Joe is the reviews editor. How the fuck did that happen? - ed.
Thanks for coming to my recital you guys!
I say it every year, but 2011 was a great year for music. In fact, I probably could have turned this top 20 into a top 50 if Adam White didn’t check my ego. That’s how many records came out that just rocked my brain to bits. There’s usually a slow build towards releases, but 2011 just kept delivering the hits month after month. From Lemuria’s Pebble (released Jan. 11) to the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (Dec. 27), I found myself playing keep-up with all the great music.
On the personal side, 2011 was also a great year to be alive. I got engaged and moved out of my parents’ house. I'm engaged to my special lady friend, Michelle. She’s a Canadian redhead, and the only person who gets as angry about music as I do. I don’t have many regrets about my youth, but I do wish I could have told Past Joe that someone truly amazing was waiting for me in the future. Because the only large difference between who I am and who I was is that now I am profoundly happy (or I'm better at hiding my anger. Either/or). Even though living together means we are perpetually floating checks just to get by. Even though we totally sold out to the patriarchy by getting married. Even though I am officially too old to listen to New Found Glory. Other than that, I’m still the same socially awkward, sci-fi-loving jerk.
I also watched Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in their entirety this year. That’s 14 seasons of Riker smirking, Worf scowling and Quark being a lovable dick. TNG has better characters, but DS9 has such an awesome story that grows over the course of the series.
Oh yeah, and now I’m the reviews editor for Punknews.org. Turns out if you just show up and do your job, they’ll keep promoting you. I’d like to thank former editor Brian Shultz for first asking me to join the staff in 2008, and again for promoting me to the editing team in 2011. I’ve been an avid reader of the site since 2001 or so, and it’s an honor to be part of this great tradition.
Anyway, here are the albums that soundtracked the greatest year of my life (to date).
Top 20 Boner Jamz 2011
Florence + the Machine: Ceremonials
It’s overstuffed. The lyrics ramble on. The songs are too long. And yet, Ceremonials, the follow-up to Florence + the Machine’s insanely catchy Lungs, is a great album. It’s epic and dramatic and beautiful. Sure, the middle sags a little, but the singer/songwriter goes for gusto every time and rarely holds back, although bonus track “Remain Nameless” certainly hints at a future in minimalist electronics. Still, though, I’m down with Florence’s brand of orchestral indie pop.
Did… did Dum Dum Girls just make a rockabilly record? Turns out if you scrub off all that lo-fi dirt and add a dash of confidence, DDG was a completely different band altogether. Of course, their taste in producers should have been a clue, as ’60s songwriter Richard Gottehrer and Raveonettes mastermind Sune Rose Wagner are certainly kindred spirits. The preview EP He Gets Me High was another hint. Still, hearing a record go this huge is surprising, and a welcome shift. Mastermind Kristen “Dee Dee” Gundred has got an amazing set of pipes, and hearing her cut loose on tracks like “Always Looking” or “In My Head” is stunning. Who knew she could cut loose like Neko Case? Just as effective are her ballads; “Hold Your Hand” hits right in the heart. Either way, fans get gorgeous pop songs about missing somebody something fierce. Those poor folks missing the band’s noisier elements should be appeased by cuts like “Teardrops on My Pillow” and “Heartbeat,” though.
Brooklyn sludge/post-metal act Tombs has emerged as a band that consistently betters itself, and thankfully so. While I was intrigued by the group’s seminal effort Winterhours, I found myself still slightly underwhelmed. What I realize now is that Tombs are essentially a meeting point of metal subgenres, but at the time I could only compare them to other bands. Baroness was harder. Jesu was more droning. My Bloody Valentine was louder. From the opener on, Path never lets up, but it does shift genres. Sometimes it gets thrashier (“To Cross the Land”), sometimes it gets sludgier (“Cold Dark Eyes”) and sometimes it even echos Bauhaus (“Passageways”) for shits and/or giggles. But the record still forms a cohesive whole. Tombs has finally reached what it set out to do; hopefully even better things are waiting in the not too distant future.
Deep down, I have a pop-punk heart. Altar of Plagues is about as far away from that mindset as I can get. The band deals in lengthy metal tuneage that oscillates from metalgaze atmospherics to black metal destructiveness. This record took so long to crack, but when I did grasp it, Mammal revealed itself to be a masterpiece. There have been some great metal records this year, but few dared to push metal to such heights as this one.
Patton Oswalt: My Weakness is Strong
Comedy Central Records
Once at the forefront of what could be called nerd rage-style comedy, stand-up Patton Oswalt has gradually shed his pop cultural ironies in favor of studying human nature. Where he used to greet the world with cynicism, now he just laughs at all the little idiosyncrasies that make us human. Part of that transition has come with age; Oswalt also recently became a parent. But while these factors hampered Oswalt’s 2009 record My Weakness is Strong, they boost his latest effort, Finest Hour. Here, Oswalt drops tale after tale with warmth, whether extolling the virtues of sweatpants once you have kids or breaking down romantic comedies (“Every movie should just be called Trying to Fuck"). Even when he drops the occasional critical evaluation, it’s less a move towards anger than it is a plea for sanity. When Oswalt returns to/finishes his years-long condemnation of fast food in general and KFC in particular, he argues for a return to logic while still pointing out his own shortcomings. Finest Hour doesn’t single anyone out, and in doing so pokes fun at humanity in general.
Just when I started to burn out on Jesu EPs, metal mastermind Justin K. Broadrick dropped his best effort since (interestingly) his last full-length, 2007’s Conqueror. While I love Jesu’s ethereal metalgaze, those 20-minute songs were starting to wear me down. Ascension injects some much needed energy while showing more restraint in terms of song lengths. Tunes like “Sedatives” and “Broken Home” create a warm headspace while proving that Broadrick can write more than just druggy dreamscapes.
Banner Pilot writes really great songs about drinking and/or failing. When played at sufficient speeds, these songs almost sound triumphant. So while Heart Beats Pacific reads like a depressing, endless winter journal, it plays like a beautiful piece of punk spirit. I’m pretty protective of the Jawbreaker tag, but Banner Pilot is one of the few bands I would compare them to, at least in spirit.
After some years away, The Anarchy and The Ecstasy needed to be huge. Luckily, it’s every bit as catchy and fun as previous W/IFS release, in that Jack Terricloth’s outsize personality still dominates and the music is still in the punk rock cabaret vein. But there are still some tweaks to the formula that separate Anarchy from previous releases. These songs are slower. Some, like “Thirteen Years Without Peter King,” start off like a whisper. Bassist Sanda Malak and pianist Raja Najib Azar play a larger role. Indeed, the biggest hooks come from female lips this time around. But for all the changes, one thing remains: This is maudlin, gleeful cabaret punk.
Sometimes it pays to watch the openers. I caught Deleted Scenes’ set warming up for Maritime this year and thoroughly enjoyed the group’s post-punky songs. Their latest record, Young People’s Church of the Air, though, was a totally different experience. While Deleted Scenes is loud as thunder live, on record, they opt for electronic shoegaze effects. Surprisingly, both approaches work. Church certainly sounds great cranked up, but its dreamy qualities shine at low volumes as well.
Not tru punx. But you know what? My future wife and I danced to this album a lot. 4 is a solid retro R&B record that mines everything from ’70s Motown to Bad-era Michael Jackson. Lady Gaga is kind of over; Beyoncé continues on.
Call Strange Mercy St. Vincent's prog move. Sure, there are some big singles in the mix, like “Cruel,” but this is also Vincent’s most difficult album to date. She still shreds and her lyrics/vox are as dark as ever (How great is the imagery of "Neutered Fruit?"), but there are some gnarly bits scattered throughout that make Actor sound like a pop album by comparison.
The Go! Team: Rolling Blackouts
The Go! Team was never a subtle band. They deal in energetic dance beats. But it’s the details that make or break their records. Debut Thunder, Lightning, Strike exploded with funk, rap, rock, big band and pop. Follow-up Proof of Youth sounded like the work of a sub-par Go! Team tribute act--they got the notes right, but man did it sound cluttered and empty at the same time. But with the release of Rolling Blackouts, the Team doubles down on fun and comes out a winner. Maybe it’s because I haven’t paid attention to them for a while, but opener “T.O.R.N.A.D.O.” made me dance right away. Granted, I was driving and I’m one awkward white fellow, but the song is propulsive, enthusiastic and, oh yeah, fun. “Secretary Song” repeats the trick. But by the time “Apollo Throwdown” comes on, it becomes apparent that The Go! Team has learned a new trick: Quiet/loud dynamics. As much as I love Thunder, that album is pretty much on all the time (aside from “Everyone is a V.I.P. to Someone,” I guess). This record is my more subtle pick-me-up.
Raccoon Valley Recordings is a super catchy, fun record from the Heat Tape, featuring Brett Hunter of the Copyrights. It basically sounds like a slower Copyrights record with grainier production but the hooks still intact [Side note: They recorded this record in Hunter’s trailer. DIY]. It’s 24 minutes of sad lyrics put to bouncy music, and that’s where the best pop-punk comes from. Tunes like “Spend It” and “Ah Ha Ah” shimmer with energy. Hunter seems to have a sense of humor about the whole thing (per the liner notes, three songs are about “being a piece of shit”), but this is the sort of modest, straightforward songwriting that always wins.
The Mountain Goats are here to folk-rock you. Just as Get Lonely’s quite desperations gave way to Heretic Pride’s loud proclamations, so too does Life of the World to Come segue into the more rockin’ All Eternals Deck. The religious imagery is still on display (“Birth of Serpents,” “Prowl Great Cain”), but drummer Jon Wurster sure gets a lot more to do. Deck was recorded with four different producers, and this scattered approach almost certainly contributed to the wildly oscillating energy levels. For all the anger frontman John Darnielle musters on tracks like “Estate Sale Sign” and “Prowl Great Cain,” they still give way to the quiet beauty of “Age of Kings” and “Sourdoire Valley Song,” respectively. Sure, the record’s connective theme isn’t as pronounced this time out, but it’s still a Darnielle record. Dude weaves a story with all the right details every time.
Let’s clear the air: While I loved Lemuria’s early material, I wasn’t that keen on Get Better. Then came Pebble, a record that showcased so much of what Lemuria does well (catchy hooks, guy/girl vox, deeply, sometimes weirdly sexual lyrics) despite totally switching up their formula. Pebble has this stiff, almost post-punk feel to a lot of its tunes. These songs get bitter at times (“Gravity”), but they’re still grounded by melody and grit. I used to think of Lemuria as continuing in the great tradition of Superchunk and the Lemonheads; now, they’re in a class all by themselves.
It’s a cliché, but Louis C.K. says what I’m thinking. His latest album, Hilarious, takes aim at the stupid, ungrateful shit Americans do, including our abuse of the English language. His set also packs in plenty of self-loathing and draws humor from his family life, which is something most comics can’t do well while remaining “edgy.” My fiancée hates it when I say this, but I think C.K. sums up everything I’m going to feel about my children.
2011 was a growing year. Jan. 23 would have been my cousin Mike’s 24th birthday, had he lived. Just two days later, his favorite band, the Get Up Kids, put out their reunion record There Are Rules. That’s the kind of coincidence I cannot ignore. Every time I listen to this album, I have an argument with Mike in my head about its merits. See, Mike swore by TGUK’s first two records. Oh sure, On a Wire had some of his favorite songs, but he’d still argue for those first two records. I’m pretty sure Mike would have talked a ton of shit on There Are Rules simply because it wasn’t like Something to Write Home About. Me, though? I love this album. I love that the Kids are an indie band now. I love that they write catchy, Superchunky tunes. I love that, for a while at least, they were back. In a way, Mike came back with them.
The second coming of PJ Harvey has thus far yielded a perfect three-album streak since her 2007 return with White Chalk. Let England Shake, the latest in a string of successes, juxtaposed traditional British folk songs with contemporary politics. While Harvey made her name on loud, confrontational guitar dirges, here, she lets the eeriness of her words carry the weight. That said, she still lets loose her strong voice occasionally, like on “The Last Living Rose.” Never one to rest on her past triumphs, she even tries out reggae on “Written on the Forehead,” and wins. Overall, though, this is a haunting record, a soundtrack to any war footage and a reminder of the age we live in.
It’s taken me some time to catch up to Davey von Bohlen. I was and am a huge Promise Ring fan, but it wasn’t until this year that I got on board with his post-TPR discography. I like Vermont a whole lot; I love Maritime. Human Hearts may very well be the group’s best album. Here, von Bohlen and his band turned out a set of ’80s-leaning dance-pop confections that are just as catchy as anything the Promise Ring ever released. I took this record with me everywhere I went. Work. The Jersey shore. Numerous house hunting trips with Michelle. Also, the A.V. Club used it to score like all of their videos. And who am I to criticize? Human Hearts updates the Cure and Depeche Mode for modern emo concerns with some much needed muscle.
I never pick the “fun” records for number one. When I look over lists upon lists of my favorite albums from previous years, my top pick is usually something slow, sad and not punk. Granted, Wild Flag’s eponymous debut isn’t exactly punk either (more like psych-rock), but it’s one hell of a fun record. Even when the lyrics fill up with so much longing that they threaten to burst (“Future Crimes,” “Boom”), Wild Flag is a giddy release, full of big guitars, big drums, big keys, big voices. It is a massive, thunderous party starter. All of my top five records listed here have at some point occupied the top slot, but I realized Wild Flag was the winner after one simple revelation: When it’s playing, I dance like an idiot without even realizing it. Cooking, driving, at work; this was my go-to pick-me-up record. That it would come from a band that’s one-half Sleater-Kinney is a bonus.
I don’t mean to belabor the SK connection, as Wild Flag is its own entity with its own merits. But I loved Sleater-Kinney a lot in college, and I always regretted never getting to see them live. Hearing Wild Flag, and then seeing the band in concert, gave me some rock ‘n’ roll closure. Here’s the sequel that never came to The Woods! Here are some meaty, demonic guitars to chow on! I can’t believe I devoted so much time to punk rock, only to come out jocking a classic rock record at the ripe old age of 25. And yet, here we are. 2011 was the year I grew up and enjoyed life, and Wild Flag reflects those changes perfectly.
Top 10 Extended Plays
Höllenlärm: Hellish Noise
Horror Pain Gore Death Productions
OBLIGATORY MY FRIENDS ARE AWESOME PICK. Pennsylvania’s own Höllenlärm dished out dark hunks of metal on Hellish Noise. This is by far the heaviest album I bought all year.
Nada Surf hasn’t deviated much since they reinvented themselves as a soft indie rock band on Let Go. Still, this seven-inch, a preview for the group’s 2012 record The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy, sure hit the spot. Frontman Matthew Caws is as comforting on the mic as ever.
I’m still playing catch-up with Lars Frederiksen’s latest side project, so let’s just focus on one seven-inch from Old Firm Casuals. This self-titled effort is frills-free oi. Yeah, I’m still waiting on a new Rancid record, but hearing Papa Skunk himself is pretty great.
Is it time for another Silversun Pickups album? No? Dammit. I’ll just have to settle for Seasick. Collecting three tracks that got cut from 2009’s Swoon, Seasick did a fine job of tiding me over while I waited for another heaping helping of shoegaze ‘n’ Smashing Pumpkins from the Pickups.
I’m kind of a superfan of Dr. Dan Yemin. Dude was/is in Lifetime, Kid Dynamite and Paint It Black… and he’s a doctor! This year saw a return of one of my other favorite Yemin bands, Armalite. Featuring folks from Atom and His Package and Kill the Man Who Questions, Armalite seemed like a one-off until this catchy but brief seven-inch came along. Now I’ve got three more reasons to love Armalite.
Big Business writes rock songs that are high on grooves and low end. Quadruple Single delivers these things in abundance. These tracks are so fun to sing and/or rhythmically parade around to that I just might declare Quadruple Single to my favorite Big Biz release since Head For the Shallow.
While Record Store Day is starting to collapse in on itself--too many records, not enough good ones--the holiday did yield Wild Flag’s first release, a seven-inch featuring the psychedelic songs “Glass Tambourine” and “Future Crimes.” These tunes set the bar awfully high for the band; they still beat them all the same.
I was skeptical of Dum Dum Girls after I Will Be. I understood the hype behind their early singles, but the group’s debut full-length left me underwhelmed. But 2011 has been a real growing year for the group, starting with the EP He Gets Me High. That Smiths cover is a nigh perfect blend of longing and pop hooks. But the originals are even better; the title track packs a clarity and energy that the group’s early material lacked. Luckily, He Gets Me High was just the beginning of the Girls' 2011 takeover.
Talk about a comeback. Jimmy Cliff’s legacy was already assured, but hearing something like Sacred Fire this late in his career is got-damn inspirational. Between the stellar covers (The Clash, Rancid, Bob Dylan) and the awesome originals, it feels good to be rude again.
The Slow Death / Mitch Clem: Turnstile Comix #1 [7-inch/comic]
Because the songs are ridiculously catchy. Because drunk punk sounds better in short bursts. Because Mikey Erg is their drummer. Turnstile Comix #1 was my introduction to the wonderfully sad world of the Slow Death, and a mighty fine one at that. On top of the quality tunes, it also featured a comic book from my man Mitch Clem. Bonus!
The Very Honorable Mentions
The Bouncing Souls: Hot Water Music split / Live at Generation Records / Complete Control Sessions / Greg Attonito's Natural Disaster
While they didn’t release a new record, the Souls still kept fans plenty busy with a bevy of vinyl releases. The Hot Water Music split was my favorite, although the acoustic Live at Generation Records is a pretty hilarious close second.
Record Store Day is becoming a dumping ground for superfluous cuts, but Deftones actually delivered something worth hearing. Covers combines some choice cuts from their B-sides compilation with some other reinterpretations on wax. I’m bummed their Cardigans cover didn’t make it on here, but there’s always room for Covers 2.
Mitch Clem covers Belle & Sebastian; makes them better through the magic of pop-punk.
Top 5 Shows
1. The Get Up Kids at the TLA [cathartic]
2. Wild Flag at Union Transfer [psychedelic]
3. Tori Amos at the Academy of Music [classical]
4. Latterman at the First Unitarian Church [nostalgic]
5. Face to Face at the Trocadero [TRU PUNX]
Potential Reasons to Choose Life in 2012 (Even Though We’re All Gonna Die) [Ignition Remix]
1. Bouncing Souls – TBA
2. Green Day - TBA
3. The Holy Mess – debut full-length
4. Ben Kweller – Go Fly a Kite
5. Menzingers – Epitaph debut
6. Nada Surf – The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy
7. Matt Pryor – May Day [Brag: I just got this in the mail. It’s super catchy.]
8. The Promise Ring – rarities comp
9. Rancid – something something East Bay
10. Silversun Pickups – TBA
Anyway, I’m gonna go get hitched to my soul mate. See ya later, Internet.