Wednesday, March 25, 2015

My ten favorite album closers

There are a lot of things that go into making a great album great. The best albums, obviously, should contain consistently outstanding songs. In many cases, the greatness of an album has a lot to do with how its songs fit together. But something I look for in a great album is how it starts and ends. It's just like a good book or movie. No matter what happens in between, the opening and the ending should knock you out. The opening should reel you in, and the ending should leave a lasting impression. I'd say that most bands and recording artists understand the importance of an album starting with one of its best songs. When I think of all the albums I love, almost all of them open on a really strong note. But for me, a great closing track is equally important. As someone who's been buying LPs for 35 years, I've always relished the experience of an album ending so fantastically that I can't wait to listen to the whole thing again. A lot of the great album closers are epic and cinematic (think Bruce Springsteen's "Jungleland"). But sometimes they're just standout tracks that put exclamation points on brilliant LPs (think Wire's "12XU"). I'd say The Dictators' "(I Live For) Cars And Girls" is no less masterful of an album closer than, say, the Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want".

I originally tried to compile a list of the "ten greatest albums closers of all-time". But that proved to be an impossible task - one that would have involved far more research than I'd ever have time to conduct. And honestly, writing from a fan's point of view is way more satisfying than trying to take on the air of critical objectivity. So here then is a list not of the "greatest" album closers, but rather my ten personal favorites. My criteria was simple. These are all albums I love, and a large part of why I love them is how they end.

10. Parasites- "Letdown" (from Punch Lines, 1993)
While no doubt one of the greatest pop-punk albums ever made, Punch Lines is one of those records that transcends genre. Essentially it's a song cycle about love, relationships, and the pain they too often cause. "Letdown" is the resolution to all of that heartache and betrayal - that "enough is enough" moment where you finally take away a certain person's power to make you miserable. Dave Parasite's vocal on this track is the most emotionally charged of his career, and the guest guitar solo by Kurt Bloch is simply incredible.

9. AC/DC - "Whole Lotta Rosie" (from Let There Be Rock, 1977)
A great AC/DC album ends the same way it starts: with a blazing ball of rock! "Whole Lotta Rosie", if not my favorite AC/DC song, is in my top five at least. I don't think it's humanly possible to listen to this song without cranking the volume all the way up, singing the chorus to an imaginary crowd of 50,000 people, and going crazy on air guitar until you're drenched in sweat and gasping for air. If aliens showed up at my doorstep and asked me to explain earthling rock n' roll to them, I'd play them this song and await their acknowledgement of human supremacy. 

8. Material Issue - "Li'l Christine" (from International Pop Overthrow, 1991)
Material Issue always had a knack for concluding an LP in style (listen to "Help Me Land" or "If Ever You Should Fall"). But "Li'l Christine", off of the trio's classic debut International Pop Overthrow, is an album closer for the ages. While opening track "Valerie Loves Me" is one of the saddest ever songs about unrequited love, "Li'l Christine" finds a twisted joy in similar themes. Countless lonely guys found comfort in this tale of romantic rejection and consequent stalking. RIP Jim Ellison.

7. Pretenders- "Mystery Achievement" (from Pretenders, 1980)
"Mystery Achievement", like almost any song on the first Pretenders album, still gives me chills even after hundreds of spins. It starts with a hypnotic bass line, builds to the most sublime of choruses, and peaks with a guitar/bass duel of legendary proportions. It's a flawless conclusion to an extraordinary album. It's hard not to think about what this band could have become if James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon had not succumbed to addiction.

6. Sex Pistols- "E.M.I." (from Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, 1977)  
For anyone looking to get into punk rock, Never Mind The Bollocks is always my first recommended purchase. It's been copied again and again and again over 38 years - but has never been improved upon. And while it was certainly easy for the rock critics and respected musicians of 1977 to dismiss the Pistols as crude, untalented louts riding a short-lived trend, there's no denying today that this album (like punk rock itself!) has withstood the test of time. Steve Jones and Paul Cook remain the standard for a guitar/drum tandem in punk music. And Johnny Rotten's vocals - so raw, ferocious, and full of disdain for everything under the sun - inspired the careers of thousands of punk shouters. "E.M.I.", largely due to Rotten's vocal performance, was the perfect conclusion to the band's one and only album. It's like the last will and testament of the Sex Pistols - one final fuck-you to the establishment, delivered resoundingly.

5. Big Star- "I'm In Love With A Girl" (from Radio City, 1974)
Here's a classic case of a song perfectly placed at the end of an album. As a singular track, "I'm In Love With A Girl" is one of the most beautiful pop songs ever recorded. Hearing it in any context, I'm likely to close my eyes and get lost in one minute and 48 seconds of sheer bliss. But I especially love the way this song brings such gratifying closure to Radio City - like a happy ending to a movie or book that's unexpected yet entirely appropriate.

4. The Who- "Won't Get Fooled Again" (from Who's Next, 1971) 
Given that it was originally intended to be a concluding number in a rock opera, it's no accident that "Won't Get Fooled Again" is the consummate album closer - one of the great epic rock songs of all-time. Separated from its original place in Pete Townshend's Lifehouse narrative, it remains a timeless statement on revolution and power, punctuated by Roger Daltrey's career-best scream and those final, eternally true lyrics. Hearing this song on the radio a couple weeks back was what first gave me the idea to write this article.

3. Beach Boys- "Caroline, No" (from Pet Sounds, 1966)
Pet Sounds is the embodiment of great album sequencing: the best three songs are the opener, the first song on Side 2, and the closer. And they're all equally important. If you removed "Caroline, No" or even took it out of the closing slot, Pet Sounds would not be nearly as great. The whole album builds toward this masterful finale - a beautiful and deeply moving ode the loss of innocence and how it can complicate young love. Hands down, my favorite Beach Boys song.

2. The Replacements- "Here Comes A Regular" (from Tim, 1985)
At the height of Reagan era materialism, Paul Westerberg became a cult hero for articulating the plight of those individuals who'd missed the boat on all that happiness and prosperity. Much of his legend can be tied to The Replacements' finest album, Tim. Classic songs like "Swingin' Party", "Bastards Of Young", and "Little Mascara" offer powerful depictions of disappointing lives and shattered dreams. Westerberg returns to this theme one last time on "Here Comes A Regular" - a heartbreaking glimpse into the unfortunate back-stories of barflies. I don't think better rock lyrics have ever been written, and essentially this is an entire tragic novel condensed into a five-minute song.

1. The Clash- "Garageland" (from The Clash, 1977)
You all know the story. A music critic slams The Clash and implies that the world would be better off if all these crappy punk rock bands retreated to their garages and were never heard from again. The Clash respond with this powerhouse of a song - somewhat of a counterattack but more so a rousing manifesto about the sad state of mainstream rock and the boundless joy of making music purely for the love of it. This is the punk anthem to end all punk anthems, and it rings just as true today. Plus I love the way they pronounce the word "garage" in the land of my ancestors.

Honorable mentions:
Rolling Stones- "Shattered" (1978)
The Clash- "Train In Vain" (1979)
New York Dolls- "Jet Boy" (1973)
The Zombies- "Time Of The Season" (1968)
The Replacements- "Can't Hardly Wait" (1987)
The Tattle Tales- "Her New Company" (2006)
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers- "American Girl" (1976)
The Unlovables- "Inconsolable" (2005)
Wipers- "Youth Of America" (1981)


Monday, March 23, 2015

That new Ryan Allen album...yeah!

If my posts are infrequent over the next week or so, you can blame Ryan Allen for that. I love his new album so much that I can't bring myself to listen to anything else right now. If you need me this morning, I'll be at my desk with "Angela '97" on repeat - bobbing my head like a maniac and enjoying the hell out of life. 

Ryan Allen (Thunderbirds Are Now!, Friendly Foes, Destroy This Place) has been playing in bands since the dawn of the Millennium. Why make a solo record when you've already busy with an active band? Because you've got a story to tell! Heart String Soul, recorded under the name Ryan Allen and His Extra Arms, is a classic case of a songwriter making a record entirely for himself. And precisely because of that, it's a true joy to listen to. Essentially it's an autobiographical record - the story of "a 35-year-old guy with a kid, a wife, a mortgage, and a full time job, but also with a passion to keep doing music and keep being creative". All of that aside, this might be the best collection of pop songs I'll hear all year. It seems inadequate to call Heart String Soul a great power pop record. It's more like a great record that just happens to be in the style of power pop. Genre geeks like myself will love it, but I could envision a few of these songs as massive mainstream hits if radio programmers would suddenly get a clue.

Allen recorded Heart String Soul in his dad's home studio in Michigan. He played most of the instruments himself - with additional contributions from his dad, brother, and pals such as Sean Sommer. It seems like the stuff of a Hollywood script: a veteran musician making the album of his life in his childhood home - with a huge assist from friends and family. But while that may sound like a good movie, it's an ever better album! Removed from the edgier indie rock stylings of Destroy This Place, solo Ryan Allen favors the guitar pop classicism of Big Star & Badfinger by way of '90s alt rock/power pop (Matthew Sweet, Fountains Of Wayne, Teenage Fanclub). And while so much of what makes this album special is surely to be discovered once you explore the lyrics in detail, Allen never loses sight of what great pop songs are really about. His melodies are sweet and instantly memorable. He crafts harmonies to die for. And like all the best songwriters, he has this way of saving the best part of a song for a knockout hook. By the time he declares, "The song on the radio/Well, it should be me", it's pretty much impossible to disagree! I love that his most amazing lyrics are supported by equally stunning melodies. "Born Radical", a loving tribute to Allen's parents, is the kind of uplifting pop song that makes you happy to be alive. "Angela '97", boasting the best one-word chorus since Material Issue's "Diane", is a true-life love story and hands down my favorite song of the year. It shames me to live in a world where a song this good isn't all over the radio.

When an artist pours his heart and soul into a record, I always want to like it. But with Heart String Soul, there was no effort required. I loved it from the very first listen, and it only gets better with repeated spins. While I'm no artist, I fully relate to Ryan Allen's experiences and point of view ("Not Hanging Out" could very well become my new personal anthem). Allen is an engaging storyteller, a wonderful singer, and a terrifically talented songwriter. He's created a true album - not just a bunch of songs. Whether or not you're a power pop freak like me, Heart String Soul is a release you can point to for proof that genuinely great music is still being made in 2015.


Thursday, March 19, 2015

Iron Chic V. Low Culture

I've always had a love/hate relationship with splits. I love them when both bands are equally good and hate them when one of the bands kinda blows. But one of the best things about about splits is that they often turn me on to cool bands that I might not have otherwise checked out. A case in point is the new split 7" featuring Iron Chic and Low Culture. This is not just a split between two bands. It's also a split between two labels: Dirt Cult Records (run by Chris from Low Culture) and Dead Broke Rekerds (run by Mike from Iron Chic). It's like a double secret split! Anyway, I'm a big fan of Low Culture. So I was going to be into this release no matter what. But this was my first time hearing Iron Chic, and I was so impressed that I've started to go back and check out the band's prior recordings.

This split had me won over from Iron Chic's opening number "L'esprit de L'escalier". The melodic punk/post-hardcore with gruff vocals thing is a little outside my area of expertise, but I know quality music when I hear it. This track is a straight-up anthem, and it sounds like the drummer might have collapsed from exhaustion if the song had gone any longer. I can't help envisioning how this tune must come off live - with people jumping around like crazy and singing along at the top of their lungs. The energy, as they say, is palpable. When it comes to this style of music, I'd say this is absolutely top of the line. "Subhumanoid Meltdown" is in a similar vein. It starts slow and then builds to a rousing, anthem type feel. You're held in suspense waiting for the chorus to kick in. And when it does, BAM! I love those "whoa oh" backing vocals. 

Low Culture, as expected, brings two quality tracks of its own to this split. I thought the band's contributions to its split with Needles//Pins were its best songs yet, and the hot streak stays alive here with the snappy "Not A Machine" and super catchy "Oh Jazelle". The band continues to combine garage, punk, and power pop influences in a distinctive and wonderfully appealing way. "Not A Machine" would fit perfectly between Marked Men and The Figgs on an epic mixed tape. "Oh Jazelle" is pure upbeat energy - the kind of song you can't wait to crank in your car with the windows down! Low Culture, within today's garage/punk scene, strikes me as a very underrated band. But if these guys keep turning out music this good, that might very well change. 

All in all, this is a perfect example of what a split should be. Iron Chic and Low Culture have very different sounds, but they clearly have enough in common that it makes sense for them to be together on the same record. I got to hear excellent new material from a band I always enjoy, and I discovered a new band that I really like. It's a win all the way!


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Meet Devious Ones!

If I ever get to make a TV show out of this blog, I think I've found my theme music! The song is called "Stylus To Speaker", and it's from a cool new band out of Detroit called Devious Ones. The lineup is Eric Villa on vocals, Daniel Boustany (Final Assault) on bass, Amado Guadarrama (Bump-N-Uglies, Bill Bondsmen) on guitar, and Dougie Tangent (The Putz) on drums. If you head on over to Devious Ones' Bandcamp, you'll see that the lyrics for "Stylus To Speaker" are prominently displayed. And that's important, because this song is a celebration of all those records we love and how they make our lives better. There are few things in life cooler than dropping the needle on a favorite LP, and I love how these guys articulate that joy on this killer track. With lyrical nods to the Dictators, New York Dolls, Husker Du, and U.K. Subs, there's little doubt where these guys are coming from. They also follow an important rule of mine: if you're going to write an homage to music you love, you better come strong! No one wants to pull a Bob Seger and write a song about rock n' roll that's actually kinda lame.

With its punchy guitars and infectious central melody, "Stylus To Speaker" is by all means a fitting tribute to the punk and power pop greats of yore. And having quickly gained a reputation as a show-stealing live act, Devious Ones are surely a band you'll be hearing a lot about in the coming months. You can check out a couple more tracks over at Dougie's SoundCloud, and be sure to include "Stylus To Speaker" on any summer mix you compile this year. Yeah, I know it's not even spring yet. But let's think positive! 


Monday, March 16, 2015

Introducing Paper Suits!

So when you think "punk rock from Cleveland", you have certain expectations. You think old school. You think raw, nasty, and gloriously unwholesome. You think beer bottles smashing heads and hipsters running for the exit. And that, in a nutshell, is Paper Suits. This is a new band featuring a couple of Plain Dealers and a cantankerous lead singer named Willie Lunchmeat. And for sure, these fellas are more than worthy heirs to the sterling legacy of Cleveland punk. The band has released two songs - which they've hilariously decided to price at $100 per download. So either they don't want anyone to own their music, or they'd like to find out who's stupid enough to pay that much. Either way, that's pretty much as punk rock as it gets!

Okay, so you're not going to shell out $200 to own these two tracks. But you can at least stream them over at Bandcamp and hope that there's a 7" in the works. "Hate This Place" is absolutely an anthem for our times - a hate-drenched anti-hipster rant that surely has G.G. Allin nodding his approval from the great beyond. "It's not '73, suburban metro queer/Disposable razors have been around for years" has to be the line of the year! "It's In The Milk" is more on the poppier side of '77 punk, but still snotty as hell and fantastically tasteless. It makes me wanna start pogoing in my basement!

Alright! Paper Suits are hands down one of the top new punk bands out there. If you dig snotty punk rock, give these tunes a listen!


Friday, March 13, 2015

Meet der Faden!

As I consider the explosion of incredible punk bands coming out of Canada in recent years, I look back to the previous decade and some of the amazing groups that helped set this whole phenomenon into motion. In particular, I think of The Tranzmitors and Statues - bands that were doing the punk/powerpop thing well before it was remotely cool. So I'm delighted to hear new music from members of those two bands. Last month I flipped my shit for Fashionism, and now we have another new band featuring a familiar name. Hailing from Sudbury, Ontario, der Faden is the new group from ex-Statues guitarist Rob Seaton. He's joined by Sarah Wotherspoon on drums, and the duo can be added to the ever-growing list of Canadian punk outfits you just have to hear. The band's debut 7" is out on P.Trash Records - with an American release on Dirt Cult Records coming soon. And let me tell, it's freaking great! If you remember Statues, you won't be surprised that der Faden continues in a similar vein of power pop infused melodic punk. "Best Guess" is a sing-along anthem, and it's so catchy! Dare I say it's actually better than anything Statues ever did? B-side "Filaments" also brings to mind Rob's old band, but in a different way. It's got a jittery new wave feel, with angular guitar awesomeness taking center stage. All in all, this is a fantastic debut that has me pumped to hear more from der Faden. And it's only right that Rob Seaton gets to reinvigorate a Canadian punk scene he so strongly influenced! I love it when things come full circle.


Thursday, March 12, 2015

Crazy & The Brains = crazy good!

Crazy & The Brains seem to be the originators and sole practitioners of a musical genre known as anti-folk. I can't tell you exactly what anti-folk is, but I'm pretty sure it's the polar opposite of music that takes itself too seriously. And of course that's a movement I can fully endorse! This New Jersey punk outfit is kind of like a cousin band to party rock standouts such as New Swears and Mean Jeans. And in this case, I'm talking about the kind of cousin who always shows up to family gatherings and makes inappropriate sexual remarks at the dinner table.

As just about any Crazy & The Brains review will tell you, there's no point in trying to define what this band is. They're pop, and they're punk. But they're not pop-punk. They're goofy, but they're not a joke band. To my knowledge, this is the only band on earth playing xylophone-driven punk rock. And boy, do they ever pull it off! However you choose to classify it, the band's new EP Good Lord is as catchy and infectiously fun as music gets. If these tunes don't have you jumping around your house like a pre-teen on a Halloween candy bender, you probably are suffering from a severe lower body injury. The twist is that these sugary pop songs are anything but sweet once you start paying attention to the lyrics! Hint: "Ice Cream" isn't about, uh, food. There's an absolute brilliance in combining bubblegum melodies and a happy go lucky energy with lyrics so dirty that they make 50 Shades Of Grey look like Sesame Street. And ultimately, the triumph here is that these songs are just so fucking good. "Syreita" sounds like the R-rated smash that Tommy Roe always wanted to record. It's going to be stuck in my head until the end of time. And while a line like "Sometimes I think of you while I'm lying underneath her" will certainly grab your attention, "Kids In Da Hall" is actually a heartfelt and quite touching ode to lost love. All you punk/powerpop freaks are going to want to hear it.

Crazy & The Brains are as unique as any band I've reviewed in my life. If a punk rock manual existed, these guys burned it and peed on the ashes. Yet in its own special way, Good Lord is precisely what I've always loved in music. It's rockin', catchy, and full of attitude and energy. Don't bother trying to classify it. Just enjoy it!