Ben is a news editor at Punknews.org - ed.
Allow me to re-introduce myselfHey there, Ben Conoley here. 2010 was a great year–it just wasn't terribly centered around music for me. I spent the first part of the year studying for the bar exam (and then studying for it again). In the Spring I went to Las Vegas to cover the World Series of Poker and didn't do much music writing at all. After returning from Vegas I worked on a political campaign and October had arrived before I knew it. But once fall rolled around, I was ready to stay home and hang out with my wife, listen to music, and write about it. I spent the last few months catching up on some of the great music that came out in the last 12 months. In addition to Punknews, I started my own blog covering the Canadian music scene. You can find it here. I also went from Interview Editor to Managing Editor and am now resting comfortably as a New Editor alongside Bryne. It's affording me more of an opportunity to write, which I'm stoked about. So here's my list; I'd love to hear what you think about the selections and what you were into, so get at me here or on Twitter (@BConoley).
Top 20 Albums
Good Fight / Distort
In their short time together, Cancer Bats have climbed to the top of Canada's metal mountain. Bears, Mayors, Scraps & Bones is their latest offering of their hardcore/metal hybrid and just as crushing as anything else they've written.
Black Mountain: Wilderness Heart
Black Mountain are Canada's best contribution to '70s stoner rock (except that, you know, they're a modern band). They've got a lot more rhythm and a lot less Black Sabbath behind them on this go-around, but that doesn't take away from the huge guitar (not to mention the hooks that come with it). Put up some black lights, black light posters, put this bad boy on and spark up whatever it is you want while listening to Wilderness Heart and tell me you don't feel like an extra on Dazed and Confused.
Radio Radio: Belmundo Regal
You're going to have to follow me closely here. Radio Radio are a three-piece from Canada who sing in Chiac, which is a mix of Acadian French and English. Despite not being able to understand everything they sing, the production and music on the album is a strange and entirely enjoyable combination of sounds that make for a unique listening experience that should not be missed.
Paul Baribeau's songs can often be bummers, but there always seems to be a ray of light hidden somewhere in his Ã¼ber-simple DIY folk. Unbearable has a lot of faults. It isn't recorded perfectly and the mixing is off in some places, but Baribeau commands our attention anyhow. If things were any different it wouldn't have the same charm.
Daniel Romano: Workin' for the Music Man
You've Changed Records
It's strange to think that Attack in Black started out as a hardcore band. Here we are years later and they've become full out folk-rockers. Vocalist Daniel Romano has ventured out into solo territory, and while it's certainly not punk, it is great. His country-tinged folk seems not too far removed from what Bob Dylan might have been singing about had he been born in the '80s.
Grungy indie rock that sounds like even the girls in the band don't want to be singing it. It's almost as though they'd just as rather fold their arms and stand around instead of playing their instruments. Bur for some reason it works.
The Hold Steady were a much better band when they were able to count multi-instrumentalist Franz Nicolay as a member. But while Heaven Is Whenever is devoid of Nicolay's contribution, it manages to get along just fine. This is mostly because Craig Finn remains one of rock's best storytellers. That, and the band's unconventional approach to bar rock coupled with Finn's vocal delivery style make it impossible to deny just how good the Hold Steady still are.
I had never been a huge fan of Crime in Stereo until I heard "Not Dead" from I Was Trying to Describe You to Someone where the post-hardcore band tapped into Nirvana and completely blew me away. It caused me to listen to the band in new ways. They've continued to become more melodic–something that started with Is Dead and have gotten even more so. But their songs still carry enough energy to make them one of post-hardcore's most compelling bands.
Black Box / Decon / Fontana North
As Canada's greatest hope in hip-hop, Shad must have felt some pressure while working on the followup to his breakout album The Old Prince. What we got was TSOL, which showcases Shad's ability to be playful and insightful. He may not be too well-known outside of Canada, but fans of Mos Def, Common and P.O.S. should have no trouble getting into it. If you don't believe me, just check out the video for "Rose Garden" and take it from there.
If this list wasn't written with Punknews in mind, Arcade Fire would place much higher. While not within the area that we normally cover, it's impossible to ignore the mind-bending songwriting found on The Suburbs. It's haunting, beautiful, brave and ambitious. It's impossible to guess what turn Arcade Fire are going to take from one track to another, but they always pull out something magical.
Brendan Kelly / Joe McMahon: Wasted Potential
Smoke or Fire and the Lawrence Arms are two of my favorite bands, so I was pretty stoked that Brendan Kelly and Joe McMahon would be treating us with acoustic versions of some of their band's songs (as well as a cover apiece) on a split release. Kelly gives us some rough, stripped-down takes on some of the Arms' best songs ("Record Player" and "Quincentuple Your Money" among others). His seemingly whiskey-damaged voice sounds even rougher when accompanied by nothing but an acoustic guitar, but it works well and gives us a new perspective on some great songs. Meanwhile, McMahon takes an interesting approach, keeping his soaring vocals in place, singing loudly and fast with a gentle guitar backing him up (see "Filter), and it works wonderfully. If you're a fan of either band, there's no reason not to love this record.
The Menzingers are the best real-life thing to ever come out of Scranton, Pa. (sorry Joe Biden). The band plays a brand of humble, no-frills melodic punk with quiet nods to the Clash, but they really just work through the genre in their own way. It's not one of the heavier punk albums of the year, but Greg Barnett has enough edge in his vocals to keep things from getting to mellow. Chamberlain Waits is simply a nice record to listen to, and I listened to it a lot this year.
I might be getting a little close to the border of the punk sphere with this one, but Chris McCaughan's (the Lawrence Arms) side project is more than deserving of mention. I've long-considered him to be one of punk rock's best lyricists and these slow, folky jams give him the opportunity to display his talents in a way that allows us to more easily digest his songwriting. It's not just an acoustic Lawrence Arms album, but something that can stand strongly on its own.
With their sophomore effort, Richmond's the Riot Before went a little less folky and a lot more rocky. Rebellion is intelligent, angry and catchy as hell. The band continues to fly under the radar, but with any luck that will change as they continue to tour tirelessly. At least I hope so, because if punk rock can use anything these days, it's sincere, hard-working musicians who aren't afraid to sing about real issues and hopeful solutions.
They might have just left Sire, and not have been too happy with the way the label handled White Crosses, but that doesn't take away from how great the album is. Against Me! seems to have gone through their life post-Eternal Cowboy trying to figure out how to make themselves sound they way they wanted to. It's as though they knew the band they wanted to be, but couldn't figure out how to be that band. I don't want to come off as too presumptuous, but I think they figured it out. After all, I know I can't be the only 30-year-old who finds himself relating to "I Was a Teenage Anarchist."
A band that takes its name from Shakespeare and writes a concept album about the American Civil War should have no business occupying so much time in my stereo. Leave it to Titus Andronicus to turn that assumption on its head. With a mix between Desaparecidos and the Hold Steady (Craig Finn drops in for a visit), the band gallops through indie rock that is bursting at the seams with angst and done with enough energy to get me to sing aloud with a chorus that is simply, "You will always be a loser."
Those who didn't know that Gaslight Anthem were going to blow up just hadn't had a chance to see them in their early days. The first notes of their debut, Sink or Swim promised listeners that the band was capable of great things. In the time between now and then they've delivered on that greatness, with the latest installment coming in the form of American Slang. It's strange listening to an album that's nostalgic about a time that those who wrote it weren't alive to witness. But somehow Gaslight pull it off, writing about muscle cars, jazz, romance and lost youth, and any number of experiences that are universal to youth.
If Make Do and Mend did anything for me this year, it was reassure me that the Hot Water Music/Small Brown Bike torch would not be abandoned. The Connecticut-based band had released a few EPs before dropping End Measured Mile, and it was well worth the long wait. Post-hardcore with melodic moments, gruff vocals and sing-along choruses are three of my favorite musical elements. Make Do and Mend have all three in spades. They've created their own sound while borrowing from those before them, creating a balance of beauty and aggression–something that isn't easy in this genre.
After spending the better part of three years on the road supporting 2007's The Great Awake, Toronto's Flatliners sat down to write the defining album of their existence as a band thus far. When listening to Cavalcade you can practically smell the band's van and feel the grit that comes with so much time spent travelling and playing music. Equally apparent is the band's passion, with the album serving as an earnest ode to modern melodic punk rock. "Monumental" sees the band getting about as poppy as they've been, but it's also the album's best track. Meanwhile, other songs get heavier, and their ska influence is almost non-existent. All of this leaves Cavalcade a little inconsistent, but the band does such a good job at selling us on this being who they are, or were at the time of writing, that it doesn't matter. In a short time they've started to become veterans of Toronto's punk scene, and here's hoping they take that role and run with it.
If Fake Problems have taught us anything during their nearly 10 years as a band, it's been that we shouldn't ever try to pigeonhole them. We thought they were the next Against Me! and then we thought maybe they were the next Gaslight Anthem. With Real Ghosts Caught on Tape I'm not sure just what they are. They've certainly matured and are willing to take more risks, writing darker and more dense songs than we've heard in the past. But through it all they held onto the spunk that made them a favorite of so many in the first place. The risks the band took in writing Real Ghosts have paid off in spades. At times I wish it had the celebratory feel of their last album, It's Great to Be Alive, but after a year of listening to this album, it's settled in as the best of the year.