Adam White is the managing editor of Punknews.org. - ed.
Four Score and Seven2010 has been a weird and wonderful year for me, although I've often struggled to discover how Punknews fits into it. This has been my first full year as a married man. It's my first year as the owner of a particularly large and mischievous arctic dog. It's been a year of monumental changes to my life professionally, with new learning, responsibilities, rebranded companies, fresh personnel and other matters that are of absolutely no interest to you. It's a year in which I've had to deliver two eulogies. It's the year I managed to scratch a longstanding itch with the launch of my Check In Niagara video blog exploring the Niagara region of Ontario.
At this juncture I've written news at Punknews.org for nearly a decade. We've recently shuffled the deck to set ourselves up for 2011 and I find myself with the new title of Managing Editor. I'll be doing my best to help rejuvenate the site's content and coverage for you over the next year. As always, your news submissions are the fuel for the engine that is Punknews and we can't thank you enough for your contributions. Have a fantastic New Year.
Top EP of 2010
I stand by what I said last year in my write up of their full-length Scrambles: Jeff Rosenstock is one of the most important people in punk rock. He and his collective remain the absolute gold standard example of how to embrace the Internet and online distribution to connect, create hype, and keep the fans engaged for the long haul. Of course, it helps that the music is so clever and exciting, which this EP most certainly is. I can't wait for more and given how BtMI! operates, I know I'll get it sooner rather than later.
Who Rocked The Casbah in 2010
The Dopamines: Expect the Worst
The twentieth spot on these lists is far more difficult than the first. It forces you to decide what do you leave off? Do I cut rollicking punk records from Gatorface, Make Do and Men and None More Black? Do I ignore the Riot Before's rather stellar new full-length? Do I axe something legitimately critically acclaimed like Broken Social Scene, the Acorn or Jason Collett? The answer is yes, to all of them. I'm bypassing a slate of fairly accomplished records in favour of the Dopamines. Make no mistake– Expect the Worst wears its brow fairly low and doesn't have an original thought rattling around in its Ramonescore head, but it's fast, fun and insanely enjoyable. Sometimes that's all you need.
Death to False Hope
Maps is gloriously succinct. Clocking in at under 20 minutes, it alternates between frenetic youthful punk and charmingly sweet twee pop. Brainy lyrics are traded off between male and female vocalists in a fashion not unlike the Rentals (with the new wave dialed way back) spiked with a bit of Tsunami Bomb. I'm sure that one day some villainous record executive will convince Mixtapes to throw in an extra bridge or chorus here and there, and that will be a shame. Brevity is a virtue in punk, and three minutes marks the dead zone for sugary pop. Mixtapes, for now at least, have the mix right.
I'm sure I'm expressing a minority opinion here, but I quite like how Off with Their Heads sounds with production values this high. In Desolation sounds absolutely massive, and while I'm sure it grates fans of the band's raw early recordings, the fidelity has the beneficial side effect of making this a record you can play at absolutely absurd volume levels. The quality of Off with Their Heads' songs, to me, has always directly correlated with volume, so this is a great thing. I don't really care how depressed Ryan Young is; all I know is I'm having a great time listening to him growl about it over massive guitars.
Baby Eagle: Dog Weather
With the Constantines, easily my favourite modern band, disappearing into the fog of an indefinite hiatus, it's comforting to find one of their principles soldiering on with strong new music. I'll admit that it took me years to warm up to Steve Lambke's vocals on Cons tracks, and his fragile half-spoken singing style is still certainly not for everyone. Dog Weather, however, hits all the right notes, finding a middle ground somewhere between Pavement and Neil Young. Tracks like "Day of Our Departing," "American Drum" and "Man of My Time" make the Cons' extended absence somewhat more bearable. Somewhat.
I'll get this out of the way right off the bat: I'm completely ignorant of Bear vs. Shark. I've heard absolutely nothing from that much-loved band, so Mark Paffi's musical lineage means next to nothing to me. After hearing Bars of Gold, it's clear that I must have missed something special. This record reminds me of Bomb the Music Industry!–not in terms of sound, but in the adventurous looseness that both acts exhibit. There's an energy that comes from such free-wheeling stylistic diversity, particularly when it's being played for fun. This record continues to surprise me no matter how many times I've heard it. I'd be disappointed if the followup sounds anything like it.
The Sadies: Darker Circles
It seems odd to me that this was the Sadies album which drew the attention of the Polaris Music Prize. I'm of the opinion that both New Seasons and Favourite Colours were better records, so perhaps the judges were just righting the wrongs of past snubs. That's not to say Darker Circles is without its virtues, though, as with anything this band does it stands head and shoulders over its contemporaries. The Sadies continue their mix of alt-country, garage rock and Americana with a healthy dose of punk attitude bubbling under the surface. The Sadies' album-to-album consistency would be a drawback if they weren't so consistently excellent.
It's taken the Gaslight Anthem a long time to win me over, but with this fine collection I'm happy that I can finally call myself a fan. In the past the band's seemed too sentimental, their influences too obvious and their hero worship a little too on the nose. This time out the band's songwriting has finally reached a level where it transcends all that. There's still a lot of style in the Gaslight Anthem's approach, but the composition and delivery, at least to my ears, has finally balanced it out. These guys could conquer the world.
The Woods was my favourite album of 2005 and remains in rotation to this day. How bittersweet is it then that that one of the best rock records of the 2000s saw no true followup, its creators lost to yet another in a long list of indefinite hiatuses. While 1,000 Years feels more like a collection of One Beat B-sides than a sonic successor to The Woods, it's wonderful to hear Corin Tucker back in action. These songs may lack the distorted power of later-day Sleater-Kinney, but the heart's there and that will have to be enough.
While it's my least favourite of their past three records, the songwriting on Personal Life still reaches dizzying heights. Make no mistake, Now We Can See ranks among my favourite albums ever. I was so hungry for a continuation of that record that any change in style would of course seem jarring to my ears. For that reason alone, Personal Life's restrained '90s alternative feel definitely failed to grab me on the first few listens. This isn't a band I'm ready to give up on, though, and with a slow burn Personal Life keeps revealing its charms.
I hope this band never goes back to playing ska-punk, and I say this as a third wave refugee who's never quite let go of his checkered childhood. The band's approach to melodic hardcore is just so well-formed and so damn satisfying that to hear them give the Suicide Machines formula another try would be a regression. The Flatliners have absolutely found their voice, and it sounds like Cavalcade. As is my patriotic duty I've checked in on these guys with every album, but this is the first to absolutely blow me away.
The New Pornographers: Together
This is going to be a weird review. Together's faults mainly lie in how it fails to offer up any true surprises, and five albums in this group could afford to shake things up a bit. That said, the Pornographers still write and perform the best pop music in the world and it remains drastically underappreciated despite the numerous acclaims it draws. I'm fully aware of how spoiled it sounds to express disappointment with that, but hey, I've been spoiled. Of course a band which features Carl Newman, Dan Bejar, Kathryn Calder and Neko Case is going to sound great. Next time though, I want to be ASTONISHED.
While I had no problem with Neon Bible, I have to agree with those who've commented on how much better the Arcade Fire sounds with some bounce back in their step. The Suburbs deserves all the praise it's been getting. It's ambitious, subtle, emotionally resonant and wonderfully varied without being overwrought, overthought, over-produced or inconsistent. It's easy for us in the punk scene to sneer at bands like this, to write them off as more self-important fodder for the holier-than-though Pitchfork crowd and their mainstream followers. I dare you to look past all that. There's indisputable quality here.
Black Mountain: Wilderness Heart
Black Mountain's always seemed like more of an art project than a real band, and even the highlights of their earlier records dripped with shtick. It was hard to shake the feeling that they were merely an indie love letter to drugged-out, sludgy '70s metal–not the real deal. They were postmodern kids cutting and pasting classic elements back together, and that always forces the listener to consider skipping the pastiche for the source material. Finally on record number three, though, the band's songwriting and composition have broken through all that. Wilderness Heart is hardly divorced from Black Mountain's influences, but co-vocalists Stephen McBean and Amber Webber reach levels of brilliance here they've only hinted at in the past.
We don't talk about Ted Leo enough. I'll be the first to admit that the disjointed Living with the Living seemed to lose the fire of Shake the Sheets and Hearts of Oak, but The Brutalist Bricks is a wonderful return to form. We've sung Mr. Leo's praises on Punknews for the better part of a decade now, but it bears repeating with fresh enthusiasm. His is one of the best realized modern takes on punk rock, and if this genre is to continue to thrive and grow we'll need a few more guys like Ted in the mix keeping us honest.
Against Me! is one of the most important bands in modern punk, and I'm damn well ready to start rooting for them again. Like many of their early fans I wasn't all that impressed with their major label debut New Wave, but then again I wasn't that hot on Searching for a Former Clarity either. There's something about White Crosses that just works for me. It hits a certain mark where I'm not left pining for what could have been. The band's toned down their navel gazing to levels I can stomach and they're flexing their Replacements muscles at all the right times. The group sounds comfortably mature, neither chasing a trendy new sound nor pandering to fans clamouring for a return to idealistic teenage anarchy. Years from now I suspect we'll look back on this fondly.s
Daniel Romano: Workin' for the Music Man
You've Changed Records
As with 2009's Daniel, Fred and Julie project, Attack in Black frontman Daniel Romano continues to flex the folk muscles his band first displayed on their turning-point Curve of the Earth record. Workin' for the Music Man leaves the traditional folk songbooks behind, allowing Romano to craft a set of playful and world-weary songs not unlike the recent outing from Jon-Rae Fletcher. Bruce Peninsula's Misha Bower lends backing vocals with members of Romano's family contributing instrumentally. The result is something quite charming and infinitely re-listenable. If only it didn't come packaged with the heartbreaking dread that solo records like this exist partly due to Attack in Black's own troubles.
Bad Religion is four-for-four. Their return to Epitaph in 2002 marked a creative rebirth for the veteran punk band. While their major label albums saw a once indomitable band looking increasingly long in the tooth, they've sounded nothing but vital since The Process of Belief. Four albums into this cycle and they're still flooring me. The Dissent of Man is of course no great departure from their massive catalog, but to these ears it has more drive and purpose than a hundred young upstarts combined. I want nothing else than a quality Bad Religion record every few years to completely validate my continued love for this genre.
Is there a young punk band out there that shows more promise than the Menzingers? Chamberlain Waits sounds like it was written with the express purpose of touching on everything the Punknews community loves. From one moment to the next it's gritty and gruff, infectiously poppy, viscerally emotional, and firmly in touch with its punk roots. I've been revisiting this album all year long and it truly feels like a winner to me. If they knock their followup out of the park there's no reason the Menzingers can't find a place among the Lawrence Arms and Dillinger Four in our community's pantheon.
I have fairly predictable listening habits. If I ever find myself thoroughly dumbfounded with a release from a band I like, I'll reach a point where I must re-listen frequently to in an effort to figure out the band's intent. In this scenario, more often than not, I will grow to absolutely adore the album. Real Ghosts Caught on Tape is one of those records. Back in their early days I was first in line to criticize Fake Problems for sounding more than a little derivative of Against Me! and the trending folk-punk sound. These days nobody would dare make that claim. Real Ghosts challenges the band's fans to follow them down a road where the subtle core of a song is more important than the style it's wrapped in. While they'll certainly lose some old fans along the way, the artistic payoff could be incredible. This is the Fake Problems I want to hear more from.
I can not overstate how deeply I am in love with this record. Of course we're going to lump praise on our number one albums of the year, but this is so far beyond that. This is desert island love. The Monitor has bumped a record off my "choose 10 albums you'd die with on a hypothetical desert island" list. That certainly doesn't happen every year. Hell, it doesn't necessarily happen every five years. I see no flaws in The Monitor. That doesn't mean there are none, but I'm so thoroughly charmed by what I like here that I'm oblivious to them. The Monitor stitches together a rambling narrative that draws lines between imagery from the U.S. Civil War and some undefined level of young existential angst. However, just when you think the high concept might creep too far up its own ass...hey, there's a fist-pumping youth crew-style sing-along! Suddenly, there's a gleefully dumb-as-bricks pop-punk chorus! This is an invigorating, creatively enthralling record built from the broken pieces of lesser punk songs. It's a validation that you can do incredible, engaging and original things within this genre without losing what makes punk so damn enjoyable in the first place. That, my friends, is really fucking exciting.