R.I.P. Chuck Berry

Music has lost some true legends over the past year and a half. Yesterday Chuck Berry passed away and his loss is seemingly incalcuable. The tributes have already come pouring in from all over and his influence is impossible to comprehend I believe. There will always be a debate who started Rock & Roll but to me Chuck Berry was the truest pioneer. More than Elvis, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis no one played guitar like that before him and his songwriting was so precise, it encapsulated the very essence of Rock & Roll. All of the platitudes of the genre can be traced back to year zero and Chuck Berry songs.

I’ll leave an excerpt here of a quote from Bob Dylan from a RollingStone interview back in 2009 regarding Chuck Berry. He says it better than I ever could:

“Chuck said to me, ‘By God, I hope you live to be 100, and I hope I live forever,'” Dylan says with a laugh. “He said that to me a couple of years ago. In my universe, Chuck is irreplaceable. All that brilliance is still there, and he’s still a force of nature. As long as Chuck Berry’s around, everything’s as it should be. This is a man who has been through it all. The world treated him so nasty. But in the end, it was the world that got beat.”

 

R.I.P. Chuck Berry

 

TOP 50 RECORDS OF 2016

TOP 50 RECORDS OF 2016:

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50. Glenn Hughes- Resonate

Although it may serve as a placeholder for the impending return of Black Country Communion in 2017 Glenn Hughes’ solo effort Resonate is uncompromising in its cocksure classic rock approach.  It’s a collection of sturdy always reliable songs from Hughes and his continuously stunning vocals that belie his age.

 

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49. Pinegrove- Cardinal

Pinegrove’s Cardinal is one of the better debut albums of 2016. With warm rustic melodies and singer Evan Stephens Hall’s creaking tenor they recall elements of The Shins albeit with a more rural roots sound to them. Looking to the future perhaps the best part of Cardinal is the subtle restraint that shows bigger and better things could be coming from Pinegrove.

 

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48. Neil Young- Peace Trail

One thing you can’t accuse Neil Young of is resting on past accolades and glories. Peace Trail is his ninth (!) studio album of original material in the past 12 years and that doesn’t even include the myriad of live sets, covers albums, and archived releases. These albums have been wildly uneven in quality and while Peace Trail has its diamonds in the rough (The title track, “Indian Givers,” “Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders”) perhaps Neil would be better served to take 2017 off (Maybe 2018 too) to recharge the batteries. That and getting back together with Crazy Horse.

 

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47. St. Paul & The Broken Bones- Sea Of Noise

St. Paul & The Broken Bones have grabbed the baton for the neo-soul scene with Sea Of Noise. It’s a passionately retro spiritual shakedown sounding like a heated southern tent revival with a democratic tilt. Sea Of Noise finds a way to be sultry and socially poignant at the same time.

 

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46. Jeff The Brotherhood- Zone

Jeff The Brotherhood achieved a significant breakthrough in 2015 with the superb Wasted On The Dream. An album palpable enough to enjoy even without using the enhanced assistance of herbal supplements (Although everyone probably still did). They retreat to their roots a bit with Zone, shrouded in narcotic clouds and dripping with murky bong water. While its admirable that they are more interested in identity than fame it may do them some good in finding a balance between fidelity and hazy experimentation.

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45. Angel Olsen- My Woman

Angel Olsen continues the linear career arc of bolstering her sound on My Woman. After the organic augmentation of 2014’s critically lauded Burn Your Fire For No Witness Olsen pushes the boundaries even further here with several arrangements consisting of electric guitar and a full band. Olsen still retains her razor-sharp songwriting wit while sounding perfectly at home in the realm of indie-pop.

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44. Pete Yorn- Arranging Time

After a six-year hiatus Pete Yorn returns with Arranging Time. While its ethos is bathed in the melancholia of Yorn’s lyrics it’s the opulent production that leaves the most resounding impression. Yorn seems like he’s coming out of the wilderness, rejuvenated to recapture some of his turn of the century stardust and making up for lost time.

 

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43. The Wild Feathers- Lonely Is A Lifetime

After The Wild Feathers 2013’s noteworthy self-titled debut it sounded like they were bound to be part in a southern rock revival. With Lonely Is A Lifetime however one look no further than the album cover itself as the template for their evolving sound. Although they still empower guitar-driven rock they trade in the grittiness for wide-eyed wonder aiming for the heavens.

 

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42. The Jayhawks- Paging Mr. Proust

The Jayhawks have been an institution on the alternative country scene in a career that has now spanned over three decades and founding member Gary Louris leads the band back to the promised land in Paging Mr. Proust, their best outing since 2003’s Rainy Day Music. Proust has all of the classic hallmarks of The Jayhawks: Jangling guitars, saccharin harmonies, and Louris’ unmistakable world-weary warble. Louris and company still sound energized 31 years and counting.

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41. Rival Sons- Hollow Bones

Rival Sons are unapologetic classic rock throwbacks hearkening back to a time when bands like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath roamed the earth in their heyday. Great Western Valkyrie saw them achieve a Valhalla apex and they build off of that momentum with Hollow Bones. The slow-burning intensity of cuts like “Fade Out” display Scott Holiday and Jay Buchanan’s Page/Plant –like alchemy that sounds most importantly authentic and not like imitation.

 

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40. The Lumineers- Cleopatra

While it’s not a sophomore slump by any means The Lumineers’ Cleopatra feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. Their excellent 2012 self-titled debut seemed like America’s answer to Mumford & Sons. While the irresistible indie-pop/folk-rock hooks are here for the first half of Cleopatra (“Sleep On The Floor,” “Ophelia,” “Cleopatra,” “Gun Song,” “Angela”) they seem to let their foot off the gas for the back half. This more than anything is a learning curve for a band that shows they possess the songwriting chops to create something great again.

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39. The Felice Brothers- Life In The Dark

After their rather pedestrian effort of Favorite Waitress The Felice Brothers return to form with Life In The Dark. The band’s organic sound recalls ‘70s-era Bob Dylan; not only because of Ian Felice’s uncanny nasally croon that mimics Dylan but the band itself has a ramshackle quality to it. The spaghetti western murder ballad “Diamond Bell” sounds like something that could’ve easily been on Dylan’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid soundtrack or even his masterpiece Desire.

 

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38. Pixies- Head Carrier

After the uneven Indie Cindy legendary indie-rock group Pixies restore the faith with Head Carrier. Although it’s not as lofty as their late ’80s career peak it does have the vibe of a band dusting off the cobwebs and sharpening their focus. “Classic Masher,” “Talent,” “Bel Esprit,” and “All I Think About Now” show that Black Francis’ crew still have the prowess to create memorable hooks.

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37. Jake Bugg- On My One

Jake Bugg had praise heaped on him after his first two albums, anointed as “The chosen one” and rock’s next great lyricist/poet. Then some of the air was let out of his balloon when it was discovered he used co-writers on most of his songs. A determined Bugg shows he doesn’t want any crutches on the aptly titled On My One where he takes the songwriting and producing (Mostly) reigns by himself. Results however vary as Bugg shows glimpses of solo promise in “Put Out The Fire” and “Bitter Salt” while there are moments where he could’ve used guidance in restraint. We did not need to hear the clunker “rap” song “Ain’t No Rhyme.”

 

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36. The Head And The Heart- Signs Of Light

The Head And The Heart have continually grown and shifted their sounds gradually in their early career. With Signs Of Light they aim big and trade in their more acoustic Americana moments for a sun-kissed radio-friendly sound. Their strength has always been in their harmonies and with Signs Of Light they go all in for the sing-a-longs.

 

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35. Andrew Leahey & The Homestead- Skyline In Central Time

After a brain tumor nearly derailed his entire career (And life) Andrew Leahey may be the best comeback story of 2016. The health scare seems to have sharpened and invigorated Leahey’s music as he pulls from the best sentimentality of Jackson Browne and dusty songwriting akin to that of Tom Petty’s rural side. Skyline In Central Time is the sound of life-affirmation, after conquering a hurdle like a brain tumor the sky(line) is the limit for Leahey.

 

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34. Public Access TV- Never Enough

After a lengthy build-up of hype Public Access TV’s official debut Never Enough does not disappoint. Their sharp guitars and spiraling hints of danger recall their New York City brethren The Strokes, albeit on a more jovial level. It’s hard telling what the agenda is for The Strokes, but Public Access TV sound like they’re more than ready to pick up the torch for NYC guitar rock.

 

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33. The Bones Of J.R. Jones- Spirit’s Furnace

Johnathon Linaberry (aka The Bones Of J.R. Jones) has become a force to be reckoned with on Spirit’s Furnace. The bluesy soul of the multi-instrumentalist is brisk just barely eclipsing the 30-minute mark but that stoutness is actually a strength for Linaberry as he whittles things down to the essentials like a fine craftsman. One moment he’s sounding like The Black Keys caught in a chain gang (“The Heat,” “Hammers and Nails”) the next he’s creating beautiful lilting tearjerkers in the vein of Iron & Wine (“Wedding Song,” “I’m Your Broken Dog”).

 

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32. Wolfmother- Victorious

While Wolfmother seems to have continuous roster changing two things remain the same: 1.) Chairman of the Wolfmother board Andrew Stockdale remains its most paramount member 2.) They will always churn out a riff-fueled unadulterated slab of primal rock. With Victorious it feels like Stockdale has earned tenure in Valhalla.

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31. Okkervil River- Away

Okkervil River’s mastermind Will Sheff continues with his elaborate narratives on Away. Sheff takes us to the deep end with a somber yet ardent collection of mostly ballads. Six of the nine songs wind and weave for over six minutes to give the listener proper digestion time, even occasionally unfolding to reveal layers as serene as the album cover.

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30. Local Natives- Sunlit Youth

After stumbling a bit on their sophomore effort Hummingbird Local Natives return with their third album Sunlit Youth and also re-calibrate their vision closer to their outstanding debut of Gorilla Manor. Disarming harmonies and delectable shifting dance floor rhythms and melodies populate Sunlit Youth and remind us all why we fell in love with Local Natives in the first place.

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29. Ryley Walker- Golden Sings That Have Been Sung

Ryley Walker is a pub poet that can find enlightenment in some of the most mundane situations and occurrences. On Golden Sings That Have Been Sung Walker’s precision finger-picking bathe his meditations on blurred nights and hazy mornings. Its centerpiece is “The Roundabout,” a hymn for all of our favorite rundown watering holes on the outskirts of downtown. A place where the older, grayer, balder crowd can share a cigarette, self-diagnose health issues, and reminisce about the golden years while ripping on the youth.

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28. Sturgill Simpson- A Sailor’s Guide To Earth

There’s a new group of Highwaymen on the country scene. Outcasts making outlaw country that goes against the grain of the plop/bro country sewage that’s being churned out. Names like Jason Isbell, Justin Townes Earle, Ryan Bingham, Robert Ellis, and perhaps their champion in Sturgill Simpson. With A Sailor’s Guide To Earth Simpson eclipses new peaks adding his rich timbre to scenic storytelling and swells of Motown brass provide a swagger to make Nashville undulate. To say this is strictly a country album may be a disservice considering its inclusion of so many genres.

 

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27. The Shelters- The Shelters

The Shelters no doubt got a great jump-start to their careers thanks to a famous fan you may know by the name of Tom Petty. But hype and connections only get you so far. With their self-titled debut (Also produced by Petty) The Shelters sound like seasoned veterans effortlessly creating ‘60s pop and garage rock nuggets with a modern sheen.

 

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26. Dinosaur Jr.- Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not

Dinosaur Jr. continue their distinguished latter-day run with Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not. The grunge rock pioneers play to their strengths of tunes that veer between driving grit and sludgy distortion without ever feeling too calculated. J Mascis leads the charge with unorthodox vocals and his tasteful yet blistering solos.

 

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25. Frightened Rabbit- Painting Of A Panic Attack

Frightened Rabbit are probably not the band you turn to for a Friday or Saturday out. Painting Of A Panic Attack continues their holding pattern of bleak despondency contrasted by elegant production. There is beauty to be found in the darkness here, none better than album closer “Die Like A Rich Boy.”

 

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24. Shovels & Rope- Little Seeds

Shovels & Rope married couple Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst have found a way to continue their winning streak with Little Seeds. Their ability to integrate forms of Americana, folk, and rock into single songs and the natural chemistry found in their infectious harmonies place them in a territory with few peers. Whether it’s taking a song called “Botched Execution” and making it sound like a Top 40 pop gem or tackling the racial uneasiness in America with “BWYR” nothing is off limits for this dynamic duo.

 

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23. Conor Oberst- Ruminations

Conor Oberst’s Ruminations is the sound of isolation and introspection synthesized down to the basics with just acoustic guitar, piano, and harmonica. It’s no surprise that this was recorded while he was holed up during an Omaha winter as most of the subject matter is sparse and bleak but Oberst’s nearly peerless songwriting is triumphantly pushed to the forefront.

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22. Cheap Trick- Bang, Zoom, Crazy… Hello

Let’s get the one negative thing out of the way right now about Cheap Trick’s latest album: Yes, the name is terrible. But you would be wrong to dismiss it simply on the title because Bang, Zoom, Crazy… Hello is Cheap Trick’s best album in a decade. The godfathers of power pop pull off songs as only they can with heavy riffs, delicious guitar solos, and catchy sweeping hooks that sound like a match made in heaven (tonight).

 

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21. Wilco- Schmilco

Wilco’s 10th studio album, the tongue-in-cheek nod to Harry Nilsson’s Nilsson Schmilsson finds Wilco at their most comfortable. Like, slippers by a fireplace dad-rock comfortable, at least musically. Although it’s their least engaging and boldly adventurous album since their debut AM, Schmilco is less concerned with preconceived expectations than just creating an enjoyable thoroughfare.

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20. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds- Skeleton Tree

Only Nick Cave can take the darkness of the worst situations, like tragically losing a child and turning it into something enduring and a testament to the human condition. Out of that despair with The Bad Seeds he concocts Skeleton Tree, a frosted landscape of icy synths and Cave’s rueful baritone blanketing the horizons like a billowing cumulonimbus. Though some losses are irreplaceable Cave is able to escape into his art and is gracious enough to at least let us peer into the window of his complex mind.

 

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19. Dawes- We’re All Gonna Die

Dawes have built a career of honest and earnest music and their “Good guy” reputations. So they naturally decide to throw a bit of a curveball with an album titled We’re All Gonna Die with an ominous tornado in the distance. The curveball however is not in theme as this may be their most vibrant album yet but rather expanding their palates beyond some of their Americana banalities. They incorporate drum machines, orchestral flourishes, fuzzed-out guitars, and back-up female singers cordially into their blueprint suggesting to never underestimate what they are capable of.

 

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18. Parker Millsap- The Very Last Day

Parker Millsap is a fresh-faced singer/songwriter from Oklahoma with songwriting chops and wit that defy his youth. His latest album The Very Last Day finds Millsap operating on a new level hitting on all forms of early American music whether it be blues, rockabilly, folk, or gospel. Visions of the apocalypse never sounded so sublime.

 

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17. Drive-By Truckers- American Band

In terms of civil unrest and social divides no one had their finger on the pulse of America more firmly or astutely than the Drive-By Truckers.  American Band is one of their best albums yet but personal achievements take a backseat to the ultimate message the band is trying to convey. Specifically poignant topical and political songs find a balance between their standard rowdy southern rockers and the meditative slow-burners contemplating the darker labyrinths of American culture and conscience.

 

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16. Mudcrutch- 2

With his main act with The Heartbreakers on hiatus from recording Tom Petty choose to revive his side project and original band he broke into the business with Mudcrutch. It’s no surprise that on the aptly titled 2 that most of the strongest songs are Petty’s (“Trailer,” “Dreams Of Flying,” “Beautiful Blue,” “Save You Water,” “Hungry No More”) but there are also surprisingly vibrant contributions from the unassuming duo of guitarist Tom Leadon (“The Other Side Of The Mountain”) and drummer Randall Marsh (“Beautiful World”) that suggest Petty is more than willing to share the load creatively with Mudcrutch while maintaining his ringleader status with The Heartbreakers.

 

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15. Joe Bonamassa- Blues Of Desperation

Joe Bonamassa is a blues purist at heart and it’s a genre he’s willing to fight for and maintain at all costs. Blues Of Desperation is an expansive piece of work the best electrified blues album to come around in years with top-shelf production, cranked up amplifiers, and the symbiosis between Bonamassa and his guitar at times achieves levels of blistering transcendence. The deluxe monster “No Good Place For The Lonely” with its nearly three-minute scalding outro solo channels the ghosts of some of his fore-bearers from his mentor B.B. King to Stevie Ray Vaughan.

 

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14. Band Of Horses- Why Are You OK

Band Of Horses have been carving out an alcove of music for themselves that’s so celestial and sparkling it may as well be called champagne rock. Their latest output Why Are You OK continues along that seraphic trajectory with big sky ballads and chiming dreamscapes all swathed in front-man Ben Bridwell’s tender creaking croon. As long as Band Of Horses continue to release albums so elemental and astral they can do no wrong.

 

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13. Butch Walker- Stay Gold

Butch Walker had the surprise hit of the summer with Stay Gold in 2016 as it plays like a lost southern-fried Bruce Springsteen album from the Bible Belt. “Irish Exit” is like a distant cousin to Springsteen’s “Glory Days” while other standouts like “East Coast Girl,” “Wilder In The Heart,” “Ludlow Expectations,” and “Record Store” intersect with The Boss and the grungy yet well-intentioned heart-on-sleeve of The Gaslight Anthem. Though its creator hails from Georgia Stay Gold with its blue-collared narratives is a heartland rock knockout.

 

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12. Brian Fallon- Painkillers

While The Gaslight Anthem lay low for a while front-man Brian Fallon decided to occupy the time with his debut solo album Painkillers. While there are still the undeniable piston-firing Gaslight Anthem archetypes (“A Wonderful Life,” “Rosemary”) it’s his forays into alt-country and cinematic storytelling that shine brightest. If the curtain ever does close on The Gaslight Anthem for good Fallon shows that he’ll always have a 2nd act life in a solo career.

 

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11. Kyle Craft- Dolls Of Highland

Kyle Craft’s Dolls Of Highland is the best proper debut album of 2016. Craft finds a singing style somewhere near the compartmentalization of feelings from Ryan Adams with some of the wild thin mercury imagery of Bob Dylan. Seemingly conjured from the bayous of his native Louisiana it’s like a glam rock version of Blonde On Blonde drunk on bourbon and full of gumbo Dolls Of Highland sounds like it’s out of step with other contemporary albums and that’s part of what makes it so alluring.

 

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10. Iggy Pop- Post Pop Depression

Iggy Pop and David Bowie have been linked together since the early ‘70s both as creative pioneers and friends. And in an incredibly cosmic way both of their recording careers seemingly came to a close in 2016. Bowie tragically passed away and Pop stated, “I feel like I’m closing up after this. That’s what I feel.  It’s my gut instinct.” While Bowie opts to go to back into the nebulas of outer space for his final journey Pop instead decides on a sabbatical into the desert with fellow waste-lander and Queens Of The Stone Age front-man Josh Homme to find his spirit animal. Post Pop Depression is as dilapidated as it is sensual and provocative. Iggy’s disheveled baritone snarls while Homme’s backing vocals add a ghostly augmentation over guitars sharp and biting. The centerpieces are “Sunday” with its vamping strut before giving way unexpectedly to sweeping strings and the finale of “Paraguay” with a rant/meltdown from Pop for the ages (“You take your motherfucking laptop/ And just shove it into your goddamn foul mouth/ And down your shit heel gizzard/ You fucking phony two faced three timing piece of turd”). There have been a lot of great albums made out at the famous Rancho De La Luna studio and now Post Pop Depression is added to that list. If this is Pop bowing out then bravo but it still sounds like he has plenty left in the tank.

 

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9. Green Day- Revolution Radio

When Green Day dropped their landmark album American Idiot in 2004 they afforded themselves a career renaissance that few bands get to enjoy. The band enjoyed a popular resurgence until they crumbled under their own bombast and ambition in 2012 when they literally and figuratively exhausted themselves. Not only did they release three (!) albums that year (¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, and ¡Tré!) but front-man Billie Joe Armstrong had a very public onstage meltdown at a music festival and later checked into rehab for abuse of prescription drugs and alcohol. Four years later they return with Revolution Radio and their attempt at regaining their prominent relevancy. Though it’s not really a comeback album it is a return to form pulling from all of the strongest points of their career. Combinations of the politically-charged tension from American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown with the youthful rough ‘n’ tumble angst of Dookie and Insomniac. They tackle America’s problematic infatuation with guns and sensationalizing mass shootings with the relentless thrasher “Bang Bang” while the militant timpani-style romp of “Say Goodbye” is a kiss-off for an increasingly violent society. They balance out the harsher moments with songs like “Youngblood” a snotty but affectionate ode to Armstrong’s wife and the sparse acoustic closer “Ordinary World” is as close as Green Day has ever come to a lullaby. Green Day prove they can still be a galvanizing force and like American Idiot with the Bush administration we will definitely need more albums like Revolution Radio for the Trump administration.

 

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8. David Bowie- ★

Davie Bowie’s ★ may not top this list but it may end up having the longest lasting prestige due to the circumstances surrounding it. Bowie had been concealing his battle with liver cancer for 18 months from the public and two days after his 69th birthday and the release of ★ Bowie tragically passed away. As if an exercise in spectral macabre theater ★ seems to serve as an epitaph of sorts by Bowie to himself. It stands as an astounding achievement for Bowie and one of his best albums in decades, brooding with intergalactic noir and frigid alien soundscapes. Bowie experiments with off-kilter forms of jazz, electronica, and avant-garde rock. The title track itself is a monumental testament, a nearly 10-minute monolithic spiritual obelisk. It’s almost an album within itself rife with tempo changes, fluctuating vocal stylings, and shifting timbre. “Lazarus” is easily the most haunting song sounding as if Bowie wrote it like a shaman forecasting his demise would intersect with the album’s release (“Look up here, I’m in heaven/ I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/ I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/ Everybody knows me now.”). There is a euphonious comfort in the velvet orbit melancholy of “Dollar Days” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away” that suggest Bowie is finally at peace in the ether. Released deep in the doldrums of winter pontificating on mortality ★ is a morbidly perfect match with Bowie’s untimely death.

 

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7. Radiohead- A Moon Shaped Pool

It is not hyperbole to say that A Moon Shaped Pool is Radiohead’s best album since Kid A. Although they’ve had some great releases since 2000 this still beats them, it was definitely easy to surpass its immediate predecessor 2011’s The King Of Limbs which was abysmally bad. Luckily A Moon Shaped Pool is in a completely different stratosphere and Radiohead get back to what they do best. While there are still electronic pulses and android hisses percolating throughout the album this is perhaps the most organic and instantly accessible the band has sounded since OK Computer. The real experimentation comes in the form of orchestral arrangements informed by guitarist Jonny Greenwood and his exceptional and jarring scores of multiple Paul Thomas Anderson films. The impact is immediate with opener “Burn The Witch” and its agitated, frantic strings in a col legno battuto style set the backdrop sounding like a paranoid air raid befitting of its lyrics which are a scathing indictment of religious sects and condemnation of authoritarian figures and parties. “Daydreaming” has a sterile metallic drone that pluviophiles could warm up to as “Decks Dark” huddles in the closet from an extraterrestrial invasion. There are divergent paths to placidity (“Desert Island Disk,” “Glass Eyes”) to turbulent palpitations (“Ful Stop,” “Identikit”) and the sweeping “The Numbers” tackling a topic as weighty as global warming. “True Love Waits” is a gorgeously portentous closer more than 20 years in the making. Though it has been performed and arranged differently in live incarnations throughout the years it finally gets studio treatment as a sparse piano ballad accompanied by Thom Yorke’s lonesome and longing lament attempting to salvage a disintegrating relationship. Radiohead continue pushing boundaries while being lauded critically for over two decades now, something that is nearly impossible to do.

 

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6. Kings Of Leon- WALLS

Kings Of Leon have had a lot heaped on their plate in their nearly 15-year career. They will perhaps always have a fan base divided that will choose to create a fault line between Because Of The Times and Only By The Night. Some of the older stalwarts siding with Because Of The Times and everything that came before while newer fans may side with their commercial breakout Only By The Night and everything that proceeded it. There’s even a third contingent that recognizes them for what they really are: A consistently great band that has given the middle finger to expectations and pretensions. With their seventh album WALLS (An acronym for We Are Like Love Songs) the attack is still set to maximum impact for the biggest stages but it has less bloat then some of their previous efforts. There’s a lean yet muscular sound, cut to kill. Some of the credit goes to new producer Markus Dravs (Coldplay, Arcade Fire, Mumford & Sons) for taking core elements from Kings Of Leon’s previous six albums and incorporating them into the double helix of WALLS. Look no further than opener and first single “Waste A Moment” complete with meteor shower guitars, Caleb Followill’s longing howl (Only his drawl could sound as good on a line like, “All the way from Waco to WE-HO with a rabbit on her chain”), and cavernous WHOA-OH’s. “Reverend,” “Find Me,” “Over,” and “Eyes On You” all have high drama aura as guitars glide, collide, and jangle about with cinematic expanse. More than anything there is room to breathe sonically you can hear all of the distinct parts from all four members of the Followill clan working in familial synergy. The nocturnal dulcet ballads (“Muchacho,” “Conversation Piece,” and the title track) showcase a growing plaintive maturity that they may not have even dared in their early 20’s. At one point they were christened as the “Southern Strokes” but Kings Of Leon were never content with solely being scruffy swashbuckling rockers. The hard-charging snarling angst will always be there in some form but they’ve allowed the vulnerability that naturally comes with aging to alloy with that testosterone. They’re not interested in burning out or fading away.

 

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5. Leonard Cohen- You Want It Darker

The year 2016 began with the devastating death of David Bowie and ended with the catastrophic loss of Leonard Cohen. Like Bowie, Cohen seemed to have an empyrean sense of his mortality and where its finite conclusion would be drawn. Cohen doesn’t pull any punches here and there’s no easing into it, You Want It Darker delivers on all of its intentions. Due to his ailments Cohen was confined to recording the album in his home with the assistance of his son Adam. Although Cohen’s antiquated baritone has corroded over the years it still carries a distinguished resonance that few others can match. There are orchestral accents but the overall sound is sparse in comparison to some of Cohen’s other work. The title track itself is an arraignment of the unbecoming conduct in humanity’s bleakest moments (“They’re lining up the prisoners/ The guards are taking aim/ I struggled with some demons/ They were middle-class and tame/ I didn’t know I had permission/ To murder and to maim/ You want it darker.”) that sets the tone for the rest of the journey. Pain and regret pour out in palpable poetry as Cohen carries himself like a regal Prospero with his past, present, and future suddenly tangible in his immediate periphery. There are moments in this austere affair of sincere beauty and delicacy that seem defiant, much like the man crafting it. “Traveling Light” and “Steer You Way” navigate through the mire with a perseverance and resilience that is extremely admirable for a man so restricted physically but was undeterred and completely impassioned mentally. While You Want It Darker is a stark eulogy for Cohen’s career and life it will be remembered most as a stunning landmark in his already legendary oeuvre.

 

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4. Black Pistol Fire- Don’t Wake The Riot

Rock & Roll can become quite a complex and contrarian beast in 2016, so much so that if can be difficult to define. What is considered rock music these days? The lines are blurred more than ever and show no signs of an oncoming clarity in the future. Then a band like Black Pistol Fire comes along and releases and album like Don’t Wake The Riot. It reminds us of the raw visceral power of Rock & Roll; the gristle, the sultry heat, voracity, volume, and uncompromising fortitude. Fans of The Black Keys need to absolutely get into this band and get this album immediately. As The Black Keys have moved away (Slightly) from their blues-based rock Black Pistol Fire are doing early bluesy Black Keys better than themselves. The Canadian duo by way of Austin, Texas of Kevin McKeown and Eric Owen are the engine powering this high-octane machine and they fit all of the muscle and might possible into this stout 37-minute haymaker. There are no standouts because every track is a can’t-miss fist-pumper, 11 stone-cold killers, leanly cut and ready to rumble. McKeown’s whiskey-soaked midnight-howl, savage riffs, and deep-fried licks are fueled and surge on the roadhouse back-beat of Owen’s while his cymbal and snare assault crash and batter like a torrential downpour. Only in the final moments do listeners get a bit of respite to catch their breath with closer “Blue Blazes.” A blue flame slow-burner that incites a tender comedown from the sweaty catharsis that came before as McKeown softly croons “Stumble through dark with these old heavy hearts/ Lights are fading but we’re still making sparks/ Burning tears of rage they slowly wash away with/ The rising tide if we don’t rock the boat.” A little bit of a personal editorial here and fourth-wall breaking but I was significantly disappointed in the lack of coverage by really any music publication or year-end best-of lists for Don’t Wake The Riot. It’s a back-pocket masterpiece, compact and concise but undeniably potent and it received pretty much zero fanfare. I’ve started adding a “Dark Horse” album winner to my year-end lists and this is the very definition of a dark horse, deservedly so. Black Pistol Fire is such a talented, gifted act and I wish these guys nothing but success and a lengthy career. We’d all be better off with more of their music in the future.

 

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3. Red Hot Chili Peppers- The Getaway

Over their 30+ year career the Red Hot Chili Peppers have become one of the biggest and most popular bands in the world. They’ve endured through the classic Rock & Roll pitfalls over the decades: Band member deaths, band members departing (Multiple times), addiction, and the inevitable pressure of father time. That last one may be the most pressing for the Chili Peppers who’ve built their brand off of a decidedly youthful distillation of rock, punk, hip-hop, and funk to make something uniquely authentic. They’ve certainly slowed their output in the 21st century, just four albums in 16 years and 2006’s bombastic and fully-loaded double album Stadium Arcadium felt like the culmination of something. It was to be the last with guitarist and creative enigma John Frusciante and it took five years for a follow-up, 2011’s I’m With You. Although another solid entry for their back catalog it felt slightly under-baked and uninspired. While 2016’s The Getaway isn’t quite considered a comeback it’s a reintroduction to how great RHCP can be when they’re truly reinvigorated. While all of their hallmarks are still here they’re given some modern ornamentation with producing wiz Danger Mouse at the helm. Indeed The Getaway provides some of the strongest melodies and choruses since their peak of Californication and By The Way. Songs like “Dark Necessities,” “We Turn Red,” “Feasting On The Flowers,” and “This Ticonderoga” display their ability to shift expertly and seamlessly from crunching heaviness to floating-feather nimbleness with all of the soaring sing-a-longs included. They get gritty in the garage rock tribute to the motor city in “Detroit” and sound irresistibly catchy and primed to dry-hump an android on the dancefloor in “Go Robot.” They still make love geographically to their golden state home, “The Longest Wave” sounds like it was written on the cresting swell of the Pacific Ocean and “Encore” rivals “Scar Tissue” as their best California road trip jam. Closer “Dreams Of A Samurai” lumbers along like a colossus, Flea’s bass rumbling along like massive footsteps while Anthony Kiedis spits surrealistic images in vintage RHCP form (“A peaceful storm is never hectic,” “Paint your face cause I’m a black foot,” “Taking acid in the graveyard,” “Slowly turning into driftwood”). The Chili Peppers may always be young at heart no matter their age, The Getaway is the sound of that and now the quartet may have also finally found stable footing in this incarnation.

 

Car Seat Headrest

2. Car Seat Headrest- Teens Of Denial

Although he released several albums via Bandcamp in true DIY fashion before this, Will Toledo’s (aka Car Seat Headrest) Teens Of Denial is the equivalent to becoming an instant Phenom after leap-frogging from rookie ball all the way to the major leagues. There hasn’t been a coming-of-age album this bold in scope in years it’s the most self-aware, self-deprecating, sardonic project since Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear. The immediacy of Teens Of Denial is intrinsic the sinewy electric guitar onslaught shows Toledo unrelenting and steadfast at his affection for ‘90s alt-rock bands. The breadth of Toledo’s genius is evident he makes something as daunting as a 70-minute debut opus feel intuitive. In some ways it is absolutely perverse that Toledo makes this feel like a greatest album and he’s just getting started. Great songs, the kind that withstand the test of time are able to engage its audience on a visceral level both musically and lyrically. Toledo’s hyper-literate 21st century millennial lamentations are on full display with satirical modernity, even name-dropping Wikipedia on “Vincent” (“They got a portrait by Van Gogh/ On the Wikipedia page/ For clinical depression/ Well, it helps to describe it”). The thundering “Destroyed By Hippie Powers” sounds like Pixies by way of Crazy Horse at their heaviest while “(Joe Gets Kicked Out Of School For Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t A Problem)” is as witty and articulate as it is hilarious (“Last Friday I took acid and mushrooms/ I did not transcend/ I felt like a walking piece of shit/ In stupid looking jacket”).  “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” is a tale of despair and debauchery and seems to be careening for the cliff until the life-affirming cloud-kissing chorus comes barreling in as Toledo yelps, “It doesn’t have to be like this/ Killer whales.” Bob Dylan drew from extremely specific contemporary events for some of his earliest subject matter and like Dylan Toledo chooses a cruise liner wreck from 2012 in “The Ballad Of The Costa Concordia” as a metaphor for life on the rocks. In a way this is his “Desolation Row” as it eclipses the 11-minute mark while it morphs from a dreary dirge to a caffeinated buzz saw and a crystalized manifesto forms in the middle section as Toledo attempts to shrug off the numerous platitudes and responsibilities of life (“How was I supposed to know how to use a tube amp?” “How was I supposed to know how to hold a job?” “How was I supposed to know how to not get drunk every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and- why not Sunday?” “How the hell was I supposed to steer this ship?”). This is an album for anyone pining and searching for something, but if you’re young enough it’s best to listen to it in the decade of your roaring ‘20s. It’s a fever dream for a decade that encapsulates both exhilarating emancipation and terrifying uncertainty of your future. The excessive alcohol-aided (And drug? Not judging) highs and self-conscious, maybe even self-imposed crushing lows. Toledo’s Teens Of Denial is a shoulder to lean on for anyone trying to bridge the gap from youth to adulthood. Life can be a drag but even in its darkest corners there are small victories that can feel divine.

 

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1. Metallica- Hardwired… To Self-Destruct

The early years of the 21st century were not kind to Metallica. The once-thought invincible metal legends were dealt a series of ruthless concussive blows that usually spell certain doom for most groups. The first major issue being their unceremonious torch-bearing war against Napster and illegal file sharing (A war that they were and still are right about) which caused a contingent of fans to ostracize their once favorite band and vilifying them for wanting money for their music (How ludicrous!). What followed was a departure from long-time bassist Jason Newsted in 2001 after clashing with James Hetfield and never quite being able to handle all of the baggage saddled on him by having to replace original bassist Cliff Burton. There was then the public and very messy near-dissolution of the remaining members documented in the film Some Kind Of Monster. This was all supposed to culminate in Metallica’s redemption and return to glory with the release of St. Anger… which landed with a resounding thud. By far Metallica’s worst album, it was horribly produced; Lars Ulrich sounded like his drums were recorded inside of a water-tower with a tinny echo and there were no guitar solos to be found anywhere as Lars and producer Bob Rock felt they were “Dated.” Oh yeah, and Bob Rock played bass on it… rotten. Though their popularity never really waned critically and personally they were at a nadir. Five years later they finally reclaimed the throne as greatest metal band ever with the modern thrash masterpiece Death Magnetic. But could they keep their momentum and creative rebirth rolling after that? Well, sort of. They had several side projects sandwiched in between but a full eight years after Death Magnetic Metallica finally return with a proper studio album and worthy successor Hardwired… To Self-Destruct.

Naturally the title could be much better (If it were simply called Hardwired it would’ve been so much less cringe-worthy) but the album’s name is where anything bad about it ends. At its core Hardwired… is a loose concept album revolving around a future fueled by the paranoia of man vs. machine. The impending inferiority of humankind against the rapidly advancing precision of technology nipping at our heels is a prevailing theme throughout. Metallica are better than anyone at crafting albums that deal with dystopian ruin both personally and worldly; the decaying blood of the land with the force of a Tsar Bomba. There is no reprieve here, Hardwired… is relentless and is at your jugular for nearly 80 minutes. There are no ballads. No “Nothing Else Matters,” no “Unforgiven,” no “Hero Of The Day” (Although all of those songs had their heavy moments too) to allow you to catch your breath. It’s a relentlessly pummeling behemoth. Opener “Hardwired” is pure thrash at just over three-minutes long with no frills snarling and snorting attitude, recalling the brash seek and destroy basics of Kill ‘Em All. “Atlas, Rise!” is an exercise in prog-metal muscle flexing that could stand with anything on …And Justice For All. Hetfield’s rasp has never sounded better as he howls lines, “How does it feel on your own?/ Bound by the world all alone/ Crushed under heavy skies/ Atlas, Rise!” Kirk Hammett’s spontaneous (Literally, he lost all of his ideas for this album when he lost an iPhone he had) and impassioned volcanic guitar bursts and lightning quick iron-melting solos prove that Lars and Bob Rock were gravelly wrong about them being dated. “Now That We’re Dead” has a stadium-size swagger reminiscent of Metallica/“The Black Album” that relies less on tempo and more on seismic brute force rumbling free tectonic plates. “Moth Into Flame” attacks with a frenzied bludgeoning riff as the subject matter tackles the more malevolent side of social media and celebrity as Hetfield pontificates, “Guarantee your name, you go and kill yourself/ The vultures feast around you still/ Overdose on shame and insecurity/ If one won’t do that fistful will” before giving way to a spiraling torrent of Hammett’s wah-wah wizardry. “Dream No More” is a hypnotic nightmare paying homage to H.P. Lovecraft’s monster Cthulhu (Again) that falls somewhere between “Until It Sleeps” and “Where The Wild Things Are.” The first act closes with the epic centerpiece “Halo On Fire,” at eight minutes it feels more like four. The hulking leviathan morphs into a galloping volitant outro worthy of Black Sabbath’s “Wheels Of Confusion/ The Straightener” or their own “Fade To Black” as Hetfield and Hammett’s guitars intertwine in blazing alchemy. “Confusion” stomps with combative indifference while “ManUNkind” showcases Rob Trujillo’s dexterous and surprisingly lithe bass playing in the intro. “Here Comes Revenge” and “Am I Savage” are predatory marauders and “Murder One” is an ode to late metal icon Lemmy Kilmister. Being the consummate showmen they are however, Metallica save the best for last with “Spit Out The Bone.” A hard-boiled hellscape surging with speed demon riffs worthy of Master Of Puppets that sees humanity pushed to the brink by their own inventions, being hunted into extinction. In this cold and callous world Hammett keeps us febrile with his conflagrating solos as Hetfield delivers his eschatological proclamation, “Long live machine/ The future supreme/ Man overthrown/ Spit out the bone.”

Hardwired… To Self-Destruct is the best composite portrait of their career they’ve ever produced. They never settle in one area for too long whether it’s the blitzkrieg ascension of their ‘80s period, the global-conquering hooks of the black album, or the brawny grooves of the Load and Reload era. These are all fused with the modern aplomb of a band that now seemingly knows it’s in the middle of career revitalization. Metallica nearly completely derailed themselves at the turn of the century, now with back-to-back latter-day classics in Death Magnetic and Hardwired… To Self-Destruct the greatest metal band of all-time is once again acting like it.

2016 Halftime Report: 25 Best Albums Of The Year So Far

With the calendar soon flipping over to July already we’ve reached the halfway point of 2016 and with that comes my 25 favorite albums of 2016 so far. I did this “Halftime Report” a few years ago and thought I’d try it again. It’ll be fun to compare this list to the year’s final list (The year-end list will be the standard Top 50 albums) and see which albums change and which are strong enough to withstand the following six months of new ones. Confirmed releases in the 2nd half of 2016 by the likes of The Head And The Heart, Local Natives, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Okkervil River, Shovels & Rope, Beck, and Drive-By Truckers coupled with strong rumors of new albums from giants such as Metallica, The Rolling Stones, U2, Kings Of Leon, My Morning Jacket, Soundgarden, and The Stone Roses are sure to put this current crop of Top 25 to the test.

David Bowie’s ★ (Or Blackstar if you prefer) was the first truly great album out of the gate released deep in the doldrums of winter in early January, pulsing with intergalactic noir its ruminations on mortality were unfortunately an ominously perfect match with Bowie’s untimely and tragic death. ★ sat atop this list for the majority of the year until a slew of excellent albums in May eventually toppled it. It’s been a well-balanced mix of veteran acts returning to form (The aforementioned Bowie, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Radiohead, Iggy Pop, Tom Petty’s side project Mudcrutch, and Cheap Trick), dark horse surprises (Black Pistol Fire, Joe Bonamassa, Parker Millsap, and The Bones Of J.R. Jones), and rookie record wonders (Car Seat Headrest, Kyle Craft, and The Shelters).

The year so far though belongs to Will Toledo a.k.a. Car Seat Headrest and his phenomenal debut with Teens Of Denial. Although he has technically self-released several lo-fi albums on Bandcamp (A subsequent compilation of those albums called Teens Of Style was also released) Teens Of Denial is his major-label debut of entirely new material. A 70-minute opus full of ridged guitars, angst, self-loathing, and sardonic wit showcases Toledo already in the form of an established world-class songwriter. It’s the most satirical and self-aware album since Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear came out early last year.

Here’s the list so far:

25. The Avett Brothers- True Sadness

24. Tax The Heat- Fed To The Lions

23. The Jayhawks- Paging Mr. Proust

22. Rival Sons- Hollow Bones

21. The Felice Brothers- Life In The Dark

20. The Lumineers- Cleopatra

19. Jake Bugg- On My One

18. The Bones Of J.R. Jones- Spirit’s Furnace

17. Wolfmother- Victorious

16. Sturgill Simpson- A Sailor’s Guide To Earth

15. The Shelters- The Shelters

14. Frightened Rabbit- Painting Of A Panic Attack

13. Cheap Trick- Bang, Zoom, Crazy… Hello

12. Parker Millsap- The Very Last Day

11. Brian Fallon- Painkillers

10. Joe Bonamassa- Blues Of Desperation

9. Mudcrutch- 2

8. Band Of Horses- Why Are You OK

7. Kyle Craft- Dolls Of Highland

6. Iggy Pop- Post Pop Depression

5. David Bowie- ★

4. Radiohead- A Moon Shaped Pool

3. Black Pistol Fire- Don’t Wake The Riot

2. Red Hot Chili Peppers- The Getaway

1. Car Seat Headrest- Teens Of Denial

TOP 50 RECORDS OF 2015

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50. Silversun Pickups- Better Nature

If there’s one band following the most in the footsteps of The Smashing Pumpkins it’s the Silversun Pickups. Brian Aubert’s whimsical Billy Corgan-esque vocals dance around guitars jagged like shards of glass shimmering with a metallic gloss of keyboards resulting in an album that could fit in with the alt-’90s crowd as well as the throng of contemporary guitar bands.

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49. Radkey- Dark Black Makeup

Whether you like it or not hard rock and heavy metal are mainly Caucasian-dominated genres. Then a trio of African-American brothers come along (From St. Joseph, Missouri?) and make such a revitalizing racket that it can’t be ignored. Their debut album Dark Black Makeup is an angst-filled lighting rod of bare-bones garage rock shot through a street punk aesthetic. Girls, guitars, amps. Youth and young manhood.

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48. The Decemberists- What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World

Following the early 2011 release of the phenomenal The King is Dead the future of The Decemberists remained uncertain. After a hiatus lasting over four years they’ve returned with the sprawling What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World that builds on their ever-blossoming pop sensibilities and weaves them through their rich, worldly literate tales. The only thing The Decemberists need to be concerned about is maybe taking less time between records.

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47. The Waterboys- Modern Blues

Folk-rock stalwarts The Waterboys return with 2015’s Modern Blues. Though they’ve been around for more than 30 years this is an energetic and enthusiastic reaffirmation of their core strengths culminating in the driving finale of the 10-minute “Long Strange Golden Road.”

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46. Jeff Lynne’s ELO- Alone In The Universe

Jeff Lynne hasn’t released an album under the Electric Light Orchestra name since 2001’s Zoom. It’s follow up (Now under the moniker “Jeff Lynne’s ELO”) Alone In The Universe arrives 14 years later and Lynne shows no signs of rust as he sings with a clarity that percolated throughout the band’s high points in the ‘70s and with Lynne behind the control booth the production quality is unsurprisingly immaculate.

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45. Titus Andronicus- The Most Lamentable Tragedy

Titus Andronicus are no strangers to ambitious albums. Their 2010 breakthrough The Monitor was an epic based around the Civil War with a punk rock ethos. The Most Lamentable Tragedy looks inward at the instability of the human condition that can be equal parts thrilling and unnerving.

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44. Ivan & Alyosha- It’s All Just Pretend

Ivan & Alyosha’s debut record All The Times We Had established them in the realm of a delicate yet powerful celestial sound. Their follow up It’s All Just Pretend displays their effortless prowess for an aching majestic catharsis that few bands can seemingly achieve. Bigger stages and brighter stardom look to be on the horizon for this Seattle quintet.

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43. The Winery Dogs- Hot Streak

The Winery Dogs’ sophomore record Hot Streak sees the band remain on just that, a hot streak. The power trio super group consisting of the rhythm section of bassist Billy Sheehan and drummer Mike Portnoy are rocksteady behind the star of the show singer/guitarist Richie Kotzen whose ageless wail and formidable guitar chops make you wish this gem was unearthed decades earlier.

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42. Clutch- Psychic Warfare

Veteran stoner metal band Clutch have been building a steady, loyal following for the past 20+ years. Psychic Warfare is another sturdy, muscular statement built on chugging guitars and Neil Fallon’s husky snarl. You can look at it as a loose concept album of the inner turmoil one is constantly raging against… or you can just prep the bong and let the headbanging commence.

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41. Ryan Bingham- Fear And Saturday Night

Ryan Bingham is known in many circles solely for his Oscar-winning song “The Weary Kind” he penned for the 2009 film Crazy Heart. Bingham however has been on a creative tear in the country world similar to the legendary Highwaymen’s blue-collared work ethic. Bingham’s fifth album Fear And Saturday Night continues that trajectory blending wounded warmth and a dogged, whiskey-logged restlessness befitting of its title.

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40. Florence + The Machine- How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

Florence Welch is a championed siren with the world at her finger tips. Her gigantic anthems translate effortlessly to the massive stages Florence + The Machine now inhabit. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful may be their most commanding effort yet erupting out of the gate with four instant powerhouse classics “Ship To Wreck,” “What Kind of Man,” the title track, and “Queen of Peace” that are worth the price of admission alone.

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39. Foals- What Went Down

If Foals’ ambitions continue to be as big as their sound, they’ll be conquering the globe in no time. What Went Down builds off their previous work, expanding their sonic palate into something that can’t be categorized. Waves of metallic riffs, longing, soaring vocals, anthems for the sea and air. Foals’ grandeur ensures they’ll be a force to be reckoned with for years, if not decades to come.

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38. Motorhead- Bad Magic

You always know what you’re going to get with a Motorhead album. An indestructible, incomparable snarling document of heavy metal. Bad Magic is another reliable, sweaty, blaring triumph right up to the closing cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil” which feels even more menacing with Lemmy Kilmister’s maniacal rattling growl powering the engine. Sadly, this will be the last Motorhead studio album released as the legendary front-man Lemmy passed away tragically at the end of 2015 due to cancer. Motorhead fans can at least take solace in the fact that Lemmy & crew went out like an ace of spades with a fitting coda in Bad Magic.

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37. Brandon Flowers- The Desired Effect

Say what you will about Brandon Flowers but he’s a very passionate man who refuses to rest on the laurels of The Killers. His 2nd solo record The Desired Effect has the similar pageantry of previous albums from The Killers but there’s a glossy hubris that radiates from it all. Most couldn’t pull that off but Flowers makes it seem charming.

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36. Wolf Alice- My Love Is Cool

Beginning as a buzz band Wolf Alice more than lived up to the hype with one of the best debut albums of 2015 in My Love Is Cool. A blast of ’90s alt-rock, powered by vixen Ellie Rowsell, she’s fearless as the front-woman roaring and raging through this infectious set of songs. A preview of bigger things comes in the gem “You’re A Germ.”

White Reaper

35. White Reaper- White Reaper Does It Again

Sometimes a breath of fresh air can be something as simple as stripping everything back to basics. White Reaper does just that on their debut record White Reaper Does It Again sounding like they’re plugging into their amps in a garage for the first time and banging out a glorious racket of over-driven electric organs and switchblade guitars. There are no frills with this album, just the way White Reaper likes it.

Modest Mouse

34. Modest Mouse- Strangers To Ourselves

Eight years is a lifetime in the music business but that’s the length of time it’s taken for Modest Mouse to release a follow up to their 2007 We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank. Strangers To Ourselves is a re-introduction for most to a band that once conquered the indie-rock scene with their 2004 anthem “Float On” and they have retained their innate ability to make quirky music with catchy hooks as evidenced by cuts like “Lampshades on Fire,” “The Ground Walks, With Time In A Box,” and “Coyotes.”

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33. Ruby The Hatchet- Valley Of The Snake

Front-woman Jillian Taylor leads her marauding outfit Ruby The Hatchet straight into the boys club of heavy metal taking no prisoners. Valley Of The Snake is a lumbering Goliath full of Sabbath-worthy pillaging riffs, demonic organs, and Taylor’s haunting, soul-enchanting vocal. This is a beast the shan’t be tamed for awhile.

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32. Neil Young + Promise of the Real- The Monsanto Years

There’s one thing Neil Young can never be accused of and that’s being complacent. His latest affair The Monsanto Years is an all-out assault on big corporate farming and GMOs. Young finds himself a new backing band in the Promise of the Real lead by Willie Nelson’s sons Micah and Lukas. The unlikely pairing has a delightfully ragged and sloppy charm, similar to synergetic magic he’s had in the past with Crazy Horse with the crown jewel being the squalling tirade of “Big Box” which can stand up alongside some of Neil’s best epic jams.

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31. Lady Lamb- After

Aly Spaltro aka Lady Lamb is more than just a pretty face on the indie-rock scene. Her formidable guitar chops and her even more impressive lyrical prowess make her a force to be reckoned with. Her album After is a buoyant affair on the surface that cuts much deeper in an introspective manner embracing personal moments both painful and pleasurable.

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30. Ike Reilly- Born On Fire

Look for the crossroads of Americana and you may end up in Libertyville, Illinois with the voice of Libertyville belonging to be singer/songwriter Ike Reilly. He’s by no means a fresh face, getting his start in 1992. With a blue-collar relentlessness he’s been working away under the radar for nearly a quarter of a century. That all could change with his latest release Born On Fire blending a gritty Springsteen “every man” ethos with Reilly’s tense sandpaper croon akin to some of Dylan’s more gripping moments. Reilly may finally be pulling out of Libertyville to win.

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29. Editors- In Dream

Editors continue to be one of the more fascinating paradoxes in music. Their sonic blueprint is steeped in profound melancholy yet their big yearning sound can fill arenas. In Dream is a total immersion of the senses, you look no further than the album cover itself as to how it will make you feel.

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28. Frank Turner- Positive Songs For Negative People

Positive Songs For Negative People is Frank Turner’s oddest album yet. No, he’s not doing anything necessarily groundbreaking or dropping a punk rock version of Kid A, but he actually seems… happy? If not that he at least seems content. The rave-ups are still present but there’s an underlying sense of optimism that has seemingly evaded his roster of damaged characters over the years. Turner has finally realized he can smile every now and then and still be a poet for the punks.

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27. Craig Finn- Faith In The Future

Craig Finn’s 2nd solo album Faith In The Future has the streetwise elation of The Hold Steady but on a more personal level. Finn’s downtrodden protagonists keep us fully invested throughout which is a testament to the peerless altruistic craft that goes into Finn’s lyrical detail. At many times it feels like a direct conversation with Finn himself, splitting a case over stories of old never-ending nights stating, “Well, at least we made it out alive.”

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26. Mikal Cronin- MCIII

Once a hired gun for musical wunderkind Ty Segall, Mikal Cronin has emerged as a force to be reckoned with. On his third album MCIII he continues his evolution with a cocktail of garage rock nuggets and lush indie pop beauty. As good as MCIII is this feels like it could be just the tip of iceberg for Cronin’s potential.

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25. The Arcs- Yours, Dreamily,

Dan Auerbach may as well be given the nickname King Midas because everything he touches turns to gold. From his unstoppable force with Patrick Carney in The Black Keys, to his wizardry in the production booth, and now on side projects like The Arcs. Yours, Dreamily, is a bluesy, boozy prowler that will keep us in the deep end with Auerbach.

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24. Built to Spill- Untethered Moon

Built to Spill is built to last. Formed in 1992 they’ve never really broke through the glass ceiling to mainstream success but they’ve sustained a dedicated fan base. Their latest album Untethered Moon is another sturdy statement of jangling, ridged guitars and Doug Martsch’s snarling voice battling for attention. Closer “When I’m Blind” is a tangled cacophonous brier of a six-string workout not unlike some of Wilco’s best lengthy jams.

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23. Courtney Barnett- Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit

Australian spitfire Courtney Barnett was undoubtedly the rookie of the year in 2015. There was no debut record better than Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit. A boldly literate document turning some of the most mundane moments of everyday life into an ebullient, gripping exposition.

Lord Huron

22. Lord Huron- Strange Trails

Lord Huron have become masters of the lush, opulent soundscapes that populate their albums. Strange Trails continues that trajectory, better served with starry nights in the wide open country. If there was a sound for the hopeless romantic internally, this full-bodied supernova would be it.

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21. Of Monsters And Men- Beneath The Skin

The Icelandic equivalent of Arcade Fire, Of Monsters And Men are less interested in living in the shadows of their Canadian peers and more focused on conquering the world themselves. Beneath The Skin strikes on the same gorgeous chords as their debut My Head Is An Animal but the breadth of their sophomore album is arguably even more ambitious. The dueling lead vocals of Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar Þórhallsson steer them to a horizon that looks brighter with each new album.

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20. Blitzen Trapper- All Across This Land

Blitzen Trapper have a tireless work ethic, cranking out albums and relentless road-dog touring. It’s fitting then that their eighth album in 12 years is titled All Across This Land. Their best work since their 2008 breakthrough Furr with the artful country skronk of Wilco and Grateful Dead melded with the piston-firing aesthetic of Springsteen.

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19. Tame Impala- Currents

There’s no getting around it, the future of psychedelic music is Tame Impala. Their boundary-expanding visions burrow to a bizarre fulcrum in Currents. It’s an alien alchemy of disco shiver synths and wormhole guitars leaving in its wake a nebulous euphoria that’s impossible to stop.

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18. Alabama Shakes- Sound & Color

How do you shake off the “buzz band” stigma from your debut album? Make your sophomore record far superior than the predecessor. That’s exactly what the Alabama Shakes accomplish on Sound & Color. A medley of neo-soul and arabesque charm tethered to the sweat-dripping gristle of southern-fried Rock & Roll. There’s no buzz here anymore, just staying power.

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17. Destroyer- Poison Season

Dan Bejar is a proven workhorse with multiple musical outfits but none more prolific or better than Destroyer. His tenth studio album under that moniker Poison Season is arguably his best yet. Swelling with the urban chamber pop of early ’70s Springsteen, Bowie, and Lou Reed makes it one of the best nocturnal requiems in recent memory.

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16. Desaparecidos- Payola

After 13 years, songwriting luminary Conor Oberst resurrected his hyper-charged punk rock outfit Desaparecidos. As expected, Payola is a scathing indictment of institutions in general, reaching anyone willing to listen. Galvanizing with its relentless fusillade of thrashing guitars and Oberst’s howling is so visceral you can almost taste the blood in your throat.

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15. Jeff The Brotherhood- Wasted On The Dream

That moment of clarity through the weed cloud and the cerebral haze can seem transcendent. That pocket of lucidity seems to be where Jeff The Brotherhood’s Wasted On The Dream is birthed from. From the primordial power sludge of tracks like “Melting Place” to the Weezer-styled power pop of “Karaoke, TN” this sibling duo has made a big creative leap, whether they’re comfortable with it or not.

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14. Sufjan Stevens- Carrie & Lowell

Of all of the albums in 2015 there was none more devastating and gorgeous than Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell. Written as a paean of sorts to his severely troubled mother Carrie and loving stepfather Lowell, Stevens lays his soul bare and the results are astounding. Delicately sparse yet radiating with a deep elegance, look no further than the haunting pulchritude of “John My Beloved.” It’s not hyperbole to say that this is Sufjan Stevens’ greatest achievement yet.

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13. Josh Ritter- Sermon On The Rocks

The underlying themes of Josh Ritter’s Sermon On The Rocks obviously involve ample amounts of prophecy and preaching. The difference between Ritter and most of his peers though is rather than the presage of fire and brimstone he’s able to deliver his homily with tenderness, accentuating the light even in some of the darkest places. Ritter being the eternal optimist, it’s hard not to imagine him grinning and smiling even while writing some of the more scornful songs on Sermon.

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12. William Elliott Whitmore- Radium Death

William Elliott Whitmore is an old soul. His gruff, earthy voice and musical stylings often come off as antiquated while still remaining authentic. His latest output Radium Death is his most electrified effort yet combining his standard burnt-out porch songs with a roadhouse boogie that breathes some life into the dust bowl of Whitmore’s heart.

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11. Jason Isbell- Something More Than Free

Anyone practicing in the art of Americana music in 2015 had no choice but to take a backseat to Jason Isbell. More than any other singer/songwriter Isbell has his finger on the pulse of the western frontier. On his brilliant album Something More Than Free he culls tales of heartache and despair from the marrow of America. Isbell’s blue-collar grit and anywheretown lost souls on tracks like “24 Frames,” “How to Forget,” “Children of Children,” “The Life You Chose,”  and “Speed Trap Town” fortify his place as one of the greatest storytellers of the 21st century.

Iron Maiden

10. Iron Maiden- The Book Of Souls

Although not necessarily a comeback album, Iron Maiden’s 92-minute juggernaut The Book Of Souls is impressive on multiple levels. Front-man Bruce Dickinson battled through a tumor found on his tongue during recording but you’d hardly know it as he is in full God of thunder wailing mode. Not only that but the breadth of this heavy metal rhapsody is their best since 1984’s Powerslave with epic pummeling atom-smashers like the eight-minute “If Eternity Should Fail,” the 13+ minute “The Red And The Black,” and the 10+minute title track. The real opus here though is the 18-minute closer “Empire Of The Clouds.” Their longest song ever, it’s an unimpeachable odyssey concocted from Dickinson’s masterful mind that feels like an expansive victory lap for the band. If anything The Book Of Souls refortifies Iron Maiden as one of the greatest metal bands ever, worthy of being in the same breath of Black Sabbath and Metallica. Up the irons.

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9. Gary Clark Jr.- The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim

The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim is the full realization of Gary Clark Jr. as a velvet gunslinger. What is that exactly? He’s carved out his own niche as a genuine guitar hero for the 21st century but it goes beyond that. His pith is one that’s also budding with the sensuality of soul and R&B. An amalgam that intersects somewhere between Albert King, The Black Keys, Prince, and Marvin Gaye. Sonny Boy is furnished with scalding guitar breaks, waterfall riffs, and collages of wah-wah torrents all bathed in Clark’s sumptuous and exquisite vocal delivery. Clark has found the precise melting point temperature, especially on the delectable murder ballad “Cold Blooded.”

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8. Dawes- All Your Favorite Bands

Dawes had an exceptional debut with 2009’s North Hills and followed that with one of the better sophomore efforts in recent memory with 2011’s Nothing Is Wrong. Stories Don’t End followed and while it was still a sturdy output it felt a bit stilted and restrained. Dawes remedy that on All Your Favorite Bands, loosening their chains with their most expressive, freewheelin’ album to date. Meant to capture the spirit of their live shows the quartet careen and propel each other forward with sincerity and symbiosis like a quest for the sunrise on a cross country adventure. The honeyed Laurel Canyon harmonies of Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith remain but it’s in Taylor’s poignant, earnest, and at times blistering guitar playing that the true hallmark lies. Whether Dawes remains entirely intact is uncertain but if they keep making music this good they’ll keep being one of our favorite bands.

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7. Mumford & Sons- Wilder Mind

Mumford & Sons have enjoyed one of the quickest ascents to Rock & Roll hierarchy ever. Their debut Sigh No More was an instant classic followed by the equally powerful Babel, striking while the iron was hot. Despite the prodigious success they opted to veer away from supposed complacency. For their third album Wilder Mind they sought the production assistance of James Ford and The National’s Aaron Dessner. While their sonic palate expands to include electrified nocturnal guitars and U2-sized luminous skyline soundscapes it’s not as big of a departure from their previous sound as it may seem. It’s the one inescapable quality that bridges their first three albums, the grand crescendo of bombastic arena-ready majesty. Mumford & Sons have become a big stage band that requires a robust sound. It’s something they should embrace not evade.

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6. Wilco- Star Wars

Wilco has stated in the past that they would always love us and it also seems like they are determined to never let us down either. Despite a title like Star Wars and kitsch kitten artwork it’s another vital chapter in their nearly unblemished back catalog. Simplistic in nature while still preserving the undeniable extraterrestrial Wilco touchstones it’s like they’re plugging into their amps in a garage on Mars. Off-kilter, awkwardly-tuned guitars spiral and carve through numbers like “Random Name Generator,” “Pickled Ginger,” “Cold Slope,” and “King of You” while they incorporate some of their dreary-eyed Americana pop on “Taste The Ceiling” and “Magnetized” with subtle flourishes of computer code dissonance percolating underneath the surface. The centerpiece however is the crackling static of “You Satellite,” a slow-burner conjuring imagery of shuttle fuselage floating out in the ambiance of space as an outro of jagged guitar shards beam one last transmission back to earth before finally going dark. Star Wars strips back some of the more ostentatious yearnings they may have had on previous records and it equates to their most jarring and boldest statement since 21st century landmark Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

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5. The Tallest Man on Earth- Dark Bird Is Home

Swedish singer/songwriter Kristian Matsson aka The Tallest Man On Earth is one of the best lyricists on the planet. He’s drawn a rightful comparison to early Bob Dylan due to the integrity and potency of his lyrical prowess as well as his stripped back predominantly acoustic approach. It may be the essence of his fourth album Dark Bird Is Home though that Matsson shares the deepest kindred spirit connection with Dylan. The anguish and despair of divorce drove Dylan to create his masterpiece Blood On The Tracks and out the dissolution of Matsson’s marriage comes Dark Bird. While the subject matter may devote itself to despondency, this is Matsson’s realization of a more fully formed opulent palate musically. Full band arrangements augment many of the songs and bring a certain added vigor and potency to give a grieving Matsson extra shoulders to lean on. The quintessence though remains Matsson’s lifeblood pouring out in a deluge of poetic mastery. It’s an innate and vicarious heartbreak we’ve all experienced on some scale. However deep the sorrow burrows though Matsson seems determined to endure as he mutters in the closing moments, “But this is not the end no, this is fine.”

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4. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds- Chasing Yesterday

Following his departure from brit-pop titan Oasis it’s now irrefutable that Noel Gallagher accounted for almost the entirety of its creative driving engine. While his long-time rival (And brother too!) Liam Gallagher’s post-Oasis career has taken a major nosedive into irrelevance, Noel continues to travel the magniloquent path leading to his 2nd album under the Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds moniker Chasing Yesterday. On the surface it’s not as inclined on an orchestral scale as its predecessor NGHFB’s self-titled 2011 effort but to say this is “Stripped down” would be a misstep. Most other acts would consider this their grand symphonic statement but making music this euphonious is 2nd nature to Noel. Highlights are bountiful including the midnight ferry ride of opener “Riverman” with its twilight sax solo, the chiming disco of “In the Heat of the Moment,”  the Bowie-esque “The Girl with X-Ray Eyes,” stampeding Definitely Maybe-styled rockers “Lock All The Doors” and “You Know We Can’t Go Back,” and the hypnotic “The Right Stuff.” Noel saves his best stop-the-clocks song for last though with closer “The Ballad of The Mighty I” as he sounds as if he’s singing from atop a cumulonimbus equipped with a Gibson, a tall stack of Marshall amps, and his soaring voice raining down upon us. Noel was once quoted as saying, “What inspires me to write music? It’s just what I do. And I’m fucking brilliant at it.” Better take that as gospel.

My Morning Jacket The Waterfall

3. My Morning Jacket- The Waterfall

Not that they really needed a spiritual awakening or a momentous epiphany of any kind but My Morning Jacket have never played by anybody else’s rule book or guidelines. The band convened at the Panoramic House, a secluded hilltop mansion to which front-man Jim James raved, “There was nobody for miles and miles, like a deserted paradise. At night, it was like you were inside the sky, the stars right next to your head.” Out of these sessions The Waterfall was born, their best album since their 2005 groundbreaking moment of Z. “Believe (Nobody Knows)” and “Compound Fracture” is the best one-two punch to open a record in 2015, the former being a pivotal positive jam with guitars echoing off a mountain’s summit as James howls out his life-affirming clarion call while the latter saunters with a seismic funk with James upping his vocal register to his shape-shifting falsetto. They also incorporate more psychedelic whorls and hypnotic tendrils than any other album on standouts such as “Like A River,” “In Its Infancy (The Waterfall),” and “Spring (Among The Living).” The most exultant of a sound as they’ve ever had with “Big Decisions” clashes with the ominous Arabic-tinted lurching marauder “Tropics (Erase Traces)” bleeding into soothing closer “Only Memory Remains.” A psalm of acceptance and pressing on, even paying tribute to their time spent at the Panoramic House where they seem to have found whatever they were looking for. If Z’s elemental attachment was of the ocean, sounding submerged and aquatic, despite its H2O-inclined title, The Waterfall is an album of the skies, inspiring and sweeping with eyes to the horizon. James stated that it felt like the band was “Inside the sky” back on that California coast and somehow they were able to transmit that into art. My Morning Jacket still aren’t done sketching their ethereal American frontier.

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2. Father John Misty- I Love You, Honeybear

Father John Misty’s sophomore album I Love You, Honeybear can blow anyone away with the force of a category five hurricane that chooses to listen to it. It’s a decadent yet delectable expedition into the perverse, capricious, and even benevolent brain of one Josh Tillman. The record at times plays more like Tillman spouting satirical stand-up comedy as a philharmonic props him up from behind and holds his cocktail when necessary. The schmaltz runneth over on the opening title track, a provocative laudation to his wife (“Mascara, blood, ash and cum on the Rorschach sheets where we made love”) of whom Honeybear is structured around as a loose concept album. The carnal ecstasy continues in “Chateau Lobby #4 (In C For Two Virgins)” as he croons, “I wanna take you in the kitchen/ Lift up your wedding dress someone was probably murdered in” followed by Tillman lamenting the flaccid incompatibility of modern technology, dry-humping his way through the electro-tinged “True Affection.” The maudlin solipsism in “Nothing Good Ever Happens At The Goddamn Thirsty Crow” rests its exhausted head on the bar, before Tillman gets behind the wheel totally sloshed and navigates recklessly through “The Ideal Husband.” He goes into lounge-lizard mode in the world-weary, self-deprecating “Bored In The USA” delivering some of the most hilarious lines in monologue mode (“How many people arise and think,/ ‘Oh good, the stranger’s body’s still here, our arrangement hasn’t changed'”) while strings swirl about. The global-catastrophe, meta-mind-fuck of “Holy Shit” gives way to the surprisingly saccharine coda of “I Went To The Store One Day” where he states he doesn’t want to die in a hospital bed but rather “Save the Big One for the last time we make love.” Honeybear is as invasive as it is romantic and affectionate. Tillman lets you peek through the blinds for this masterpiece running through the gamut of emotions with him.

 

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1. Muse- Drones

Rock & Roll often thrives when it remembers that the music and the enterprise was meant to be a spectacle. Muse have never been a band to dismiss their garish ambitions, proudly leading the syndicate of Sci-Fi infused apocalyptic hard rock/heavy metal. They never truly went away but 2012’s The 2nd Law was a bit of a stumble (Although underrated ultimately) breaking their string of four sensational records from Origin Of Symmetry through The Resistance. They rectify any sort of past transgressions with 2015’s return to glory Drones, their best album since 2006’s watershed mark Black Holes and Revelations. It’s a high-octane steamrolling leviathan of a concept album regarding the dehumanization of modern warfare with the aggressive advances in drone technology drawing inspiration from singer/guitarist Matt Bellamy after he read the book Predators: The CIA’s Drone War on al Qaeda by Dartmouth professor Brian Glyn Williams. The narrative follows an unnamed protagonist thrown through a gauntlet of physical and psychological manipulation. Many bands would shy away from such a monstrosity but Muse embrace it and to create such a behemoth they seek out legendary producer Robert “Mutt” Lange. The mammoth sound is instantaneous in the sheer torque and pummeling crunch of “Psycho” and Dominic Howard’s drums provide a gargantuan yet crisp thump. “Mercy” is a pulsating stadium-sized ballad worthy of “Starlight” comparisons, the vamping “Reapers” is a side-winder missile strike with Bellamy’s most scorching fret work ever while “The Handler” and “Defector” are raucous pile-driving bruisers. The Dire Straits “Brothers in Arms”-styled “Aftermath” sets up “The Globalist,” their most formidable and daunting track to date. A 10-minute saga that coagulates all of Muse’s virtues into an unparalleled dystopian rock opera. The closing title track is an inauspicious oratorio of Bellamy’s layered voice scanning the wasteland wreckage only to find the inevitable truth of death and decay. Drones proves to be Muse’s most industrious album yet, and that’s saying a lot. An Orwellian colossus, rife with paranoia for paranoid times.

Lords of Summer: Sweet Summer Sun

I’ve been pretty inconsistent posting on here so let’s see what I can generate. I’m going to attempt writing more random recollections on music, movies, and movements. I used to do it back when I was a lot more freewheelin’ and weirder. It also helped that I had a lot more free time on my hands. So let’s all get weird together again.

It’s arguably been my most eventful Summer yet, trekking to both places familiar and alien. An ocean? Holy shit. We’ll get to that…

The opening scene of Summer happened in late May in Chicago with Woodstock ’15 (Fagan term). First on the docket was a return to Wrigley Field to see the Cubs vs. Royals. This was my first time back in the friendly confines to see a Cub game since 2011 I believe (Checks facts, still hazy).

There hasn’t been a whole lot to cheer about over the past 4-5 seasons during this rebuilding stretch, but out of those ashes has risen a youthful, hungry 2015 Cub team. This has been the long-term plan ever since the new front office of President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer joined the Cubs in late 2011. They’re ruthless and cut-throat when it comes to analytical decisions and they will do whatever it takes to make the Cubs succeed and chase down that elusive World Series title. After what they did in Boston, I fully trust them to get it done.

It was a great time being out in the center field bleachers for the first time. I had far too many beers (I would not recommend drinking a 12-pack worth of beers at Wrigley alone, for both your liver and your wallet) and the crowd was a rabid mix of Cubs fans and Royals fans (Est. 2014). Unfortunately I think I legitimately went to The General Jake Arrieta’s last “bad” start (This was May 29th, almost three months ago) as the Royals ended up pulling away with this one. I anticipated retribution the following night but it was not to be as the game was rained out. I’ll have to wait until the make up game on September 28th, which could have huge playoff implications for both teams. If I would’ve known then what I know now just how great this Cubs team would turn out to be, I wouldn’t have been as disappointed in the loss. The young nucleus of this team is only going to get better too as the years go on. More importantly they make sure to keep it fun.

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After having a few more (unneeded) beers at Merkle’s it was up to my associate Matt Moss and I to stumble drunkenly through the Wrigleyville area in an attempt to find the Riviera Theatre to see “The Chief” Noel Gallagher. astonishingly we were able to find it (After a vital pit stop at Al’s Italian Beef) and Noel was able to pick us up with his impeccable, soaring anthems. A set that infused magnificent solo cuts (If you don’t have the new incredible Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds album Chasing Yesterday that was released in March, stop reading this post, order it, then continue reading) with timeless Oasis classics ending things with a majestic “Don’t Look Back in Anger.”

June brought with it a pilgrimage to Waverly, IA to experience the carnival feel of Mumford & Sons’ traveling Gentlemen of the Road festival. An interesting endeavor considering the current boom of stationary festivals. It was a diverse line-up that featured some of my favorite stalwart bands like Dawes, Jeff The Brotherhood, and The Flaming Lips as well as unfamiliar ones that were a pleasant surprise like Rubblebucket and The Maccabees. The two-headed dragon of My Morning Jacket and Mumford & Sons were to no surprise the best parts of the weekend. Mumford & Sons have seemingly made an effortless transition to the bright lights, big crowds, and main stages of the world. They were a well-oiled machine in Waverly and always an extraordinary live act. My heart however, belonged to My Morning Jacket pertaining to the live acts. They were operating on a totally different plateau than everyone else there that weekend both spiritually and physically. I’ll never tire of seeing them live, sonic transcendence at its best.

I had to pick myself up off the floor for the next weekend in Kansas City to see some band called The Rolling Stones. One of the bands I’ve definitely been pining for to see live and cross off my concert bucket list. It is astonishing what they are doing at their age but they still sounded incredible and Mick Jagger cemented his legacy as the greatest front man of all time. He strutted and preened like he was in his 20’s belting out classic after classic. It was like witnessing the Dead Sea Scrolls of Rock & Roll. They were in the rattling genesis of Rock music, like witnessing the Big Bang of the universe. I don’t know how long they’ll tour (Mick said he has no plans of retirement and Keith is going to live forever), but I’m glad I had a chance to see them live in person. What this had me salivating for more than anything was a new record from them. 2005’s A Bigger Bang was their best album in my opinion since 1978’s Some Girls and recent singles like “One More Shot” and “Doom and Gloom” came off as effortless blues rock instant classics. I’m sure they have enough fire power to churn out another batch of marvelous tunes. I’d love for them to work with Jack White or Rick Rubin as the producer, but I’ll take anything to be honest.

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I had been redlining at work for sometime and needed a lengthy break physically and mentally. I took the longest amount of time off I’ve had from work in 13 years, I whopping two weeks (For me that’s impressive!). For the first leg of vacation I headed to South Carolina, specifically Folly Beach for a relaxing few days. This was foreign territory for me, I’d never seen the Atlantic Ocean, it was a sight to behold. I am horrible at taking pictures so this was as good as it got (Look at that fuggin’ rad moon!).

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We left South Carolina a few days later and proceeded to trek across the countryside for nearly 19 hours. What was awaiting me on the other side of this road trip was Chicago and Lollapalooza. I’ve now been to Lollapalooza six consecutive times and I must confess although it’s a great time, I was considering sitting out this year. The way the festival has been trending in recent years was more towards EDM (Bull shit), abysmal hip-hop (Bull shit), and flavorless pop acts (Bull shit) rather than the guitar-centered Rock & Roll bands. Sure there’s always a strong undercard every year but the main stages have been getting less stellar. Well, when they announced the Friday and Saturday headliners I was all in. Paul McCartney and Metallica, I thought it was a hoax at first. No hoax at all. I saw McCartney back at Bonnaroo in 2013 and he was the best act there and he was brilliant again here. Meanwhile it’s been nearly seven years since I’ve seen Metallica live and they did not let me down. They’re still arguably my favorite band of all time and have been since high school (Okay, okay, I had a severe Guns ‘N’ Roses crazed phase in there too). Couple those monolithic acts with the other acts I saw: St. Paul & The Broken Bones, Father John Misty, The War on Drugs, Gary Clark Jr., Catfish & The Bottlemen, Death From Above 1979, Delta Spirit, Tame Impala, Circa Waves, Lord Huron, Strand of Oaks, Of Monsters and Men, TV on the Radio, and Florence + The Machine and it was one of the best Lollapaloozas I’ve been to. Next year? We’ll see.

There’s a lot of details I left out but I’m getting royally distracted by the blitzkrieg heaviness of Metallica’s Lollapalooza set I purchased from their website:

Metallica.Lollapalooza.Chicago.cover_.0801-15I’ll always be forever tethered to this band. For people that don’t like Metallica or don’t understand, I’m not sure what to tell you. It’s that chaotic angst the registers in your marrow, only Metallica is able to drill that deep for me I think. You could buy the physical double CD of this show (Which I did) or download it. Metallica does this for all of their live shows now and I wish all acts would do it. For one, an extra source of revenue for them and two it would cut down on bootlegging.

That’s it for now, more posts coming I believe. One on Sunday if I’m up to the task.

P.S.- I’m seeing The Tallest Man on Earth tonight at the Englert Theatre in Iowa City so let the live shows keep flowing! I’ve seen him a few times already live and he’s extremely captivating, one of the best lyricists on the planet. Cheers!

TOP 50 RECORDS OF 2014

Justin-Townes-Earle-Single-Mothers50. Justin Townes Earle- Single Mothers
Single Mothers sees Justin Townes Earle stripping elements away instrumentally without dialing back the 3am heartache. Pedal steel supplies a morphine drip of comfort to the audience as they try to cope with the Earle’s fragile songs of lament. As far as the new age of Nashville songwriters/storytellers is concerned, he remains near the top.

PallbearerFoundationsofBurdenalbumcoverartworkpackshotThrashHits49. Pallbearer- Foundations of Burden
In terms of rafter-rattling monstrous riffs in 2014, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more monolithically menacing record that Pallbearer’s Foundations of Burden. With four of the six songs clocking in over 10 minutes (Plus another at 8:41) it’s easy to get into sucked these massive slabs of metal as visions of Sabbath course through your brain.

favorite_waitress48. The Felice Brothers- Favorite Waitress
After 2011’s experimental Celebration, Florida The Felice Brothers return three years later with more of a return to their roots with the folk rock-tinged Favorite Waitress. With refined melodies and Ian Felice’s early Dylan-esque nasally croon, Favorite Waitress is a warm-hearted record that rewards the listener with repeated listens.

13992-half-the-city47. St. Paul & The Broken Bones- Half The City
Half The City is like a jubilant liturgical service for castaways and ragamuffins. Born out of the same Alabama neo-soul that saw the ascension of Alabama Shakes (Even produced by Shakes’ Ben Tanner), St. Paul & The Broken Bones have created a righteous debut that makes the grit and sweat of the streets seem like salvation.

51dZ6+j5dqL46. Robert Ellis- The Lights From The Chemical Plant
While awful plop country/bro country continues to be bafflingly successful in America there is a movement of genuine-article country artists trying to save the genre. Names like Ryan Bingham, Hayes Carll, Justin Townes Earle, Jason Isbell, and now Robert Ellis are reminding us why country music used to be such an earnest and respected art form. Ellis acts as a craftsman on The Lights From The Chemical Plant with frayed songs that are both raw yet slightly polished. More records like this could go a long way in restoring the fortitude of country music.

softwhite45. The Soft White Sixties- Get Right.
The Soft White Sixties start breaking down the walls with a radiant debut in Get Right. With nods to retro rock and pop, The Soft White Sixties mine similar territory to that of Dr. Dog. Churning, chattering organs and buzzing guitars make for a blissful alchemy with just the right amount of edge.

cold-war-kids-hold-my-home-album-cover-art44. Cold War Kids- Hold My Home
After the astounding breakout success of Robbers & Cowards, Cold War Kids’ momentum cooled. With 2013’s stellar Dear Miss Lonelyhearts and this year’s even better Hold My Home it appears that they’re back on the map. Pounding pianos and strutting grooves are the perfect pillars for Nathan Willett’s warbling falsetto to soar into arena rock territory.

14003-eagulls43. Eagulls- Eagulls
These ain’t The Eagles your Dad listened to. The self-titled debut from Eagulls is a hungry and fierce entrance into the world, a cross section of howling punk blended with eighties left-of-the-dial guitars making it a record that grabs you by the throat and refuses to let go.

wig-out-at-jagbags42. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks- “Wig Out at Jagbags”
Former Pavement front man Stephen Malkmus continues the 2nd stellar act of his career with his backing band The Jicks and 2014’s “Wig Out at Jagbags”. Jangling, wiry jolts of guitar play off of Malkmus and his wry delivery of lyrics. So when he invites us to, “Come slam dancing with some ancient dudes” the answer is of course, yes.

chi-goldplay-ghost-stories-review-20140519-00141. Coldplay- Ghost Stories
Coldplay return after a three-year hiatus to deliver their most experimental endeavor yet with Ghost Stories. Icy synths and hip-hop rhythms supply a velvet undercurrent to many tracks but if you think they’ve forgotten about their stadium-sized theatrics guess again as they shoot for the moon on the Avicii-produced, EDM-inspired “A Sky Full of Stars” proving that they still haven’t lost their taste for celestial theatrics.

16239-dereconstructed40. Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires- Dereconstructed
With a band name like Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires you better damn sure be a shit-kicking act. Bains and company do not disappoint on Dereconstructed. Part soaked in southern comfort, part motor oil from the garage, and crushing riffs on the level of AC/DC; this is a record meant for hard-charging weekend nights. Really, any night you feel like killing a bottle of bourbon or case of beer yourself.

20140401_jack_white_9139. Jack White- Lazaretto
With the release of his sophomore solo effort Lazaretto, ever-mercurial Jack White is clearly trying to cut his own individual swath and be redefined as something other than the garage rock guitar god of The White Stripes. White stretches further into exploration with uneven pianos bobbing and weaving throughout and a sense of matured restraint. It’s quieter than his usual amplified racket but he still wonders back occasionally into realms that put him on the map as indicated by the screeching instrumental “High Ball Stepper.”

1391438441_d8016922d83933daec546eae47e11f6038. The Family Rain- Under The Volcano
What an apt name like The Family Rain is for this band. Three brothers unite forming a potent power trio and Under The Volcano expertly displays their formidable prowess. A tight but not constricted set of catchy blues rock bangers similar to The Black Keys. Continuing a trend like this record ensures staying power.

5f94532b-e139831137097637. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart- Days of Abandon
2011’s Belong put The Pains of Being Pure at Heart on the map. Trying to keep the momentum going with their follow up, Days of Abandon they more than succeed. More dreamscape guitars swirl around singer/guitarist Kip Berman’s whimsical vocals. They bring the alternative side of the ‘90s into the new millennium with fantastic results.

17851-benjamin-booker36. Benjamin Booker- Benjamin Booker
Benjamin Booker arrives on the blues scene with a frenetic self-titled debut that is sure to put him at the forefront of the movement. A gritty, raw output that has the dirty, sincere feel of traditional blues blended with distorted, scuzzy guitars that you’d hear on punk rock albums. Booker’s wounds pour out in fervent feedback-fueled bliss.

drytheriver-artwork-album-small35. Dry The River- Alarms in the Heart
After a phenomenal debut in 2012 with Shallow Bed, Dry The River return with more gorgeous chamber pop while aiming for even loftier places with Alarms in the Heart. Chiming and ringing waves propel that band forward but the real weapon continues to be Peter Liddle’s haunting, wounded falsetto. It teeters on an improbable line of innocence and experienced heartbreak.

field report34. Field Report- Marigolden
Christopher Porterfield leads Field Report through opulent yet simplistic landscapes on Marigolden. Similar to that of Wilco, Field Report brings the best elements of Americana to the forefront and adds dashes of electronic flourishes and modernized production. As far as looking towards the future in a genre like Americana you’d have to look to Field Report as one of the front-running bands.

upside down mountain33. Conor Oberst- Upside-Down Mountain
Conor Oberst’s pedigree is well-known by now. A tireless workhorse as indicated by his discography with both Bright Eyes and as a solo artist. Also stunning is his prolific songwriting chops; one of the best around and Upside-Down Mountain is his finest solo effort yet. Oberst’s songwriting continues to be his primary strength but understated idiosyncrasies in the layers of neo-folk make this his best record since 2005’s Bright Eyes masterpiece I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning.

DBT english-oceans32. Drive-By Truckers- English Oceans
Drive-By Truckers have been the workingman’s blue-collar southern rock band since 1998, constantly cranking out quality records every year or two. A three-year break might’ve caused some concern, but English Oceans shows no signs of rust. In fact, if anything they emerge stronger than ever as Mike Cooley has emerged as a wonderful co-collaborator next to Patterson Hood writing six of the 13 songs here. Another fine batch of gritty southern-spun tales but none better than the powerful closer “Grand Canyon,” a cascading sunrise epic to fallen DBT family member Craig Lieske.

SR_swimmin31. Shovels & Rope- Swimmin’ Time
Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst have brought a refreshing angle into Americana music. A married duo creating some of the best music of the genre with the male/female dynamic which continues in Swimmin’ Time. Enchanting campfire sing-a-longs are met by boozy ramshackle burners. It’s an album that sounds rustic yet revitalizing at the same time.

california breed30. California Breed- California Breed
There are aging rockers with their weathered vocals losing some of their punch over the years and decades, then there’s Glenn Hughes whose pipes still have enough hurricane howl to level a stadium. After the dissolution of Black Country Communion, Hughes and drummer Jason Bonham regrouped and with 23-year-old hot shot virtuoso Andrew Watt. The trio formed California Breed and their self-titled debut picks up where BCC left off. Powerhouse bluesy rockers strut as they pummel their way into your cerebrum. And as for if Hughes has lost any amplification in that Golden God wail yet? Just listen to the chorus in “The Grey” and give your verdict.

jbrowne29. Jackson Browne- Standing in the Breach
Jackson Browne has always had a way of standing out from the pack regarding topical singer/songwriters because of his delicacy and reassured approach to his craft. Standing in the Breach is his first record in six years and one of the finest he’s ever made. His gentle California croon gliding effortlessly through a classic collection of songs that signal a probable resurgence for Browne.

ty-segall-the-manipulator-album-stream-npr28. Ty Segall- Manipulator
Ty Segall has built one of the most prodigious catalogs in a short amount of time and with Manipulator he’s made his best record to date. What a difference a little clarity and fidelity makes! Segall fuses elements of pop with his California garage fuzz all filtered through T. Rex-style guitar glam. Segall has the canon of someone twice his age and yet Manipulator shows that he may just be getting started.

rival sons27. Rival Sons- Great Western Valkyrie
Rival Sons are carved out of the granite of classic hard rock. With 2014’s Great Western Valkyrie they’ve seemed to finally reach their Valhalla destination. Their best record yet that could hold up against many of the monumental albums of ‘70s powerhouse acts. Front man Jay Buchanan wails and howls with impunity as the band weaves in and out of touchstones from Led Zeppelin to Deep Purple. With a classic rock-leaning band like this not in fashion you certainly hope they don’t fade into obscurity.

neil young storytone26. Neil Young- Storytone
Neil Young is a man that doesn’t know how to stop working. He’s arguably been more prolific with releases in his latter-day career than at his creative summit in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Some of it very frustrating (Fork in the Road, Americana), some of it good (Chrome Dreams II, Living With War) and even in some cases, still incredible (Psychedelic Pill). 2014’s Storytone fits in the middle of that pack and sees Young believe it or not putting yet another new spin on his musical footprint. Songs are split between the massive swells of a 92-piece orchestra and big band arrangements with surprisingly stunning yet focused results.

AC-DC_-_Rock_Or_Bust25. AC/DC- Rock Or Bust
You’ve heard terms “The irresistible force” and “The immovable object” before? Well, the indomitable AC/DC can fit under both of those banners. AC/DC are Rock & Roll survivors, after first losing front man Bon Scott in 1980 all the way up until this year losing co-founding guitarist Malcolm Young due to dementia and drummer Phil Rudd due to legal troubles. The result of all of this attrition and internal strife leads up to Rock or Bust. A stout, guttural shot of classic visceral AC/DC. Clocking in at less than 35 minutes, it’s their shortest record ever but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t pack all of the meaty riffs and power surges from some of its masterpieces lead by guitarist Angus Young and front man Brian Johnson’s weathered banshee growl. It’s uncompromising, they haven’t changed a damn thing in 40 years… and thank these Aussie Gods for that.

el pintor24. Interpol- El Pintor
Interpol was one of the more prominent guitar buzz bands in the early 2000’s and after a four-year break they prove why they were at the head of that pack with El Pintor. Nocturnal and brooding in areas, luminous and energized in others as Paul Banks serenades with his melancholy baritone that could give The National’s Matt Berninger a run for his money.

temples23. Temples- Sun Structures
There are several bands who’ve tried to tap into the golden years of ‘60s and ’70s psychedelic rock with mixed results. English lads Temples feel more like the real deal than some cheap imitator. Their debut Sun Structures is brilliantly produced with echoing guitar tones, whimsical harmonies, and hooks a-plenty this band sounds like they’re at the beginning of something extraordinary. Songs like “Shelter Song,” “Keep in the Dark,” “Mesmerize,” and “Test of Time” sound like they could be hit singles from 1968 all the way up until today.

WNCC-500x50022. Wolfmother- New Crown
Wolfmother’s future seemed uncertain with a constant revolving cast along with leader Andrew Stockdale releasing a solo album in 2013 and in a roundabout way hinting that Wolfmother may be finished. Out of the blue though Stockdale dropped Wolfmother’s surprise third record New Crown as a digital download via website Bandcamp to no fanfare at all. New Crown finds Stockdale taking a more raw approach than the two predecessors while still maintaining all of Wolfmother’s strengths. Squealing, squawking guitars rip like serrated blades while Stockdale roars like an invigorated beast. No matter the cast behind him, whether he continues under the Wolfmother moniker or as a solo artist, Stockdale is going to continue moving forward on his own terms. He’s too talented not to.

seeds21. TV on the Radio- Seeds
Following the 2011 death of bassist Gerard Smith, TV on the Radio took a break from the action until the release of 2014’s Seeds. A requiem of sorts for the band it serves as a fitting eulogy to their fallen comrade. They continue to carve out their own niche of art rock with subtle washes of electronic accents. Arguably their best record to date, TV on the Radio has seemingly survived tragic loss and come out on the other side stronger than ever.

smashing pumpkins20. The Smashing Pumpkins- Monuments to an Elegy
By now The Smashing Pumpkins have really become nothing more than a glorified solo project of Billy Corgan’s as the lone-surviving original member. That doesn’t make newer Pumpkins records any less potent or rewarding as Corgan has always been the brain trust at the center of the matter. Monuments to an Elegy has more of the alt-‘90s guitars that buzz and hiss while liquid synths provide a glacial blanket to make this the most engaging record Corgan has released in years.

Tuff artwork19. King Tuff- Black Moon Spell
There’s no other way to put it: King Tuff is one of the weirdest and best artists out there right now. His style is almost unable to be categorized and his newest LP Black Moon Spell displays that. Psych pop, garage fuzz, glam rock, and metallic riffs all packed into an irresistible cauldron of eccentric magic. If you get lost in a swirling psychedelia while listening to this record, fear not as Kyle Thomas will ferry you safely across the river.

broken bells18. Broken Bells- After the Disco
It seemed at first like it may have been just a one-off side project but James Mercer and Brian Burton (Danger Mouse) return under the guise of Broken Bells after a four-year absence with their sophomore effort After the Disco. Ever the production wiz with an ear for catchy pop hooks, Burton creates an atmosphere of flittering globes and fluorescent nebulas that dance around Mercer’s tantalizing falsetto. Inescapable grooves and melodies are like 2nd nature for Mercer and Burton; it’s as natural as breathing for them.

Band_of_Skulls_-_Himalayan17. Band of Skulls- Himalayan
With Himalayan Band of Skulls concocted a metallic-sounding record that is an amalgamation of truncated pop sensibilities and adventurous prog rock. You wouldn’t think something like the complex grandiosity of a band like Muse could be shaped and melded into a Black Keys style of bluesy restraint but that’s exactly what they manage to do. A record that is largely undefined, and that’s what makes it so alluring.

Strand-of-Oaks-Heal16. Strand of Oaks- Heal
Timothy Showalter (Strand of Oaks) has tapped into a rich reservoir of neo-folk similar to that of My Morning Jacket. Showalter drifts in and out of a sonic slipstream with a shaman’s proficiency on Heal. None more startling than the centerpiece simply titled “JM” for the late indie rock icon Jason Molina. It’s a transcendent, Crazy Horse-spirited tribute that would leave the likes of Neil Young and the late Molina awestruck.

the_orwells_disgraceland-500x50015. The Orwells- Disgraceland
In an era where everyone is trying to decide what’s next for popular music and attempting create state of the art futuristic albums with mixed results; The Orwells come crashing through the wall with a breath of fresh air in Disgraceland. With no frills and all thrills it’s a brash, middle finger double shot of rough ‘n’ tumble Rock & Roll. Front man Mario Cuomo sounds like he’s coughing up blood to get every last ounce of moxie into each song as the band shreds a jagged distorted path through Friday nights. Why over-think things when it’s so much easier hanging on the edge for dear life with The Orwells?

into the wide14. Delta Spirit- Into the Wide
Into the Wide is a fitting title for Delta Spirit’s fourth album as it’s a panoramic journey that sees them take their biggest creative leap yet. Sounding less like a band entrenched in Americana music and gliding towards a more ethereal template with visions of grandeur as evidenced by anthems like “From Now On,” “Live On,” “Take Shelter,” “For My Enemy,” and “Patriarch.” Delta Spirit continues to grow more ambitious with each passing record and their surging arc of creativity doesn’t show signs of slowing down anytime soon.

high hopes13. Bruce Springsteen- High Hopes
For his 18th studio album High Hopes Bruce Springsteen takes his most unorthodox path of constructing a record. A collection of castaways, covers, and reconfigurations providing a fusion that Springsteen thought had to see the light of day. Fueling Springsteen’s drive even further was Rage Against The Machine guitarist and E Street understudy Tom Morello. A genuine guitar hero, Morello’s amplified alien landscapes were a lightning rod of inspiration according to Springsteen himself. The results are startlingly synergetic as Morello’s tones and squalls sound revitalizing interwoven throughout the various rhapsodies of Springsteen’s. Retirement is seemingly the furthest thing from Springsteen’s mind at this moment; with plenty of material left to excavate and revive along with a continuous outpouring of new ideas, Springsteen made this keen observation, “It’s like that old story. The light from the oncoming train focuses the mind.”

spoon12. Spoon- They Want My Soul
Waiting over four years for a new Spoon record is far too long. With the arrival of 2014’s They Want My Soul however, Spoon shows it was well worth the wait as they’ve created one of their best records. Certainly their most accessible and engaging since 2007’s breakthrough Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. A concentrated set of songs with the perfect balance of staccato guitars and off-kilter pianos that have become a part of Spoon’s blueprint. “Rent I Pay,” “Rainy Taxi,” “Do You,” “Outlier,” and “Let Me Be Mine” all hold up against anything else in their sprawling back catalog. The finest moment however might come on luminous closer “New York Kiss” that sounds like Spoon taking a stab at new wave flourishes with outstanding results.

DFA197911. Death From Above 1979- The Physical World
Death From Above 1979 became the definitive buzz band with the unpredictable success of their 2004 debut record You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine. As quickly as success found them it became all too taxing on the duo of Jesse Keeler and Sebastien Grainger and they called it quits. 10 years later, burnt bridges are repaired and with it comes their hotly anticipated follow-up The Physical World. The results are incredibly dynamic as it sounds like they never split in the first place. With bizarro ragers dancing on a razor’s edge, killer cuts like “Cheap Talk,” “Right On Frankenstein,” “Trainwreck 1979,” and “Government Trash” make you wish more than anything that we hear more from DFA 1979 before 2024.

Royal+Blood+tumblr_n7mc8bsHqR1qcp7mao1_128-500x50010. Royal Blood- Royal Blood
2014’s best debut record was by far the self-titled effort from Royal Blood. Royal Blood is a pulverizing display of noise caused only by the menacing tandem of Mike Kerr on bass and Ben Thatcher on drums. You can hear a burly brew of influences flooding this 32:38 blitzkrieg including The Black Keys, The White Stripes, Queens of the Stone Age and Muse amongst others. Frantic, uncompromising riffs keep rolling throughout like a seismic steamroller displaying Royal Blood’s vicious prowess, well beyond their years. You can literally feel the sweat and fuel drip from the pores of these brawny headbangers, there’s not one second on Royal Blood that isn’t explosive and adrenaline-packed. Royal Blood have already conquered the UK with their album going to #1 and they’ve got enough fire power to rattle the dominos and make them fall across the Atlantic too.

lc19. Leonard Cohen- Popular Problems
There’s no denying the latter-day genius of Bob Dylan. He’s in rarefied air that few can touch, save perhaps for Leonard Cohen. Continuing his brilliance now as an octogenarian, Cohen like Dylan has seen an unlikely creative resurgence with his latest output Popular Problems being the best of the batch so far.

Cohen continues to saunter through his twilight years under the guise of a smoky lounge-act bard; his calloused fathoms-deep vocal brings about a demanded reverence and awe. Popular Problems is nine psalms soul-crushing in dimension, their sorrow burrowing into the marrow of listeners. Cohen uses simple melodies, lilting arrangements, and choral female backing vocals to set the back drop for his phenomenal lyrics. Whether it’s the desolation of “Almost Like The Blues” (“I saw some people starving/ There was murder, there was rape/ Their villages were burning/ They were trying to escape/ I couldn’t meet their glances/ I was staring at my shoes/ It was acid, it was tragic/ It was almost like the blues”) or the emotional anguish of “A Street” (I cried for you this morning/ And I’ll cry for you again/ But I’m not in charge of sorrow/ So please don’t ask me when/ There may be wine and roses/ And magnums of champagne/ But we’ll never know we’ll never/ Ever be that drunk again”), Cohen’s capacity to find the genuine interpretations of personal heartbreak and worldly tumult are nearly unmatched. At 80 years old, how can you beat that type of authenticity?

lost in the dream8. The War On Drugs- Lost in the Dream
It may not top this list but there may have been no other album more beloved in 2014 than Lost in the Dream from The War On Drugs. Critical acclaim from countless publications and a general consensus (Well almost, sorry Mark Kozelek, you missed out) that this is indeed a sonic marvel.

It’s a hybrid of the familiar and extraterrestrial, a nebulous wonder with a cavalcade of classic rock influences wrapped in the cosmos. The gorgeous “Eyes to the Wind” sounds like Against The Wind-era Bob Seger fronted by Bob Dylan with mastermind Adam Granduciel’s nasally Dylan-esque delivery while tracks like “Red Eyes” and “Burning” are like long lost cuts distorted through a wormhole from Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. with their radiant synths and restless spirit. There’s an underlying inflection of Dire Straits too as meandering, weaving passages of haunting guitar atmospherics sometime prove more effective than any lyric could do.

Shivering ambiance in areas, enthralling interstellar highways in others, Lost in the Dream defied everyone’s expectations securing 2014’s Dark Horse Record of the Year award for this list.

teeth dreams7. The Hold Steady- Teeth Dreams
You knew the hangover couldn’t last forever, The Hold Steady are finally back for the first time since 2010. Time to saddle up to the bar and try to make a good night last forever again with Teeth Dreams. Front man/preacher Craig Finn leads his Rock & Roll crusaders through more hyper-literate cautionary tales, and their collective sound is the biggest and boldest of their career.

That’s thanks in part to former Foo Fighters producer Nick Raskulinecz as well former Lucero guitarist Steve Selvidge joining as a full-time member to add even more muscle to the six string assault. With him, Tad Kubler, and Finn creating an interplay that make the guitars more towering, as evidenced by the masterful opening trifecta of “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You,” “Spinners,” and “The Only Thing” able to slash right out of watering hole dives and into arenas. Finn lets things simmer with the hypnotic waltz of “The Ambassador” really exploiting his superior songwriting prowess (“When you came back to us/ In South Minneapolis/ You said revenge exists outside of space and time/ Back behind The Ambassador/ Man it feels kind of magical/ I guess your friend can really move things with his mind”) He has an uncanny way of turning the tragic losers and downtrodden characters into the most beautiful. The true crowning achievement though may come in the nearly nine-minute mammoth closer “Oaks.” If there’s such a place as Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland” then The Hold Steady’s “Oaks” is the next borough over. It’s transcendental but not as ethereal. This is a sifting, a clawing through the drug-addled fog, chasing the ambulance lights in the distance. No one wins and everyone dies at the end of this West Side Story. Once again The Hold Steady have created a record that sounds like communal catharsis and feels like one big maudlin embrace.

artworks-000081350319-q8i9yo-t500x5006. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers- Hypnotic Eye
“I knew I wanted to do a Rock & Roll record,” Tom Petty told Rolling Stone regarding Hypnotic Eye. “We hadn’t made a straight hard-rockin’ record, from beginning to end, in a long time.” Petty more than achieves that with a powder keg of feral virility akin to some of his earliest recordings with The Heartbreakers while also integrating their matured sense of self-awareness keen on craft. Flowing seamlessly like a blistering live set of Petty & The Heartbreakers, they bash out snarling rockers sounding like a band half their age.

There’s the predatory riff of opener “American Dream Plan B” as Petty unspools his disintegrating future, “Fault Lines” is a roadhouse boogie chugging along like an 18-wheeler peeling across a desert highway as lead guitarist Mike Campbell interjects some piercing and scalding virtuosity while a gritty harp rides sidecar, and “Red River” is fueled by a brawny, swampy riff to cutting through the Everglades as Petty supplies plenty of faulty religious talismans. Petty and Campbell’s interlocking guitars continue to gallop and swirl like cyclones on “All You Can Carry” and take on a bluesy crunch for “Power Drunk,” “U Get Me High,” and “Burnt Out Town.” The closer “Shadow People” eclipses the six-minute mark and is arguably the album’s finest moment. It’s a brooding slow-burner, marauding in the moonlight until melding into a psychedelic trance middle section. Guitars dance around ringing ivory rain drops before giving way to another spiraling conflagration of Campbell’s ahead of Petty’s cautionary forecast, “And this one carries a gun for the U.S.A. he’s a 21st century man, and he’s scary as hell cause when he’s afraid he’ll destroy anything he don’t understand.” As the song simmers to a seeming finale there’s an added gentle acoustic coda as if a small glint of hope in Petty’s steely blue eyes stops the doomsday clock just before midnight as he muses, “Waiting for the sun to be straight over head till we ain’t got no shadow at all.”

Petty and The Heartbreakers are certainly not entering their geriatric years quietly and this further illustrates that they are an indispensable All-American institution. Nearly 40 years down the road, they’re still running down a dream.

FooFighters_Album8_Cover_l5. Foo Fighters- Sonic Highways
After the career apex of 2011’s instant classic Wasting Light many were left wondering how the Foo Fighters would respond. The result was a hiatus imposed by leader Dave Grohl which allowed him to concentrate on side projects. One of those projects being a documentary about Sound City, a paean to the legendary Los Angeles studio. After that the hiatus didn’t last much longer sparking the motivation of the Foo Fighters most daunting and experimental record yet, Sonic Highways.

Much like the Sound City documentary only far more encompassing, Sonic Highways is a love letter to American music of all forms synthesized through the filter of the Foo Fighters’ trademark sound. It’s literally an expansive journey across the American frontier taking place in eight different pivotal studios in eight different major U.S. cities. Although each track has the signature Foo Fighters’ caterwaul there are audible cadences from the different cities and studios alloyed throughout. An all-star supporting cast facilitates this whether it’s Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen providing an additional baritone guitar to the hulking opener “Something From Nothing,” Zac Brown “devil-pickin’” through “Congregation” leading to a “Freebird”-esque outro, blues gunslinger Gary Clark Jr. providing an escalating solo in “What Did I Do? / God As My Witness,” or guitar God Joe Walsh providing the sweltering desert distortion on “Outside.”

Although this doesn’t quite reach the same mountain top as Wasting Light it is a worthy follow up, aiming high and succeeding. There’s also comfort in knowing that with Wasting Light and now Sonic Highways the Foo Fighters have leveled up to what seems to be a new creative plateau while also becoming standard bearers for arena rock bands.

tga get hurt4. The Gaslight Anthem- Get Hurt
Hipster publications can criticize all they want but there’s still no one on the rock scene making music like The Gaslight Anthem. Going even further, no act has been as consistently dependable as The Gaslight Anthem with producing great records and Get Hurt is their darkest yet.

It’s a collection of jagged yet passionate songs, the emotional strife cloaked in pile-driving rockers, clarion-call choruses, bleeding metallic guitars, and piston-firing drums. Front man Brian Fallon continues to be an authentic heart-on-sleeve poet whose universe remains tilted to an alternate reality. It’s one where James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Steve McQueen all came into their prime a decade or so later. After filming their latest big screen epics they would hang out at CBGB’s in its golden years, down the bar Fallon would be sitting between Joe Strummer and Bruce Springsteen, trading tour stories over beers. The Ramones would be set to take the stage with gutter punks and greasers in the crowd unified in undulating anticipation. It’s that type of infused mythology that makes Get Hurt so rewarding beginning with opener’s “Stay Vicious” sledgehammer riff and Fallon sounding like he’s been chewing asphalt as he bellows, “And I feel just like a murder, and I feel just like a gun/ And I’ve been shaking in the hands of somebody who’s finally had enough.” Get Hurt continues heavy on the heartbreak and riffs throughout with “1,000 Years,” “Stray Paper,” “Helter Skeleton,” Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” and “Red Violins.” The best moment is saved for last with closer “Dark Places” and even goes as far to rival the band’s summit song “The Backseat” which to put in Springsteen vernacular, is their “Born to Run.” This seems like the conclusion to “The Backseat” as a worst case scenario; a road trip that started out so promising with an open stretch of highway and optimism that ends in disillusion and separation, a gradual drifting apart.

Despite the disillusioned climax, there’s an enduring fortitude in Get Hurt, a restless and relentless heart beats in its chest. It’s earnest and genuine and if you’re going to bag on a record like that then there’s no telling what can move you.

ryan adams3. Ryan Adams- Ryan Adams
When Ryan Adams doesn’t release a record for three years it’s the equivalent to 10 years for most other artists. 2011 saw the release of Ashes & Fire after which Adams went dormant (again, relatively), largely in part due to a continuing battle with Ménière’s disease: A debilitating inner ear disorder that can affect hearing and balance. It was so crippling to Adams that it was uncertain if his career would continue.

Fortunately for Adams and everyone else 2014’s self-titled record is not only a comeback, but it’s one of the best he’s ever made. Adams has made a career out of masterfully jumping from genres of music, throwing caution to the wind without batting an eye. Ryan Adams sounds like a record he was always born to make but couldn’t do so until reaching such an age of experience. At 40 he’s made assured adult-contemporary rock music. No deviating sharp turns or genre-jumping from track to track, just 11 masterfully crafted seraphic songs. Filled with visions of a man still cocksure and focused yet having a sense of maturity that belies the same man that had some pretty burdensome demons. The album is bountiful with anthemic ‘70s and ‘80s touchstones but perhaps the most prevailing influence whether deliberate or not is the fidelity of golden-age Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. With their classic chiming guitars and insatiable tenacity coursing through the sultry swagger of opener “Gimme Something Good,” the crepuscular lust in “Kim,” and the Damn The Torpedoes-sized drums in “Trouble” that sound like they could go round-for-round with “Refugee.” “Stay With Me” is so sultry it damn-near sweats and you’d half expect Stevie Nicks to come knocking on your front door, well, 1981 Stevie Nicks. Even Heartbreakers’ keyboardist Benmont Tench is credited with “Organ and Piano weirdness” in the liner notes. There are nods sonically to other statesmen of Rock & Roll, chiefly Bruce Springsteen’s “Badlands” being emulated on fist-pumping “Feels Like Fire” and the staccato guitar barreling down the darkened highway on “I Just Might.” There are moments of restrained solace as well none better than the astral envoi of “Let Go” as a summation of more than just the album but perhaps Adams’ entire career.

The once combustible, caustic troubadour is letting go of his reservations and instability. Taking the virtues he’s been bestowed with and getting out of the ditch and out onto the middle of the road, driving steady. If this is the sound of driving down the road sober, Adams is entering a new phase in his already prolific career with radiating affirmation.

U2_Songs_of_Innocence_cover2. U2- Songs of Innocence
U2 are arguably the biggest band on the planet (There’s still some band named The Rolling Stones around that might beg to differ), and with that they are also the most polarizing. U2 released Songs of Innocence to a firestorm of negativity due to the way it was delivered, being released for free to anyone that had an iTunes account. It was invasive to a certain extent but nothing more than a minor annoyance which U2 haters blew completely out of proportion. Unfortunately this is how it largely came to be defined as many publications panned it for its release tactics rather than on the merits of the actual record itself. Giving scathing reviews just a few hours after it was available on iTunes. How could you possibly absorb the record that completely? Better question yet, how could you possibly call yourself a professional? Delving deeper into Songs of Innocence reveals U2’s most audacious, ambitious, and cohesive record since Achtung Baby.

At the start or end of every decade U2 has had an innate ability to reinvent or at least reestablish themselves in part due to sheer fortitude but also out of necessity. Where 2009’s No Line on the Horizon missed this mark slightly, Songs of Innocence is an immaculate rebirth that valiantly stares down the future. Ironically U2 move into new frontiers sonically by looking to their past with an array of contemporary producers. Unleashing their classic rapturous sound of heaven as a modern cadence permeates the entire enterprise to create something astonishingly intrinsic. Opener “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” is like a call to arms as distorted shock waves of The Edge’s guitar rupture through Larry Mullen’s militant drums, Bono’s epiphany comes in the form of hymn (“I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred/ Heard a song that made some sense out of the world/ Everything I ever lost, now has been returned/ In the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard”). “Every Breaking Wave” is sweeping and devastating, it ranks as a peer amongst their biggest most opulent anthems while “California (There is No End to Love)” teeters more towards the rejuvenated rush of early 21st century U2 and “Iris (Hold Me Close)” is an epitaph to Bono’s late mother with the chiming allure of The Unforgettable Fire or The Joshua Tree. “Volcano” and “Raised By Wolves” have the virility and touchstones of War as The Edge’s virtuosity splinters into shards through the disenchanted angst while “Cedarwood Road” may have the heaviest riffing in any U2 song yet. “This is Where You Can Reach Me” has a disco-punk strut of Sandinista-era Clash buoyed by outer limit synths. “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight” and closing duet with Lykke Li “The Troubles” are ballads that pulse in the afterglow with electronic accents further pushing U2 into new territories while maintaining their rhapsodic essence.

Ultimately, Songs of Innocence embodies everything that makes a great U2 record; unbridled passion, spiritual sermons, eminence, and deliverance. With talk of an impending sequel in the works U2 may be in the process of a pertinent resurrection befitting of their stature.

The_Black_Keys-turn-blue_album_Review_Under_the_Radar1. The Black Keys- Turn Blue
Every year there are so many great records released. Everyone pining to put out their best statement but to be better than anyone else is no small task. Since I started this endeavor there has always been a different artist at #1, no one winning that coveted top spot more once. That is until 2014 as The Black Keys have earned the honor of Record of the Year once again with Turn Blue. Not only is this the 2nd time they’ve topped this list but they’ve done so with consecutive records dating back to 2011’s truncated masterpiece El Camino. Turn Blue for all intents and purposes is The Black Keys’ victory lap as the dynamic duo of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have executed another flawless opus. Co-producer Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) also deserves partial credit for helping Auerbach and Carney sculpt and hone a sound that’s been evolving ever since their first collaboration, 2008’s Attack & Release. It’s now become an undeniable sonic signature of theirs, so catchy and many have attempted to imitate but only The Black Keys can perfect it.

While El Camino was a short uppercut of their glam rock vertex, without sounding oversaturated, Turn Blue is their most indulgent record yet. Nowhere is this more apparent than opening track “Weight of Love” which is the most stunning as well as one of the best songs they’ve ever made. Rather than the concise numbers we’re so familiar with, this is an entirely different beast all together. By Black Keys’ standards it’s a roaming colossus at nearly seven minutes. It’s a deluge in ‘70s excess, looking into a snow globe and seeing the dunes as two figures appear in the distance. It’s like an intergalactic Spaghetti Western with The Keys trouncing through the alien landscape in their Chelsea boots like nomadic cowboys as a hazy narcotic blizzard of guitar God luxuriance is kicked up by torrents of Auerbach’s majestic solos. The slow-burning opiate flame of the title track feels like a pupil dilating process and Auerbach’s congenial falsetto nearly conceals the impending danger (“I really don’t think you know/ There could be hell below”), “Fever” bathes you in a hypnotic palpitating Farfisa-style organ and “Bullet in the Brain” begins as a kaleidoscopic rover before transforming into a clamorous cosmic stride. The trio of tracks to conclude Turn Blue is one of the best stretches on any of their previous works. “10 Lovers” is the best groove they’ve ever devised, ridiculously infectious like a lunar dance hall before giving way to the bluesy lava flow of “In Our Prime” which contains some of the darkest lyrics on the record (“Like every lover hovers in my mind/ We made our mark when we were in our prime./ The house had burned, but nothing there was mine/ We had it all when we were in our prime.”) Redemption however lies ahead in the beaming road trip closer “Gotta Get Away” as tantalizing guitar twang and euphoric organs explode out of the gate, not looking back in the rearview mirror. Rock & Roll as a cathartic release, what a concept.

Contrary to what many may think due to the heavy psychedelic atmosphere, this is the bluesiest album The Black Keys have ever made. A testament to their prevailing tenacity, Turn Blue rose from the ashes of Auerbach’s bitter divorce. The heartache and personal turmoil is obscured by contagious hooks, soulful guitars, swirling organs, swooning falsettos and impeccable production. The Black Keys have stated that they love to make albums rather than just singles, if they continue to treat the process with this much aplomb and proficiency then we may have to start calling them the dynasty duo. The only ones that can seem to slow The Black Keys down are themselves.

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers- Hypnotic Eye

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Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers- Hypnotic Eye

8.8 / 10

Anything that’s Rock & Roll:

Petty & crew return with a raucous Classic Rock marvel

 

Rock music has always thrived off conflict and disenchantment. Its rebellious nature at times leads to its marginalization from the mainstream conscience and yet it’s in that neglect that its enduring flame burns brightest at the core revealing a true indomitable spirit. One of its greatest torch-bearing crusaders has been Tom Petty who’s been raging against the dying of the light for the last four decades now.

It’s 2014 and American music is more plasticized and hollow than ever. It’s a landscape rife with cardboard cut-out homogenized pop country acts and computerized EDM manipulated by talentless hacks. What’s definitely not in fashion is substantial guitar-driven rock music. Cue Tom Petty sounding the battle horn galloping into this now foreign American frontier with his valiant knights The Heartbreakers armed to the hilt with six-string bayonets on their uncompromising slab of Classic Rock Hypnotic Eye.

“I knew I wanted to do a Rock & Roll record,” Tom Petty told Rolling Stone earlier this year regarding Hypnotic Eye. “We hadn’t made a straight hard-rockin’ record, from beginning to end, in a long time.” Petty more than achieves that with a powder keg of feral virility akin to some of his earliest recordings with The Heartbreakers while also integrating their matured sense of self-awareness keen on craft. Guitars weaned off of the chiming sounds of The Byrds and new wave flourishes are alternatively soiled in the murky bayou waters from their home state of Florida. One of Petty’s earliest bands Mudcrutch (Which also included Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench) may actually be the largest influence. Dusty distortion and swampy blues borrowed from the early ‘70s outfit combine with the elderly statesmen proficiency making a crackling unapologetic racket.

Political undercurrents course just beneath the surface throughout the record only to come surging to the forefront in areas. None more prevalent than opening track “American Dream Plan B” in which Petty speaks on the disillusionment and the general disappearance of middle-class America. Backed by a prowling predatory riff, Petty sneers, “I’m half lit, I can’t dance for shit.” Lead guitarist Mike Campbell cuts a searing winding Creedence-y solo before Petty finally realizes the American dream is really just a fantasy singing, “Well my mama’s so sad, daddy’s just mad cause I just ain’t gonna have the chance he had. My success is anybody’s guess but like a fool I’m betting on happiness.” The perennially defiant Petty however wails in the chorus, “I gotta dream I’m gonna fight till I get it right.” “Fault Lines” is a roadhouse boogie chugging along like an 18-wheeler peeling across a desert highway as Campbell interjects more piercing and scalding virtuosity while a gritty harp rides sidecar. “Red River” is fueled by a brawny riff to cut through the Everglades and Petty supplies plenty of faulty religious talismans (Rosary, rabbit’s foot, tiger tooth, Gris-gris stick, etc.) with the river itself serving as a baptismal font, “Meet me tonight at the Red River and look down into your soul.” Titanic galloping guitars swirl like cyclones through “All You Can Carry” while “Power Drunk” is a sauntering gnarled romp commentary on egregious abuse within the hierarchy and the high-octane “Forgotten Man” is a perfect follow up as the lament of a disenfranchised soul lost in a world of moral decay. “U Get Me High” is the lewdest song sonically here with a crunch that sounds as if the band is plugging in for the first time together and getting their rocks off with dissonant levels of amplification in their garage, aiming for old haunts like Dub’s Lounge in Gainesville rather than the biggest arenas around the world. The mojo is definitely working on the bluesy “Burnt Out Town” as another quasi-political piece portraying a town rampant with corruption and dilapidation (“There’s ashes on Main Street and the mayor is cooking the books, why even my best friends are turning into crooks”). The closer “Shadow People” eclipses the six-minute mark and is arguably the album’s finest moment. It’s a brooding slow-burner, marauding in the moonlight until it melds into a psychedelic trance middle section. Guitars dance around ringing ivory rain drops before giving way to another spiraling conflagration of Campbell’s ahead of Petty’s cautionary forecast, “And this one carries a gun for the U.S.A. he’s a 21st century man, and he’s scary as hell cause when he’s afraid he’ll destroy anything he don’t understand.” As the song simmers to a seeming finale there’s an added gentle acoustic coda as if a small glint of hope in Petty’s steely blue eyes stops the doomsday clock just before midnight as he muses, “Waiting for the sun to be straight over head till we ain’t got no shadow at all.”

Hypnotic Eye sounds stubborn and audacious, much like the outspoken often cantankerous man at its epicenter. It’s out of place and time but it’s those very same reasons why it resonates with reassurance. While Petty could’ve taken a solo attempt at a record like this it wouldn’t have been as captivating as there is a certain synergy he has with The Heartbreakers that can’t be replicated by any other hired guns that give his music that added level of vitality. Hypnotic Eye is a galvanizing statement made on its own terms that aims to blast through the thick layer of commercialized sediment. These are destined to become road dog songs built for kinetic interplay during live shows. Petty and The Heartbreakers are certainly not entering their geriatric years quietly and this further illustrates that they are an indispensable All-American institution. Nearly 40 years down the road, they’re still running down a dream.