky Star

Country singer/songwriter Ryan Bingham had a big year in 2010. In addition to winning the Academy Award for Best Original Song (for Crazy Heart's "The Weary Kind," which appears as a bonus track here), he wrote and recorded and released his third-full length with celebrated producer T. Bone Burnett. And while Junky Star isn't his best album (that title still belongs to his debut, Mescalito), Bingham is still a troubadour worth watching. His gruff, weather-worn vocals, his deep, storyteller manner of songwriting, and his acoustic/harmonica textures fit very well alongside some of my all time favorite artists - Bruce Springsteen, Will Hoge, Bob Dylan, to name a few - while the other country music legends he cribs from - Hank Williams, especially - are well on display here. Bingham's greatest strength here is the lyrical (take the stunning opener, "The Poet"), but on haunting melodic numbers like "Hallelujah" (NOT a Leonard Cohen cover), or the raucous rockers (like "Depression," whose tempo and mood contrast its title and subject matter), he pens some of his best moments to date. "Direction of the Wind" sounds like it could have been on Blonde on Blonde - right down to the slide guitar intro - and "Lay My Head on the Rail" has a bluegrassy, Appalachian lilt that recalls some of the music Burnett snagged for the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Meanwhile, the gorgeous "Weary Kind" is as good as it's ever been, conjuring up images of the brilliant Jeff Bridges performance it energized in Crazy Heart. The truth is, nobody is making music quite like this anymore, and even if Bingham has better records (another one, Tomorrowland, drops in a few weeks), something about Junky Star has continued to captivate me over the years.

24. Guster - Easy Wonderful
Ever since they first arrived on the scene in the mid-90s, Guster have had a knack for writing catchy melodies and heartfelt songs that have had no trouble appealing to college radio DJs, frat-boy bros, and folk-pop enthusiasts alike. I first took notice of them when they scored a hit with “Amsterdam” back in 2003 or so, and I even lucked into seeing them live at my only summer at Interlochen Arts Camp. On their sixth full-length studio album, the band taps into the same kind of breezy, summertime pop hooks that have always been their cornerstone. They’ve morphed a bit over the years, shedding some of their acoustic sensibilities, as well as the emphasis placed on their unique percussion (their drummer plays bongos) and their capacity for rich vocal harmonies, but the fact that they are a different band than they once were hardly matters here. Easy Wonderful kicks off with a pair of indelible choruses (“Architects & Engineers” and “Do You Love Me?”) and never lets up. The songs never reach the emotional force of the band’s best work (their 1999 album, Lost and Gone Forever, will always be their magnum opus), and there’s nothing here as good as “Parachute” (the closing number from their debut album of the same name). But a few of these songs could have – and should have – been massive radio hits, and sometimes, a great pop album really is exactly what you need.

Key Tracks: "Architects & Engineers," "Do You Love Me," "On the Ocean"

25. The Morning Of – The Way You Fell In 

While the full record is something I only revisit once in a blue moon, the finest tracks here have become embedded into my summer soundtracks for every year since, and it would be a shame to leave that off this list. The Way You Fell In came into my life in the spring, shortly after my return home from my first year of college. I was searching for a definitive summer soundtrack in these songs, and I almost found it. The duel vocal style (between Justin Wiley and Jessica Leplon) doesn't always work, but when it does, the magic is there, like on the climactic one-two punch of "Bring Me Home" and "Heaven or Hell." Leplon occasionally oversings, and Wiley falls into generic pop-punk tendencies, but each gets one moment of perfection that shows off the massive potential inherent in this band. First is "The Time It Takes To Grow," a wistful farewell to summer love and possibility that rings with a gorgeous, dusky atmosphere. Wiley drops his pop-star charade, exchanging it for a more weathered, folk-driven vocal style, and the result is stunning. "I Know You Know" is almost as good, a crushing vocal tour-de-force from Leplon that makes all of her excesses feel forgivable. Two perfect songs don't make an album, but for this one, surrounded by a bunch of tracks that I like but don't quite love, they were enough to keep me coming back - even when records I liked more back in the day have faded a bit.

Key Tracks: "Jennesea," "The Time it Takes to Grow," "I Know You Know"

The Honorable Mentions

Bruce Springsteen gave fans an embarrassment of riches with The Promise, a collection of b-sides and leftovers from the Darkness on the Edge of Town sessions that stretches on for two discs. Since the songs are way older than the year, I never felt comfortable including it in the body of the list, but with songs as good as the title track or the alternate take of "Racing in the Street," it's easily a highlight of the year.

Hellogoodbye and Steel Train both released exquisitely well-crafted collections of pop-rock. Steel Train's finest songs ("Bullet," "Fall Asleep") landed it on my list the first time around, but I have only revisited the full album once or twice since. I wouldn't have felt right about splitting the two albums up.

Stars and LCD Soundsystem each released inconsistent works that, at their best, could easily have been with the upper echelons of this list. But filler material dictated that I had to leave them off.

I heard Locksley for the first time when they opened for a pair of Butch Walker shows in May of 2010. Their album, called Be In Love, was made up of the same kind of Beatles pop that Butch traded in on his album (see above), and was one of the last records I had to cut from the list.

Kings of Leon lost a lot of their radio appeal with Come Around Sundown, an attempt to return to their roots in southern rock, alt-country, and Eagles-esque Americana that most critics lambasted. But the songs are catchy and soulful, and "Back Down South" might be the best thing they've written.

The Maine released a fun album of throwaway pop music whose finest moments ("Growing Up," "Inside of You," "Saving Grace") became big summer soundtrack staples, but whose whole was less than the sum of its parts.

Ray LaMontagne and Jakob Dylan both released stellar traditional folk albums. I never listened to either enough to merit them a place in the top 25, but perhaps I should make a note to revisit them.

The Rocket Summer released a bloated album of piano-driven rock music. I've never been a big fan of Bryce Avary's voice, but Of Men and Angels is undeniably well-crafted.

Matt White and Maroon 5 were poster-boys for catchy pop melodies and albums with a few emotionally striking moments thrown in for good measure. "Out of Goodbyes" and "Falling in Love (With My Best Friend)" were two of my favorite songs of the year.

And Band of Horses traded a lot of their hipster appeal for alt-country textures on Infinite Arms, but also soundtracked a lot of night drives for me along the way. I can't wait to see what they do or where they go next.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Yellowcard - Southern Air

*For the record, this is a review from Rockfreaks and was done on their 10 point scale, which I reference in the final few lines. I gave it an 8.5 over there, in attempt to be at least partially objective.

Hopeless Records, 2012
Four and a half stars

Last spring, pop-punk poster boys Yellowcard made a long-awaited return from a 3+ year hiatus. The album that did it, When You're Through Thinking, Say Yes, was a resounding comeback, a pristine collection of massive hooks, heartfelt lyrics, and summertime grandeur that I quickly took to like I hadn't to any previous albums from their catalog. It remains arguably the best record from a band who is responsible for some of the most revered albums in their scene, from their big breakthrough (2003's Ocean Avenue) to their striking return-to-form (2007's Paper Walls) following the dark and confusing Lights and Sounds. Only a year later though, they're back with another record, and once again, they're at the top of their game. The latest, Southern Air, seeks to be the culmination of everything the band has done so far, and quite simply, the result is a tour-de-force. It's got the sun-drenched atmospherics of Ocean Avenue, the ambitious arrangements of Paper Walls, and the intensely personal, autobiographical angle that manifested itself on the finest tracks from When You're Through Thinking...

Each piece of the puzzle coalesces perfectly over the course of Southern Air and its ten tracks. We get the traditional propulsive opener ("Awakening"), the road-trip ready summer anthem (appropriately titled "Always Summer"), and the tearful penultimate ballad ("Ten"). In between, frontman Ryan Key and Yellowcard do pretty much exactly what you'd expect them to do: violinist Sean Mackin flits in and out of arrangements, dominating the texture with swift arpeggiations, Longineu "LP" Parsons beats his drums with rapidfire intensity, Ryan Mendez builds a wall of electric guitars that make each song sound appropriately massive, and Ryan Key keeps the whole thing going, delivering arguably his catchiest, most relatable, and most consistently great set of songs to date. Ever since Lights and Sounds received a beatdown from both critics and fans in 2005, Yellowcard haven't strayed too far from their comfort zone, and that remains true here. Songs like "Surface of the Sun" and "Sleep in the Snow," as enjoyable as they are, could have fit easily on any of the band's other records, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. This is a band who do what they do and do it well, always delivering stellar collections of summer soundtrack worthy pop rock that will appeal to the fans who have followed their career from the beginning. Furthermore, their songs, especially on this record and its predecessor, resonate with me on such a personal level that writing them off for a lack of creativity would be missing the point: innovation, for a band like this, comes second to pure pathos appeal, and they've got that second bit in spades.

Perhaps it's not so surprising then that the best thing about Southern Air is that it's coming along at the perfect time. These are the kinds of songs that you play as the sun goes down on the last nights of summer, the songs you blast in the car as you drive away from your hometown, from old friends, or from one chapter of your life into the next, belting along to every note at the top of your lungs. "I left home but there's one thing that I still know/It's always summer in my heart and in my soul," Key sings on the record's first single. It's a simple line, but it defines the meaning of the album: the stories here have an air of finality to them, a feeling of climactic build that previous records just haven't been able to sustain throughout, and that's why it's Yellowcard's greatest accomplishment to date. Case-in-point is "Here I Am Alive," the purest pop song the band has ever written, and bearing one of their most irresistible hooks. "They say you'd don't grow up, you just grow old/It's safe to say I haven't done both," Key belts in the chorus, and for a generation of fans who fell in love with music when they turned on the radio and heard "Ocean Avenue" for the first time, the line echoes like a battle cry. It's been eight or nine years since that song and album become a definitive summer soundtrack for thousands of teenagers, and in that time, we've all grown up: we've moved on, we've faced triumphs and tragedies and everything in between, but for a lot of us, that album has remained important. I still make a point of playing "Back Home" every year on the last night of summer, as I bid farewell to my home and everything the season has meant to me, and the songs on Southern Air come from that same place; some things just never change.

But while Southern Air remains grand throughout, it crosses over to transcendence with its final four tracks. Album highlight "Telescope" is a heartfelt eulogy for an inspirational loved one. Key gives one of his best vocal performances to date, showcasing more vocal power than ever before, and delivering the song's personal subject matter with an impassioned drive. A relationship fractures on the frantic "Rivertown Blues," where LP's vicious drum fills get one of their most impressive showcases to date, and "Ten," the album's emotional peak and its only ballad, is an ode to a lost child and the father-son relationship that the narrator watches evaporate right before his eyes the moment he hears about his girlfriend's miscarriage. "You would be out in the sun until it was gone/You would be watching Star Wars with your PJs on/You would be playing tunes on your first guitar," Keys cries, over a gorgeous bed of folky instrumentation ranging from sweeping string sections to wistful steel guitar accents. It's both a sobering rumination on loss and a nostalgic look back at childhood, at the moments from our youth that we carry with us forever. And while the overwhelming sentiment may turn some listeners off, I'd argue that, for this record, that's a large part of the point as well.

Just like I spend every April and May looking for the perfect album to inaugurate my summer, I generally find myself in a similar position come August, searching for the ideal send-off. Southern Air is that album, but it's also so much more: it's a record about family, about loss, about youth and how it fades away, and about striking out towards a new life-chapter. As the sun begins to set on my last summer as a college student, I can hardly explain how much those messages - and the songs that carry them - mean to me. "The future's coming on," Key proclaims during the album's title track and grand finale. "And after living through these wild years and coming out alive/I just want to lay my head here, stop running for awhile." It's hard to think of a more perfect way to sum up the album or a more apt description for exactly how I am feeling as the weeks dwindle and the sunsets tick down to a change. And while, on initial listen, the song might not have quite the climactic force of the band's previous finales, bombastic and grandiose climaxes like "Be the Young" and "Holly Wood Died," after twenty times through, I wouldn't have it any other way. It's the perfect cap to a damn fine album, Yellowcard's best and most singularly meaningful record to date, and every time I listen, I love it more. I'm trying as hard as I can to be objective with the score below (because as good as I think this album is, it won't win win any new fans, for the band or for the genre), but to me - with how this band has grown with me and with where I am in my life right now - it's a perfect 10.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Glen Hansard - Rhythm & Repose

*A few weeks ago, I was invited to join the staff over at AbsolutePunk, one of the biggest rock/pop-punk sites on the net, and home to a vast fan community and a very active discussion forum that I've been a part of for years. The offer came in response to my Gaslight Anthem album review (here), and needless to say, I was flattered and excited about the opportunity. This is the first of many reviews I will be writing for them.

ANTI- Records, 2012
Four stars

It was hard not to love Once, the 2007 musical film that starred folk duo The Swell Season (Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglová) and spawned the massively popular, Oscar-winning theme song “Falling Slowly.” For me, that film was the most personal piece of a tremendous year in film and music, and right from the first frame, I was enraptured. I can still see that scene in my head, a simple opening cut that centers upon Hansard himself, strumming his guitar in the middle of a Dublin street, crooning softly at first, and then suddenly exploding into a fireball of visceral emotion. Five years later, that song, “Say It To Me Now,” remains the most representative slice of Hansard’s discography: honest, heart-on-your-sleeve folk that feels calm, right up until the moment its singer lets loose completely. Since Once made him into a borderline folk superstar, Hansard has only made one other record (2009’s Strict Joy), but his music and his character have also lent themselves to a Tony award-winning musical (the Broadway adaptation of Once swept the awards in June), and he’s practically become a household name.

But the fame hasn’t come without a price: brought together by the songs and the honesty of their onscreen portrayals, Hansard and Irglová fell in love for real, a romance that was put to the test by a grueling world tour, and one that listeners could hear fracturing, in real time, on Strict Joy. The two held their artistic partnership together regardless, not willing to sacrifice the intense and intimate musical connection they have shared, but if the songs on Rhythm & Repose are any indication, the ghost of what was – and what could have been – still wears on Hansard.

Hansard has been in the game for over 20 years: he served as frontman for Irish folk-rock act The Frames before joining up with Irglová in 2006, but even with nearly a dozen albums under his belt, he’s never released anything on his own until now. The result is one of his best albums to date, fueled by regret and lingering heartbreak, and hits every cornerstone of the sound that audiences fell in love with during Once. In spirit, Irglová is still here too, lurking in the dark crevices of the most bombastic moments or coming to the forefront during the sparsest ones. The haunting opener, “You Will Become,” is a dedication to her and to the love the two shared together, and it serves as an entrancing hook for an album that never lets go. “We talked about talk of a gold ring/When you brought me one step closer to the heart of things,” Hansard sings during the song’s second verse, reminiscing about his lost relationship with a woman who is now married to someone else. It’s strikingly restrained, almost minimalistic in scope, but it hits hard regardless; it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Hansard’s music has always been balanced between bruising emotional crescendos (“Leave”) and frail moments of heartbreak (“In These Arms”). Here, he opts mostly for the latter, building an album on atmosphere and mood rather than on emotional fireworks. That’s not a bad thing, since it lends a deliberate pacing to the record that has been absent on previous efforts, allowing Hansard to build slowly to the grand emotional peaks. Producer Thomas Bartlett wisely keeps the focus on Glen’s vulnerable voice, but he never allows Rhythm & Repose to become a simple voice-and-guitar exercise either, drenching songs in ambient instrumentation that only make them more magnetic. A repetitive electronic blip plays through “Talking with Wolves,” while faux-organ chords provide the context for “Races” before drums and banjo enter halfway through to flesh things out. Hansard and Bartlett fill in the rest of the gaps with cold piano lines, organic backup vocals, subtle string sections, and even blistering guitar solos. All of it combines to turn Hansard’s slow-burn songwriting into spectacle, giving songs like the George Harrison flavored “Maybe Not Tonight” (complete with a sweeping slide guitar) or the jazz-tinged pop of “Love Don’t Leave Me Waiting” their heartbeats.

But while the care Hansard and Bartlett took in the studio is evident, the best moments on Rhythm & Repose would stand up equally well in their barest, most stripped down format. We watch a relationship dissolve before our eyes on “What Are We Gonna Do,” set to a backdrop of sparse acoustic chords and a haunting dance of strings, and when a female vocalist joins Hansard for the final verse, it’s the ghost of Irglová that immediately comes to mind. “What are we gonna do if that fire goes out?” asks the song’s conclusion, where Hansard’s wounds still feel fresh. The same can be said about the few moments when he really lets his voice go, like at the conclusion of “Bird of Sorrow,” where broken shouts of “I’m not leaving” overwhelm the texture, or “High Hope,” whose climax is nothing short of transcendent. As Hansard’s voice begins to strain and crack, it takes me back to the first time I ever heard his music, to the cathartic emotive force of “Say It To Me Now” and the way it hit me like a ton of bricks. Aside from Damien Rice, there’s no one in today’s music industry who sings with such utter conviction, with such emotional investment, or with such reckless abandon, and it’s these moments that make Glen Hansard such a treasure. That they come in the middle of a record that ebbs and flows with love, heartbreak, restraint, regret, and resignation, without a single weak point, only makes me adore them more.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Jim Ivins Band - Everything We Wanted

Unsigned, 2012
Three and a half stars

Late last fall, I stumbled upon Late Night Drive, a solo EP from Virginia songwriter Jim Ivins. It was a beautiful, introspective collection of acoustic music that culminated in one of the best songs anyone wrote all year. That song was "House of Three," a viscerally emotionally ode to his mother and the times they shared together, and it's broken my heart pretty much every time I've listened to it since. Everything We Wanted sees Ivins back in the company of his band (a four piece, including his older brother on drums), and far more buffeted by electric instrumentation and pop production, but at its heart, the record is a very natural progression for him. Ivins, who has worked with the likes of Ace Enders, opened for bands such as Switchfoot, The Ataris, and Parachute, and listed artists like Matt Nathanson, The Goo Goo Dolls, and Third Eye Blind among his biggest influences, channels all of his musical experiences into a record awash with nostalgia, introspection, and big life issues, all to a modern pop rock sound that hearkens back to bands of the late '90s or the early '00s. Indeed, while Ivins and his band remain fairly underground today, the sound of Everything We Wanted made me wonder how the band would have fared a decade ago, when this type of surging, melodic pop-rock was all over the airwaves.

A bell-like guitar heralds the arrival of "Run," the sunsoaked rocker that kicks off the set and one of the many highlights therein. Ivins' vocals sound more full bodied and confident this time, replacing Late Night Drive's falsetto atmospherics with fist-pumping choruses and a more optimistic lyrical outlook. Pounding pianos accent the song's bridge, while a drum section and a distant vocal harmony dissolve the song and give way to the anthemic guitar sound that kicks off the next cut, "The Sight of Fire." Rarely do transitions sound this good or well planned, and "The Sight of Fire" actually ends up being a better song thanks to the extended lead in that "Run" provides. The song (also the first single), is a perfect showcase of Ivins' ability to wrap difficult subject matter up in pop sensibility. Late Night Drive embraced darkness and sadness more completely, in both sound and content, while Everything We Wanted is a heavily produced, muscular set up pop-rock songs that could easily end up on the radio, but bits and pieces of that darkness still creep in here. "The Sight of Fire" is a song about the debilitating effects of addiction, a fact that passed me by until the song's key line ("Cause it's funny how we kill ourselves/When we're trying to feel alive") hit me and made me pay attention. Everything We Wanted is a catchy and sonically pleasing record from the get go, but it's also extremely lyrically driven, and it became much more resonant to me when I really paid attention to that aspect.

Three of the songs here ("Run," "Rollercoaster," "It's Getting Better") have been re-recorded from Ivins' first solo album, and while there is a notable difference in lyrical maturity between these songs and the new material (especially with "Rollercoaster," where Ivins indulges in a few cliches, only to directly acknowledge that he's doing so), it isn't jarring. Ivins has gone on record saying that the duality of the songs and their content means to represent the journey his life has taken in the years since he started writing. Where "Run" is a song about feeling young, immortal, and limitless, and where "Rollercoaster" is an irresistible depiction of first love, many of the other songs on this record are coming from a man who has lost one of the most important people in his life and been battered by the world around him. In that respect, it's a record about growing up and coming of age, where the naiveté of those three songs gives way to songs about a person who understands that life really can get hard some times, but who is still fighting through and searching for the good.

But even as Ivins seeks to find himself in these songs, the ghost of his mother still hangs heavily over the proceedings. Never is this more evident than on the title track, which carries the record out in a moving and uplifting fashion. It's a song about picking up the pieces of your life in the wake of tragedy, and in that respect, it's really a sequel to "House of Three." Where the last EP ended with Ivins packing up his life and driving away because he couldn't face the grief anymore, here he's mastered that pain and is ready to move on. As the song floats through a couple of stunning verses and an anthemic chorus, carried along by the talents of his band and the pristine, radio-ready production of Pedro Aida (Carbon Leaf), he finally comes to the realization that life really does go on. And when he sings "I'm not dead yet/Now I'm finally alive" at the song's climactic moment, it's both a catharsis and a commencement to a new life. While most of my listening tends to revolve around full length albums rather than EPs, and while I do really wish Everything We Wanted lasted beyond its 23 minute runtime, these seven songs constitute a musical journey that is both relatable and fully formed, and the result is my favorite EP of the year so far; I can only hope that The Jim Ivins Band gets the attention they deserve for it.

Jim Ivins - Late Night Drive EP

Unsigned, 2012
Four stars

Virginia singer/songwriter Jim Ivins has been making the rounds in the music industry for a few years now, both as a solo artist and as the frontman for the Jim Ivins Band. He's opened for the likes of the Ataris, Parachute and the Rocket Summer, draws influence from Jon Foreman and Ryan Adams, and is buddies with scene hero Ace Enders: not a bad list of names to be associated with. His latest work is an EP entitled Late Night Drive, a terrific set of acoustic based songs with topics ranging from growing up, love (both lost and found), heartbreak and death, that will surely become the soundtrack for the night drives it's title suggests. Right from the first moment of the first track, when forcefully strummed guitar chords came cascading out of my speakers, I was reminded of City and Colour's album Sometimes. That record is still probably the saddest album I've ever heard, and from the very outset, Late Night Drive occupies the same territory of strangely comforting melancholia, though Jim Ivins bears less vocal similarity to Dallas Greene than he does to the likes of Chris Carrabba or Ace Enders himself. The opening track, entitled "Love's Like Snow," introduces everything, starting with a single guitar before the entrance of Ivins' soothing, falsetto laden vocals, and it's wintery, moody tone, sets the atmosphere for the album quite well. The exquisite "Riptides," is even better, showcasing some nice guitar work and one of the strongest choruses on the album, while bells accent parts of the song and add to the ambiance nicely.

The title track follows, this time with a synth line to accompany Ivins' strums. "What is it about the night that makes us think about the things we've lost?" Ivins sings on the chorus, with wistful and nostalgic delivery. Music often hits me the hardest on lonely late night drives home, after an evening out with friends or spent at my girlfriend's house: there's something about playing records at full volume, alone in a car on a dark road that makes them ring with clarity and come alive. The songs on Late Night Drive seem to come directly from that place, and that's something that hit me hard right away. There's a strangely meditative, healing power in drives like that, and that theme cuts through every song on this EP. "Twilight," the following track, comes from a very similar place. It's a mostly piano based number with a killer vocal melody and some of Ivins' most heartbreaking lyrics, born from a relationship at it's end. "Fighting with your present because it won't become your past/Memories are for suckers who couldn't make it last," he croons on the song's bridge, bolstered by some well-placed back-up vocals. The sparse acoustic atmosphere works very well for most of these songs, and "Twilight" is terrific as is, but I feel like there's a better song in there that doesn't quite make it's way out in this arrangement. There's potential for a truly epic, bruising build to that song, a crescendo that's not quite possible with this limited instrumentation and production. It's hard to complain about a song this good, but I would be thrilled to see it done in a bigger fashion.

Ivins saves the best for last with "House of Three," a viscerally moving number that serves as an ode to his mother, who passed away last year. The EP feels like a progression, like every musical and personal moment Ivins has had across the previous four songs have built to this one piece of perfection. Ivins gives his most emotional performance on the album, understandably, and it comes across in both his vocal performance and in his guitar playing, especially in the cathartic chorus. "I don't want to have my memories/'Cause I don't need reminding that they're all that's left until eternity," he states on the verse, looking back at a lifetime of glorious moments with a person who departed from his life far too soon. He considers driving away and trying to escape it all, but by the end of the song, he seems resigned to the fact that he's lost something that no number of late night drives could ever heal, and that the pain he is feeling will probably never fully wash away. Ivins is a strong singer and a songwriter, and it shows on every track on this album, but this one is simply in another class. It's probably one of the four or five best songs I've heard all year, and it would be a shame for Ivins not to get the recognition he deserves for it.

Late Night Drive
is a solid EP from a promising young singer/songwriter that I will most certainly be following from here on out. He writes relatable songs with heart and talent, and performs them with passionate emotional force. Ivins reminds me, in many ways, of some of my favorite artists ever, artists whose music came alive on the late night drives he sings about here, and although he's not going to make his way into their ranks just yet, his ability to evoke those thoughts in me is nothing to laugh about, nor is the fact that this EP closes with one of the most gorgeously perfect songs I've heard in awhile. I can only hope I hear a lot (or at least a few) more of those from him down the road.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Molotov Jive - STORM

Cosmos Music Group, 2012
Three stars

Sometimes epic, overwrought production can serve bands incredibly well: U2 almost defined the idea of arena rock in the late '80s and early '90s, not only by delivering towering choruses and heartfelt lyrics, but also by hiring guys like Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois to man the boards, guys whose knack for taking songs to the rafters (and beyond) are unparalleled. Coldplay has built a massively successful career out of channeling that tendency, packing their arrangements with such a vast array of sounds and musical ideas that they have to play live shows to a backing track. And meanwhile, there's The Killers, who burst onto this scene last decade by taking the influence of '80s new-wave and synth pop and merging it with the skyscraping hooks and production values of Morning Glory-era Oasis (or, on Sam's Town, Born to Run-era Springsteen). Needless to say, bigger has proved better for more than a few acts in modern music, and one need look no further than the tour receipts or album sales for the aforementioned acts to see that a massive sound is more likely to lure in large audiences than, say, a lone troubadour with raw production and an acoustic guitar.

But arena-sized ambition can derail bands as well: Tom DeLonge gave up blink-182 for a solid decade, making three oversized records with his side project Angels and Airwaves, a band whose depth of musical ideas never even approached the scope of their production. A similar thing happens to Swedish rock act Molotov Jive on their third full-length, titled STORM, an almost absurdly overblow spectacle of a record that constantly tries to sound huge...whether or not it has the melodies to make that sound work. But that's not to say that Molotov Jive isn't a talented band, that STORM isn't a solid album, or even that the production is a complete blunder: indeed, when the sound works, the songs are undeniable, like with the towering should-have-been-opener "Run," which possesses a shout along chorus, a wall of guitars (a la The Dangerous Summer), and a flourish of synth melodies that recall both '80s bands (the record is evocative of Depeche Mode throughout) and the post-millenial new wave revival (yes, The Killers) to pleasing effect. But just as often, that spacious, echoing production is shackled to songs that don't go anywhere, compositions that meander and search for melodies or hooks ("Take Me In Your Arms") or stumble upon grating ones ("Manhattan").

More frustrating is the vocal production, which surrounds singer and songwriter' Anton Annersand's voice in an almost comical amount of reverb, causing his every word not only to ring, but to actually echo for a few moments after he sings them. The effect is doubtlessly aimed at giving the band a bigger sound, but the actual result is almost aggravatingly distracting, and, for me at least, was almost impossible to get past. It doesn't help that Annersand's default setting as a singer is desperate earnestness, causing him to shriek, inhale, and almost cry out every note in order to heighten the emotional texture of the song at hand. I'm all for emotional connection, but Annersand's overwrought delivery is almost always aimed at breaking-point intensity, and as good as he can sound in that vein (the radio-ready "Friendship" is a good example of what happens when it works), it becomes exhausting over the course of the record. That said, when the band drops the tempo and Annersand sings the songs straight (and in a lower register) like on the climactic finale that is "Sleep Safe," or on the gorgeously resigned and electronic-influenced "Just Leave," the results are stunning. He has a unique instrument, giving the band an instantly distinctive sound (despite their obvious collection of influences), but he just needs to learn to save his emotional intensity for the appropriate moments.

It's almost not fair that Molotov Jive will instantly be compared to some of the biggest acts in modern pop and rock music, but that association also has its perks. At its best, STORM sounds like a welcoming bell, an announcement to herald an act with the talent and the scope to play in the big leagues; at its worst, it comes across as pale imitation of that scene. The songs the band has written here do generally merit the size and scope of production they attempt, so it's a shame that the finished product is a bit shoddy and mismanaged. With a giant like Brian Eno or Daniel Lanois behind the boards, these guys could have been filling stadiums; by all rights, the same thing should have happened with Sylvia Massy (whose resume includes work with Aerosmith, Prince, and Red Hot Chili Peppers), but the result is almost stifling instead. Still, these guys have a gift for the grandiose and the subdued alike, and while STORM only rarely reaches its high level of potential, with the right person behind the boards, they could go global.