We’ve all been through romantic situations where “should have known better” comes to mind. We make mistakes, but often pray we won’t become defined by them. This is a playlist full of songs which ride that roller coaster from the highs of first love to the lows of wishing we’d just said no before having one’s heart ripped to shreds became a legitimate possibility. Highlights include “Flowers,” from Anais Mitchell’s acclaimed Hadestown folk-opera, “Homage for the Suffering” from a stunningly under-appreciated Matthew Perryman Jones effort, and “El Matador,” one of the best soMngs from Semisonic I can almost guarantee you’ll never have heard. That, and you can expose yourself to a number of artists on the edge of fame who sorely deserve a wider audience — Meaghan Smith deserves to be mentioned as one of the stronger “vaudeville pop” vocalists working the pop scene, and Diane Birch’s “Fire Escape” sorely needs a cult following.
A Rocket To The Moon’s “Ever Enough” flirts with pop and country, stands out among 2013′s first breakout surprises
One thing I hadn’t expected when pressing play on “Ever Enough,” the new single from Fueled By Ramen band A Rocket To The Moon, was a rare earthy hook worthy of country airplay as much as it would be rock. From the band’s upcoming LP Wild & Free, the song fits perfectly amid singles from Eli Young Band or Lady Antebellum, even as it flirts with Augustana’s alt-rock hooks via a chorus you won’t soon stop singing.
Though I haven’t yet heard the entire album, “Going Out” further showcases their alt-country leanings, on a tightly crafted song with a memorable chorus. a song county radio should be salivating over now that they’ve fully lost Taylor Swift to the pop dark-side. And “Whole Lotta You,” their best “rocker” of a track, still has the perfect “drinks on ice, stars in our eyes / all I need is a whole lotta you” groove that’s made Brad Paisley buzzworthy for years.
Who says crossovers always have to go one way? A Rocket To The Moon stands poised to become 2013′s first big breakout act, because they’re keeping their sound true to the groove of the songs, letting the music exist unspoiled by preconceptions. If pop and country both get on board, expect to hear big things from Wild & Free.
A Lion Named Roar ready to put Louisville on the map with “This Won’t Last For Long,” MTV Buzzworthy single
Louisville’s A Lion Named Roar brings the best of Augustana and Kings of Leon to bear in a hearty mix of pop and rock you’ll be singing at top volume long before the first play ends. “This Won’t Last For Long” is ready-made pop-rock bliss, making it no wonder the band’s already had MTV Buzzworthy accolades and a spot on the Louisville Palace’s Faces At The Palace show with Field of Kings and The Foxery, this Friday the 19th. The band’s album Foreign Land doesn’t come out until November 27th, but if the rest of the album’s as good as the lead-off single, this is going to be a real winter keeper.
If you’re still one of the naysayers who believes there’s no good music out there simply because radio doesn’t play good music, or because MTV doesn’t play videos, then 2011’s music probably hasn’t changed your mind if only for the simple reason that you won’t have heard it.
Face it, in this modern era of self-publishing, indie releases on the internet, and a general decentralization of the pop music world, you’ve got to go out and find the best music – it’s not going to knock on your door and hit you over the head. And if you think corporate radio has any interest in helping you find good music, think again: they just want to help spread lowest common denominator music, so they can line their own pockets and keep the “old system” alive.
So what, you might ask, is a listener supposed to do? There’s so much music out there, how do you wade through the junk to find yourself the good bits? Well, you could start by subscribing to this blog. And if you are new to reading here, you may have missed all the great music being discussed so far this year.
Since end of year lists are often arbitrary, and they tend to miss great albums from the first half of the year, here are some mid-year crib-notes to catch you all up and show you the good which 2011 has, so far, had to offer fans of what matters in pop music.
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POP ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Augustana – “Augustana”
Eponymous albums are supposed to be statements of a band’s new direction, and Augustana’s third album for Epic is definitely that; like an unholy vocal alliance between Crowded House’s Neil Finn and Bruce Springsteen, Don Layus’s powerhouse vocals anchor this album’s ten tracks with an incredible barrage of hooks the likes of which I haven’t heard on a pop album in years, if even in the last decade. With music this brazenly addictive, Augustana deserves to be 2011’s version of 2006-era Snow Patrol, lighting up the radio with hit after hit and selling millions. But if they’re simply destined to remain 2011’s best working band, putting out great music for a loyal audience of converts, maybe that’s just as good.
ALTERNATIVE ALBUM OF THE YEAR
The Vaccines – “What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?”
From the opening eighty seconds of the album, the blistering “Wrecking Bar,” its immediately clear that anything this band writes is going to be fully capable of rocking at Clash-like levels. All my expectations were instantly blown out of the water. From that point it’s a steady succession of radio-ready singles – almost enough to set your mind to reeling. There’s not a weak track in the bunch. It’s clear from the first listen that the Vaccines are destined to become a household name; if radio won’t play them here in the States, it’s time to load up a car with friends, stick the album in the CD player and blast these brilliant pop confections for everyone to hear.
HIPSTER ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Fleet Foxes – “Helplessness Blues”
Fleet Foxes’ sophomore album follows a very classically folk-oriented formula, recorded very much in the moment — Pecknold aimed for Astral Weeks’ timeless quality, and while only time will tell whether the album holds up as well, the resulting depth and quality of Helplessness Blues speaks for itself. That much of the album’s vocals were recorded in one take (“even if there are fuck-ups, I want them to be on there,” Pecknold told the Guardian) it’s impressive just how many layers there are in these songs to slowly peel away on repeated listens. This is the kind of album you’d hope Simon and Garfunkel could be producing had the duo ever reunited in this modern musical age.
HIP-HOP ALBUM OF THE YEAR
SIMS – “Bad Time Zoo”
There may be something in the water in Minneapolis, considering the amazing underground hip-hop scene which has developed there over the last decade. Whatever it is, Sims’ Bad Time Zoo has something to say and gets its points across with beats that blend jazz and world-beat with modern flair that would set radio on fire if anyone had the balls to play these songs. Regardless, Bad Time Zoo is the first must-hear hip-hop album of 2011, and it’s an early contender for my year-end top ten. Here’s hoping Doomtree Records has the push to get this album out to the wide audience it deserves.
COUNTRY ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Easton Corbin – “Easton Corbin”
The 9513 wrote of a potential 2011 revival of traditional country on the radio airwaves, and if they’re right, true country fans have a ton to rejoice about when listening to Easton Corbin, which is the best traditional meets modern country album I’ve heard since Eric Church’s Carolina. “I’m A Little More Country Than That” is one of the most straightforward, honest country top tens I’ve heard in years, and it sounds like the new traditional country I grew up on in the eighties and early nineties, when artists like George Strait, Keith Whitley and Steve Earle were tearing up country radio. Several cuts on this effort even sound like Corbin spent time in the room with Earle while he put together Guitar Town, the best album to come out of that era. Listen to “Leavin’ A Lonely Town” or “This Far From Memphis” and tell me you disagree.
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And now a few honorable mentions:
Hey Rosetta! – “Seeds” — Like Arcade Fire on Neon Bible and Sufjan Stevens with Illinois, Hey Rosetta builds their melodies with garage rock ferocity which is consistently punctuated with stunning bursts of fiery orchestral bliss.
Baby Teardrops – “X Is For Love” — They’ve definitely got the hooks to be successful on radio. “Smooth Sailing Ahead” could have been a top ten hit for the Gin Blossoms in the mid-90s, but here it has a more grunge-oriented sound which is both out of place and wlecome in today’s rock landscape.
The Wailin’ Jennys – “Bright Morning Stars” — In a world where Taylor Swift is a worldwide superstar bringing pop music to so called “traditional” country stations, it’s about time real roots music made a comeback. This album is the most deserving so far of 2011 to get that shot.
Noah and the Whale – “Last Night On Earth” — Fink and his band Noah and the Whale have managed to create the perfect tribute to Springsteen with this album because they’re willing to build on the sounds that came before with a story that is at once their own, while also being one we’ve all experienced. Meanwhile, they’ve taken such a magnificent leap forward that this sound is suddenly new again, and all their own.
Stornoway – “Beachcomber’s Windowsill” – Yes, it came out in 2010, but I didn’t hear it until 2011, so it counts. The bottom line is that even a cursory examination of “Zorbing,” the opening track from Beachcomber’s Windowsill, showcases the band’s incredibly dextrous, multi-layered arrangement, a mindblowing combination of subtle folk and alternative influences that is purely unlike anything else I’ve encountered in pop music in recent years. And that’s definitely worth checking out.
Year of the Album — #046
Graham Colton – “Pacific Coast Eyes” (2011, Independent)
Graham Colton’s been around the block more than a few times, and on Pacific Coast Eyes, his first full-length solo album since 2007’s Here Right Now, he picks up right where he left off. A labor of love for the Oklahoma City native, Pacific Coast Eyes is a refreshingly infectious pop confection, bringing together the best of Augustana and Counting Crows with a musical flair all his own. Highlights include the title track and “1981,” which may be his most radio-ready pop hook yet. “When [I] saw her she was walking on water,” he sings of a lost love, painting the past through rose-colored glasses as he wonders of a life that veered from what he’d expected. Musically the album looks at nineties-era pop-rock through similar nostalgic overtones, and it’s all the better for it. “I am no magician, I have no crystal ball,” he sings on “Twenty Something,” but when it comes to crafting earcatching pop music, he’s running circles around the competition.
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Pacific Coast Eyes is available for a limited time
as a name-your-own-price download at Noisetrade.
Escape Directors, an alt-rock and indie inspired quartet from Bergen County, New Jersey, really brings the hooks on their latest single, “The Distant Past” — off their upcoming EP The Crowded Room, due out July 16th. The single was featured today as a free download on AbsolutePunk.net as part of their “Free Music Friday” feature, and damned if it’s not a rare indie track worthy of an ITunes purchase! The band’s got a clear, crisp sound which incorporates elements of Augustana or Snow Patrol’s pop tunesmithing with the more indie-alternative aesthetic of Northern Room. These guys are the real deal, and if you’re lucky you can say you heard them here first!
Year of the Album — #022
Augustana – “Augustana” (2011, Epic Records)
Eponymous albums are supposed to be statements of a band’s new direction, and Augustana’s third album for Epic is definitely that; like an unholy vocal alliance between Crowded House’s Neil Finn and Bruce Springsteen, Don Layus’s powerhouse vocals anchor this album’s ten tracks with an incredible barrage of hooks the likes of which I haven’t heard on a pop album in years, if even in the last decade.
But will the band be able to capitalize on it? Bob Lefsetz recently argued that bands who spend years crafting albums in today’s climate wind up missing the boat completely as the musical world passes them by — spending your time marketing singles on a regular basis is today’s music, while spending three years crafting an album-lover’s album is so 1975. And he may have a point. But Augustana is such a perfect album, it deserves to find an audience, even if it means flying under the radar as both their previous efforts have.
Still, with singles-in-waiting like “Steal Your Heart,” “Wrong Side of Love,” “On The Other Side” and “Counting Stars,” the first four songs on the album, it’s going to be a huge disappointment if the band doesn’t at least hit the mark with one of them. “Boston” and “Sweet and Low” pale in comparison with the mindblowingly catchy “Steal Your Heart,” which is one of those rare songs you’ll be singing along with midway through your first listen. Even in today’s impatient internet radio world, it’s a song with hooks so determined you can’t fight it! It’s eerily reminesent of Crowded House’s first two albums, pop music so pure it’s invigorating.
Like Crowded House’s own eponymous debut, the ten tracks of the album play as a cohesive whole, while each serves as an individual hook-filled statement of purpose. With music this brazenly addictive, Augustana deserves to be 2011’s version of 2006-era Snow Patrol, lighting up the radio with hit after hit and selling millions. But if they’re simply destined to remain 2011’s best working band, putting out great music for a loyal audience of converts, maybe that’s just as good. In a world where pop music is frequently mere ephemera, Augustana is still batting a thousand, and Augustana is their best effort yet, an easy candidate for my end of year top ten, and we’re only ending May. That’s got to speak for something.