Adam White is the senior news editor here at Punknews.org. - ed.
Stuff That I Like
I'd like to raise a glass to 2009, which all in all has been a phenomenal year.
Punknews celebrated our 10th anniversary! I've personally been writing for the site since 2001 and I'm humbled to look back and realize what a major, vital part of my life it's been. I hope you've discovered some wonderful new music here over the years. Also, we finally launched the new site! The Punknews you see before you had been in public beta since February and in the works well before that. We hope you're enjoying the refresh and we're already hard at work implementing your suggestions to make the site even better.
2009 was the most important year in my life, both personally and professionally. On the personal side of things I got married in May. My wife and I are currently puppy-proofing the house for an eight-week-old samoyed that we're adopting right after New Year's. On the professional front I have more plans in the works now than I ever could have thought possible and I have every intention of absolutely crushing it in 2010.
Thanks for reading Punknews.org. We couldn't do this without your contributions and feedback. I wish you and your family all the best in the new year.
Vivian Girls' second album of buzzsaw low-fi punk rock is just as awesome and messy as their first. There isn't a ton of variety here but I'm honestly not looking for it. Like I said last year, a Vivian Girls record works best when taken in its entirety, with fuzz-washed pop songs all bleeding together into one cohesive unit like some multi-movement shoegaze epic.
A solid if unexpected solo project from the other half of Hot Water Music's guitar and vocal team. You can draw a pretty clear line from Chuck Ragan's solo work back to that band and the overall aesthetic of the No Idea family. This? Not so much. There's a very relaxed '90s alt-rock vibe here, and there's times when Wollard and Ship Thieves sound more like the Lemonheads than anything else. Still, the gravitas of Hot Water Music creeps in through Chris' vocals, particularly in tuneful songs like "Reason in My Rhyme." An incredibly solid release and a different sound from an artist who could have easily played it safe.
I love this project. The Souls may not have had this in mind, but they've come close to solving one of the fundamental issues the Internet presents to bands: It's broken the album cycle. I truly believe that if bands want to stay afloat in this sea of information they need to embrace a smaller, quicker release schedule. Taking two or more years between full-lengths is just too long to stay relevant. The multi-pronged release strategy of Ghosts on the Boardwalk was a stroke of genius. Every month the band was in the news with a new song release digitally. Vinyl fans and collectors got their fix every three months. Even if this wasn't the band's 20th anniversary they would still have been in the news all year long. Of course, this would all be for naught if the content wasn't quality, but hey, this is the Souls. No problem there.
Tegan and Sara's sixth full-length feels a little looser and lighter than their acclaimed 2007 full-length The Con. Sainthood features a version of the duo that's both poppier and more organic. I think it suits them and I'm anticipating this record having somewhat longer legs than its predecessor. I'm really digging the punk influence that shines through on the single "Hell" and particularly "Northshore."
Has Chuck Ragan not had the greatest career trajectory in punk rock? He fronts a much beloved band that builds a passionate underground fanbase. That band changes their sound and risks angering the old guard, only their new sound is more rock'n'roll. This creates a second passionate fanbase and for the most part they avoid alienating the fans of their extensive early catalog. They call it quits at the height of their popularity, leaving behind them an entire scene that's sprung up around them. Chuck then reemerges with a solo acoustic gig that somehow captures all the fire and passion of his old band, yet lets him delve into some absolutely classic roots music. There's some riveting stuff on Gold Country and Ragan's voice commands as much respect as it always has. Congratulations Chuck; whether you like it or not you're the godfather to a whole generation of punks.
Sunparlour Players: Wave North
This is a curious animal. Ostensibly the Sunparlour Players are a three piece alt-country / alt-folk act of the style that fans of Elliott Brood, FemBots or Cuff the Duke would enjoy. Much has been written about frontman Andrew Penner's upbringing on a Mennonite farm in rural Ontario, and there's definitely a rustic sensibility to the Players' work. For the most part, though, Penner's lyrics and vocals are just remarkably eloquent and sincere. His delivery is instantly engaging. Instrumentally the band switches with ease between quiet, introspective tunes and a stomping mix of guitar, banjo and kick-drum. Wave North is a unique and at times riveting sophomore effort from the group.
With the Briefs off on their maddening indefinite hiatus and the Tranzmittors oddly quiet this year, we're relying on the Marked Men to keep the Buzzcocks flag flying. The Texas quartet continues to write some release some of the purest punk rock you'll find anywhere, all the while keeping as low a profile as possible. Tracks like "Red Light Rumors" match tuneful pop choruses with surprisingly aggressive moments and a thin layer of vocal distortion that's become the band's signature. There are fifteen songs here, and only two have the audacity of clocking in at over two and a half minutes. Thankfully, they wise up and finish both before they hit three. That's the way it should be.
Close your eyes for a second and pretend you're 14 years old. You have no musical tastes to speak of at this point. Your best friend rushes over to your house after school and plunks a cassette in your parents' stereo and you hear, as your first exposure to real punk rock, Dear Landlord's "I Live in Hell." Wouldn't that be the most awesome thing ever? That's the feeling I get from this band. Dream Homes is fast, anthemic, sing-along Midwestern punk rock from members of Chicago's Copyrights and the defunct Minneapolis band Rivethead. There isn't really anything new or noteworthy about their sound or approach -- it's just done really, really well.
Bruce Peninsula: A Mountain Is a Mouth
There are 10, maybe 11 people in Bruce, Peninsula -- that includes two or three drummers and a four or five woman choir. Their lead singer sounds a little like Hot Water Music's Chuck Ragan and their sound falls so far out on the uncharted dark underbelly of the indie folk spectrum that I can barely make out the genre label. This is post-punk in that it would never have existed if punk didn't throw out the rule book, but that's the best I can give you. A Mountain Is a Mouth is strikingly unique. At one moment it's haunting and near spiritual, at the next propulsive and gritty. This is one of the most original things I've heard in a good while. Seek it out.
The Spits are one of those perpetually respected underground garage punk acts that I enjoyed more as a concept than an actual band. I knew the imagery, and the songs I had heard were crazy and cacophonous, but I never felt the need to really go seek it out. I got the shtick; that was enough. This record surprised me, though. The band economically blasts through 10 songs in under 16 minutes without ever taking a breath. Somehow in that space their insane robot Ramones sound clicks perfectly then gets the hell out of the way before it overstays its welcome. Bands like this with no-fi, no hype, no commercial prospects keep the universe honest.
These guys are locals but I've never given them the time of day. I remember when the mall-screamo thing was at its peak, their debut album was absolutely everywhere in Niagara. I'm pretty sure you got one from the city when you paid your property taxes. I was just too old at the time. It wasn't meant to be. What would the fans from those early days think of today's Alexis? Probably not much, seeing as the band's developed into great songwriters who are more informed these days by good ol' punk rock than whatever was in the water back in 2002. This record has a fantastic sense of momentum backed up by soaring vocals. If you would have told me a year ago I'd be ranking it this highly I'd have laughed at you.
I'm giving this record a huge handicap because a certain Toronto radio station that shall remain nameless absolutely played it into the ground. Ah hell, it was 102.1 The Edge. You're as likely to hear "Gimme Sympathy" on that station as you are "Stairway to Heaven" on a classic rock channel. Still, the hooks in "Sympathy" are astonishingly good. There's a moment near the end of each chorus that elates me every time. I even had the DJ play it at my wedding. It's that wonderful and the rest of the record is just as strong. While the Edge's insane over-exposure will likely result in me never wanting to hear this record again, the me of eight months ago is still quite enamoured with it.
Fake Problems has it together. They're at this wonderful junction where their sound balances playful pop music with a bit of a vicious streak. Their songwriting's reached the level where their grand ideas are by and large working, making Fake Problems sound more like a unique, cohesive unit than they ever have. They've got a foot in that bearded, post-Hot Water Music pool of Florida punk, yet at times this is bouncing and danceable. Will we all still like them in five years when some A&R vampire has lured them into the Universal-Sony-Raytheon-Tessier-Ashpool conglomerate? Probably not, but we're in the honeymoon stage now and everything's rosy.
If this band didn't exist we'd need to create them. The snotty pop-punk crown the Ramones handed off to Screeching Weasel now rests comfortably with this Wyoming quartet, and they're releasing records to rival the work of their predecessors. This record throws a few new elements into the mix but nothing too shocking. There's some Descendents and Misfits here and there, but at the core this is still four goofs in leather jackets and Chuck Taylors writing buzzsaw love songs. So long as punk keeps kicking we'll always need that.
British singer-songwriter Frank Turner is a little less than four months older than me. That may be why I'm so keen on the theme of this record. Frank, you see, is an adult now, and he's trying to reconcile the responsibilities and realities of a man rounding thirty with the punk rock ideals of his youth. He's certainly not keen on ceding punk to the teenagers, but at the same time seems quite accepting that his life will keep moving further from that spot. I'm not sure what I'd think of this record if I was 17, but at 27 it hits pretty close to home.
Less dark than Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, the engrossing Middle Cyclone maintains Neko's ranking as my absolute favourite vocalist. This is classy, classic stuff that's going to age beautifully. Although I might be in the minority here, I enjoy this record so much more than its much-acclaimed predecessor. Neko Case is one of those artists that completely transcends my current listening habits and will likely be in my rotation for the rest of my life. Did I mention she's standing barefoot on the hood of a muscle car wielding a sword? Oh, and there's a song here from the perspective of a love-smitten tornado. Damn.
I'm going to go ahead and declare Jeff Rosenstock to be one of the most important people in punk rock. If you're in a young band you should study what he's doing. While damn near everyone else is bemoaning the Internet and their inability to sell plastic this decade, Jeff's embraced the chaos. Not only was Scrambles given away for free online, it also happens to be without question the best punk rock release of the year. Lyrically, Scrambles is beyond clever, hilariously cynical and wonderfully literate. Musically, this band remains a satisfyingly frenetic synth-punk hybrid with elements of third wave ska and indie folk. If DIY ideals mean anything to you this record is cause for celebration.
Attack in Black have the potential to be the best band in the world. I was a little dismayed when I first heard this record. Like many I loved the wise-beyond-its-years punk rock of Marriage. The lo-fi home-recorded Curve of the Earth challenged fans but I dug it for what it was. On first listen Years seems to cement the fact that Curve's quiet folky turn is the new norm, but after countless listens I've come to love it for its intricacies and rock-solid songwriting. I saw the band open for the like-minded Constantines this month and it was a revelation. They were aggressive! Shockingly so. Each relaxed melody laid down here is merely a template, a starting point for the live act to take and build upon. There are quiet little songs on Years that became roaring walls of distortion live. I'm convinced this band has a really strong vision of where they want to go and the artistic stubbornness to burn their bridges and see it through to completion. I can't wait to hear what's next.
This is one of the most vital-sounding records of the year. I've always been a mild Thermals fan but I had an absolute blast with Now We Can See. The band forgoes a political agenda this time out and I think they're better for it. This is the Thermals at their most universal and this record should have legs well beyond this year. For a band that's made a career out of nervous energy they sound remarkably comfortable in their own skin here, taking the time to apply their distinct sound to some remarkably well-constructed pop songs.
Joel Plaskett: Three
This is a triple record packed with 27 songs and each of them further proves the point that the former Thrush Hermit frontman is among the greatest songwriters that Canada has ever produced. Three is sprawling but it has a level of focus and sincerity that's just so inviting and captivating. Plaskett writes immediately likeable tunes, be they rock or folk, that are always clever and hook-laden and sometimes even quite funny. Yet for all the technical merits you could give Mr. Plaskett there's something deeper at play here, something that I doubt has any sort of resonance outside of this country. When I listen to Three I feel Canadian in the absolute best way possible, as if the identity of this land and the people have somehow been wrapped up in these simple little tunes. That may sound a little corny but I've made my peace with it, and there's nothing I've enjoyed more in 2009.