Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Most Anticipated Albums of 2012

I don't normally like doing this sort of thing because January is still way too early in the year to really know what to expect from the musical community. Hell, right now there are only five albums that I put on this list that have titles, one of which has already been delayed for three years. The remaining five are based on a combination of speculation and tentative dates set by band members in interviews. I highly doubt that this list will reflect my favorite albums of the year. That said... everyone else already made their most anticipated albums of 2012 lists and if there's anything I've learned about life it's that if you can't beat 'em... join 'em.

The Sidekicks - Awkward Breeds
I got into the Sidekicks kind of late into the game. So late, in fact, that I'm still really just discovering them. I still dig them though, and I'm looking forward to being on top of things this year and listening to this album when it comes out and not three years later.

fun. - Some Nights
I more or less missed out on the Format completely. It just kind of happened- I don't know how. But when fun. released their debut a few years back, I was on top of that like some metaphor that I don't feel like coming up with. I played it on my radio show every chance I got and I would tell everyone to check it out and tell them that it was essentially what all pop music should be. So naturally, a follow up will be exciting.

The Menzingers - On the Impossible Past
Ever since I first heard about the Menzingers I've been a casual fan, but in the past three months or so I've really come to appreciate them. I also really like the two songs that have been released so far. I'm expecting it to sound more like the mellow side of Chamberlain Waits, but I'm still expecting to enjoy it.

Cheap Girls - Giant Orange
Between The Sidekicks, The Menzingers and Cheap Girls, there are a lot of bands releasing albums this year that are heavily borrowing from 90's alt rock. Tom Gabel is producing this one, but I like this band enough that even if they went with an unknown producer, I would still be looking forward to hearing it. The lead single, Ruby, is promising so far.

The Ataris - The Graveyard of the Atlantic
If the Ataris take any longer to release this album, it wouldn't be far off to dub it their version of Chinese Democracy. A teaser 7" single was released little over a year ago, containing the title track and another song called All Souls' Day, and both songs are really good. I tried to listen to Welcome the Night but I could never really get into it, but even if only half the songs on the full length are in the same vein as the 7" then I would be happy enough. Kris Roe's acoustic album from last November was also a good listen and I hope that he sings his new songs with the same passion that he still has for his older works.

These next five albums are all tentative and there's no official information on them. But it's fun to hope that they all come out this year.

Green Day - Untitled (perhaps Cigarettes and Valentines)
Green Day could re-record their entire first album and I would still be excited about it. They could also re-record Kerplunk and I would line up for it. I'd draw the line there though, because I can only take so many re-recordings of albums. That said, the new songs that I've heard on YouTube so far all sound like Green Day is taking a step away from the big arena anthems and heading toward a straight forward rock sound. I imagine that whatever the end result is will pretty much be what Cigarettes and Valentines was supposed to be (although I also imagine that since Green Day's career has been revitalized since 2003, that it will be more successful than if it had been released when originally planned).

The Gaslight Anthem - Untitled
Not much to say about this one yet, but I haven't been disappointed by a release yet!

The Offspring
I liked Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace a lot outside of the title. Even if it's nothing ground breaking, I hope that the Offspring at least makes another album like that.

Bad Religion
Based on early speculation, the next Bad Religion album may be their last before either a break up or hiatus. I think that's reason enough to look forward to it.

Motion City Soundtrack
My Dinosaur Life broke almost every rule I know about bands. When they released I Am the Movie, it was an incredibly strong debut. Sophomore effort, Commit This to Memory, has some solid songs, but overall it just didn't live up to the same level. By album three, Even If It Kills Me, I just lost interest in the band. So naturally, by signing to a major label and releasing a fourth album, the band shouldn't have even been on my radar. Except it was their best album yet. It's rare for a band to be able to do that and it's gotten me excited for the band all over again. Hopefully they can deliver!

Okay, 2012. Bring it on.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Elite of Just Alright - Agony & Irony

Time to make a confession: I was only a casual Alkaline Trio fan until the year that Agony & Irony came out. Sure, I owned Crimson and I liked the songs from Good Mourning, but none of that really changes the fact that I never considered myself a huge fan of the band until 2008.

With that in mind, maybe that's why I'm okay with the fact that Agony & Irony is a fairly big departure from the band's signature sound (so to speak... I guess after listening to Crimson it wasn't that big of a surprise that they were headed in a bigger sounding direction). I'm also okay with it being the band's major label debut (or their only major label album), but as far as I know the whole "signing to a major" thing didn't bother fans too much.

So, why do I like this album? It's a catchy, albeit dark, pop album. The band kind of loses the Misfits/Social Distortion stuff but they pick up more of a Cure-esque vibe. Maybe even a little bit of Pretty Hate Machine-era Nine Inch Nails. You know, the whole "dark pop" song thing that some bands have going on. I'm not too big on the whole "dark wave" scene, and I don't want to insult or incorrectly cite a band as a part of the movement, so I won't draw it out too much, but Alkaline Trio definitely used more keyboards on this album. Combined that with memorable hooks, and you get, from my understanding, a synth-heavy, post-punk album

The one thing that can be said about Alkaline Trio is that they can write a goddamn catchy song. Whether or not that song is a "good" song is (believe it or not) rather subjective and up to debate. But when they (mostly Matt Skiba) find a really good hook, they [he] abuse that hook to no end and wind up writing tunes that get stuck in my head with ease. While I'm sure being released on a major label had its perks, it doesn't really show all that much in the songs. Yeah there's an amped up production value, and the little things to them that make them stick out, such as the ticking clock sound on Lost and Rendered or the hand claps on Calling All Skeletons. Okay... so maybe those little things would've been there even if the band had stuck with Vagrant or something, but it's those little things that help make the songs stick out and give them some personality instead of just being a bland, straight-forward rock song.

Much like other albums that I've discussed in this column, Agony and Irony is a pretty polarizing album for fans, with most people hating it based on the fact that it sounds way too different than what people liked them for sounding like. But even if the band released an album that the fans wanted them to, it just would've been a bunch of modern punk songs aping the Misfits and Social Distortion and people would've called them out on that, too (which is exactly what happened when they released 2010's This Addiction). I'm going to end this one with a lyrics from Live Young, Die Fast (as heard on this very album). "I've never been big on originality." Think about it.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Elite of Just Alright - In With the Out Crowd

I don't think I know a single person who likes Less Than Jake that will admit to enjoying Less Than Jake's In With the Out Crowd. That's not entirely true but it wouldn't be far off from saying that for every one person who does say they like it, there are at least twenty to twenty-five people who hate it. People disliked Anthem, too, although I've seen more people jump to that album's defense than they have In With the Out Crowd. Much like Rancid's Indestructible, Less Than Jake found themselves with an extremely polarizing record among their fanbase.

A lot of the hate comes from the fact that the songs just sound different. The band's brass section only makes an appearance on a handful of tracks while the rest of the songs focus on the standard rock format- vocals, guitar, bass, drums and a catchy, well-produced chorus. The band acknowledges that most of the fans strongly dislike the album (the last two times I saw them live they would make comments such as "we released an album two years ago that you all hated... here's a song from it!") but I don't think that the band is given enough credit for this album. Okay, I would be lying if I said I wasn't one of those fans who thought that the album could have used more horns on it but I was just in denial that my favorite third wave ska bands were finding less and less use for their horn section. If Streetlight Manifesto could always find something for their brass instruments even when they weren't playing ska, why couldn't other bands?

But when I actually listened to the songs, I began to realize that they weren't all that bad. There are a few things that happened in between when this album dropped and when I began to enjoy it, but it mostly has to do with the fact that during my freshman year of college I began to listen to the entire Descendents discography outside of Milo Goes to College, and I finally was able to get my hands on some ALL albums which broadened my pop punk spectrum. I also went through a Foo Fighters phase in between my first and second years of college (and if there's anything that can be said about the Foo Fighters, it's that they know how to write a damn good chorus).

With this in mind, take another listen to it. Maybe Stephen Egerton doesn't throw a whole lot of upstrokes into his playing like Chris does, or maybe Karl Alvarez will take his bass for a walk in different patterns from Roger, but it doesn't change that a lot of these songs have a heavy ALL influence on them. There's also a slight hint of Epitaph-era Descendents in some of the songs, with the straight forward power chords and whatnot. Rest of My Life sounds kind of like a blink-182 song, but that's probably because Mark Hoppus co-wrote it. This is, for all intents and purposes, a pop punk album and it has it written all over. It's actually more surprising that people don't like this album, as pop punk has been a pretty standard genre for Less Than Jake. Even in the lyric booklet for Pezcore they had a little cartoon guy complaining about how the band got some "pop punk in [his] ska." That's not really evidence for why people should like the album- but it is a sign that the band has always known that they played pop punk with horns, so for them to go and write a bunch of pop punk songs isn't really all that surprising.

Some people complain about the song writing and how it has deteriorated over the years. With the exception of Overrated (Everything Is), (which is just an ode to complaining about not liking anything), the album seems to be pretty straightforward Less Than Jake. I'm not going to pretend to be a lyrical expert, but knowing that there were ten years in between the releases of Losing Streak and In With the Out Crowd, it's no surprise that maybe the band has shifted gears in subject matter. People complain about bands like blink-182 writing about being a kid when they're in their 30's, but then a band like Less Than Jake stops writing songs about being young and the same people still whine. There's just no pleasing some people.

I don't want to say that people just need to shut up and widen their musical tastes a little more in order to enjoy this album, because that's kind of cliché but also because it's kind of pretentious. While it might be far from their best work, but In With the Out Crowd is still a solid pop punk album that doesn't get the credit that it deserves.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Elite of Just Alright - Indestructible

Rancid has always been a fairly polarizing band. Even when it comes to an album like ...And Out Come the Wolves, there will always be that group of people who dislike Rancid for their "sellout" behavior despite the fact that unlike some of their peers, such as Green Day, Bad Religion or The Offspring, Rancid only flirted with the idea of signing to a major label before deciding to stick with Epitaph (Epitaph's current status as an independent label is up for debate, but the 90's were a different time). It comes with the territory of being a snobby teenager- any punk band to have success, whether achieved independently or not, is automatically marked as a "sellout" band and then that image is just kind of committed to memory.

That said, Indestructible doesn't have the same kind of defense that ...And Out Come the Wolves has. This is because Indestructible, while technically released on Tim Armstrong's Hellcat Records, was actually distributed by Warner Bros. This helped to release the lead single, Fall Back Down, to wider audiences and Indestructible became the band's most successful (in terms of money) album. Not to mention that the music video for Fall Back Down featured cameos by Benji Madden, of Good Charlotte, and Kelly Osbourne. Naturally, people were upset by this. If Rancid's near-signing to a major and getting MTV airplay in the 90's was cause for calling the band "sellouts" then what chance did they stand with this album?

(Just to note, I am aware that Let the Dominoes Fall charted higher than Indestructible when it was released.)

And yet... contrary to how teen punks across the Internet reacted to Indestructible, reviews were mostly positive. This is probably because some of these songs are actually really good (or you know, at least really good when added into the rest of the band's discography). If there is anything that Rancid is good at, it's being able to blend and mix sounds, genre-hopping from track to track. It is the exact reason why ...And Out Come the Wolves was such a good album- the band was able to blend punk, rock and ska seamlessly and people loved the band for being able to do that. It's possible that maybe people just weren't expecting an album like Indestructible, especially after Rancid's second self-titled album and Lars Frederiksen's solo debut with the Bastards as both heavily recalled hardcore and street punk of the 80's and late 70's respectively. While those two albums are great examples of how well the band members could pull off punk rock (particularly the Bastards album), Indestructible was a return to showcasing the band's diversity, adding in new elements of pop rock and whatever the hell genre Arrested in Shanghai is (it's not really folk rock, although the lyrics do come off as pretentiously deep and the chorus does recall Dylan a little, so perhaps it's close).

Yes, I think that Indestructible is the successor to ...And Out Come the Wolves, if only in spirit. And that's a statement that I will stand by. Okay, so Fall Back Down was a fairly poppy number that got some airplay on Fuse (and maybe MTV2) and that's not very "punk" of them, but I find it really interesting that almost every negative thing I've heard about Indestructible is how terrible that one song is when there are eighteen other songs on the album. I'm not saying they're all winners (the 1-2 punch of Ghost Band and Tropical London is a bit overwhelming- I realize that getting a divorce can be a really painful process sometimes but that doesn't always mean that the pain will translate well into song), but this album is rather massive so to dismiss it based on the lead single is foolish.

For starters, the band shows that they can still write a song write a song that features heavy feedback and a thick bass on tracks such as Out of Control, Travis Bickle, Django and Roadblock, while also retaining their less frantic, but still rock 'n' roll tendencies on The Spirit of '87 and Born Frustrated. Indestructible is lacking in the ska department, although Red Hot Moon, while not quite Time Bomb part 2, would have been a much better first single, and they keys on Stand Your Ground are very Slackers-esque (probably because Vic Ruggiero played them). Album closer, Otherside is very lyrically close to the first the subject matter found on the first Bastards album while musically it takes a lot of cues from The Way I Feel (the last track on ...And Out Come the Wolves, for those of you who aren't in the know), even going as far as to borrow the na-na-na's.

Indestructible may not be Rancid's best album but it's a far cry from their worst effort. In fact, when paired alongside ...And Out Come the Wolves it makes a good starting point for those interested in becoming familiar with the band.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Elite of Just Alright - Underclass Hero

Since I'm titling this series after a line from the title track of Sum 41's fourth album, I thought it would only be fair to kick things off with 2007's Underclass Hero.

Just some background information: Sum 41 started off as a pop punk band who was heavily influenced by the likes of Iron Maiden and the Beastie Boys. Most people are familiar with this incarnation of the band, especially with the popularity of their single Fat Lip. They tightened things up after that, ditching the party anthems and leaving the 80's hair metal tributes limited to b-sides and live performances. By their third album they took a heavier direction with most songs, going as far as to perform a throwback to the hey day of thrash metal. Then their lead guitarist, Dave "Brownsound" Baksh left the band to focus on a more metal-oriented direction while the rest of the band announced they were going back to a more "pop punk" sound.

Underclass Hero is that "pop punk" album.

The only problem was that this was not the same Sum 41 from 2001. They had done a lot of growing up in the six years that passed between the two releases. They had gone on several world tours. They lost a core member in the line-up. They had gotten caught up in the Congo and got trapped in their hotel while a fight had broken out. Deryck Whibley got married. Things had obviously happened that affected the band in many ways, so naturally writing All Killer, No Filler Part 2 would be out of the question.

In all fairness, the album is kind of a mess in a stylistic sense and it does distract from enjoying the album to its fullest extent. Yes it's true that Sum 41 had explored various genres on their previous albums, but they always managed to hold together a feeling of cohesiveness and Underclass Hero lacked just that. One moment, they're aping John Lennon (the title "Underclass Hero" is an homage to "Working Class Hero" but the opening of The Jester literally borrows the melody) and the next they're taking cues from My Chemical Romance, or they'll throw a song at the listener that can really only be described as "Green Day" (who coincidentally released their cover of Working Class Hero as a single the same summer this album was released) and follow it up with a ballad that might as well be the sequel to Hoobastank's The Reason. Being that it is all over the place, it is kind of hard to follow but it does not mean that any of the individual songs are "bad" per se. In fact, I think that Underclass Hero was really only a let down because everyone was expecting the whole thing to sound like Fat Lip, especially after hearing the lead single, Underclass Hero, it was an easy mistake to assume that. The song was a bouncy, energetic tune with a catchy hook and snotty lyrics that only a 19-year-old could relate to (although die-hard fans know that the chorus was originally from a different, unfinished song, which was released as the Chuck b-side, Subject to Change).

In spite of that first single, the rest of the album takes a darker turn. Lyrics about poor parental relationships and wishing political leaders dead drew lots of comparisons to Green Day's American Idiot, although the album is far from a rock opera. There is the concept of despair and feeling lost, confused and angry that runs through most of the tracks, but there are no main characters, there is no story of running away from home and Deryck never sings about becoming the next messiah. And yet Green Day is still probably the comparison to make when it comes to this album, as they're another former pop punk band to make an album that's all over the place stylistically (I'm referring to 1997's nimrod. in case you haven't caught on).

Sum 41 is at their best when they aren't writing slow ballads (with the obvious exception of Pieces) and they managed to write a bunch of catchy, hard-hitting songs for Underclass Hero. March of the Dogs, King of Contradiction, Confusion and Frustration in Modern Times, hell even The Jester is pretty good once you get past the first 20 seconds.  The key thing to remember about this album is that it's not coming from the same band that wrote All Killer, No Filler, but that it is coming from the same band that wrote All Killer, No Filler AND that wrote Chuck. Underclass Hero is not be the pop punk album that everyone was expecting, there's no arguing that. However, Underclass Hero is the pop punk album that we got. And that is why I consider this album to be a part of the Elite of Just Alright.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Elite of Just Alright

A few months ago, I posted an entry about Animal Boy by the Ramones. While it has some of their well known hits (so to speak), it's definitely an album that most punk rockers would reject from their libraries but I still defended it as one of the stronger entries in the Ramones discography. I titled it "Punk Rock Confessions" and I kind of hoped that it would become a more recurring theme in future entries (that being, taking albums that are largely dismissed by fans and defending their better qualities) but then it quietly died off without a trace.

But now it's 2012 and I've decided to resurrect it in a manner of speaking. The actual premise is the same, but I've given it the new headline "The Elite of 'Just Alright'" (if you think that's a Sum 41 reference, you'd be correct) and I'm going to make a real effort to blog more about albums that really just need to take their time for their impact to be felt.

I've compiled a list of albums I hope to cover in this feature, if only to give readers an idea of what the hell I'm talking about. Maybe once you see some of these titles, you'll understand what I mean by discussing the finer points of lesser albums from an artist's catalog.

Sum 41 - Underclass Hero
Alkaline Trio - Agony and Irony
Green Day - 21st Century Breakdown
Less Than Jake - In with the Out Crowd
The Offspring - Conspiracy of One
Rancid - Indestructible
Taking Back Sunday - New Again
Weezer - The Red Album (anything post-Pinkerton, really)

And so on and so forth. Quite possibly some of those late-90's Bad Religion albums, too. Or maybe just a band's newest album because that's usually the most fashionable one to hate. Of course these albums will have their fans, but these are generally the albums that fans will cite as the worst and this series aims to give them their spot in the limelight.