Monday, December 31, 2012

Top 16 Albums of 2012

It's that time of year again. Time for me to write in length about the albums that came out this year that I loved for no one to read.

This year was incredibly frustrating at first when making this list. Partly because for awhile I felt like there were a bunch of albums that I liked but none that really made a huge impact on me. But also because I wound up making two lists, one for this here blog (which was also shared with the Pop Punk / Rock / Alternative / Emo blog), and one for DyingScene. There's a lot of overlap on the two lists (both in albums and my write ups), but the DyingScene one only goes to ten entries, while this one goes to sixteen. My DyingScene list also covers more of the punk albums that I liked from this year, while this list expands outward a bit more. 

Anywho, here's my list of my sixteen favorite albums of 2012:

16. Masked Intruder – Masked Intruder
What a fine pop punk album this is! Masked Intruder is one of the few bands with a gimmick that translates really well into the studio recordings. My biggest problem with this album (re: my only problem with this album) is that five of the thirteen tracks had already been previously released, four of which were released earlier just this year on the First Offense EP and the band’s split with The Turkletons. Despite that, this is still a fantastic bubblegum pop infused with punk album. Not many pop punk bands can get away with putting this much emphasis on the pop element and still be widely accepted in punk circles, but these boys are on to something.

15. Aspiga – Every Last Piece
From the harsh snarls to the fast musicianship to the heart-on-sleeve self deprecation, these guys remind me a lot of Jawbreaker and early(ish) Saves the Day. As I said in my review: “Think 24 Hour Revenge Therapy meets Through Being Cool.” In other words: really good. Every Last Piece is a little on the short side, to the point that I think this might technically be an EP, but isn’t being straight to the point what punk is all about?

14. Hostage Calm – Please Remain Calm
You know those bands that you always read or hear about but you just never remember to check out? Hostage Calm was one of those bands for me. But from the moment I put on Please Remain Calm I became hooked. Their blending of 60’s orchestral pop, 70’s rock anthem verses, and lyrical themes of modern day despair and uncertainty was so weird and off-putting to me at first that I just had to keep listening. Next thing I knew, I was listening to the album every day for three weeks straight.

13. Cheap Girls – Giant Orange
Apathetic college rock makes its return! Ironically, Giant Orange is probably the band’s most energetic album yet, as well as their best. Ian Graham’s vocals still have that kind of bored tone to them, but he’s never sounded better than he does on this album (I think I once described the band as having an unmatched apathetic energy). Laura Jane Grace’s production on the album helps it to sound slick, but still appropriate for a band of their pedigree.

12. The Sidekicks – Awkward Breeds
The Sidekicks have pretty much dropped all pretenses of being a punk band. But you know what? If that means that we get to have an album like Awkward Breeds because of it, then there’s no reason to be upset. It’s like a mix of Pinkerton, Third Eye Blind, and New Miserable Experience for a new generation.   

11. The Evens – The Odds
Arguably more aggressive than the band’s first two albums, The Odds finds The Evens proving that punk rockers can slow down with dignity and grace. Ian MacKaye and Amy Farina play off each other incredibly well, from MacKaye’s Fugazi-esque chops showing off on his baritone guitar and Farina’s oddball drumming style. As vocalists both members also shine, although Farina’s vocal performance in particular stands out. Maybe I just never listened to The Evens or Get Evens as much as I thought I had, but her voice sounds more powerful than ever all throughout The Odds.

10. Various Artists - The Thing That Ate Larry Livermore
Quick, name some bands that immediately come to mind when you think of pop punk in 2012? If you didn’t list any of the bands that appear on this comp, you’re wrong. Handpicked by Lookout Records founder Larry Livermore, the compilation collects 15 of the best modern pop punk bands (and Night Birds) from across North America. To make things even better, each song was written exclusively for this comp, making it the only place you can get these songs (at least until any of the bands put together a rarities collection).

09. Classics of Love – Classics of Love
These days it seems like less and less high school kids talk about Operation Ivy. Do kids still go through their ska-punk phase, or is that not a thing anymore? Either way, it doesn’t matter because Jesse Michaels (and his backing band Hard Girls) just released the best album of his career so far. Classics of Love is a rapid, hard-hitting punk album bordering on the lines of classic hardcore. And there’s kind of some ska on it, but not really.

08. Matt Pryor - May Day
Matt Pryor released his solo debut, Confidence Man, back in 2008. In the four years between then and now, Matt has clearly gone through a lot that has angered him. Musically, May Day is on par with Confidence Man, although in terms of lyrical subject Pryor takes a much darker approach. He’s no longer singing about having his heartbroken emotionally by girls, but Pryor hasn’t been this bitter and angry since the early days of The Get Up Kids. Yeah, that’s how good it is.

07. Brendan Kelly & The Wandering Birds – I’d Rather Die Than Live Forever
I love this whole “frontman going solo” thing that’s been happening in punk, but sometimes it gets a little boring when it’s just a guy and an acoustic guitar. I mean, I love seeing it live, but only so much can be done with that set up in a studio recording. So when a solo project takes on a full band sound, even if the songs will only ever be performed with an acoustic guitar, I think it’s really cool because then it creates something special and new. Just like Dave Hause and Dan Andriano before him, Brendan Kelly has created a collection of songs packed with full band recordings that may never be performed live exactly as they sound on the album. His various singing styles also give I’d Rather Die Than Live Forever even more of a full band feel to it, which is pretty rad to me.

06. The Dopamines – Vices
The Dopamines have done it again. Clocking in at 21 minutes, Vices tones down from the slick sounds of production of 2010’s Expect the Worst, and it comes off as sounding like a much more proper follow up to the band’s self titled debut. Either way, The Dopamines have still crafted an excellent album for those who miss the pop punk of the early 1990’s.

05. The Gaslight Anthem – Handwritten
The punk influences in The Gaslight Anthem’s music have all but vanished since their inception, but in spite of that the band is (oddly) still widely accepted by the punk community. Handwritten is the band’s heaviest album to date (Sink or Swim is their loudest but it’s not really “heavy”… there’s a difference). The guitars are crunchier, the songs aren’t always fixated around 50’s nostalgia, and Maria is nowhere to be found, but at its core Handwritten is still a Gaslight Anthem album.

04. Green Day – ¡Uno! / ¡Dos! / ¡Tré!
After spending the better part of the last decade trying out rock operas and “mature” sounds, Green Day has finally taken things down a notch. Picking up from where they left off with 2000’s Warning, Green Day’s trilogy takes multiple steps back from the over scale grandness of 21st Century Breakdown, resulting in a massive collection of old and new sounds. Between the three discs, ¡Uno! and ¡Tré! are the more “typical” Green Day-sounding albums, taking the huge riffs of the bands rock operas and applying them to 3-minute power pop tunes. ¡Dos! experiments with more straight forward garage riffs more commonly associated with Foxboro Hot Tubs. Of course not every track is a winner (“Oh Love” is big and dumb; “Nightlife” tries its hand at combining dirty rock with rapped verses and loses; “The Forgotten” is another boring, string-laden ballad), but when you’ve got thirty-seven tracks to choose from the few duds aren’t really going to distract much.

03. Teenage Bottlerocket – Freak Out!
Sometimes bands never need to change their sound. Teenage Bottlerocket is one of those bands. Freak Out!, the band’s fifth full length album, follows the exact same formula that the band has been using since their inception. Given that it’s been three years since They Came From the Shadows was released, it would’ve been nice to have 14 entirely new songs instead of 12 new songs and two being recycled from last year’s Mutilate Me EP. But beggars can’t be choosers, right? And when the songs are this good, it doesn’t really matter.

02. Mixtapes – Even on the Worst Nights
There’s absolutely no reason for me to actually like Mixtapes. In fact, I think I should hate them. They’re obnoxious, one of the vocalists sounds like a second-rate Fat Mike, and they just generally talk a lot of shit both in their lyrics and on their social media presence. Yet they’ve still put together one of the finest pop punk albums I’ve had the pleasure of listening to. Even on the Worst Nights bridges the gap between the two factions of pop punk by featuring guest spots by both Grath Madden (The Steinways, House Boat) and Dan “Soupy” Campbell (The Wonder Years). Not that I expect to see Dear Landlord and The Story So Far on a bill together anytime soon, but if Mixtapes continues on this path that could very well be a reality one day.

01. The Menzingers – On the Impossible Past
What Handwritten lacks in nostalgic songs about a blue-collar lifestyle, On the Impossible Past makes up for in numbers. Perhaps it’s my secret desire to want to be old enough to feel nostalgic, or perhaps it’s because I recently started living a blue-collar lifestyle, but there’s something about The Menzingers’ third disc that kept me listening all year long.

I also have a list of EPs coming soon. Ish. Let's see if I can get it up within a week.
Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Review: blink-182 - Dogs Eating Dogs

This review was also published on DyingScene.

Sometimes the worst people to listen to in regards to a band’s sound are the band members themselves. They’re just too involved and close to the music that they lack the necessary objectivity to accurately describe the music. This rings incredibly true in the case of Dogs Eating Dogs, the newest EP from long-running (and newly independent) pop punk act blink-182. In the time leading up to the EP’s release, drummer Travis Barker stated that the material present would be “100 times better than Neighborhoods”, helping to build up hype concerning the trio’s new music. When added to the fact that the band recently severed ties with Interscope Records and would be releasing the EP independently, Dogs Eating Dogs had the elements of a comeback story written all over it.

Of course, then you have to remember that this is the reformed blink-182 here.

For the most part, the EP is an extension of where Neighborhoods left off. The EP does find the band treading into new and unexplored territory for the band… but not necessarily new and unexplored territory for the band members, which leads to a few pros and cons. The unnecessarily long song introductions and the reverb-cranked-to-11 vocals of Angels and Airwaves are present in more than half the songs, which is a drag for anyone who isn’t also a fan of the spacey/proggy outfit. The aggressive guitars of +44 do squeeze their way into the title track, which is a welcome surprise; although it takes backseat the synth-y and hip hop elements of the rest of the EP.

Much like Neighborhoods, guitarist Tom Delonge sings lead over Mark Hoppus on most of the EP. While this may have been a conscious decision made by the band, it’s not necessarily the best decision, as Dogs Eating Dogs winds up sounding essentially like a collection of the more upbeat Angels and Airwaves songs (e.g., “Everything’s Magic”, “Secret Crowds”) than anything else. Based on the direction of songs from Neighborhoods, this really shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise, just as it’s unsurprising that the tracks that feature more Hoppus are the stronger songs.

Whereas “When I Was Young” and “Disaster” showcase what the band can do when it relegates Hoppus to harmonies and background vocals in the chorus, “Dogs Eating Dogs” and Boxing Day” show that the two vocalists can still share the spotlight without overpowering each other. The title track is, as previously mentioned, musically similar to +44’s “When Your Heart Stops Beating”, with Hoppus taking the verses and Delonge on chorus duty. It’s one of the more straightforward rock songs that the band has written in a long time (rivaling last year’s “Hearts All Gone”). “Boxing Day” takes the exact opposite approach of “Dogs Eating Dogs”, going for the somber, acoustic approach. It’s not quite a ballad in the vein of “I Miss You”, but it cuts it close.

The EP’s final song, “Pretty Little Girl”, is a perfect example of why just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should. As you may or may not know, Travis Barker recently released a collaboration EP with rapper Yelawolf. This friendship eventually led to a blink-182 collaboration with Yelawolf. After the end of the second chorus, Yelawolf enters the song unannounced, raps briefly, and exits just as quickly. It’s puzzling as to why it was included, and the only reason one can really think of is the rapper’s friendship with Barker. Yelawolf’s contributions are just as weird as Green Day’s collaboration with Lady Cobra on their song “Nightlife”, although Green Day at least had a theme going on (even if it wasn’t a particularly successful one), this one is just jarring and out of place.

People will undoubtedly enjoy eating Dogs Eating Dogs. Hell, after a few listens I think it even began to grow on me. But on the whole it remains to be just another blink-182 release. Some of the choruses are really strong and catchy, but the over-layered production make some of the songs feel like leftover Angels and Airwaves songs that Tom brought to Mark and Travis to rework (particularly "Pretty Little Girl"). Maybe Dogs Eating Dogs is better than Neighborhoods, but only around 5x better… possibly 10x, but it’s certainly not at the point of being 100x better. It’s most definitely an appropriate follow up to the band’s last album, continuing the new sounds and themes that the trio has developed since reforming. So there is that... for better or for worse.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Album Review: Ramshackle Glory - Live the Dream

[This review comes from my buddy Charlie. He's out in the desert right now, but when he has the time he tries to keep his writing from getting rusty. He goes by ChuckBS on Reddit.]

Do you remember Johnny Hobo and the Freight Trains? I have a lot of vivid memories of listening to them, their music was exactly what I needed,  it was despondent and nihilistic and damn poetic. It was my jam for any time I had to go out in public for a good six months, and then Pat the Bunny went to rehab and I wrote it off, still despondent and nihilistic and accepting that at that was that and that music I connect to never lasts that long. Or so I thought.

Ramshackle Glory is Pat the Bunny’s new band, and their first album Live the Dream, is a perfect transition from Johnny Hobo and later Wingnut Dishwashers Union. It’s more melancholy than Johnny Hobo, a bit slower and lacking the drug fueled energy that the past bands had. That’s’ mostly because he seems to have kicked the habit.  In a lot of ways it’s more mature. His lyrics still talk about drugs and drinking, but there’s almost a kind of hope in his words. Pat the Bunny sounds like he’s gotten over a hump, only to see that he’s still the same guy, just trying or something different. OK, that may be me projecting, but I think that’s why I really like this album. When I got into Johnny Hobo and the Wingnut Dishwashers Union I really connected to that music. What Pat the Bunny was singing made a lot of sense, or if not I could just relate quite a bit to his feelings. This album manages to do that again. I mean to say that it’s hitting that same level, just that I’m a few years old (and so is Pat the Bunny) and that level is slightly different. He’s not singing about passing out in ditches and missing all his friends who moved a way, he’s singing about wanting freedom from his addictions and missing friends that died.  I guess the easy way to put it is you can hear the fact that he’s been through rehab in his lyrics, and that’s not a bad thing. 

Tracks like Bitter Old Man and We’re All Compost in Training are pretty stand out tracks for me, but I’d say there isn’t a bad song on the album. If anything, More About Alcoholism is a little jarring to follow First Song in terms of the sound and speed of the music, but it works as a song in its own right and with the album as whole.

Live the Dream is definitely worth a listen, especially I you’re a fan of Pat the Bunny’s past work or a somewhat jaded dude who’s learning to cope with the world.

Think it sounds good? Check it out!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Album Review: Green Day - ¡Tré!

When Green Day first announced their trio of albums, ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, and ¡Tré!, frontman Billie Joe Armstrong made some comments regarding the sound of each individual disc. ¡Uno!, he said, was more or less ‘classic’ Green Day, and he wasn’t lying, provided that he considers Green Day circa 1997-2000 as ‘classic’. Armstrong’s garage-rock-by-way-of-Foxboro Hot Tubs description of ¡Dos! was dead-on, even if the album felt a little too same-y all the way through. And when it came to ¡Tré!, the third and final album of the trilogy, Armstrong said it would be a “mixed bag of reflective songs and some of the most epic arrangements”.

As it turns out, with three exceptions, that’s not really the case with ¡Tré!. A more accurate way of putting it would be “leftovers and scraps that really didn’t fit the themes of albums 1 and 2”.  A lot of the songs aren’t necessarily bad, but there’s almost no way that a majority of the album would appeal to anyone who isn’t already a Green Day fan. Songs like “X-Kid”, “Sex, Drugs & Violence”, and “99 Revolutions” fit into that mold of ‘classic’ Green Day songs that Uno was allegedly full of (in fact, they probably would have been better for that album than songs like “Kill the DJ” or “Oh Love”). Tracks like “8th Avenue Serenade” and “Drama Queen” follow the trend of light experimentation of albums like nimrod or Warning (the former utilizes an odd opening riff that’s usually reserved for the weird indie-punk bands of Quote Unquote Records, and the latter is a soft acoustic ditty that doesn’t quite reach ballad-levels of sappy). Most of the remaining tracks, “Missing You”, “Little Boy Named Train”, “Amanda”, and “Walk Away” aren’t awful songs, but there’s nothing that makes them stand out either, making ¡Tré! complacent with being an album that’s specifically for the fans and for no one else.

The instances in which ¡Tré! does break out into the promised “epic arrangements” are far and few in between, and they reach varying degrees of success. Closing track “The Forgotten” is the mandatory piano-driven ballad that was bound to make an appearance at some point during the band’s trilogy. Utilizing an array of stringed orchestral instruments, “The Forgotten” becomes the next song in the long line of sappy songs that include “Good Riddance”, “Macy’s Day Parade”, “Wake Me Up When September Ends”, and “21 Guns”; and much like each preceding song, “The Forgotten” is sure to take one step further than the previous one. The one positive thing that can be taken away from “The Forgotten” is that the political heavy-handedness of “21 Guns” has been downplayed. It’s nothing huge, but it’s a welcome step.

“Dirty Rotten Bastards” is probably the most interesting track on the album due to its all-over-the-place nature. Following in the spiritual footsteps of “Jesus of Suburbia”, and “Homecoming” off of American Idiot, and “American Eulogy” from 21st Century Breakdown, “Dirty Rotten Bastards” is a six and a half minute suite composed of smaller bits and pieces stitched together. Unlike the three aforementioned songs, there absolutely no real rhyme or reason to explain how this song came to be, and in its urgency it kind of forgets to give itself meaning. But if there’s any ambition to truly be found on ¡Tré!, a good portion of it is found right here. What starts off as an obnoxious chant over a drumbeat slowly builds into a straight ahead rock tune before exploding into a frantic mess by the end.

Perhaps the best and most successful of the “epic arrangements” songs on the album is the first track, “Brutal Love”. Starting slow with an appegiated guitar, “Brutal Love” quickly becomes an ode not just to heartache and love, but to 60’s pop and old doo wop crooners. While the lyrics are nothing to write home about, the real star of the song is Armstrong’s vocal ability. The song may not be very punk at all, but he’s never sounded this good, and out of all 37 tracks across three albums, this is where his voice shines the most. As disappointing as it is that most of the album settles for that standard late 90’s Green Day fare and plays like a bunch of b-sides to ¡Uno!, it helps to make “Brutal Love” stand out above the rest. Plus, too many crooning songs in this style would make for a boring album.

These three songs as the exceptions, ¡Tré! is without a doubt an album made for the fans, and it has no drive to turn over any new ones: the songs are stupidly happy being the way they are. And this is how a Green Day should sound, instead of stumbling over its ambition. What ¡Tré! lacks in diversity (where ¡Uno! shined), and definitely lacks in cohesiveness (like ¡Dos!), it makes up for with simplicity. This is the album that helps to put the other two in perspective. Even though it might have seemed logical for Green Day to just release a single album like this one, instead of a massive collection of new songs, ¡Tré! wouldn’t have been possible to follow up 21st Century Breakdown on its own- it just wouldn’t have made any sense. But after being put into the context of following two albums with a bit of variety and different styles of songs? Sure, why the hell not! ¡Tré! is rewarding for the faithful and longtime listeners; not so much for anyone else. 

¡Tré! comes out December 11, 2012. You can listen to the stream right here. You can also buy it on CD or vinyl .