1. The Reputation, The Reputation (Initial)
On the whole, I’m a bit prejudiced against undergrad finance students, since they seem to wrap their personalities around bean-counting phoniness early on. But I make an exception for finance major (and now law student!) Elizabeth Elmore, who’s been dosing my personal docudrama plot ever since I dug that rocking Sarge single “Dear Josie Love Robyn” in 1996. All the Sarge albums are great, even Distant, the odds’n'sods post-breakup comp of live tracks, covers, and a fistful of striking originals that easily made my Top Ten in 2000. She’s Elvis Costello crossed with Joan Jett (or maybe Bob Mould crossed with Amelia Fletcher?), except she has no use for metaphor or poesy. So now she’s got this new power-pop band called the Reputation, and their eponymous debut is easily the best album I’ve heard all year. Just like in the olde days of Sarge, the Reputation grips you right away with some bracing simple hooks that step solidly around Elizabeth Elmore’s striking voice. But the lyrics! Elmore is a woman who strips all the metaphor and mysticism out of her relationships, and lays her soap operas bare. Often the words are striking in their combined density and simplicity, and even when she’s mildly pretentious (“a drunken sprawl reclaims these streets most every night”, for example) she hints at bare-bones genius. If she were a poet I’d compare her with the spare, entertaining lovers and sinners of the New York School (Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, those dudes). And just like those lost poets, it seems likely that the gray haze of dead romances and trashed friendships in Elizabeth’s life might be her own damn fault. Luckily, she seeks no pity, and there’s no reason to offer it. Songs like “Either Coast”, “The Stars of Amateur Hour”, and “The Truth” sound timeless already, and her cover of Elvis Costello’s “Almost Blue” will knock your socks off. She seems to have some bad luck when it comes to human communio, sure, but her loss is our gain.
2. Comet Gain, Realistes (Kill Rock Stars)
Dusting off the some barely-tuned guitars and shouting into cheap mikes, this ever-shifting mob of Londoners has been laying down some pretty good tracks since the memorable Casino Classics in 1995. But here’s where they finally touch the sublime by embracing an ugly truth: heaven is the closest thing to hell. You all should be glad I’m not one of them wanky film students, because then I’d be dropping some serious jargon-drunk theorie to force an interpretation of what is essentially a brilliant album of raucous pop songs. It helps that all these communal party kids know how to blunder their way into serious hooks, dreamy ballads, and barbed noise. Between falling in love and drinking too much, they put their wisdom behind them and race forward with an earful of clamorous bait. And as far as the theorie, it sounds like they all really like to see a good flick, as evidenced by the title track and the cover of “Movies”. Simple melodies, loud guitars, beautiful songs. Who could ask for more?
3. Pretty Girls Make Graves, Good Health (Lookout!)
OK, now I get why they named themselves after that shy coitophobic Smiths tune. It’s those lines toward the end: “She wants it Now / and she will not wait / but she’s too rough / and I’m too delicate.” Based on the evidence here, I’d hate to see what would happen if Morrissey were trapped in a room with lead singer Andrea Zollo, who shouts so guilelessly and forcefully that you know one of those asexual cerebral types would panic straight away. On top of Zollo’s unforgettable presence, both J. Clark and Nathan Thelen have a knack for those rotating-curlicue guitar signatures that propel a song forward while giving it a pretty shape. And just like you and me, these guys are in love with the sheer noisy pleasure of music. The opener, “Speakers Push the Air” is an instant classic, a crazy and addictive call’n'response that asks (no answer required), “Do you remember what the music meant?” The rest of the songs vary that pattern only slightly. Gets your pulse racing, it does, and I’ll be playing it on my deathbed for sure. This is a pure life-giving racket.
4. Spoon, Kill The Moonlight (Merge)
When someone forcibly recommends me an album and tells me it’s “a grower”, then I automatically assume it sucks. But, y’know, sometimes a grower really is a grower, and after about five listens I fully succumbed to the greatness of Spoon. So has everyone else, I gather: the critical adulation seems more like a mass surrender. If you want to know the real secret: they won my heart with the line “I don’t dig the Stripes but I’ll go for Har Mar”, which matches my own sentiments exactly. Britt Daniel has a great ear, brilliant tastes, and an affecting indie-soul voice. All his tunes render their complexity as simple patterns of widely-separated instruments, and the words are addictive. So yeah, it’s a grower—a cryptic one too. But still you’ll want to hear “Jonathon Fisk” over and over as you bike out to your next anti-war protest.
5. Dillinger Four, Situationist Comedy (Fat Wreck Chords)
Contrary to the trajectory of music history, or the expectations of pomo music critics, these drunk Minnesota anarchists managed to create an all-time classic punk album in 2000 with Vs. God. That platter had hooks that make the Hives look about as exciting as King Karl XVI Gustav, and also it bore proudly some righteous white-knuckle rants like you never hear anymore. So you are correct to assume that Situationist Comedy (original title: Who Let the Gods Out?) ain’t quite as good. The D4 are happy to agree with you, so long as the next drink is on you. But as they cram more and more words into more complex songs, the punk density is a throbbing addiction. “Fired-side Chat” is the angriest tune about corporate corruption you’ll hear all year, while the bracing “file under ‘ADULT URBAN CONTEMPORARY’” is a bloody rant about our horrifying national leadership (“Every man has got a price/ Do you feel protected?”). That’s just two great ones in a messy baker’s dozen. In fact, maybe Situationist Comedy really is better than vs. God because all the songs seem so much more necessary now than two years ago. I haven’t stopped playing it all year.
6. Sleater-Kinney, One Beat (Kill Rock Stars)
If America’s greatest rock’n'roll band fell short of making this year’s greatest album, it isn’t for lack of trying. I wept with joy the first time I heard the martial drumming of Janet Weiss locking in with the majestic voices and stuttering riffs of Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein on the album’s opener “One Beat”, and they keep up the noise throughout. John Goodmanson’s fleshy loud production makes every tune sound like thunder collapsing the mountaintops, and the lyrics here are by turns sensible, introspective, and confrontational. But still, there’s something different here, something that the haunting placenta/quarter-note cover art only hints at. Corin had a baby, the world took a turn for the worse on September 11, and so this band carries a heavy burden on every tune. “Faraway” manages to simultaneously grieve for the 9/11 victims and dis Dubya like you’ve never heard before, while the pounding momentum of “Light-Rail Coyote” hints at class guilt and innocence in all sorts of fascinating ways. And then there’s the amazing closer, “Sympathy”, which swims through a shimmering coral-reef of delta blues and rhythmic punk as Corin and Carrie trade confessions—both to the audience and to each other. These are astounding songs, works of genius even. But the whole is less than the sum of its parts, and in the end I listen to it a lot less often than I should. Standing on the shoulders of giants leaves me cold, too.
7. Crooked Fingers, Reservoir Songs EP (Merge)
OK, so here’s a brief EP where Eric Bachmann covers Kris Kristofferson, Neil Diamond, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, and Queen, and I haven’t been able to stop hearing these songs in my head since my co-worker Becky laid the tunes on me several months ago. It’s an oddly haunting mix, a “disappearing dream”, and you can tell that the bravery and weary conviction in Bachmann’s ragged voice are always there to underscore the pain of art lost and wisdom won. You’ll never listen to “When U Were Mine” the same way again after you’ve heard this lonely banjo-inflected version, and that goes double for “Solitary Man”. And if “Under Pressure” is one of the past century’s finest pop songs, Bachmann tackles it fearlessly: the lively result is like stomping repeatedly in a shallow, grainy puddle of truth. This is an EP that will haunt your own psyche and impress your friends.
8. The Gossip, Arkansas Heat (Kill Rock Stars)
I don’t wanna get Zen on y’all, but this little EP sounds a hell of a lot like a sonic wedgie. Noisier, faster, and rawer than last year’s fine LP That’s Not What I Heard, they come real close to capturing their astonishing greasy live gigs with this digital beartrap of messy sound. Unforgettable and unkempt. And once you’re finished picking the underwear out of your buttcrack you can join the revolution.
9. The Streets, Original Pirate Material (Vice)
Just like with the Hives, I think it’s pretty much impossible not to love this album. It’s brimming from start to finish with sharp wit and a visceral sense of pathos that few artists can capture anymore. Which isn’t to say that it’s a bummer: most of the tunes are quite funny actually. My personal favorite is the cheeba-versus-booze debate “The Irony of It All”, which turns out to be a lot more serious than it seems. And my second most favorite is “It’s Too Late” (which, like “Turn the Page”, appropriates a seriously resonant MOR song title), where the selfish bastard blunders and blubbers his way into romantic enlightenment. Or not. Anyway, Mike Skinner’s apparently some sorta Jedi knight for “geezers” now, and you’ll dig his brand of committed verbal heroism from start to finish, even if you’re as disconnected from the garage and 2-step movements as I am. Out here in Minnesota, he sounds to me like “Piss Factory” crossed with Wat Tyler—and some funky beats to boot—and so there’s no stopping my lust for this shit.
10. Radio 4, Gotham! (Vice)
What they lose in funky rhythm and snide angry-young-boy voices, they gain in arty complexity. A nice white-dub krunchberry taste pervades most of the tracks here, and from the tasteful sequencer that bubbles under “Our Town” to the scratchy polyrhythms of “Struggle”, they make stern political commitment sound like a blast. Great soundtrack to a red-diaper keg party, anyway. And, uh, yeah, the real reason to love them is because of their lefty politics. Now if only they had a knack for sloganeering, for filling our heads with culture while giving us all an ulcer . . .