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The Maine

1/8/2018

Of the many ways to measure a year, my preference is the musical memories. 2017, for all its tumult, was a creative carnival. There were some brilliant and expertly executed highlights from old favorites this year. Japandroids, The War On Drugs, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit and The Menzingers are instant classics in my catalog. But as far as taking the time to put some words down, I wanted to take my end-of-the-year list as an opportunity to highlight artists I would’ve loved to see get MORE attention for their work in the lists that I saw critics compiling, as opposed to those artists who everyone seems to agree did the best work. If you’re looking for a more comprehensive list of what caught my ears, here’s a playlist of some of my favorite songs from the year. And for more fun, here’s what I was looking forward to hearing this time last year (a couple wishes came true).

In no particular order, my list of the underrated music of 2017 that might be worth a listen or two:

Misterwives – Connect the Dots


This was easily one of my favorite records of this year, especially because it came in the form of a brand-new band discovery. I found Misterwives the same weekend as Record Store Day, and I bopped my way through the line curving around Amobea with “Machine” blaring in my ears. There’s a buoyancy and clarity to their sound that’s so fun and yet so strong, with lyrics are joyful, insightful and woke, sometimes all at the same time. In a year that ended with the voices of women being heard and celebrated, I think Mandy Lee’s output and Misterwives’ record was incredibly overlooked in music and pop culture circles. There’s still time, though, for Connect the Dots to take hold, and I’ll be here nodding along when it does.

Iron & Wine  – Beast Epic


This is a band that many listeners might associate with being great at a different particular time,  but I very much enjoyed Beast Epic. I thought it was beautiful, and full of thoughtful goodness. “Call It Dreaming” is, in particular, uplifting and lovely, I can think of at least two times I cried on the train listening to it. It joins a canon of other Iron & Wine songs (“Upward Over The Mountain,” “Walking Far From Home”) that instantly cut out my heart and serve it up to whatever waiting angeles want to sew it back in.

The Maine – Lovely Little Lonely


Oh, The Maine. A band that I fear will never have the recognition among rock/pop music critics that they so deserve, even though they still keep getting better with time. This album pushed their boundaries from the bubble-gum of American Candy slightly darker reflections, but still no shortage of hooks and earworm turns of phrase. A surprising addition to my workout playlists, this was both one of my most-anticipated albums of 2017 and one of my most-listened to.

The Killers- Wonderful Wonderful


Wonderful Wonderful got a bad odor attached to it way too quickly, there’s good stuff, there’s band that’s developing in the way they always were supposed to. The first 45 seconds of the album are probably the coolest part of it, but there’s a lot of other layers and meaning to it. Brandon Flowers has a cheeseball quality to him, but it’s not like that wasn’t on Hot Fuss either. I really like how thoughtful some of the lyrics seem, “are your excuses any better than your senators” is up there with the more socially observant takes from Flowers. The more I listened to it, the more layers I heard here — layers of rock music history, layers of references and layers of a band who is still finding their way, as all musicians ever are.

Carly Rae Jespen – “Cut To The Feeling”


I saw a tweet from someone who said that if there was any justice in pop radio, this song would be #1 airplay. Alas! Spotify’s Wrapped told me it was my most-listened to track this year, though, so there is that. Anyway, I know this isn’t an album and this is usually an albums list, but I can’t talk about my musical diiet in 2017 without talking about this song. For workouts, for pump-me-up moments, for sidewalk strolls, “Cut to the Feeling” is as perfect a pop song as I could ever imagine in any setting. Her voice is light and infused, the synths are sparkly and the chorus is soaring. More Carly Rae in 2018 and beyond, “Cut to the Feeling” proves she knows exactly what she’s doing and isn’t afraid to put it out there in any form.

Perfume Genuis – “Slip Away”


Another choice that rests as a song instead of an album — even though No Shape is a wonderful, thought-provoking listen that received accolades all over the place, this is the song that really stole my focus. It’s also easily one of my most-listened to tracks in 2017, a song I will forever associate with the year and the challenges and lessons it provided. I would love to see this band progress and grow, and earn more acclaim for such unique and inspired work.

Ruston Kelly – “Black Magic”


One of my favorite Americana/country discoveries of the year is Kacey Musgraves very talented husband Ruston Kelly – “Black Magic” is biting and classic and heartwrenching, and a hell of a fun to sing, too. It too became one of those songs I played in all times and all places, “Love is hell and nothing more than black magic” seems to me to be one of those lyrics that fell down from the sky and into waiting hands, meanings it’s hte most perfect, authentic, realized kind from the geniuses themselves.

Oh, and I loved Reputation. I listened to it on loop traveling to San Francisco for a fun weekend getaway, kept it on through train rides and strolls up to Lombard Street and while sitting on a park bench in Oakland. Now I play it on the bike, walking to my front door, waiting for the courthouse to open. I know there’s a lot of people out there who aren’t a fan of the way Taylor refrains from discussing politics/social justice, but I try not to judge people for their beliefs in the course of my daily life, and so I won’t get into that without having an opportunity to understand her as a person. So in spite of all the discussion, I’m calling it underrated, because the first reviews I read of it were all by white men and all throwing some kind of judgment toward it and it really kind of made me mad, that people were expecting so much and calling someone else’s work a disappointment. Do they not understand how creative output works, that it is not being created and poured into the world in order to appease someone else but because it had to come from the fingers of its creator before they fall off? I also love that it is first TS album to really tackle “mature” themes (she finally wrote songs about drinking and sex!). Taylor Swift at this point only does manifestos and while many are turning up their noses are her playing around with hip-hop and R&B stylings, she’s putting out work that’s exactly her, filter and polish and spit-shine and all. The control and focus and unapologetic honesty with oneself that that takes is something I really admire, something that’s worth channeling anywhere, anytime, any year.

Past years:
2016
2015
2014
2013
2012
2011

10/12/16

New band find alert!

I’ve seen references to You Me At Six more times than I can count on music sites, forums and tour line-ups but I never took the time to dive into their discography until tonight, with a new song they had released that was on the Spotify new release list last week, which was a fantastically melodic pop punk rock tune with plenty of lead vocal prowess and hook-oriented mentality. My ears immediately perked, and so I started clicking through their old songs, and voila, I found this song “Living a Lie” that has the most soaring chorus and do-it-or-die attitude — plus, marching drum beats.

I’m definitely going to keep my eye out for this new record, but it’s always interesting to become a fan of a pop punk/pop rock type of band later in their career. Their die-hard fans are often displeased with the new work, because it’s either too much of a departure or lacking the magic of the earlier releases, but as a newer fan, you can find a lot to get jazzed about because you don’t have these prior notions. I definitely feel that way about The Maine, who have legions of fans but didn’t cross my path until “American Candy,” which I think is a masterful little record. You Me At Six kind of reminds of them, in a way, it’s that pop punk with an emphasis on the “pop” as far as song structure, but with the bones of a rock band as far musicians playing real instruments, guitar solos, pedals and all that fun stuff.  It’s a sound that I’ve really come around to, finding it can fit many moods from the slightly bored and uninspired, to happy-go-lucky, when you just need something with a little bit of backbone to sing.

“Well somebody told me
That I would be a dreamer for life
Somebody told me I would never reach the other side
Well you say I’m old news, but cross your fingers
I’m yours to lose.
What if I told you, that things will never improve
And if I lived a lie
Would someone meet me on the other side
So I can burn up bright?
The grass is always greener,
Someone else’s past is always cleaner,
But I’m a believer, that there’s a fool in all of us
And if I lived a lie
Would someone meet me on the other side
So I can burn up bright?”
~Living a Lie
You Me At Six, Cavalier Youth

1/3/2016

It’s that time of year again.

The beginning. Which also means the end.

I’m particularly at ease as I sit down to write this list this year. It’s the kind of thing that’s an annual source of self-inflicted stress. While the AOTY list is a list that anyone who fancies themselves any kind of music “expert” or “critic” must be able to accomplish, I dread the work that it requires to reflect, write, compile. This year, though, it wasn’t hard to find a free moment and begin typing. I knew most of this in my head, I had considered it several weeks before when I knew January was creeping closer. I kept a running Post-It list and refreshed my ears with a Spotify playlist. And I’m excited to put it out there, all this music that has meant so much to me.

2015, perhaps more than any other year in my adulthood, carried more emotional trials than I could have anticipated. I dealt with heartbreaks I could not predict. I faced fears I had been running from since I was an adolescent. I let people in. I let go. I ran farther, wrote faster and kissed harder than ever before. I gave up bad habits and picked up better ones, and I picked myself off the floor. I found surrender, I found self-love, I found the freedom and lightness a human can attain when you break your mind out of the fences of expectation, and now it is 2016, and I find myself still fighting for all of this, but with degrees of anticipation and confidence and the good kind of nerves, and I am encouraged. Most people reading this do not know most things about me; most people do not know most things about anyone, least of all strangers on the Internet, but if you are reading these words right now you can probably gather that that my lifeline (as it is maybe for you too) through all of this in life is music.

10) If I Should Go Before You – City and Colour


A late-year release that continues to captivate me, I didn’t fully realize the brilliance of these songs until I had the chance to hear them live. And then I heard what I should’ve the first time – sweeping, elegant rock songs, with a timeless, bluesy feel, and Dallas Green’s sorrowful interpretations of life and love. From the opening bars of the dark, groovy “Woman,” you can tell this a record that uses the best of ingredients in the rock band pantry – heavy rhythm section, masterful solos, top notch vocals and hook-filled choruses. But mostly what I love about this record is how the sentimentality still steals the show.

Bound for trouble from the start
I’ve been walking through this old world in the dark
All along right by my side
There you were shining, my ray of light 

~Lover Come Back

9) Permanence – No Devotion


When the day started to drag, when the week started to feel dull, this was the record to play to pick it up again. An indie favorite among a certain post-emo scene, the kind who might still care who Geoff Rickly is, the No Devotion record encapsulates a sound that’s both reminiscent of a past era and somehow still trendy, walking one of my favorite lines. I love how synth-pop permeates the guitar parts, how new wave that sound is, matched with dark chords and stirring harmonies at the high-end of Rickly’s vocal range. This record surprised me by how much I liked it, how fun it was to listen to, and also how unseen it was given its overall depth compared to acts in the same kind of genre. 

Ten thousand summers
Cannot replace what we lost when you went away
Ten thousand summers
In the grass
And though it’s getting dark
Remember this will pass

~10,000 Summers

8)Carrie and Lowell – Sufjan Stevens


So many Sufjan fans fell by the wayside when his grand plans for a 50-album, 50-state spree stopped after two, myself included, as “The Age of Ads” and his BQE tribute didn’t seem to have the same heart. But Stevens’ musical brilliance, and poetic truths, shone through this year in the most surprisingly stunning ballad collection, a heartfelt, intimate tribute the love and loss and pain and quiet, awkward, awesome moments that make up family. It’s just too beautiful. When I listen to this record, I feel like it’s OK to be curious and shy and passionate about the ones you love.

Do I care if I survive this, bury the dead where they’re found
In a veil of great surprises; hold to my head till I drown
Should I tear my eyes out now, before I see too much?
Should I tear my arms out now, I wanna feel your touch

~The Only Thing
7) Run Wild – Lydia

Another one that really surprised me by how much I wound up listening to it. Lydia was a band I got into purely by Pandora association, despite knowing they lurked somewhere in the mid-aughts emo scene I’m so fond of. Choosing to get into them shortly before this release was somewhat serendipitous but also somewhat misleading – the Lydia that existed 10 years ago isn’t the one that put out this radio-friendly, poptastic, shimmering party serenade. But I love it, oh how I love it, from the stammering chorus of “Follow You Down” to the wide-eyed dance rhythms of “Late Nights.” Something about this record set the tone for a light and breezy ride, no matter how dark and heavy I felt, no matter where I was going.

I don’t want to keep your heartache
And I don’t want to feel your ghost
And I don’t even know where we will go
Yeah, I’m just trying to make it home

~Late Nights

6) Pageant Material – Kacey Musgraves


There’s so much to love about this record, which is one of the sweetest, funniest, smartest offerings country music had to offer in 2015 and one of my favorite morning sing-a-longs. Kacey Musgraves has a strong wit, sharp tongue and killer voice, wrapped in an aw-shucks-stoner attitude that makes her songs so original and listenable and just overall delightful. Her take on gossipy neighbors and nosy friends shows a mature mindfulness that you’re more likely to read about on yogi websites than hear about in a country song, setting her apart from the usual heartbreak heroines. Musgraves is only two albums in but she’s only getting better – and more sure of herself, too, if the “Dime Store Cowgirl” anthem holds up.

I ain’t exactly Ms. Congenial
Sometimes I talk before I think,

I try to fake it but I can’t
I’d rather lose for what I am than win for what I ain’t

~Pageant Material

5) Peripheral Vision – Turnover


If ever there was a darker, dreamier record this past year, I hadn’t heard it. Turnover came out of nowhere, relatively, to put out one of the most outstanding LPs in the alt-indie scene, one that cut through stereotypes of bands in the genre and threw down a new standard for moody yet upbeat tracks. This record soundtracked many a lonely night, injecting a shot of needy hopelessness right when it was needed, but in the most melodic fashion. There’s a depth in production here that creates a really full sound, but still lets you pick out the guitar parts. So much delay!! And so cohesive, which is why I think it was so easy to listen to time and time again. “Peripheral Vision” is a tribute to the complications and anxieties in relationships, the kind that we all wish we could avoid, but if this is where the stumbles gets you, maybe it’s worth learning your way through.

Would you come here and spin with me?
I’ve been dying to get you dizzy,
Find a way up into your head
So I can make you feel like new again

~Dizzy on the Comedown

4) American Candy – The Maine


This one really sneaked up on me. I had never listened to The Maine before “American Candy.” What I discovered was the purest pop rock I’d heard since radio-friendly All-American Rejects tracks in high school, excellent parts and succinct playing. A perfect balance between light and dark, this record grapples with issues of anxiety and self-consciousness and stereotype better than any I’ve heard in ages, without being too obviously “fuck-the-man.” Why it’s not on other top 10s, I cannot say. Something this well-executed ought to be recognized – there isn’t a bad track on this record, and it never left my rotation since it came out in the first quarter of the year. In a scene jam-packed with releases, that’s not nothing.

Sometimes I feel as though I’m going mad when
I get a touch of saccharine on my lips
I hate the taste on my tongue too damn sweet
I don’t fancy american candy, american candy

~American Candy

3) Something More Than Free – Jason Isbell


This record contains my favorite song of the year, the one that I played on repeat the most, with the chorus that still brings tears to my eyes. I was so obsessed with this record when it came out, and while I listen to it less in full, I still think it’s one of the best showings of the year, with every track showing how timeless and tireless Jason Isbell’s sound is. While his breakthrough on “Southeastern” gave us all a taste of what he is capable of as a songwriter and introduced us to his own personal angels and demons, “Something More Than Free” gives us more of a look into how he sees the world and what matters in, things like working hard and loving true.

“You thought God was an architect, now you know
He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow
And everything you built that’s all for show goes up in flames
In 24 frames”

~24 Frames

2) Astoria – Marianas Trench


The top two were really hard for me this year to balance out, because they both hit me in the gut. So consider this almost a tie…and consider them both the kind that lived up to high expectations. Marianas Trench may not be a well-known act in most music circles, and that might be the biggest oversight in critical estimations. I think Josh Ramsay is a brilliant modern pop composer and if you disagree, I guess you’ve never heard a little song called “Call Me Maybe.” He is a production master – and he shines brightest in his own band, Marianas Trench, who write epic after epic after epic. This one might their strongest yet – clearly 80s inspired, and clearly heavy on the drama. But it’s tight as hell when it comes to hooks. How “One Love” isn’t tearing up the radio stations, I don’t know. In the past month or so since I bought this record I’ve listened to it almost every day, and it only gets better. It only cuts deeper. “Astoria” makes me smile, it makes me cry, it gives me shelter, it makes me a fighter. If ever there was a band that proved pop music as a genre exists beyond what’s on the charts, it’s Marianas Trench, and if there was any rock album in 2015 that lifted my heart to places I didn’t think it could still reach, it was “Astoria.”

“Don’t remind me what the price is when left to my own devices
‘Cause I’ll find out in all due time what happens to never say die”

~Astoria
 

1) No Closer to Heaven – The Wonder Years


When “The Greatest Generation” came out in 2013, I couldn’t help but think that this big-sounding, on-the-rise rock band from Philadelphia, my favorite active artist, had the makings of a voice of a generation. When “No Closer to Heaven” dropped this year, I knew that inkling was spot-on. Dan Campbell has turned his musings outward, and this record finds pondering the sick, sad world around us as much as his own place in it. The band followed its strengths with this record, and they’ve wound up with some of their best-ever songs, like “Cigarettes and Saints” and “Stained Glass Ceilings.” This is not a record for the faint of heart, as it has its fair share of thrashing and screaming, as well as some disturbed imagery, from car crashes to drug overdoses to gun violence. But in this aggression is a ferocious heart, one that refuses to quit, colored by drum rhythms for days and dueling guitar solos. To me, this is the essential combination for punk rock – an American critique offered by the minstrels of its lower middle class, and loud-as-fuck playing. But there’s something else that that phrase “punk rock” doesn’t quite capture, and that’s literary-level vocabulary, narrative-style scene setting and that particular brand of maturity that only comes from traveling to mental depths so low, and so dark, and surviving them. No one does it quite like The Wonder Years does, and no band ever will.

This god damn machine; hungry and heartless.
My whole generation got lost in the margin.
We put our faith in you. You turned a profit.
Now we’re drowning here under your waves.

~Cigarettes and Saints

Honorable mentions, for lack of enough listening to properly rank:
Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit – Courtney Barnett
Vitals – MuteMath
Traveler – Chris Stapleton
All Your Favorite Bands – Dawes
Dealer – Foxing
1989 -Ryan Adams (listened a lot, but didn’t feel quite right to rank. Best cover album of all time, tho, for sure.)

Past years:
2014
2013
2012
2011

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