Friday, December 17, 2004
A Stupid "Best of '04" List
Let's start with the Biggest Surprises. Yea, so what if U2 turns out yet another great record? It's what we expect; anything less would be disappointing.
Topping this list has got to be Green Day's American Idiot. Skip the title track that leads off the album, or don't - pay attention to it, as it's the only "traditional" GD track on the album and sets up the surprise that comes upon realizing that the second track is a 9-minute-long melody consisting of approximately 5 seperate movements. This then leads into the spectacular "Holiday", which pretty much covers what's wrong with the world this year in three minutes while burying anything and everything that GD held sacred back in the days of slacker suburban culture. "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" sounds like nothing we've heard before from these guys, and then we get into the substance of the album. Truly amazing. How many times in music history has a band re-invented itself so thoroughly 10 years after hitting it big with what was essentially a gimmic?
Next up is Zakk Wylde's Black Label Society and Hangover Music: Vol. IV. This is a laid-back blues-rock album with loads of acoustic guitar and virtually no straight-up metal musicianship. But yet it's from Zakk Wylde. That doesn't compute. Think if it as his version of Alice in Chain's Jar of Flies, I guess. Regardless of what it takes to properly comprehend this whole situation, it's actually quite good.
The Drive-By Truckers make this list, which in itself is surprising considering the quality of their past two albums. But the drop-dead excellence of The Dirty South is enough for me to proclaim it as the rock album of the year, but more significantly, I honestly think they take the reigns of the top southern-rock band of all time. And even that doesn't do justice to the blend of rock, blues, and country that DBT blends together. Ranging from the three-guitar assault of "Where the Devil Don't Stay" to the intense solo-acoustic twang of "Cottonseed", this album covers a huge chunk of Western music (despite the title, hip-hop somehow didn't make the cut). "Daddy's Cup" should be the official song of NASCAR, if indeed that racing series could somehow remember its roots, "Carl Perkin's Cadillac" is a beautiful and honest tribute to the founding fathers of rock-and-roll, and "Danko/Manuel" pays tribute to a couple of fallen musicians that most rockers wouldn't even recognize, much less honor in song. Southern Rock Opera may have been more expansive and Decoration Day more intimate and personal, but The Dirty South combines the best of both and shows the work of a band at its prime.
It shouldn't be surprising that Bad Religion can still turn out the best political punk rock in the universe, but the ferocity of The Empire Strikes First earns them a nod. The title track combines with "Let Them Eat War" to blow away any theory stating that superb protest music is the exclusive domain of Vietnam-era musicians.
Sparta rose from the ashes of At The Drive-In two years ago, but their first effort Wiretap Scars sounded much too tame and mainstream to do any justice to the disaster-waiting-to-happen sonic attack of ATDI. Porcelain addresses this problem with some of the most ambitious work yet in the "emo" genre; in fact, it's probably one of those albums that could be considered a genre-breaker. "Guns of Memorial Park" starts off with a weird little synth riff and leaves it far, far behind in less than 60 seconds with one of the best-sounding choruses in modern-rock history; "Kiss the Villain" follows thereafter with that same derailing-train tension that was missing from Scars. Start to finish, it's a sonic masterpiece, even if the lyrics are occassionally a bit abstract (you won't mistake them for those on Thursday's War All the Time).
While Yellowcard's accessable sound and the seemingly gimmicky use of a violin makes it easy to regard their work as little more than MTV fodder, Ocean Avenue is actually a heck of a good modern-rock album. They manage to pull off the college-boy-whining-about-women lyrical themes with enough honesty and maturity to keep things interesting for those who have moved beyond the days of skipped classes and ramen noodles, and those same attributes even allow them to attempt a 9/11 tribute (complete with voiceovers from some speech I don't recognize) without embarassment. Good production really helps out, too. It might be a bit of a stretch to compare this to Everclear's Sparkle and Fade, but I think similar potential exists in this band.
Now on to the most disappointing of 2004. It'd probably be rude to start the list with Damageplan's New Found Power considering recent events, so I'll skip that one and head right to Hot Water Music's The New What Next. Is this a bad album? Certainly not. But it certainly doesn't following the trend of every HWM release to date, which is to say that it's not an outstanding improvement on the previous work. Too bad. And what's up with AMG comparing it to the Afghan Whigs? I just can't see the resemblence - the Whigs were primarily a guitar-driven funk and soul band whose work revolved around a dark sexuality; HWM adds a bit of punk influence to a Fugazi-like hardcore ethic and worldview. Totally frickin' different.
Mark Lanegan's Bubblegum sadly also makes this list. Perhaps I expected that he'd rise above the usual solo-work inconsistancy, but alas, this album bounces back and forth between standout tracks and stuff that probably should have been left off. Oddly enough, the B-sides on the "Methaphetamine Blues" EP are better than most of the songs on the main release.
Velvet Revolver's Contraband needs to be mentioned simply because it's yet another mediocre supergroup effort in the vein of Audioslave - the whole is less than the sum of its parts. To be fair, these guys pull off the wounded-heart ballad much more effectively than Audioslave and they do hit their stride in a few spots ("Set Me Free" and "Slither" almost bring us back to the good ol' days). But for the most part, Weiland falls flat on the whole anti-society fuck-you attitude that Axl pulled off to make GNR one of the most explosive rock bands of all time. Perhaps that same thing will give these guys a bit of longevity. We'll see. In the meantime, can we get Izzy back? Slash's solos don't seem to carry the same impact that they did when he had the vastly-underrated rhythm guitarist picking up the slack.
Jimmy Eats World and Futures rounds out this list (for now - maybe I'll think of others in a few days). Musically, it's actually quite good, even if it exchanges the punk/post-emo intensity of Bleed American for a more-polished but yet heavy sound. Lyrically, though, it just comes off flat at best, and puzzling at worst. It's not like emo has been about straightforward and easily-intepreted lyrics, and if that was the only fault here, then it'd be no big deal. But the writing on Futures actually seems downright immature. I don't think that the band's vocal delivery is all that strong, either, and certainly lacks the uniqueness of, say, Sunny Day Real Estate. At a make-or-break point in their career, I think JEW fell short of what was expected.
Finally, a short list of solid-but-not-exceptional efforts would have to include the following: Local H's "Whatever Happened to P.J. Soles?" (a very good album, but I expect good things from these icons of Midwestern angst); Taking Back Sunday's "Where You Want To Be"; and the results of Dave Grohl's Probot effort (which shows that metal doesn't have to take itself too seriously to be excellent).
Certainly, it's been a good year for music.