Best of 2011: John Gentile's picksJohn Gentile's picks (2011) staff picks
Reviewer Rating: 5
Contributed by: JeloneJohnGentile (others by this writer | submit your own) John Gentile is a staff reviewer. - ed.
Oh man, I don't know about you guys, but I had a phenomenal 2011! This past year I won twelve million dollars from a Nigerian lottery, got married to Scarlett Johansson AND Hoopz from Flavor of Love, ended world hunger, rode aboard NASA's last shutt.
John Gentile is a staff reviewer. - ed.
Oh man, I don't know about you guys, but I had a phenomenal 2011! This past year I won twelve million dollars from a Nigerian lottery, got married to Scarlett Johansson AND Hoopz from Flavor of Love, ended world hunger, rode aboard NASA's last shuttle mission and got to punch Alex Trebek in his smug little face. Also, Star Trek: The Next Generation's Patrick Stewart called my cell phone to wish me a happy birthday! (He was two days late, though. Still, he made it up by singing "Happy Birthday" and instead of ending with "…And many more!" he proclaimed "Make it so!")
While 2010 had a huge number of new acts pushing punk in aggressive and interesting directions, for me, 2011 was all about the veterans. This year, the old dudes returned from long term absence (in some cases two decades) and just completely schooled the kids in how its done, mixing the classic with the unexpected. I guess when Keith Morris screamed "Live Fast, Die Young!" he didn't realize that punk CAN mature… and still retain a nasty edge to it, too.
Groundbreaking? No. A reinvention of the artist? No. Completely rocking? YES. On his latest solo release, Vincent does what he's been doing for 35 years and kicks out two fistfuls of blues-based, New York-style snapping punk rock. Despite that the genre has been run into the ground from mindless aping, Vincent is able to find simple, effective riffs that sound as fresh now as they did in 1976. Plus, he writes one hell of a mean "punk ballad," something we rarely see these days.
In the spirit of the original innovators of punk, Jeff Rosenstock continues to push BTMI! away from a standard template. Here, Rosenstock leans towards softer, Beach Boys and Weezer-ish melodies, foregoing screaming for murmuring. While it might be a little soft in some spots, underneath it all, the band is able to show that they can write solid songs, equally utilizing standard structure as avant garde wandering, be it in the form of boozed out shouting supplemented by Nintendo beeping or gentle cooing pulled along by open chords.
Integrity is getting weirder and darker. While they always had a grit to their sound, on the past few releases they've coated it in tar. That's why when Robert Orr's clean, power metal-influenced guitar picking is placed next to vocalist Dwid Hellion's growl-rumble, the band gets even weirder, and the contrast shows just how grim Hellion can be.
A + M Records
Mick Jagger, Dave Stewart, Damian Marley, Joss Stone and A. R. Rahman--it sounds like a lot to take in... and it is. Still, while the album may be a little cluttered, when the disparate pieces snap together, such as Stone and Jagger bouncing blues off each other, or Marley deejaying over Indian soundscapes, the group creates a genre that has never existed before through its utilization of genre stereotypes.
KRS-One and Bumpy Knuckles: Royalty Check
The past three or four years have found the Blastmaster releasing over eight collaborations with artists that didn't quite seem to “get” him (The Just-Ice and Truemaster releases notwithstanding). Because they come from a similar era of hip hop, KRS and Bumpy Knuckles aka Freddy Foxxx are the perfect yin to each other's yang, with the Teacha bringing in metaphysical musing with a hint of thug life and Foxxx bringing the street bangers with just a taste of conscious hip hop, all supported by modern beats propelled by a hefty 808.
The punk community could learn a thing or two from SCAC. While it seems that most punks think of country and bluegrass music as "I love God, my truck and 'Merica," SCAC, in their orchestra of banjos, organs, guitars and church choir quite directly say "God doesn't care about you and you are doomed." Heavy haunting from the heartland!
While a lot of punk elder statesmen have gone softer in their sound, Citizen Fish are as riled as ever, kicking out (English style) ska blasts of high energy, upbeat tales of loss of identity and conformity. The standout for sure is "Marker Pen," which paints a poignant tale of fighting the system from inside the system through a horn-driven chorus that could very easily fit on a Berry Gordy 45.
Following up 2010's Audacity of Hype, Biafra and gang come out gunning and thankfully, get a little weird. As per usual, Biafra attacks corporate greed through his high pitched satire, the band's thrash heaviness makes his attack seem ferrous instead of just angry. But, the real spanker is the group's cover a of a few Deviants tunes mixed together, where Biafra adopts an almost Colonel Kurtz-like tone and for the first time, lets us know, deep down, what makes Biafra be Biafra.
Although the punk concept record has been done before, never has a band created such a heavy, twisting, ambiguous story that spreads beyond the album itself into the band's own identity. While David Comes to Life might be a little long, the sheer mass makes it almost an immersion experience rather than just a series of thumb snappers. It might be the end of Fucked Up, according to various rumors and half-suggestions by band members, and if it is, it's fitting that they die just as their long running alter-ego David comes to life amidst cataclysm.
Zounds: The Redemption of Zounds
Simplicity has long been a hallmark of punk rock, but no one seems to quite harness the concept like Zounds. While their first LP in 25 years sounds modern, its classic in its punk meets post-punk clang. Plus, the lyrics of frontman Steve Lake masterfully explore complex concepts without seeming overwrought or heavy handed. This is what anarcho-punk should have become.
The Vivian Girls did their best to make me pick my favorite among them this year, but I won't do it, do you hear, I won't! As always, its interesting to hear a band's individual elements magnified on side projects. Here Vivian Girls vocalist/guitarist Cassie Ramone teams up with Kevin Morby of Woods to cut some AM radio/garage rockers that seem brutishly simple and delicate, but upon further investigation, turn out to be weird little pieces that work so well they seem normal despite their eccentricity.
While Cassie Ramone went for the raw, Viv Girls bassist Katy Goodman went for the refined. Goodman's ethereal music circulates throughout the record, rarely having definite points, but instead, existing as a haze of soft sounds, focusing on warm tones and soft cooing supported by Angelic pings and "laaaaa's." The melancholy that seeps throughout the disc makes the album feel like the minuscule moment between a horrible blow and gruesome wound with Goodman acting as the conduit between the two, as well as the brace. Drag my corpse to the celestial mead table, you ginger-haired Valkyrie!
This is the Vivian Girls' masterpiece. While their first release featured a sound that was as brutal as it was sweet, and the second featured the group expanding that concept to its limits, on Share the Joy, they advance light years beyond their former works. They mix shoegaze throbbing with girl group harmonies and abstract lyrics that are sometimes downright scary. No group is able to mesh the classic with the weird like this band… and they make it seems so natural.
In the past four years, STZA, the main writer behind SFH, has put out more material than he did in the preceding 10. On From the Dumpster to the Grave, he kicks up the energy two or three notches from the previous releases, and hearkens back to the ska days of his first touring band, Choking Victim. Dumpster is as joyous as it is despondent, wrapping tales of economic and social woes around jumpy beats that sometimes veer into metal or crust-punk grinding. Once again, STZA illustrates how no other band sounds like the ones he directs.
Lee “Scratch” Perry: The Return of Sound System Scratch
Following last year's Sound System Scratch, The Return of Sound System Scratch shows that the mighty Upsetter has seemingly limitless wells of unreleased material. While SSS featured some of the Upsetter's wildest experiments, RoSSS retains his innovative streak but places it in the context of alternate versions of previously released songs. We all knew Perry could cut out there unusual songs, but here he makes it clear he can be equally weird in standard song format.
What makes the Beastie Boys so singular is that although they know the hip hop rulebook forward and backward, they know when to break the rules too… and they break them a lot. On Hot Sauce Committee part 2, one of their tightest albums to date, they adapt the frame work of pre-RUN-DMC hip hop to a modern context, making their beats and playful lyrics seem as retro as they are futuristic. No other band has been able to re-invent themselves so many times but retain such a distinct core identity.
The Anarchy and The Ecstasy is the definition of a "grower record." Much more subtle than their past releases, World/Inferno switches their swinging ‘20s horns for meditative acoustic ballads and opera-influenced duets. It takes some time to sink in, but once it does, it shows that this might be the album, with all its quiet nuances and sly tricks, to define the punk-cabaret collective. Plus, the lead single, "I Am Sick of People Being Sick of My Shit" is not only the best song they've ever recorded, but it probably encapsulates a band in three minutes with more definition than a documentary could in 12 hours.
Mischief Brew came out gunning on this one. Now that the solo punk-acoustic guy think is as commonplace as street punk, Mischief Brew reacted by jacking up the energy of the band with hardcore guitar tones as fuel. All at once, it's a hardcore record, it's a folk record, it's a death-rock record. Not only does the band totally trash the place, but they cut their best lyrics to date all while retaining their hinky-jiky-junkyard swing. Pa-twing-THOMP!
When the Dwarves released …Are Born Again, they faced quite a challenge. Were they to release an album even more experimental than their previous release, they would face the risk of losing their identity. Were they to release a back-to-the-basics album, they would be regressing. Instead of faltering on either side, the band bound together their entire career, highlighting the deceptively complex themes that flow throughout their quarter century existence, and pulled the curtains away, evolving from envelope pushers to philosophers of the human condition, all to a rocking soundtrack that veers off center just enough to stay fresh, but to also stay listenable. Masterstroke!
THIS is how a comeback album is done, people. After having little to no communication with each other for almost 20 years, the fathers of crust punk reunited. But instead of aping their former selves, they seemed to ignore all expectations and cut their most experimental album of their career, all while pulling the listener through with their inimitable CHUG-CHUG-CHUG. This album is heavy as plutonium, as trippy as LSD and as timeless as the pagan gods who creep around the edges of this disc. If it really does take 20 years to cut a masterpiece like this, then sign me up for another tour of duty.
TOP 10 NON-ALBUM SINGLES AND EPS FROM THE YEAR
The Flaming Lips with Lightning Bolt: The Flaming Lips with Lightning Bolt
With the music industry on its death bed, the Flaming Lips have made the decision to get weirder and weirder both in song composition and delivery medium. Their collaboration with Lightning Bolt is their fiercest, and most discordant release in the past few years. But, as Wayne Coyne growls "I want to get high but I don't want brain damage!", with each refrain growing successively more distorted, the band’s recent connection to punk extremism and blippity boop bleeping makes sense.
Kill Life / 33: Split [7-inch]
Dwid Hellion screaming "Humanity! Jihad!" over massive hardcore chugging which dissolves into the sounds of chimps screaming before cutting to a 911 call where a woman describes her friend's face getting ripped off. 'Nuff said.
I wanted to hate this release so much. My preconceived ire which transformed into begrudging acceptance and then finally straight up thumb snapping is proof of this release's merit. Combining classic punk riffs with a mellow atmosphere and surf guitar makes this release as kicking as it is listenable.
OFF! convert a weirdo-soul classic into a banger sung by a weirdo-punk frontman. While the two genres couldn't be farther apart, the desperation and dedication to performance connects the two, showing both the strength of the original composition as well as OFF!'s skillful ability to put their stamp on almost anything.
So, Jimmy Cliff starred as Ivan in The Harder They Come. So the Clash wrote a song about it called “Guns of Brixton.” Later, Rancid covers “The Harder They Come.” Tim Armstrong of Rancid works with Joe Strummer of the Clash. Joe Strummer records a version of “The Harder They Come.” One of Joe Strummer's last recordings is with Jimmy Cliff. Then, Jimmy Cliff records “Guns of Brixton” with Tim Armstrong. OUROBOROS!!!! This release could make it on pedigree alone. But, even without all the background, it's a fantastic modern version of classic reggae. Also, on "Many Ships are Sailing" Cliff shows that he's saved some of his best for his 60s.
Forget about the gimmick that Personal and the Pizzas got started from. This release shows that while they are heavily informed by the Ramones and the Stooges, they've progressed from copying to be able to write classic songs that pull from the underlying spirit of the self-destructive legends, rather than from the sheet music. Few bands are able to pull from the energy and spontaneity of the ‘70s bruisers, and even fewer ROCK like P + the P's.
Melvins / The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion: Black Betty [7-inch]
The Melvins know that admiration doesn't come from pure copying. So, they take the pre-war blues classic “Black Betty” and jack it up so much that they crush through it in about a minute. It doesn't sound like Leadbelly, but the underlying dread, woe and fear heard in the back of Leadbelly's throat finds itself vibrating through Buzz Osborne's guitar strings.
Chuck Dukowski of Black Flag and Eugene Robinson of Oxbow recording unreleased Black Flag songs where Eugene screams over and over "I want to kill you!" while Dukowski pummels his bass. It is every bit as wonderful, scary and chaotic as its elements would suggest. This is animal-desperation spread across seven inches.
Ifrica is singular for multitudes of reasons. Namely, in modern dancehall, which is increasingly male dominated and sexual, on “Times Like These,” Ifrica neither uses her sexuality as a selling point, but isn't afraid to address sexual issues either. More so, her voice is one of the best, if not the best, in Jamaican music today, and even pop music, able to flit from a Ragga rusty mower rumbling to a broad, soaring call. Reggae, punk and music as a whole needs more women like this.
On Quadruple Single, Big Business takes everything that is great about the band, riffs that rumble like tanks, ghostly wails, inventive song structure and general wackiness, and condense it into a tight four tracks. While rapid-drone-stomping has been done before, Big Biz's approach, which is equally appreciative and self aware, trims the fat, takes the genre in new directions, and includes one element that most heavy bands forget: The songs actually sound good. Really, really good, in fact. On the final track the band declares "Guns! Guns! Guns are better than everything else!" If that's true, then firearms beat this release by the width of a hair.
TOP 5 RE-ISSUES OF THE YEAR
Queen: 40th Anniversary Re-issues Set One
So Queen DID have more rarities hiding in their vaults! Frankly, after The Game, the band didn't really cut a good album, despite the fact that all the ones previously had been mindblowingly amazing. Here, each album comes with about five bonus tracks from their prime in the form of alt-takes, live cuts and demos. It seems Queen was amazing even when they were just fooling around in the studio. I'll take what I can get.
For years I wondered what was all the big fuss about Raw Power. It seemed to have no dynamics and drearily monotonous. Then, I picked up the re-issue, which replaced Iggy Pop's ‘90s mix with David Bowie's original ‘70s mix. The difference is a clear as night and day. With the Bowie mix, the band stays as fierce as they were before, but instead of being covered in a sludgy wall of white noise, the band crackles with energy, running up and down the knobs like a carnival Hy-stiker. Plus, the bonus CD, a live show from 1973, is a boon to fans as it’s the ONLY good sounding live show from the band’s original run… and of course, the band is on fire.
In 1978 the Stones went punk and it might have been the best decision of their career. On Some Girls, the band tears through tune after tune with the energy of Johnny Rotten (and Chuck Berry) while retaining their genuine song craft forged from session after session of jacked up blues. Interestingly, the bonus CD includes 12 unreleased tunes, a good 3/4 of which are country takes. What used to be the Stones’ take on punk now seems to be the Stones surveying disparate genres, and of course, it’s the Stones, so they pull both off like they invented them.
The cliche about Crass is that their lyrics read better than they sound. While that might be true for the ‘80s CD issues, the same can not be said for the Crassical Collection. The band doesn't so much clean up their sound as make it more apparent of what they were trying to do. Where Stations of the Crass used to have sheets of white noise screaming, now the exchange between different actors in the play becomes apparent. Plus, all the re-issues have some tasty bonus tracks, including an incendiary BBC performance where Eve Libertine screams "SHAVED WOMEN! DISCO DANCING! SHAVED WOMEN! ARE THEY TRAITORS?!" Maybe all the anarcho/crust punks could learn from this: a little cleaning up and sprucing up isn't always a bad thing…
THIS is how you do a re-issue people. Both the re-issues of Legalize It and Equal Rights quadruple the running time of their respective albums. Legalize It comes with an entire demo version of the album and an entire "Jamaican Mix" of the album, as well as crunchy dub tracks. Equal Rights comes with enough unreleased bonus tracks to make it a double LP, not to mention the plethora of dub and single cuts. It's rare that genre-defining albums have lots of bonus material--but here, not only is there bonus material, it's as good as the released stuff and gives added insight. Who would have thought two amazing LPs could be expanded into eight… and keep being amazing at that?
For me, 2011 will be hard to top. Still, I'm looking forward to releases by Black Face, OFF!, Melvins, Ceremony, Rats in the Wall, Fucked Up, Passage Walkers, Personal and the Pizzas, KRS-One, Public Enemy, more Crass re-issues, maybe Rudimentary Peni re-issues, Shrinebuilder, Nobunny, and !!!!!CLASSICS OF LOVE!!!!!
It's also important to note the unfortunate passing of Poly Styrine. While she wasn't the most prolific artist, the X-Ray Specs’ discography still rocks like none other and remains entirely unique. Tell me, who else could scream "Oh! Bondage! Up Yours!" like that little five-foot girl in lycra and an army helmet? Poly this year, Ari Up last year, sheesh! I guess it just means that we need to focus on our female musical innovators here and now instead of leaving the burden to agenda-minded rock journalists… *ahem*
In 2012, I'm looking forward to doing some more great interviews with Punknews, and may perhaps branch out into more feature style and on-site interviews. Plus, my goal for 2012 is to interview Danzig, John Lydon, Joan Jett, Billy Idol and at least 1/4 of the Clash. We'll see how that goes. So until next year, my friends, do onto others as you would do to yourself, seek revenge when appropriate, buy crust-punk records and treat your mother right.