There’s no real reason to be snippy about how pointless it is to look back on an entire year’s worth of music and say what’s best and what was crap. There is reasonable suspicion, however, when three of the nation’s most trusted music criticism sources unanimously agree that the best album of the year is also the one most recently released. It was also the one most hyped to a point of being inescapable, just by the man’s sheer public persona. A well-oiled PR machine trumps talent, I suppose.
But could it also be that the great majority of the music, by and large, has been absolutely forgettable? Every list this year looks the same — and while that may not be a huge shocker to some, there is usually some major discrepancy among different publications. So take that with a grain of salt: the year’s best album is the one made by the guy who’s constantly hyping himself and keeping himself present in the public’s consciousness. Shocker? No. Just really disappointing.
But this is Electric Comic Book, damn it. We’re not here to debate the merits of music other than true-blue, red-blooded rock and roll, or even debase those other genres simply because it’s mainstream. That’s for the above linked critics to take care of when they’re feeling bad about themselves to do.
Instead, what we’re gonna do is go back. We’re going to take a look at some of the records we missed over the year, and judge them as if they all came out yesterday. There is no list here; only harsh scrutiny at the things that really matter to you and me. What are those things? Well. . . B.P. Fallon answers, the things we believe in.
I believe in Elvis Presley. I believe in Jerry Lee. I believe in Dr. Winston. I believe in you and me.
Electric Comic Book missed out on quite a bit this year. And looking at a lot of the ‘Best’ lists, a lot of these albums were by bands who had let me down before. Maybe they changed their sound too much, or they didn’t change at all. Maybe they didn’t try as hard as they should, or maybe they completely changed the line-up. Maybe they released a slap-dash collection of demos, halfheartedly recorded and committed to demo. Maybe they released a full album of songs that just, ultimately, don’t fucking matter. Maybe the bands never fucking mattered.
I spent a lot of this year catching up on stuff released in the previous year. And maybe that’s a habit of either never having the money at the time, or being so afraid that you get caught up in a band’s rising hype, and tie yourself to knowing them now before everyone else does. Some bands are capable of escaping that, and others seem to grow comfortable into that expanding fame, attention, and accessibility.
The black keys – “Brothers”
And that last reason may have been one of the reasons why I hated the Black Keys’ last album, Attack and Release. I’ll admit it, it was just so clean and pop-oriented, even for all the so-called psychedelic flourishes put up by Danger Mouse. I loved the first three Black Keys albums, and even when there’s nothing particularly memorable about it, their fourth, Magic Potion, is still a very rewarding listen for Dan Auerbach’s incredible guitar work. Songwriting may have taken a back seat, but it let him explore the sonic possibilities of one man with a love for the blues and a sense of potential akin to Jimi Hendrix’s playing.
I really wanted to avoid Brothers. Their leading single, “Tighten Up,” seemed to be everywhere, from trailers to softly playing the back of previews for FOX’s line-up. And as much as I loved it, I wanted to avoid getting that album, and I managed to do so, despite being attached to the fun and quirkiness of everything surrounding their hype. I so loathed Attack and Release, that even listening to it again in preparation for Brothers felt like a chore.
But how stupid do I feel now that I’ve given it a spin, and realize that Brothers was the next logical step for the band after Magic Potion. From the opening jaunty, and fun rhythm of “Everlasting Light,” and through the juke-R&B sound of “Ten Cent Pistol,” Brothers is a retreat back to what made the Keys the Keys, with that signature ‘mid-fi’ sound and relying on the primitiveness of the blues and their own playing. But let me reiterate: that R&B/soul quality that is more prevalent in this album is what is most exciting about it, that it feels natural for the Black Keys. Even with left over synth/keyboard touches left over from Attack and Release, it fits better here on Brothers, where the songwriting feels more like it calls for them, rather than just an aesthetic touch they added after the fact. And then there’s those moments that feel like classic Black Keys, where you can hear the buzz of the amplifier loud in the background, like “Sinister Kid.”
Grade: B. There are plenty of new key tracks now added to the Black Keys oeuvre, like “Unknown Brother,” “Everlasting Light,” “Howlin’ For You,” and yes, I doubt the whistling of “Tighten Up” will ever leave my head. So consider this a reconciliation with the Black Keys for me. It may not be as classic as any of the first three, or play like a grand secret like Magic Potion, but this is a vast improvement over the last one.
The Dead Weather – “Sea of Cowards”
Next stop on this rocket ship to the stars is a band I’ve had a rather tumultuous relationship with. I’ve made it known in the past that I found it difficult to like this new direction for artists I’ve come to grow familiar with, even when they take radical new directions, each one more different from the last. But the reality is I can’t stay stubbornly set against a band that, I cannot deny, is actually a lot of fun to listen to and is, without a doubt, a technically great group.
What is most frustrating about their debut, Horehound, replicates itself here on Sea of Cowards. It would seem that, to some bands, having a unique sound is enough to be original, and the focus should be to sound like that ideal all the time, songwriting be damned. There’s very few tracks on Horehound that sound any different from one another, and there’s much of the same on Sea of Cowards. “Blue Blood Blues” sounds similar to “I Cut Like a Buffalo.” “Die By the Drop?” “Hang You From the Heavens.” Hell, even image-wise, the songs are similar. And the fact remains that Alison Mosshart’s voice is so unique, that in front of any fuzz pedal that band sounds like the Kills.
But Sea of Cowards does have it’s moments of inspired lunacy that is more fun to listen to, even for all of the band’s darker elements. “I’m Mad” is one, being an exciting piece of progressive pop, veering between the simple proclamation and the song’s louder, fuller jam middle. “No Horse” is a great straightforward rocker, with a simple blistering, jumping intro from Dean Fertita’s guitar. And “Gasoline,” a blues-reggae mishmash that shows that, unlike Horehound, there’s more forethought into these songs.
And surprisingly, my favorite moment on the entire album is the final track, “Old Mary,” with the spoken-word, accompanied only by an ambient buzzing noise, and a clicking noise, that lets Jack White unleash his inner Captain Beefheart a la “The Dust Blows Forward ‘ The Dust Blows Back.” And like much of the rest of the song, there is an invocation of that sinner on the brink of salvation, before slipping back into desperation. It’s one of the best characteristics of White’s songwriting, that he can create a vivid image, and its counterpoint, in the music. When the rest of the band comes in, a piano tinkles a haunting memory, while blasts of noise arrive like horns in a mariachi tune, and they’ve included, what sounds like, a found recording of an infant babbling. It’s the most exciting track here.
Grade: B-. While I’m still not won over completely by the Dead Weather as single entity, I do know a good collection of musicians making a terrific album when I hear it. Fact remains is that this is a terrific mix of everything that Alison Mosshart, Jack Lawrence, Dean Fertita and Jack White each bring to the table, and at least here things are little clearer than they were on their debut.
The Black Angels – “Phosphene Dream.”
The Black Angels specialize in that brand of neo-psychedelia that critics are quick to point as being purely that belonging to the White Light/White Heat era of Velvet Underground, while ignoring that, in reality, the Velvets were even a little more melodic and directly in debt to straight rock and roll traditions than the Black Angels tend to be — though, a track like “Telephone” may be an exception that proves the rule, and there certainly are hooks throughout that drown awash in drone. Yes, a lot of it is stylish sonic posturing, but in this day and age, it’s very unique for a band of their stature to come away with this sound for so long. And if it isn’t about color and orchestration like VU, then its the sense of vocal melody comes from Jim Morrison’s more hazy outings.
Phosphene Dream is their third outing, and still emphasize this sense of being stoned and brooding, but cuts out some of the atmospherics from their other albums and exchange it for straighter songwriting. Gone are epic-length tracks and freakouts for something a little neater, and a little more accessible, just the tiniest bit. After the stoned opener “Bad Vibrations,” the follow up “Haunting at 1300 McKinley” is a freaky blues-based garage number with a rhythm similar to one of the freakier moments of the earlier Black Keys albums. The titular “Phosphene Dream” practically follows suit; the band remains dedicated to a sonic wall, while singer Alex Maas veers dangerously close to something of a poppy melody that could be considered ‘fun’ by some stretch of the imagination, and lyrics that remain with a firmly snotty view of the world.
Grade: C. The Black Angels are a great band, and I’m sure they’re even better live. And they make good albums, where there’s nothing necessarily bad about them, but they’ve yet to make a truly amazing album that shows some real growth and effort. For now, they’re a unique group with a lot to offer.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – “Beat the Devil’s Tattoo
Ever since their first album, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club has been weighed down with the perception that they’re little more than Jesus and Mary Chain imitators, with their swirling feedback and fuzzed guitars. Their third album, Howl, showed that the band has a side indebted to Americana. This album Beat the Devil’s Tattoo mixes their terrific psychedelic early work with the soulful folk of Howl, resulting in their best album since Take them On, On Your Own. Perhaps it’s a renewed interest in the group’s own work since the final departure of drummer Nick Jago and addition of Leah Shapiro, or perhaps that the band is at a point where they feel they can do this sort of career retrospective on a solid body of work produced by a fantastic group that has constantly sat just beneath the surface of a more mainstream acceptance. Whatever the case, they are firing on all cylinders on Beat the Devil’s Tattoo, and it shows on the terrific darkly fun titular track. “Conscious Killer” is a terrific rebel rouser, damn near danceable, like “Whatever Happened To My Rock and Roll (Punk Song)?” before it. And a true stand out from anything the band’s ever done before, “River Styx” has a rhythm that jumps like a dark carnival, a short trip in song that you’d expect from Tom Waits, but it’s all B.R.M.C. here, baby.
A slower number, “The Toll” dramatically cuts the pace, even though it’s not even the first acoustic number on the album — that distinction belongs to “Sweet Feeling,” which has the benefit of perfect timing on the album and having an aura that belongs to an English band’s interpretation of American country. In fact, “Long Way Down” also seems to be a toss-off of an acoustic number. But everything comes together again with the trippy, swirled “Half-State” that feels like vintage B.R.M.C.
Grade: A-. I love their first self-titled album, and I’m a little disappointed they didn’t stick with a much darker ambiance through the albums that followed. That album was moody, trapped in and of its own being. Beat the Devil’s Tattoo is the first album since then to feel like that, with excellent songwriting to boot. Even with its lows, Beat the Devil’s Tattoo is an instant modern great, and with time, might be a classic.