TOP TEN ‘09
By Mike Baron
The world have entered a gigantic metaphorical sphincter but there is progress in at least one field. Power pop has never been better. We are living in one of the great musical flowerings of history and it shows no sign of abating. I had a real problem picking just ten records for my top ten, so I kept on going. Just a little bit. We’ve still got a ways to go so I might have to update this list.
The qualitative differences among the top five are nugatory. One could easily choose any of them as the record of the year.
#1 The Shazam: Meteor. These big-hearted stadium rockers have been building toward this titanic yawp of iconic anthems for years.
“So Awesome” opens the record with a twenty-one guitar salute to the joy of living, lead guitar as hard and elegant as the Golden Gate Bridge. “Don’t Look Down” is a power ballad with every lick carved in stone. You could climb the notes like a staircase. Hans Rotenberry’s vocals are winsome and masterful, going from cooed aside to anthemic bellow in a heartbeat. “Disco at the Fairground” is the best Move song the Move never recorded. Alternating sinister, earth-chewing minor chords with drunken sailor music hall choruses it crunches euphorically. Zappa would approve.
“A Little Better” is a self-improvement song that might have come off Workingman’s Dead with a harder rock edge. “Always Tomorrow” is one of those bittersweet masterpieces built around a simple repeating guitar motif overlaid with Rotenberry’s pliant vocals filled with inchoate longing as is all great pop.
“Let it Fly” is an emotionally potent paean to hope harking back to “Squeeze the Day” from Tomorrow the World. The hushed beginning telegraphs its hortatory heart before that heavy bass cuts in. The chorus with its muffled kettledrums sends chills down your spine. This is life affirming rock that will have you grabbing an invisible Telecaster and yelling “YEAH!”
“Hey Mom I Got the Bomb” contains the lyric:
I got The Bomb, yeah I got The Bomb
If you don't think I'll use it you're ridiculously wrong
You have to hear this to get the full effect.
“Time For Pie” is a distillation of every great arena rock solo you ever heard.
As far as I know you can only order the record from www.theshazam.com and www.notlame.com. Should be available from cdbaby.com shortly. You won’t hear about the Shazam in Rolling Stone or Spin. You won’t hear them on Big Radio, certainly not on MTV or VH-1. The Shazam are merely the tip of the iceberg. And the hardest part of the iceberg too.
#2 Campbell Stokes Sunshine Recorder: Makes Your Ears Smile
One man band Andy Morten conducts a clinic in power pop dynamics dancing unerringly from hook to bridge to chorus with the grace of a psychedelic Fred Astaire. “Track One” opens in off-hand manner but within the space of a heartbeat transforms into the first of many thrilling anthems. Morten does everything well. Aside from the obvious songwriting and singing his drums are propulsive and mellifluous and his guitar playing is melodically spot on.
“She Looks Good in the Sun” nods to the Beach Boys but Morten’s style is as unique in its own way as Brian Wilson’s. His songs take unexpected but wholly appropriate turns. The one note wah-wah adds a delicious tension. “Tony Hazzard” is a goof on the disposable nature of pop music but the melody and dynamics are anything but. Like the other songs on this record they will echo in your skull.
With its McCartneyesque bass pops and progression of elegantly thrilling chords “Mrs. Bumble” is an instant classic, a mini-suite reminiscent of “Suite Judy Blue Eyes” or any number of Beatlesque freak-outs. A bridge as delicate as spun sugar segues into a chorus that’s all get up and go. Simply sublime.
“Everybody Loves the Good Times” is another insanely ambitious pop saga reminiscent of XTC without the clash of class warfare. Pitch perfect guitar adds poignant piquancy to a song with more changes than the second side of Abbey Road. This guy’s a pop Tchaikovsky.
“Feel the Sunshine” is merely the fifth astonishing song on one of the best records of the year. Any year.
#3 Fun: Aim and Ignite
Highly original orchestral rock with elements of Broadway musicals, Beach Boys, Sly and the Family Stone, Van Morrison, Dexys’ Midnight Runners, and Dylan. A song like “Benson Hedges” with its soaring harmonies and spectacular lead vocal performance lends weight to an eloquent, incoherent rant about the singer’s fucked-up life.
“All the Pretty Girls” could have come off Mika’s new CD, an irresistible dance ditty to a standoffish girl who threatens to leave. Very effective use of strings. “I Wanna be the One” matches Sly in its clever use of nursery-rhyme melodies incorporated into a larger structure. Fun is three guys: Jack Antonoff, Anderw Dost, and Nate Ruess. Doesn’t say who does what, but whoever sings lead has a commanding voice reminiscent of Freddie Mercury.
“At Least I’m Not as Sad” incorporates children chanting an elemental tune embellishing a horn chooglin’ reggae that grabs your attention like a desperate meth freak with vocal pyrotechnics and myriad rhythmic changes.
“Walking the Dog” also has reggae in the riddum and singing, a joyous paean to a woman who’s thinking of leaving, with a hook big enough to snag Moby Dick. “Barlights” has an almost gospel feel.
”The Gambler” is one of the most emotionally powerful songs I’ve ever heard. This is one of those great sui generis records like Dexys’ Too-Rye-Aye or Bryan Scary’s Flight of the Knife.
#4 Broken Promise Keeper: Ice Cold Pop
Straight-ahead pop rock as addictive as crack. Rob Stuart sounds effortless in everything he does, difficult to do when you’re providing your own rhythm section. Not only does he sound effortless he sounds unique in a way I haven’t heard since the first Marshall Crenshaw album. He defines his territory—the half acoustic straight ahead rocker (Tom Petty, Crenshaw, Billy Joel) and hits you with a triple combination that leaves you dazed and wanting more.
“Directions,” Worship From Afar,” and “Kristine” constitute three of the most killer first songs I’ve heard in years. BPK is instantly likeable and instantly identifiable. Some bands play their entire careers without forging an identifiable sound. All those American Idol winners.
“I Blame James,” call-checks James Kirk, James Bond, and James West as it speaks to the power of TV. Stuart’s take on “spy guitar” is pretty funny. The songs run one into another without breaks which I always like especially when they keep turning up the heat as they do here. Dig Stuart’s crazy bass line on “Look Out Hollywood.”
Effortless ass-kickin’ mastery.
#5 Throwback Suburbia
Instantly memorable series of great songs reminiscent of a thousand bands and yet unique. Craftsmanship is old school—distinctive melodies, powerful choruses, and satisfying hooks. These guys have studied their Brill Bdlg.
Keyboards give them country vibes, big guitars give them drama and tension. Jimi Evans’ honeyed tones sell everything from power ballads to lawn mowers and most songs feature three part harmonies. “Rewind” is a power ballad with guitar like the leaf spring off a Chevy truck smacking you in the head. I mean that in the best possible way. “Head Over Heels” is a joyful hand-clapper with sing along chorus. “Same Mistake” is a deliriously sweet castanet clappin’ dirge to self-destruction. I can almost see Lou Christie belting this at the Flamingo Lounge.
“All About Me” is a pitiless self-examination of narcissism that ought to be the official anthem of the Y Generation.
There’s more, much more and every one is a gem. The whole CD is a home run.
#6 Roger Klug: More Help For Your Nerves
‘Nother (mostly) damned one-man band. This is a mammoth selection of songs showing off Klug’s writing skills and musicianship. Every song has a chorus and a hook which we take for granted but you’d be surprised how many Billboard and EW hits get by on one chord or less. “Tinnitus” is an opening guitar blast that leads into the exuberant “Dump Me Hard,” among the most upbeat of failed relationship songs.
“I’m So Worried About Time” is an all-out rock onslaught that slides into a bluegrass break in the middle, then back to the avalanche. “For the Kids” is a heart breaker about a young woman geared toward motherhood. It’s not so much what Klug says but how he says it in elegiac chords that scream irony. Strong contender for Song of the Year.
“The Day I Had My Brain Removed” jolts with an unexpected but deliriously sweet hook, then marches off to a Scottish breakdown. A guitar duel highlights “Hi-Hat” which features one of Klug’s more unexpected hooks containing the memorable phrase, “Bored as Ohio.”
“When Dreams Dry Up” is another oxymoronic celebration of sadness alternating whispy Victorian regret with surprising vocal and instrumental vehemence. Klug is a clever wordsmith with unexpected rhymes, shifts, and dodges.
And so it goes, one great song after another.
#7 Curtains for You: What a Lovely Surprise to Wake up Here
Lilting melodies, soaring harmonies, and a liquid lead guitar that strokes the hypothalamus producing waves of pure pleasure land this Seattle quintet in the Top Ten. Like Explorers Club they mine the Beach Boys for inspiration but have a unique sound built around killer songs and Mikey Gervais’ sinewy guitar. I wish they’d mixed the vocals a little more upfront. Some lyrics remain opaque. Mikey and Matt Gervais with Nick Holman (b) and Peter Fedofsky (k) have an undeniable Everly Brothers vibe. .
The first four songs are joyous celebrations of all things hooky, building one on another into an stoppable locomotive of power pop which barely slows for the plaintive “Chain Link Fence.” “Dumb Angel” is an instant classic, as is this record.
#8 Paul Steel: MoonRock
This record begins on such an impossibly high note it would seem impossible to sustain at album length. And Paul Steel doesn’t quite make it but his sheer pop exuberance coupled with impressive compositional skills makes MoonRock one of the year’s most exciting releases. “In a Coma” begins with irresistible hand claps, great tonic and a hook that ratchets up the tension. Steel stacks vocals into towering harmonic wedding cakes.
The coda to “Moon Rock” is so overwrought as to overshadow the song, but the next song, “Oh No! Oh Yeah!” more than makes up for it with pop smarts, soaring harmonies and a honkin’ kazoo section. “Summer Song” is a bittersweet entry in the languid, end-of-summer blues similar to the Beach Boys’ “The Warmth of the Sun” or Scott Sax’ “I Am the Summer Time.”
#9 Lamar Holley: Confessions of a College Student
Lamar Holley’s musical-on-a-disc dedicated to the trials and travails of a first year college student contains several jaw-dropping mini-suites. “Biology” is a twelve course feast in itself, a mid-tempo winner about what the narrator’s really thinking about in a boring biology class. The record’s mostly about girls—how to get them, how to lose them, their unobtainability.
Holley’s got that Tin Pan Alley. vibe which yields well-balanced songs. He never cuts loose or rocks out, but charms with melody and crystalline arrangements. “Secretly” pines languidly to an oblivious girl, steel pedal guitar echoing the singer’s anguish.
“Madame Shamrock” is so rich in harmonic variation you may wish to consume it in tiny bites, like triple XXX dark chocolate. Holley has stumbled onto a set of harmonics that affect the lizard brain. It is difficult to stop listening. You may play this song all day. A fire could start and you wouldn’t notice. While there’s nothing else here that matches “Shamrock,” there is plenty to thrill.
Great production too.
#10 Vinyl Candy: Land
Land, a “rock opera” about an aspiring musician, presents a compelling narrative through an elegant succession of mini pop masterpieces that segue from one to the next. “All Along the Way” is typical of Vinyl Candy in that it which eschews the familiar first, fourth and fifth chords in favor of something fresher and more jazz-like. It’s not jazz—it’s fist-pumping rock with blistering guitars and intricate harmonies. But Vinyl Candy’s distinctive songwriting skills accompanied by monstrous guitar swirls give them a unique sound, one that does not suggest Jellyfish. Vinyl Candy sound more homogenous, more straight-ahead rock without Jellyfish’s charming eccentricity. .
Vinyl Candy occupies a sweet spot all their own, each song an intricate mosaic of brilliant chords, musicianship and singing. Listened to all at once they tend to blend into each other. Listened to individually they sparkle. Vinyl Candy also shows what can be done with album art in a small package, although I would dearly love access to the lyrics, either through an insert on online.
#11 The High Dials: Moon Country
Insanely ambitious psychedelic twofer from the Montreal quartet incorporating their whole arsenal of buzzing guitars, stacked vocals and Zombie-like song structures. The guitar riff that opens “(Do the) Memory Lapse” attaches itself to your brain like the Alien face hugger. With songs like “Killer of Dragons” and “Oison my Bastard Brother” the meaning is sometimes obscure but the breadth and the scope of the music are enormous.
At turns mesmerizing and threatening, Moon Country is as vast and mysterious as an undiscovered continent. The standing here doesn’t really reflect the quality of the music but the competition this year has been ferocious. The package is awful—a double cardboard sleeve from which the discs tumble every time you look at it, dark, muddy lettering and a cover painting that looks like a misprint. Produced “with the participation of the government of Canada (Canada Music Fund.” At least the Canucks know how to spend their stimulus money.
#12 Jeff Litman: Postscript
Heartfelt, personal and extremely melodic debut needs no lyric sheet because of the upfront intimacy of Litman’s voice. Acoustic power through excellent song structure—listen to “Complicate” and “Open Arms,” material that recalls Josh Rouse ca. 1972.
Kelly Jones joins Litman for “Maine.”
#13 Valley Lodge: Semester at Sea