I spent last weekend in Portland with my brother, and while driving about the Mount Hood wilderness we noticed that all the rock stations played primarily grunge. My guess is that this Northwestern oasis latched onto neighboring Seattle’s aura back in the 90s and still hasn’t let go. I’m not arguing that there aren’t some incredible musicians in Portland (Joanna Newsom, Blitzen Trapper, M. Ward, Laura Veirs) but it seems the popular rock music in the area remains the music of the 90s. This led to a discussion between the two of us about the 2000s. Looking back through history, ever era had a distinct musical style, yet the past ten years didn’t yield anything definitive. Some may argue that it’s too soon to analyze the 2000s in general, but I guarantee that by the year 1999 anyone would define the 90s as a decade of grunge and gangsta rap.
My brother argued that all music anymore is recycled recreations of the past, that all avenues have been explored and now musicians are just driving up and down the driveway on their dirt bikes. I thought about arguing his point by bringing up artists who continued to push the musical stratosphere into unexplored territories (Animal Collective, Deerhoof, Battles) but in terms of mainstream music, he had a point. Even in indie music the art of imitation has become popular with many bands utilizing retro recording techniques to try and capture the sound of an era long ago.
I would like to contend that I stand against the idea of sound theft, yet I can’t get enough of throwback bands like Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, The Black Lips, and The Dutchess and the Duke. But the artist I have the most difficult time with enjoying is the latest release from the Florida band The Drums. It reeks of rip-off. To be more exact, it virtually duplicates The Smiths, almost verbatim:
simple 80s drum track- CHECK
jaunty indie guitar riffs- CHECK
irresistible pop sensibility- CHECK
The only thing missing is the distinctive crooning voice of Morrissey. Smiths without Morrissey equals crap, right? Here in lies the dilemma. Not only is a Morrissey-less Smiths listenable, it’s downright charming. The playful back-and-forth between Jonathan Pierce and Jacob Graham of The Drums will have you feeling warm-fuzzies from one lovable song to the next. After the first track “Best Friend” you may try convincing yourself that the magic you just witnessed was a cute little stroke of luck. You’ll tell yourself, “When you emulate The Smiths, of course you’ll have at least one decent song.”
Even the lyrics about a dead friend in “Best Friend” resemble something Morrissey would have come up with:
But just when you think the duo has run out of pop-petroleum, the next song revs up and you’re continuing your joyous hike down happy trails. The band doesn’t stray from the Smith’s/Cure/New Order style though; it’s all 80s, all the time. Can you imagine witnessing a mugging and being filled with joy? Now just imagine if the person being robbed is Johnny Marr. Do you see why this album makes me feel dirty? Only on “Down By the Water” does the band stray from the indie 80s vibe, yet even this song is a grave robbing of Buddy Holly’s mangled corpse.
I listen to “Down By the Water” while taking a bath to wash away my shame:
I read somewhere on the internet (so it has to be true!) that the band claims to have recorded this album in a bedroom with only a guitar, an old keyboard, a microphone, a tambourine, and a reverb machine. Although I doubt this mythology is true, I want to believe it SO badly because if it were true, in a strange way it would validate my addiction to their album. Unfortunately, I struggle to accept this story. This album sounds too polished, too perfectly premeditated to have been an organic creation.
I love this album too damn much to accept that it is a total stylistic hold-up. When I listen to “Let’s Go Surfing” I try to convince myself that they’ve taken the 80s sound and made it a hybrid of surfer rock, 50s pop, and modern rock, but I know in the end that I’m fooling myself. Whistling, bleeping keyboards, and short doo-wop chant interludes don’t mask the fact that this album isn’t trying to change the world. It’s simply fun. Crap. I hate fun.
“Let’s Go Surfing”, a nominee for both “Best Song of 2010” and “Worst Video of 2010”:
I finally had to concede that, yes, this album is grand theft audio and that’s okay. Not everything has to be completely original, or in this case, remotely original. My brother may be right about the 2000s lack of an original sound, but imitation is happening everywhere. With the likes of “Hawaii Five-O” on TV and “The Karate Kid” in theaters, I like to believe that at least in the music world bands aren’t simply remaking classic albums; they are harnessing the essence of the greats, and I guess in the case of The Drums, I’m okay with that.
Speaking of movies, The Drums even rip-off the opening drum track to “Footloose” for “Me and the Moon”. Where’s a Chris Penn dance sequence in a barn when you need one?:
The harmonizing voices on this song perfectly capture the heartbreak of the narrator. Despite being near his lover, he still feels miles apart. A few weeks ago I was playing this song in my classroom during journal time, and one of my students commented that it sounded like something from “Juno”. I agreed, although I don’t remember Moldy Peaches ever sounding this damn beautiful.
“Best God in Show”
Despite releasing a couple lackluster albums in the past few years, NOFX still have a gift for catching you off-guard. On the surface, “Best God in Show” is a happy-hippy jam, but when you get past the joyful ska riff and cheery organ, NOFX is once again questioning religion in a way that is both humorous and thought-provoking.
48. M. Ward
“Never Had Nobody Like You”
Once you get past the use of a double negative in the title, you will find M. Ward has written another hum-able gem that would fit perfectly alongside other classics on “Transfiguration of Vincent”. It’s just too bad he had to let Budweiser throw it into a comercial about guys hi-fiving…who okays these things and deems them as funny?
“DOA (Death to Auto-Tune)
Jay-Z is the godfather of the rap world. When the Hova says auto-tune is dead, you better take notice. Like a modern-day Biz Markie, Jay-Z howls “Na, na, na, na! Hey, hey, hey! Goodbye!” off-key throughout the song, along with the use of live instrumentation, ranging from a squealing saxophone to a sultry guitar line. While most of the rap world has become a caricature of their former selves, Jay-Z continues to sing his own song, even if it is out of tune.
46. Bon Iver
Wait just one second Jay-Z…like a musical zombie, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon breathed new life into the auto-tuner with this captivating new approach to the played-out device. Somehow the old timey lyrics of “I’m building a still” work perfectly through the 21st century lens, sounding like a robotic barbershop quartet. And somehow, Vernon is still able to convey the loneliness and solitude of being alone in the woods.
In a year where we got a glimpse of the stock market’s dirty under-belly and the corruption of American big business, it’s nice to see Slayer take a break from wreaking havoc on Christianity and focusing on the sick fucks who have preyed upon the middle class of this country for too long. There is something poetic about such an “evil” band taking on the true evil of this “land of deceit”.
44. Ty Segall
Ty Segall is often banging away at his guitar from start to finish, but on “Lovely One” he takes a break from his distortion pedal, starting off with a calming little guitar strum, eventually leading into the infectious chorus that would fit perfectly alongside The Animals and The Loving Spoonful on a classic oldies station.
43. Lightning Dust
This song seems pressing despite the lack of a real drum track. The pulsing undertone continues from start to finish while the piano and organ truly take shape as percussion instruments, driving the two-minute romp through its existential path. How can something sound aged and cutting edge at the same time?
42. Pissed Jeans
Historically, hardcore punk songs are about several defined topics: criticizing the government, criticizing the use of drugs/alcohol, or conveying how horrible it is to be a teenager. Pissed Jeans like to take a different stance. On past albums they’ve lamented the difficulties of being a stalker, the shame felt when cumming, and the perils of scrapbooking. On their 2009 release “King of Jeans” they even present the misery felt during the process of losing your hair:
I still can’t believe this is happening. I’m not fifty years old. I consider myself a young adult and want others to see me this way. If my looks deteriorate, it’ll wreak havoc on my self-esteem. Is that what I have to look forward to?
Although humorous (and hitting a little close to home for a bald fella like myself) the song also conveys the anguish and frustration that is associated with growing old and losing your youth, one hair at a time.
I know what you’re thinking: “How could he put this song so low on his list?!” Yes, I will admit that when I first heard this song during the spring, I played it endlessly. It’s catchy as hell and is even capable of getting a white boy like myself on his feet dancing (after a few beers mind you). Unfortunately, my love has turned to loathing due to the Cadillac ads played in heavy rotation during the commercial break of every football game. Despite this hatred, I still can’t deny what a great song it is, or was (don’t worry, Phoenix gets more cred on this list…)
40. The Love Language
You’ve heard this song before, but in actuality you haven’t. Weird? That is the power of The Love Language my friends. Quit trying to remember where you heard it and just sit back and enjoy the tune you’ve never heard before but swear you have.
“Something’s Squeezing My Skull”
When Morrissey expresses that he is “doing fine”, you know he’s lying. Despite being an older gentleman, he still seems to be dealing with his demons, some of which take pleasure in squeezing his skull. Drugs? The perils of relationships? Insanity? Who cares really. At least musically Morrissey sounds better than ever, with a Gang of Four, angular riff and the closing chant of “Don’t give me anymore!” that you just can’t get enough of.
38. The Thermals
“Now We Can See”
The fact that you are hooked on this song within 10 seconds says it all.
37. Sonic Youth
“Thunderclaps for Pyn”
When I lived in Omaha I liked to go to the Old Country Buffet on barbeque night. I’d skip over the salad bar, the fried foods section, and even noodle salad row in search of one thing: BBQ ribs. I’d fill my plate with ribs, and ribs only. When all that remained was a plate with meat-less bones I’d go back for seconds, engulfing a pig’s entire rib cage by the end of my visit. Sonic Youth’s “The Eternal” is much like a buffet line, featuring a wide range of Sonic sounds from over the years, ranging from the art noise of early days to the sparser atmospheres of recent albums. But, like a plate of short ribs, this past year I often found myself skipping over the other tunes in search of a nice earful of “Thunderclaps for Pyn”. Yummy!
36. Lightning Bolt
How do you make a Lightning Bolt song more chaotic? Add bongos. But there is so much more going on in this song; there is actually a chorus! YES FOLKS! A CHORUS! And if you listen close enough, it almost sounds like a 1960s surfer tune. I can see the beach blanket gogo dancers now…
“The Boys are Leaving Town”
Sure, this song has sentimental value for me, reminding me of my road trip this past summer where Paul and I listened to this at the beginning of our trip and later saw the band perform in Boise, Idaho. But this song made its way on this list for more reasons than the memories associated with it. Simply put, it kicks ass. Being the anti-thesis to Cheap Trick’s “Boys are Back in Town”, Japandroids have taken the classic teenage angst of leaving town and given it a jolt with rolling, jumpy drum fills and passionate, lo-fi vocals.
34. Andrew Bird
“Fitz and the Dizzyspells”
Every interview/review I read about Andrew Bird’s 2009 release “Noble Beast” focused heavily on the album’s use of whistling. This is for good reason. Every song on the album features whistling at some point, an aspect that becomes annoying pretty quickly. Only on “Fitz and Dizzyspells” does Andrew find a happy medium between his violin and pierced lips, creating a joyful romp that begs you to put a smile on your face.
33. Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Karen O singing about leather? I’m sold.
32. Animal Collective
In the past few years the tribal sounds of bands like MIA and El Guincho have become more and more popular. How soon we forget that Animal Collective brought this sound to the forefront years ago. On “Merriwether Post Pavillion” the boys finish the album off with “Brother Sport”, a tropical rumpus that works perfectly as a final track due to its celebratory tone. It also serves as a reminder that the Collective can still make you shake your ass off if they really want to.
31. Lou Barlow
“The One I Call”
I know, I know. I hate love songs too. And I’ll admit, Lou Barlow’s “One I Call” would probably work great on a John Cusack chick flick. But you can’t resist its earnest lyrics nor can you deny the comfort of the combination of Lou’s voice and his guitar. If I saw Lou on the street, I’d probably yell to him, “Great song Lou!” to which he’d glare at me in disgust (inside joke).
30. Blank Dogs
Guided By Voices meets The Cure circa 1980s? Oh, what a sweet combination, like peanut butter and jelly.
“Dear Coach’s Corner”
Propagandhi usually rage against racism, government, and of course the fact that “Meat is murder”. But never before have I heard them write about such unique subjects as they do on “Supporting Caste”. The best has to be “Dear Coach’s Corner”, a vial criticism of the Canadian hockey show “Coach’s Corner” (I guess with Bush out of office, their song material got cut in half). The ranting tune basically states an annoyance with announcers conveying their own agendas when in the end, it’s just a game. Shut the fuck up:
Dear Ron McLane, I wouldn’t bother with these questions
if I didn’t sense some spiritual connection.
We may not be the same, but it’s not like we’re from different planets.
We both love this game so much we can hardly fucking stand it.
There is something admirable in Propagandhi’s approach; no one is free from being criticized. Who wouldn’t like to hear a song ripping into Bill Walton, Bob Davie, or Joe Buck?
28. Jay Reatard
Everything in this song has its function. The “lade-da-da” that starts the song leads into a sweet little acoustic guitar lick, jumping straight into Jay’s yelling anthem, and finally kicking into the fist pumping chorus. And then, when you think you’ve figured it all out, the song finishes off with a killer closer that would put “Hey Jude” to shame. Jay Reatard is a master songwriter; it’s about time we all accept his God-liness.
27. Matt and Kim
“Good Ol’ Fashion Nightmare”
Matt and Kim songs are so simple. A plinking piano over a pounding drum beat and Matt’s nasally whine. Yet, with only these few elements they are able to write irresistable pop hits. While “Daylight” may be considered their breakout hit in 2009, “Good Ol Fashion Nightmare” is just as charming and replay-able.
“My Night With the Prostitute From Marseille”
When I heard Beirut was releasing a double CD (one disc of them performing with a mexican mariachi band and another of Zach Condon singing over electronic music), I expected the first CD to be the better of the two but was disappointed by his Mexican offering. Instead, I fell in love with the second disc of five dance songs, devoid of trumpets and accordians. While two of the songs are about hookers, “My Night With the Prostitute From Marseille” is the obvious stand-out of the album.