I should be studying Spanish right now, but I’ve been invigorated slightly to write. I wish my muse, I wish she’d come around more. Come on baby sweetie honey baby sweetie (Matt Ireland feat. Eric Long).  I feel like I’m constantly in a battle to be as creative as I used to be. Or at least, as creative as I thought I used to be.

But this isn’t a self-loathing diatribe, I’ve actually got some positive sauces flowing at the moment. I’ve been back in school for over two months now and it’s going all right. Balancing like I’m in a circus on a tightrope combating full-time work and school has been a challenge to say the least, but I’m trying to see it through. Pointing out ambitiously into the sea of 2011 standing at the bow, one leg up clenching fiercely to a pack of shark fruit snacks like the captain of a mighty vessel clenches to his maps.

I’m taking classes back at the University of Iowa and if you would have told me I would be currently standing at the threshold right now of my return to school this time last year, I would have told you, no way. I also would have told you you were wrong. One class is a GIS (Guided Independent Study) in Spanish. It sucks but it’s required, keeping up with it. The other is a required Arthurian Lit. class full of studious younglings and some are nearly seven years younger than me. Am I the wise old sage of the class? Scholastically? No. World weary? Yes. Absolutely.

This is a great year for music already, and what’s startling is the best is yet to come. I am already in love with a few that you the people should get as well including: Middle Brother’s self-titled release, Smith Westerns- Dye it Blonde, The Decemberists- The King is Dead, Ponderosa- Moonlight Revival, Dropkick Murphys- Going Out in Style, and Hayes Carll- KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories). There’s a lot of my favorites still to release albums too including U2, Wilco, My Morning Jacket, and The Strokes to name a few. Cheers!

March is my favorite month. The beginning of good things. The end of Winter (Cue George Harrison’s ‘Here Comes the Sun’), St. Patrick’s Day, and my birthday are a few great reasons. St. Patrick’s Day was taxing on my liver and it was very fun. Drinking from 9am-12am is challenging, but like the great Olympic athletes of the past, I was triumphant. This Sunday will be my birthday, my golden birthday. Years ago, I set my golden birthday as a time to start settling down. While it’s not the whirlwind tours of my youth from ’03-’07 anymore where I felt like I was bustin’ out of jail and celebrating 5-6 nights a week, I still haven’t totally abandoned having fun. No, not yet. Not till I can chew on the party’s skull with my own teeth will I totally let go. I will be 27, and I plan to live forever. Come join me.

However, In closing, if I do end up alone naked and dead on the road, I would hope somebody would be there to take the dark comedy edge off it by saying something poignant like, “More than anything, he died of a broken heart”. I would prefer if Bill Murray said this as I could picture him delivering the line perfectly.

That last part was for Maggie, she loves when I say stuff like that.



25. Free Energy- Stuck on Nothing

“We’re breakin’ out this time/ makin’ out with the wind”. There couldn’t be more fitting opening lines for this Philadelphia five-piece’s debut album. Free Energy’s Stuck on Nothing is a record best served with a big slice of Friday night. Complete with a Thin Lizzy-like harmonizing guitar onslaught especially on tracks like “Bad Stuff” and “Young Hearts”. Six-string licks that sound like they could have easily been off Jailbreak. Stuck on Nothing combines carefree songs that also retain a certain ferocity with their feral riffs. Free Energy have crafted this year’s feel-good record bubbling over with sheer exuberance.

Key Tracks: Free Energy, Dream City, Bad Stuff, Young Hearts

24. MGMT- Congratulations

Only MGMT could make a spaced-out psychedelic record and have it be considered more austere than their previous effort Oracular Spectacular. Congratulations may not contain massive hits like “Kids”,  “Electric Feel” or “Time to Pretend”, but this album actually holds up as more of a cohesive effort and perhaps an even better Sophomore record than their first. Songs like “It’s Working” and “Flash Delirium” sound like the band are plugging in for the first time in a garage on the moon while projections of amoebas swirl about them. “Someone’s Missing” is a lonely echoing stroll down the boulevard until an eruption in all the pomp and circumstance of Oracular Spectacular dips in for the finale. “I Found a Whistle” is a luminous interstellar ballad that gives way to their most experimental piece yet, the 12-minute acid-drop prog-rock of “Siberian Breaks” with its multiple tempo changes. Congratulations sounds contemporary and vintage also, like it could have been crafted in 1968. Nestle into this record, grab your astronaut helmet and a handful of those good pills.

Key Tracks: It’s Working, Someone’s Missing, Flash Delirium, I Found a Whistle, Congratulations

23. Spoon- Transference

Spoon has been around since 1994 and they seemed to be destined to be perennial Austin, Texas indie-rock darlings. Then came 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and with the help of the uber-catchy single “The Underdog” they were propelled into unprecedented waters… commercial success. Selling more than 300,000 copies of the album in the U.S. alone, they had lofty expectations built in front of them for a follow up. Enter 2010 and the Spoon’s new record Transference. With serpentine melodies, crackling guitars and off-kilter rickety, at times near-vaudevillian pianos, the band goes mining through their past traveling back down the tracks they laid to get here. That’s not to say they have abandoned all hope of hit radio singles. Tunes like “Written in Reverse” with its pounding piano chords and singer Britt Daniel’s trademark snarl (At times it sounds like he’s shredding his throat here, get this guy some lozenges!) and “Trouble Comes Running” with its thumping beat show strong life signs of keeping the casual audience that may have come solely for more “Underdogs”. The band produced this record themselves which gives it more of a rough around the edges quality and also adds a slight element of sincerity that may have been missing from the polished sheen of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. You have to hand it to Spoon, they paid their dues and now they’re reaping the benefits of their new popularity. Transference is them blending in perfectly between the pillars of commercial success and critical acclaim.

Key Tracks: The Mystery Zone, Written in Reverse, I Saw the Light, Trouble Comes Running

22. Brandon Flowers- Flamingo

Say what you will about Brandon Flowers, but the guy knows how to write pop anthems dressed up in all the fixings. Sure the guy may at times have a Bono-like sometimes a Messianic-like complex, but those things can be over looked when you’re wanting to hit the dance floor after listening to his songs. And although you might want to critically pan his debut solo record Flamingo, it’ll be hard to concentrate over yourself and formulate an acidic manifesto as you’re singing along, belting out the tunes with Flowers in all their beefed up, cheesed out glam glory. There’s never really a dull moment on Flamingo as Flowers full-throated pulsating anthems like “Crossfire”, “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas”, “Only the Young”, and “Jilted Lovers & Broken Hearts” could have been right at home on albums done by the The Killers. Even slightly more subdued tracks like “Playing with Fire” and “Out on the Floor” tend to arc towards moments of grandiose cadence. If this is the worst Flowers can do with The Killers on hiatus, life will go on.

Key Tracks: Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Only the Young, Jilted Lovers & Broken Hearts, Crossfire

21. Dr. Dog- Shame, Shame

Shame, Shame,  Dr. Dog’s fifth LP continues in the tradition of their previous albums. They make no apologies for their great affinity for 60’s pop/rock songcraft and allowing it to influence their music. Luckily Dr. Dog is a talented versatile band, allowing their influences to sound fresh and revitalizing rather than tired and cliche. Shame, Shame has scaled back some of the chamber pop excess from their previous record Fate yet retains rich enough augmentations to keep the band’s core identity. “Shadow People” begins with a solemn acoustic guitar before being enriched in a sun-drenched melody and warm harmonies. “Station” sounds like a forlorn tune that could have been done been by The Band with its lazy countryside saunter while songs like “Unbearable Why”, “Where’d All the Time Go?” and “Mirror, Mirror” have Beatles-esque harmonies. You can almost hear Lennon and McCartney singing “Mirror, mirror on the wall/ There’s no reflection here at all” in all their “Lucy in the Sky” glory. Dr. Dog may be a throw back band, but they’re a damn good one.

Key Tracks: Shadow People, Station, Unbearable Why, Where’d All the Time Go, Mirror Mirror

20. Blitzen Trapper- Destroyer of the Void

Blitzen Trapper frontman Eric Earley said that recording sessions last year were inspired by artifacts such as the Bible and roots-rock like Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding. The result was a freak-folk opus, Destroyer of the Void. The opening title track sets the tone for the rest of the album, sounding like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” had gone up into the mountains, taken a shovel-load of Peyote, talked to the wild animals and lived to tell about it. “Laughing Lover” has an infectious gallop to it while Earley sings, “Your mind is a diamond of blue and green/ Shining out through your eyes like falling leaves/ When you open your mouth a swarm of bees will appear”. “The Tailor” is classic folk-style storytelling and “The Man Who Would Speak True” is a brilliant murder ballad that Dylan himself would have been glad to have written. The band even manages to sound like a gypsy road dog outfit in songs like “Dragon’s Song”. Destroyer of the Void is an amalgamation of Blitzen Trapper’s strong suits to make for an absorbing tantalizing portrait.

Key Tracks: Destroyer of the Void, Laughing Lover, The Man Who Would Speak True, Dragon’s Song, The Tailor

19. Phosphorescent- Here’s to Taking it Easy

Phosphorescent Head of State Matthew Houck is a tremendous wordsmith that has been flying under the radar but he may have just crafted an album with a perfect blend of a Americana and Alt. country to make a break through in Here’s to Taking it Easy. The jubilant opener “It’s Hard to Be Humble (When you’re from Alabama)” complete with an ecstatic horn section sounds more genuine than anything Lynyrd Skynyrd could have written about the state of Alabama and the state may want to adopt it as their unofficial song rather than the ham-fisted Skynyrd one. “Nothing Was Stolen (Love Me Foolishly)” has a superb road trip vibe while “Mermaid Parade” sounds like it could have been off The Byrd’s Sweetheart of Rodeo with its luscious twangy guitars and Houck even sounding like a more world-weary Roger McGuinn. The only subtle sound of darkness creeps in at the close of the record with the lengthy “Los Angeles”. The meandering rumination sounds like a bleak mid-70’s Neil Young epic and yet it even turns into a sort of paean for the city of Los Angeles. Here’s to Taking it Easy is a fitting title for a record that is best enjoyed on the road, windows down with countryside sprawling out for miles ahead.

Key Tracks: It’s Hard to Be Humble (When you’re from Alabama), Nothing Was Stolen (Love me Foolishly), Mermaid Parade, I Don’t care if There’s Cursing, Los Angeles

18. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club- Beat the Devil’s Tattoo

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club cut a chasm between Howl and the rest of their records to make Beat the Devil’s Tattoo, a balanced attack that leads to perhaps their most compelling album yet. A foreboding overcast falls over the record starting with the malevolent tribal stomp of the opening title track. “Conscience Killer” follows as a hellacious British invasion type rocker that has Velvet Underground swagger and “Mama Taught Me Better” has metallic revved-up riffs of a chugging steam engine. Meanwhile “Sweet Feeling” and “The Toll” sound like blood dripping from the black branch folk ballads that could have been standouts on Howl as well. An absolutely sinister track is the blues lick of “River Styx” that sounds as if they beat Robert Johnson to the crossroads to meet the devil, and he gave them this song conjured in fires and cauldrons of hell. B.R.M.C. fall back into the haze of their earlier formative years with the tyrannical juggernaut closer “Half-State” that’s soaked in feedback and reverb. A monolithic end to another fantastic album from Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. A matured band realizing all their strong suits.

Key Tracks: Beat the Devil’s Tattoo, Conscience Killer, Sweet Feeling, Mama Taught Me Better, The Toll, River Styx

17. Deer Tick- The Black Dirt Sessions

Deer Tick brain trust John McCauley III broods mightily on the band’s third album The Black Dirt Sessions. Although the ruminations on mortality may seem grim and foreboding there is also an engaging sense of vitality and urgency. From the literal dirge of “Goodbye, Dear Friend” the languishing “Sad Sun” or the reworked austere piano version of “Christ Jesus” all showcase McCauley taking a matured at times sobering approach to his songwriting. That’s not to say the band can’t still kick up a ruckus when needed. “Mange” is a desert trotter until the outro erupts into “Freebird” territory with rollicking barrel-house piano and barn-burning rocket fuel guitars while “When She Comes Home” has a rugged “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” feel. As a live act Deer Tick has garnered a reputation as a hard partying carefree group. On record though, these guys are dead serious, and that’s a good thing.

Key Tracks: Twenty Miles, Goodbye Dear Friend, Sad Sun, Mange, Christ Jesus

16. Drive-By Truckers- The Big To-Do

Drive-By Truckers have become the championed work horses of Southern rock cranking out nine studio albums in the past 12 years. A work rate that’s almost unheard of in this modern age of the music industry. What may be even more startling is the fact that they’ve also managed keep an incredible sense of freshness on what bandleader Patterson Hood has deemed “The duality of the Southern thing”. Hood shares the wealth on lead vocals on The Big To-Do perhaps more than any other DBT record with Mike Cooley and Shonna Tucker. Tucker contributes the disintegrating domestication of a couple in “You Got Another” and the palpitating “(It’s Gonna Be) I Told you So” while Cooley’s three superb numbers include “Birthday Boy” the rockabilly “Get Downtown” and the country-fried delicate closer “Eyes Like Glue” where he sounds eerily like Willie Nelson. The strength of The Big To-Do though still lies in Hood’s matter-of-fact storytelling weaving tales that sound as if the boys in Lynyrd Skynyrd got addicted to Raymond Carver. Thriving tales of disillusionment from the opening ragged glory guitars of “Daddy Learned to Fly” dealing with childhood abandonment, the murder and corruption surrounding a Reverend in “The Wig He Made Her Wear”, “This Fucking Job” sounds like a crotchety latter-day Neil Young tune coupled with “After the Scene Dies” which sounds like Crazy Horse with a dirty South fervent urgency chronicling the deterioration of the good times. With their unparalleled consistency, Drive-By Truckers continue to be not only undeniably relevant on the Southern rock circuit, but they just might be front-runners.

Key Tracks: Daddy Learned to Fly, The Wig He Made Her Wear, You Got Another, This Fucking Job, After the Scene Dies, The Flying Wallendas, Eyes Like Glue

15. Broken Bells- Broken Bells

When Frontman of The Shins James Mercer combined with uber record producer Guru Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton) to create Broken Bells they wanted make sure that this was more than just a casual one-off side project. They wanted this to be an act with staying power and they more than succeeded in their self titled debut. It’s evident from the beginning that Mercer’s indie-pop architecture and Burton’s wizardry behind the control booth are a winning infusion with the lunar strutting “The High Road” with lines to match the positive jam like “The dawn to end all nights, that’s all we hoped it was”. The irresistibly catchy “The Ghost Inside” comes complete with Mercer’s fantastic falsetto and hand claps while a world of disco globes and glass dance floor platforms are resurrected all around him and “Mongrel Heart” sounds like someone turned The Smiths lose in a Manchester discoteca. If Burton and Mercer decide to continue with the Broken Bells venture their future looks fruitful.

Key Tracks: The High Road, The Ghost Inside, Sailing to Nowhere, Mongrel Heart, The Mall & Misery

14. Frightened Rabbit- The Winter of Mixed Drinks

As if Poseidon hand-picked these Scottish gentlemen from the belly of the ocean to bring us landlocked folk rumblings from the sea, sounding lonesome and yet incandescent and mighty as well, Frightened Rabbit’s The Winter of Mixed Drinks is the determination of the human heart battered with the waves of that ocean. From the deep sea fuzz intro of “Things” the album’s flood gates burst open with anthemic moments that although it deals heavily with isolation, ultimately feels triumphant and liberating. “The Loneliness and the Scream” begins with reservation only to explode into a full-throated chest-beating futbol hooligan chanting climax, “The Wrestle” builds from calm waters into a tidal wave coming to shore and the thunderous “Living in Colour” keeps listeners holding on for the white-knuckle oceanic journey. Even luminous ballads like “FootShooter” and “Yes, I Would” seem indomitable and show promise of crashing through barricades into the mainstream. If you’re ever washed ashore on a deserted island by the hands of Poseidon, make sure he at least sends these guys to make your marooning more enjoyable.

Key Tracks: Things, The Loneliness and the Scream, The Wrestle, FootShooter, Living in Colour, Yes I Would

13. The Hold Steady- Heaven is Whenever

The Hold Steady have always thrived on spinning narratives of debauchery in an occasional druggy haze. Not in the overtly hedonistic Sunset Strip excess sense, but rather the hood rats on the run while the Stations of the Cross flash through their narcotically-influenced Catholic-guilt riddled minds type. Though that may sound like their records are heavy or weighty with darkness creeping in from all edges of town, at the heart of their records has always been an endearing and enduring sense of comfort and familiarity. Such is the case on their fifth LP Heaven is Whenever bookended by the rare appearance of tender slide guitar in the opener “The Sweet Part of the City” to the ethereal outro of the closer “A Slight Discomfort” and everything in between falls into place as planned. They may have lost some of their E Street resonance with the departure of keyboardist Franz Nicolay last January however this also allows the guitars more space and gives them a more galvanizing attack. “The Weekenders” has a classic U2 sized arena-rock vibe with frontman Craig Finn dropping knockout lines like, “She said, ‘The theme of this party’s the industrial age and you came in dressed like a train wreck'”. “Hurricane J” is a guitar rave-up up put down while “We Can Get Together” is the closest the band has come to a lullaby with Finn showing affinity for a girl on his mind as well as his record collection singing, “Utopia’s a band, they sang ‘Love is the Answer’ and I think they’re probably right”. Enjoy the warm embrace of Heaven is Whenever, even if it is from a hood rat still on the run.

Key Tracks: The Sweet Part of the City, The Weekenders, We Can Get Together, Hurricane J, Our Whole Lives, A Slight Discomfort

12. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers- Mojo

Tom Petty & his Heartbreakers fly East from their California Byrds-ian nests and first settle down on the Southside of 1950′s Chicago, blues capital of the world at that point for a large chunk of Mojo. The opening track “Jefferson Jericho Blues” sets the scene for the rest of the album as Petty and the boys sound like a crack-ace Muddy Waters band in Rollin’ & Tumblin’ fashion. Multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston blows with the fervor of a mid-1960’s Keith Relf harmonica solo from The Yardbirds, and Petty’s best kept secret weapon also finally lets loose in Mike Campbell, his so called “co-captain”. Always one for restricting himself from reaching the true guitar hero virtuoso status like he’s been owed in favor of a more reserved style, he finally grabs that brass ring blending wildfire frenetic guitar breaks and visceral wild abandon solos. “The Trip to Pirate’s Cove” is a lucid rotisserie rotating song that has Petty meeting up with ghosts and pit-stops of his past before leaving them behind in his buddy’s old Defender with the wink of an eye with lines, “I got a friend in Mendocino/ And it’s gettin’ close to harvest time.” “I Should Have Known It” prominently features Campbell as he has us salivating with a monolithic Zeppelin-esque riff. Definitely one of the heaviest songs done by the band, a pile-driving rocker cut in the vain of “Honey Bee” as Campbell’s slide-guitar playing screeches with feral intensity before the rest of the band joins in and hits the ground running in a frenzied gallop finale. The album’s closer “Good Enough” is an incendiary dirge as Campbell comes completely unhinged with avalanches of Wah-Wah swirling solos around keyboardist Benmont Tench’s cathedral organ before finally setting his frets ablaze until the record finally slows down and comes to a smoldering stop. Petty shows here that he doesn’t have to rely on always recycling his traditional formula. Which in part, is what makes Mojo so good.


Key Tracks: Jefferson Jericho Blues, First Flash of Freedom, Running Man’s Bible, The Trip to Pirate’s Cove, I Should Have Known It, Something Good Coming, Good Enough

11. Local Natives- Gorilla Manor

There’s no shortage of percussion on Local Natives’ Gorilla Manor. Combing African style rhythms with Western world indie-rock and yearning energetic harmonies to make for one of the most compelling debut records this year. From the nocturnal opening track of “Wide Eyes” its evident that of the band is throwing the entire color wheel on their palette for the listeners. “Airplanes” comes off as a strutting vital cacophony of noise and “Sun Hands” comes equipped with tribal drumming before an Isaac Brock/Modest Mouse type freak out at the end. The ultra-addictive “World News” is loaded with so many hooks that it’s hard to get past and “Camera Talk” with its rushes of strings and guitars encapsulate the fervent youth packed into the album as well as the band itself. “Warning Sign” is a solid Talking Heads cover that shows the band wearing its influences on its sleeve and shows that despite their youthfulness, they can show signs of maturity and sophistication beyond their years as well.

Key Tracks: Wide Eyes, Airplanes, Sun Hands, World News, Camera Talk, Who Knows Who Cares

10. The Tallest Man on Earth- The Wild Hunt

Of all the would-be Bob Dylans to come and go over the decades since the early 1960’s, 27-year-old Sweedish-born Kristian Matsson, aka The Tallest Man on Earth (He’s not really the tallest man on the planet, standing only 5’7″) may come the closest to Dylan during his most freewheelin’ years. For his second LP The Wild Hunt, Matsson, like early Dylan is armed again only with an acoustic guitar. It serves him like a fragile blade, delicate and vulnerable yet showcasing the sheer force and authority one man with one guitar alone can have. Matsson’s voice as well at times eerily bears a striking resemblance to an early Dylan in all its Dust Bowl balladeer grandeur. Matsson unravels 10 intimate tales rapt in hopes, fears, doubts, and ambitions where the answers are just blowin’ in the wind of the changing seasons as Matsson sings, “And I plan to be forgotten when I’m gone, yes I’ll be leavin’ in the Fall” as he strolls down that familiar beaten path like other great troubadours, taking the same turn Dylan did on “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”. As far as lyricists go, Matsson remains top shelf quality with lines like, “Oh, when it’s God I see in headlights kneeling down on frozen highways/ And salvation in white knuckles on a wheel/ And the deer is in the audience by the border of the darkness/ where forgiveness grows and slowly winds away.” on “Troubles Will Be Gone”. “King of Spain” is a tale of countryside conquest and amour while tipping the cap to Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather” while “Love Is All” sees Matsson finding it easier walk upon the river than the land he’s been a traveling minstrel on. The album concludes with a rare piano appearance echoing through cathedral halls with the semi-optimistic “Kids On The Run” that sounds like it could have been the skeletal framework for a cut off Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run. With two profoundly moving acoustic masterpieces under his belt, even if he doesn’t make an album in a few years with a full band to record the next “Like A Rolling Stone”, Matsson’s already come a long way.

Key Tracks: The Wild Hunt, Burden of Tomorrow, Troubles Will Be Gone, King of Spain, Love Is All, A Lion’s Heart, Kids On The Run

9. Kings of Leon- Come Around Sundown

Similar sonic landscapes and textures that percolated through out Only By The Night have propagated to the Kings of Leon’s new record Come Around Sundown. It’s evident from the beginning that the band is looking to stay in arena-rock form with the opener “The End” with its amplified drums from Nathan Followill flanked by Jared Followill’s lumbering bass combining together for a brooding crepuscular strut before melding with lead singer Caleb Followill and lead guitarist Matthew Followill’s torrents of guitar attack. One of the more interesting songs in their arsenal on the record is “Radioactive”. Lead by a tense guitar hook of Caleb’s it has a celestial meteoric feel similar to “Sex on Fire”. The anthemic gospel-like chorus is no doubt inspired partly from the Kings religious upbringing with their father Ivan “Leon” Followill who traveled around the deep south as a Pentecostal preacher. It conjures up baptismal images as Caleb wails, “It’s in the water/ it’s in the story/ it’s where you came from/ The sons and daughters/ In all their glory/ It’s gonna shape them/ And when they clash/ And come together/ and start rising/ Just drink the water/ Where you came from”. Where the Kings used to thrive predominantly in high-octane barn-burning songs, they now also flourish in their ability to construct midnight desperation bedroom ballads, such is the case here with “Pyro” and “Pickup Truck”. In “Pyro” you can hear Caleb dealing with maturing issues and imagine him springing up from his slumber in a cold sweat in the middle of the night as he yelps lines like, “All the black inside me/ Is slowly seeping from the bone/ Everything I cherish/ Is slowly dying or it’s gone”. It’s hard to discern whether he is lamentably or defiantly howling the chorus when he states, “I won’t ever be your corner stone”. “Pickup Truck” is continuing in the tradition of the Kings closing their latest albums with beautiful yet aching drifter ballads, similar to “Arizona” and “Cold Desert”. If there is an attempt to bring it all back home and return to their roots on the record it would be the southern clarion-call of “Back Down South”. The album’s centerpiece that’s sure to be a prodigious hit for them like “Use Somebody” was (Perhaps even bigger) is an anthem for the Bible Belt that looks to aim even lower once that belt gets unbuckled by them. Perhaps their most endearing song since “Fans” it’s backed by irresistible hooks of a sunset fiddle and Nathan’s boot-stomping beat as Caleb weaves tales of Americana as effortlessly as Tom Petty. It suggests this song could be heard anywhere from teens on the hoods of their cars on Friday nights, to a music festival audience of 80,000 strong singing along to it, all the way to being blasted on stereos of the most pretentious of hipsters (Though they’d never give you their concession of that). Reaffirmation that the Kings haven’t forgot where it all began for them, and what brought them to the dance. They’re still celebrating and dancing deep into the night on their victory lap.

Key Tracks: Radioactive, Pyro, Mary, Back Down South, No Money, Pony Up, Pickup Truck

8. Josh Ritter- So Runs the World Away

For his fifth studio album So Runs the World Away Josh Ritter continues to be one of the best and brightest of younger upper echelon songwriters. Ritter spreads his wings and takes flight on an album that does not bound him to the earthly domains of his other troubadour peers. Ritter becomes a bard who floats effortlessly through the ether, venturing back and forth through periods of time and space occasionally touching down to deliver captivating fables of majestic grace. Such is the case on “Change Of Time” with Ritter using his masterful strokes painting a devastatingly elegant dreamscape only to be topped with “The Curse”. Who would have thought the most beautiful song of 2010 would be a waltzing piano ballad that’s a love story between a female Museum Curator and an ancient mummified Pharaoh? A Disney-worthy fairytale, “The Curse”, Ritter unravels a romantic tale like the rags of the mummified Pharaoh that ultimately ends in heartbreak in the aging of the woman as the “Dry fig of her heart stops its beating” but not before remembering their time and travels together fondly, “Long ago on the ship/ She asked why pyramids/ He said, ‘Think of them as an immense invitation’/ She asked, ‘Are you cursed?’/ He says, ‘I think that I’m cured’/ Then he kissed her and hoped/ That she’d forget that question”. “See How Man Was Made” soars through clouds buoyed by flourishes of strings while “Another New World” is a saga that sees Ritter take on the guise of a ship’s captain out at sea with his nautical prowess guiding him to new lands. “Folk Bloodbath” is the centerpiece of the album with Ritter taking popular personas from folk and murder ballads with the likes of Delia, Louis Collins, and Stagger Lee with the final results being just as the title suggests, “They buried little Delia in the churchyard deep/ Louis Collins at her head, Stackalee at her feet/ The angels laid them away/ And out of Delia’s bed came briars, out of Louis’ bed a rose/ And out of Stackalee’s came Stackalee’s cold lonely little ghost/ The angels laid them away”. “Long Shadows” is a brief epilogue that’s defiant yet sublime as Ritter states to all his obstacles, “I’m not afraid of the dark”. Ritter has seemingly aced the the territories of confessional singer/songwriter, and yet he still continues to unearth new frontiers for future voyages.

Key Tracks: Change Of Time, The Curse, Folk Bloodbath, Lantern, See How Man Was Made, Another New World, Long Shadows

7. The Black Keys- Brothers

Miami can have LeBron James, 2010’s Brothers proves that The Black Keys are still the pride and joy and best export out of Akron, Ohio. The Black Keys compromising of Singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney have appropriately titled their sixth studio album Brothers. Although they’re not blood-related, the two bicker like brothers and have a brotherly bond that would make most doubt that fact. Another name that could’ve been tossed into the hat for the album is “Akron’s Newest Hitmakers” as The Black Keys busted into the mainstream behind the success of their single, the byzantine-whistling funked-up “Tighten Up” which reached the top of the alternative rock charts, and helped propel the album to #3 on the billboard charts. And the catchy hit-sounding cuts don’t end there. There’s the feral lone-wolf strut of “Howlin’ For You” and the R&B gospel-flavored “Everlasting Light” where Auerbach croons in an affectionate falsetto lines like, “Love is the coal that makes this train roll”. Lyrics that would have even Marvin Gaye bowing down. That’s not to say The Black Keys still haven’t forgot their old tricks and they still unleash fuzzed-out scathing monolithic rockers like “Next Girl” (“My next girl will be nothing like my ex-girl/ I made mistakes back then I’ll never do it again”) and “She’s Long Gone” as well as the ferociously vengeful “Ten Cent Pistol” and the lethal “Sinister Kid” complete with some malevolent slide guitar licks. Even the disarming sunset ballad “These Days” is deceptively ominous as Auerbach wails, “These blood red eyes/ Don’t see so good/ But what’s worse is if they could/ Would I change my ways?” as Carney’s drums continuously rush like the tide to shore before gently rolling back into the ocean. Though they have slightly evolved from their Mississippi Delta blues and proto-rock ammalgamation, they still keep the wild primitive abandon of their earlier records. This is soul blues from another solar system. A two man band has never felt more powerful, and this dynamic duo isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Just try to tell them otherwise.


Key Tracks: Everlasting Light, Next Girl, Tighten Up, Howlin’ For You, She’s Long Gone, Ten Cent Pistol, Sinister Kid, These Days

6. Band of Horses- Infinite Arms

Besides maybe My Morning Jacket, no one really comes close to giving Band of Horses a run for their money when it comes to redefining the sound of Americana rock, blending elements of folk and country among other genres. Bandleader Ben Bridwell has seemingly finally found an outfit of a band he feels most comfortable with. Bridwell is the only remaining original member of Band of Horses as a new five-piece group is set in place for their third LP and major label debut Infinite Arms, their best album yet. “Factory” and “Compliments” opens the album in gripping fashion, as a one two punch. The former serves as a captivating vignette with its lush sweeping arrangements while the march of the latter ultimately remains optimistic as Bridwell croons, “If there’s a God up in the air, someone looking over everyone/ At least you got something to fall back on”. The band flexes its expertise for effortlessly creating celestial ballads like “Blue Beard”, “On My Way Back Home”, “For Annabelle” and the title track of the album. The band takes successful detours as well. “Laredo” sounds like a cut from the aforementioned My Morning Jacket, or at least a track they would’ve killed to have with its positive-jam blood flowing guitars. “Evening Kitchen” is a gentle porch ballad with coral harmonies and “Older” sounds as if The Beach Boys moved from the coast to Nashville and soaked up its music rather than the sun. “NW Apt.” is a rapturous change of pace with its chugging guitars and Friday night house party vibe ready to bust at the seams before the closer “Neighbor” sets in as a venerating halcyon canticle that eventually soars into the stratosphere, nearly achieving the transcendence of their career defining hit “The Funeral”. Infinite Arms is an undeniably enthralling and gorgeous album with tunes that like its cover suggests, are made for big Summer sky nights, and possibly a joint if there’s one handy.

Key Tracks: Factory, Compliments, Laredo, Blue Beard, Infinite Arms, Older, NW Apt., Neighbor

5. The Gaslight Anthem- American Slang

He has a lot of suitors beckoning for it, but if Bruce Springsteen ever passes the torch of “A runaway American dream” it might be right out on the Jersey turnpike to Garden State brethren, The Gaslight Anthem. Their gleaming affection for The Boss has been well established, especially on their 2008 LP The ’59 Sound which sounded like Born to Run with more of a D.I.Y. punk-rock spirit mixed with elements of The Killers’ Sam’s Town that was critically acclaimed and put the band on the map. A follow-up would be under immense scrutiny and pressure to succeed. The band still aims big right out of the gate with the opening title track that has a Rolling Stones “Street Fighting Man” swagger and a fist in the air shout-a-long chorus, “And they cut me to ribbons and taught me to drive/ (In a dream I had, oh in a dream I had)/ I’ve got your name tattooed inside of my arm/ And I called for my father, but my father had died/ While you told me fortunes in American slang”. Frontman Brian Fallon continues the chest-beating choruses defiantly bellowing “So give me the fevers that just won’t break/ And give me the children you don’t want to raise/ And tell me about the cool/ He sings to you in those songs/ If it’s better than my love/ Then bring it on”, on “Bring It On”. Fallon mirrors some of the ragamuffin street poetry of Springsteen’s early recordings on songs like the finger-snaping “The Diamond Church Street Choir” and “The Queen of Lower Chelsea”, which has a classic Americana line, “American girls, they want the whole world/ They want every last little light in New York City”. Songs like “Orphans” and “Spirit of Jazz” sound closer to The ’59 Sound firing on all cylinders like the pistons of a getaway car while “We Did It When We Were Young” plays like “Thunder Road” revisited, looking back on time on the run, echoing the sentiment fondly a young Springsteen sang about it 1975, “We ain’t that young anymore”. If The Gaslight Anthem are as dedicated disciples of The Boss as they seem to be, traveling down the same highways in those getaway cars is going to take them far.

Key Tracks: American Slang, Bring It On, The Diamond Church Street Choir, The Queen of Lower Chelsea, Orphans, Spirit of Jazz, We Did It When We Were Young

4. The National- High Violet

After the success of their 2007 LP Boxer bringing them a larger following, The National seized the opportunity to broaden their palette ever so slightly while still brooding in the dark forests of introspection and doubt where they cut their teeth for their latest output High Violet. Singer Matt Berninger continues to be everyone’s favorite love-tortured poet east of the Mississippi. His signature sneering bedroom baritone is still ominous yet undeniably sensual and will once again send girls (and boys?) into undulating tailspins while brothers and guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner weave sonic landscapes with the alchemy and reverence of The Edge. “Terrible Love” opens with the band rising from the turbulent waters of reverb and feedback and marching into new ornamental territories with Berninger firmly clenching onto his bottle of white wine. “Afraid of Everyone” is intravenously addictive fueled by drummer Bryan Devendorf’s pulsating back-beat with rapid-fire snare shots as Berninger nocturnally croons, “I don’t have the drugs to sort it out”, while the Arcade Fire-esque “Bloodbuzz Ohio” is a homecoming to Ohio where the band’s roots were planted albeit an unsettling one via a swarm of bees. “Runaway” is a gorgeous ballad that’s a lilting carousel with the narrative of a disintegrating relationship of biblical proportions while Berninger stands defiant singing, “I won’t be no runaway, cause I won’t run”. “Conversation 16” is foreboding murder of crows song and yet you can still picture capacity crowds singing the chorus, “I was afraid I’d eat your brains, cause I’m evil!”. With High Violet The National not only equals the majesty of Boxer but they surpass it. High Violet is part anthem, part anti-anthem, part Edgar Allan Poe, all bleeding heart. Wrapped in velvet, fireworks and wine.

Key Tracks: Terrible Love, Afraid of Everyone, Bloodbuzz Ohio, Runaway, Conversation 16, England, Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks

3. Titus Andronicus- The Monitor

An opening recitation of an address from Abraham Lincoln sets the scene for The Monitor. The Monitor in part is a concept record that is loosely based around historical Civil War-era references and narratives, even the album’s title comes from a legendary 19th century U.S. Navy battleship. With all this material one would think the album would be cumbersome, even perhaps a little pretentious but Titus Andronicus have crafted an epic rock opera of sorts that may be the most intricately engaging album of the year. With eight of the ten tracks clocking in at over five minutes (And five clocking in at seven minutes or longer) its an aspiring record that never seems exhausting in its sprawl and remains invigorating in a rampantly thunderous nature. The opener, “A More Perfect Union” is an expansive tempo changing barn-burner with singer Patrick Stickles sounding like a more agitated angst-filled Conor Oberst with a lyrical arsenal to match. With guitars that teeter from slashing punk-rock riff tension to lofty heroic interludes Stickles also tips the cap to fellow Jersey comrade Bruce Springsteen with the line, “Tramps like us, baby we were born to die!”. “A Pot in Which To Piss” follows in similar vein as a nine minute roller coaster with twists, shifts, and bends of gnashing guitars and Honky Tonk pianos as Stickles solipsistic delivery of lines like, “I am covered in urine and excrement but I’m alive” and having it seem as if there’s never been anything more triumphant. “Four Score and Seven” begins another self-loathing narrative before billowing into an anarchistically defiant and bombastic stampede as Stickles viscerally lacerating voice repeatedly howls at its climax, “It’s still us against them”. “Theme from “Cheers”” couldn’t be a more appropriate title with its booze-fueled “Close down the bar” lyrics that sounds as if a writer’s workshop were on a pub crawl as Stickles jubilantly snarls, “So give me a Guinness/ Give me a Keystone Light/ Give me a kegger on a Friday/ Give me anything but another year in exile”. “To Old Friends and New” is a Use Your Illusion I/II worthy ballad that conjures images of Slash playing the guitar solo outside a desert chapel in soaring fashion with an arm-in-arm camaraderie “It’s all right the way that you live” sing-a-long finale. The 14-minute juggernaut closer, “The Battle Of Hampton Roads” is an ambitious literary tour de force that in part is a retelling of an actual Civil War naval battle that never loosens its intense grip on its audience as the outro marches onward like a powerful Celtic dirge and the odyssey ends. The Monitor is a staggering piece of work as it is already great with one listen and yet it only gets better with each new spin. If there are to be more records like this in store in their canon, then gladly salute them and echo their battle cry, “Titus Andronicus forever… and ever”.

Key Tracks: A More Perfect Union, No Future Part Three: Escape From the Future, A Pot in Which to Piss, Four Score and Seven, Theme From “Cheers”, To Old Friends and New, The Battle of Hampton Roads

1. Arcade Fire- The Suburbs

We have a tie for first place! Most individuals associate living in the suburbs as something successful, something to strive for. Usually meaning you have a promising occupation, a wife, 2.5 kids, two + stall garage, dog, backyard, a peaceful neighborhood, the works. Frontman Win Butler however has apparently poured over novels like “The Stepford Wives” or “The Virgin Suicides” too many times peering through the venetian blinds of suburbia and see the darkness and piercing that abyss with a gaze of disillusionment. Arcade Fire’s third album The Suburbs picks up where Neon Bible left off. Youths on the run eventually need to slow down, or stop even. But what happens when that kinetic energy is killed? The internal gears, those getaway pistons can corrode, coated in self-doubt. In the opening title track, Butler finds himself in a suburban jungle dealing with complacency. A deceptively jaunty, nearly Caribbean sounding acoustically strummed track in which he recalls the vibrancy of an unwritten ending, he now seems to feel like he’s embattled in a grainy 1950’s suburbia as he sings, “You always seemed so sure/ That one day we’d be fighting/ In a suburban war/ Your part of town against mine/ I saw you standing on the opposite shore/ But by the time the first bombs fell/ We were already bored”. While down in the trenches however Butler reflects in a moment of contrasting clarity deciding, “So can you understand/ I want a daughter while I’m still young?/ I want to hold her hand,/ And show her some beauty,/ before all this damage is done” before yelping, “Sometimes I can’t believe it/ I’m moving past the feeling”. The opening track melds into “Ready to Start” which has a piano line and chugging pulse that plays like a runaway boxcar train leaving town as Butler displays words of wisdom he has received from “sages” about external forces gunning for him like, “…the businessmen drink my blood/ Like the kids in art school said they would”. Elsewhere the band has never made the dark seem more joyous than in anthems like “City With No Children” and “Half Light II (No Celebration)”. “City…” is propelled by a monolithic over-driven guitar riff that makes you feel like it has enough voltage in it to jump start Butler’s failing car engine on the way to Houston. “Half Light II…” seems to be the sound of a band well aware that it’s dabbling in the timeless fires of some of rock’s finest architects as the song has echoes that resonate as far as U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” or The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” (Undercurrents of the latter can actually be heard in the song as well) as Butler states at the end with a wounded howl, “Oh, this city’s changed so much/ Since I was a little child/ Pray to God I won’t live to see/ The death of everything that’s wild”. Plus there may not be a better Springsteen-esque moment than when Butler sings, “Some people say, we’ve already lost/ But they’re afraid to pay the cost/ For what we’ve lost”. “Month of May” has rampant punk-style revving guitars erupting with the fervor of a fountain of youth while “Wasted Hours” is veiled in a Doo-Wop toe-tapping shuffle that almost recalls simpler times of post-World War II suburbia, at the threshold of the baby-boomer generation while Butler croons the lines, “Some cities make you lose your head/ Endless suburbs stretched out thin and dead”. “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” is a beautiful paean sung wonderfully by Butler’s wife Régine Chassagne which attempts achieving transcendence with its wings built from lush synths as Chassagne sings with her siren wail “Sometimes I wonder if the world’s so small/ That we can never get away from the sprawl/ living in the sprawl/ Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains/ And there’s no end in sight/ I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights”. Just as it seems the Phoenix is about to finally take flight, it slowly falls back to its earthly origins in the title track’s outro reprise. Augmented by dreamscape strings Butler seemingly awakes from his clouded conscience and laments in crushing simplicity, “If I could have it back/ All the time that we wasted/ I’d only waste it again” before finally fading beneath the swell of the mighty sprawl. As impossible as it sounds, The Suburbs is Arcade Fire’s greatest achievement yet.

Key Tracks: The Suburbs, Ready to Start, City With No Children, Half Light II (No Celebration), Suburban War, Month of May, Wasted Hours, We Used to Wait, Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)

1. Mumford & Sons- Sigh No More

They were not only the rookies of the year with their debut of Sigh No More (The album was technically released in 2009 in the U.K. but not till February 2010 here in the States) but it was a year for the lonely anthem and no one did it better than Mumford & Sons. Mumford & Sons comes through the door fists and hearts first sounding as if the Fleet Foxes, Arcade Fire and The Waterboys walked down the street and found a tavern to sink their teeth into and conjured songs of sorrow, endurance and redemption in a manner that can only be described as epic-folk. The opening title track begins in a hymnal four-part harmony “Serve God, love me and mend” lifted from Shakespeare suggesting this will be a rather somber affair until the quartet erupts into an exhilarating boot-stomping surge with a raucous bass drum that sets the template for much of the record. “The Cave” is a jubilant, rebellious tale that thunders into “Winter Winds” that opens with killer alliteration, “As the Winter winds litter London with lonely hearts”. The guys march out of the mighty swell of a storm at sea for some cold landlocked blues before the warm embrace of singer Marcus Mumford as he croons, “But if your strife strikes at your sleep/ Remember Spring swaps snow for leaves/ You’ll be happy and wholesome again/ When city clears and sun ascends”. “Roll Away Your Stone” is another pint-sloshing anthem that sounds as if the band is sailing a mighty ship to the end of the world before going over edge in a white knuckle ride of sheer ebullience. “Little Lion Man” became a huge hit for the band putting them on the map and could turn even places like the Newport Folk Festival into a dance party. “Awake My Soul” is stirring with cup runneth over inspiration before “Dust Bowl Dance” brings in the swift gavel and hand of God to sweep all antagonists from the land. Songs like “Timshel” and “After the Storm” calm the intensity of the storm brewing inside Sigh No More with the former sounding like an aforementioned Fleet Foxes mountain-pass pastoral and “After the Storm” closes in reverent beauty that shows that the band is as sincere as ever playing it close to the chest. Sigh No More evokes almost every kind of intense emotion. As if you’re attempting to read a Victorian romance novel then fixating on the scotch you’ve been steadily swirling and drinking in your other hand pouring and combing over the trials and tribulations of your day, before finally letting all inhibitions go in a state of pure ecstasy. Mumford & Sons have found a fault-line brimming with promise between gracious folk and adrenaline-rushing pulse-accelerating rock and roll. Sigh No More is one of the greatest debuts of all-time and these English lads seem too poised, too genuine and too polite for a sophomore slump.


Key Tracks: Sigh No More, The Cave, Winter Winds, Roll Away Your Stone, Little Lion Man, Timshel, Awake My Soul, Dust Bowl Dance, After the Storm

Chinese Democracy arrives… too late?

Just about everything has been said, negative or positive (Mainly negative) about the Guns N’ Roses album Chinese Democracy. It’s grown so iconic in status due to its delayed release that expectations are sure to crush it into one final pile of oblivion dust. For many they have already pounded down the death nail on Chinese Democracy with the ever-cynical gavel. This is before even giving it a chance to see the light of day, smothering out a breath that’s not even there. As anyone may have been informed or misinformed it’s all public enemy number one’s fault, authoritarian antagonist Axl Rose. Right? Make no mistake about it, this project is and has always been Axl’s baby. Many chastise Axl for the total implosion of the original incarnation of Guns n’ Roses. For this Axl, should definitely shoulder some of the blame since he had most of (Pretty much all in the latter days) the creative control and owns the actual rights to the name “Guns N’ Roses”. The only thing is people singularly blame Axl for that detonation and not the rest of the band. Axl was rapidly evolving creatively, far too fast for the rest of the original members who were still shackled deep in drug addictions and unwillingness to change their sound. Axl had obtained the concept that none of the other members seemingly could grasp and that was that to maintain longevity in the music industry as a timeless act, there has to be something more progressive. You have to be in a constant stasis of becoming as an artist. People are so adamant that Axl  should not carry on with the Guns N’ Roses name without the original members yet they themselves probably couldn’t name the original line-up in entirety. That’s okay, I’m about to do it for those people and catch them up with the “timeless” work the original/Use Your Illusion era members have been up to since Axl’s hibernation from making records some 13 years ago.
First we start with low man on the totem pole, original drummer Steven Adler. Adler was fired from Guns N’ Roses due to being hampered with a drug addiction that effected his playing at shows and recordings. A task that’s pretty impressive, being fired for drug abuse from a band that indulged the most excessively in drugs, perhaps the most in the history of rock and roll. After being fired from Guns N’ Roses, Adler was in several unsuccessful bands that concentrated heavily on trying to rekindle the glory days with countless Guns N’ Roses covers while touring. Along the way he also suffered two drug induced strokes and now suffers with a speech impediment which is prominently displayed in his new career path, convalescing with other Hollywood wash-ups and burn-outs on the Vh1 reality series “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew”, season two. Then there’s the three headed monster of  Use Your Illusion era drummer Matt Sorum, bassist Duff McKagan, and guitarist Slash. After a series of lackluster solo projects the three reunited for a benefit gig and decided to form a band with ex-Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland called Velvet Revolver. The band went on to achieve moderate success with their first album titled “Contraband”. The band released a second album titled “Libertad” which was a far less dedicated effort than their first and was filled with uninspiring generic rockers. Shortly after the band drifted apart and Weiland quit the band stating that he couldn’t work with Ex-Guns members. The band has decided to go on without Weiland but earlier this month they were dropped by their label Sony BMG/RCA records. Perhaps the second most important member of the original Guns N’ Roses line-up was rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin. Stradlin like Axl was an outcast from Indiana and moved to LA to seek fame as a musician. While in Guns N’ Roses he was a primary co-songwriter on several Guns N’ Roses hits with Axl. Izzy left the band in the middle of the Guns N’ Roses Use Your Illusion tour citing being unable to perform with a band that volatile that was still deep in drug binges while he himself was trying to remain sober. He also couldn’t quite relate to the bombast of the Use Your Illusion albums and it showed on his solo albums that were stripped back and far less grand in scope. The albums reviews were favorable, but gained very little fanfare. Keyboardist/Pianist Dizzy Reed is the last member from the Use Your Illusion era band to stick with Axl and his current incarnation of Guns N’ Roses. But all of the departures may not have been the central problem at all involving the delay of Chinese Democracy. The problem may be that Axl could never marry the sound he heard in his head to something of earthly substance. So for the past 13 years Axl has been battling with essentially himself and the sounds he had in his mind.
So here it is, the album that was once thought to never surface finally has. It opens with some brooding atmospherics suggesting there is an ominous storm that’s been distant for so many years ready to explode like a powder keg upon its unsuspecting victim of civilization. Ready to crush and blow away the dust of the dull rustic memorials resurrected for a front man, and for a band that was thought to be dead and gone for good from the music industry. Only a sleeping giant unfortunately for those naysayers. Chinese Democracy comes roaring through the front door with its first in the air without wiping its feet on the ‘Welcome’ mat with a crunching riff from the title track. That goes to show that Axl still knows how to tug on the heart strings of a heavy metal fan or a hard rock fan. It’s all about that killer riff and if you can find it. Then there’s the solace of a reckoning as Axl unleashes the sonic wave of his unholy shriek decimating the landscape like the wheat before the sickle as the band kicks in with an agitated frenzy. The song has the punk attitude of a lost nugget off of Appetite For Destruction. Axl’s baritone hits laced with occasional interjections of his sinuous falsetto mixed into the foreground. The layering of Axl’s vocals runs rampant through out the record, but the guy hasn’t lost a step as he can still rip from his soul the banshee demon wail that gave Guns N’ Roses its signature sound. The rest of the production is hard to describe in brief. Industrial would be a word for some of it, but there are variances that distinguish the songs individually. If anything the glitz, the glam, the decadence, the attitude of LA’s Sunset Strip of the mid to late 80’s is still here. It’s polished but it’s been given a 21st century facelift and bodywork to make it sound modern in these times. The muscular gears of industrial beats combined with layered guitars, orchestrations, and Axl’s fluctuating vocals are the primary make up. But the original Guns N’ Roses street walking jive talking mother fucker swagger is still here. The title track is followed by the side-winding thump of “Shackler’s Revenge” that displays interesting vocal takes from Axl including a deep baritone mixed in with a falsetto once more as he gutturally belows, “I got a funny feeling/ There’s something wrong today/ I got a funny feeling/ And it won’t go away/ I got an itchy finger/ An they’ll be hell to play/ I’m gonna pull the trigger/ An blow them all away”. Axl growls with enough spite to bring a world down to his depths sounding like a modern take on “It’s So Easy”. The gritty shitkickers continue as “Better” follows. At first it sounds like a post-grunge ready for radio standard until the first of two blistering solos hit. Not only are they both destined for plenty of air guitar freak outs, but they are different types of solos. The first being a giant helping of warm noodles to dump in your brain played by Buckethead, while the second is a soaring majestic solo played by Robin Finck another signature calling card of the original Guns N’ Roses records. Axl throws so many hooks into this one song that it’s hard to keep track of all of them. Just as you think the tune is about to lay low, Axl hits his stride with his menacing scream as he yelps, “I never wanted you to be so full of anger/ I never wanted you to be somebody else/ I never wanted you to be someone afraid to know themselves/ I only wanted you to see things for yourself/ All that I wanted was”. From there the album peals back the intensity and delivers “Street Of Dreams”. A song that should come as nothing new to die hard Gn’R fans as it has been played for years at concerts under the working title of “The Blues”. With piano dominating the song we’ve hit the stretch of contemporary Guns N’ Roses power ballads. If we were going by eras of Guns with one album, these would be the songs that would fit in with the juggernaut Use Your Illusion albums. “Street Of Dreams” is classic UYI era Guns with Dizzy Reed’s shimmering Elton John piano playing battling with the soaring guitar solos of Finck and Buckethead for supremacy along with blending Axl’s modern fetish of orchestrations that bleed into several of the tracks on the record. Around the bend is probably the weirdest track on the album “If The World”. The intro incorporates hip-hop beats riding side-car with some Spanish guitar playing by Buckethead ala acoustic guitar with more orchestration found in there as well. Then we hit arguably the centerpiece of the album with the epic “There Was A Time”. Complete with a hallowed halls choir to kick things off, the song is one of regret and showcasing Axl singing of times he wishes he could go back and change some of the things he did, probably personally and professionally, but no longer. The towering swirling song ascends to classic Guns status as the beautiful storm of guitars, piano, keyboards, and orchestral arrangements combine to touch the peak of the mountain where Use Your Illusion epics like “Civil War”, “November Rain”, and “Estranged” formerly made their homes. The personnel on this album is nothing short of astonishing with all of the credits, in the door out the door Guns N’ Roses members, and special thanks from Axl Rose, but this track takes the cake as the complete listing of credits for “There Was A Time” goes as follows:


(Rose, Tobias, Reed)

Guitars: Axl Rose, Buckethead, Robin Finck, Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal, Paul Tobias, Richard Fortus
Drums: Brain, Frank Ferrer
Piano: Paul Tobias
Bass: Tommy Stinson, Chris Pittman (additional)
Keyboards: Dizzy Reed, Chris Pittman, Axl Rose
Orchestra: Marcho Beltrami, Paul Buckmaster
Orchestral arrangement: Marco Beltrami, Paul Buckmaster, Dizzy Reed, Axl Rose, Chris Pittman
Synth Orchestra: Dizzy Reed, Axl Rose, Chris Pittman
Background Vocals: Tommy Stinson, Dizzy Reed, Chris Pittman
Mellotron: Chris Pittman
Drum Programming: Chris Pittman
Choir and Additional Horn Arrangements: Axl Rose, Suzy Katayama
Sub Bass: Chris Pittman
Guitar Solos: Robin Finck, Buckethead
Vocals: Axl Rose
Arrangement: Rose, Costanzo, Caudieux, Beavan
Drum arrangement: Josh Freeze, Caram Costanzo, Brain, Chris Pittman, Axl Rose
Digital Editing: Eric Cardieux, Caram Constanzo, Axl Rose, Sean Beavan, Billy Howerdel
Black Frog Publishing (ASCAP), Steiner Tobias Publishing (ASCAP), LOSINGMYMIND Publishing (ASCAP)

After the lengthy credits you wonder how the song can possibly sound anything like Guns N’ Roses had previously done but the end result is fantastic. With songs as meticulously combed over as “There Was A Time” you begin to see how an album like this would take so long to put together. Axl’s vocal range is again impressive as he swings from quivering falsetto to full blown menacing howl. “Catcher In The Rye” is a melodic song that sounds like Axl wrote it as he was holed up in a log cabin in the mountains by himself (Maybe even clutching the novel itself?). It conjures up images of isolation similar to “Breakdown” off of Use Your Illusion II. “Scraped” sounds like one of several anthems Axl uses to possibly reference the world against his new incarnation of Guns N’ Roses. “Scraped” actually kicks off a trilogy of tunes dedicated to this matter, because one just wasn’t enough. He sings, “Don’t you try to stop us now/ I just refuse/ Don’t you try to stop us now/ Cause I just won’t let you” with the snarling conviction that brought him to the dance. The rocker “Riad N’ The Bedouins” follows with an onslaught avalanche of drums, guitars, and Axl screams. Axl assures that there’s no way anyone of his past foes can stop the fury he’s whipping up in the album. “Sorry” then comes prowling along as the finale to the trilogy having the personal agitation of something like a “Shotgun Blues” or “Get In The Ring”. It’s slow burning pace seems to fit right at home with Axl’s twisted lullabye reverberation singing serenading his opponents to sleep before snuffing them out in the slumber. The brooding track is laced with countless accusations to former friends now bitter enemies it would seem. It’s also a track of defiance on Axl’s part as he states, “You don’t know why/ I won’t give in/ To hell with the pressure/ I’m not cavin’ in.” The chorus Axl assures his detractors “I’m sorry for you/ Not sorry for you/ You don’t know who in the hell to/ Or not to believe.” Ultimately Axl confidently sings, “I’ll kick your ass/ Like I said that I would”. “I.R.S.” follows like a run of the mill rocker that Axl may have off handedly wrote during a bout of litigation since he’s sure to have been tangled up in plenty of them before. The album grand scope truly hits with the final three tracks beginning with “Madagascar”. “Madagascar” is another track that has been played live for years and remains similar to what the masses had heard before. The strength of the track rests heavily on a majestic synth line combined with orchestral swoops as Axl again sings of isolation but also extending an olive branch of sorts to ghosts from his past as he sings, “Forgive them that tear down my soul and bless them that they might grow old/ And free them so that they may know, that it’s never too late.” “This I Love” is classic Axl Rose from the Use Your Illusion era as the intro is a lonely Axl with a piano played expertly by himself as he laments, “And now I don’t know why/ She wouldn’t say goodbye/ But then it seems that I/ Had seen it in her eyes.” The track is another epic ballad that holds it’s own with anything off the Use Your Illusion albums. The track builds from just Axl and piano to sweeping cinematic orchestral arrangements and a searing guitar solo from Robin Finck. Even Axl himself climbs several octaves higher with his vocal attack, and as the track hits its zenith peak it’s sure to raise the hair on some arms before retreating back to Axl sitting alone at the piano once more by himself. The final song is “Prostitute”. A deceptive title that would suggest it to be an eviscerating rocker, but it’s far from that. The track is a cerebral closer that has similar manic undercurrents to that of “Coma”. Actually upon listening to the lyrics Axl sounds as if he is giving the last will and testament to the mystique behind the album Chinese Democracy. He seems to be saying that time is needed for his creations to be fleshed out. He would not let it off it’s leash until he felt it was ready. 13 years later, Axl is finally ready to let go. The send off is a peaceful flourish of piano and orchestration. It seems as if it were meant to be a fitting coda for not only to the old Guns N’ Roses, but their fans and their patience for the release of the record. It has been a 13 year voyage and this was the conclusion, the sound of the burning sun setting, giving way to the cooling night. Like you’re out on a boat at sea surrounded by calming waters. The same waters that were fraught with the ferocious turbulence of Axl’s psyche for years are no longer detrimental. The shore that Axl sings about in “Madagascar” being so far from is now visible.
You are now actually holding a hard copy of Chinese Democracy in your hands. This is no mirage and the odyssey is now over, until you play it over and over like you did with Appetite For Destruction, GnR Lies, and the Use Your Illusion albums. Tomorrow a new sun rises in a world that now has a new Guns N’ Roses record, and tangible proof that a band by that name does still exist. Despite the title of Chinese Democracy, the album focuses far less on worldly matters than dealing with the continuing internal struggle of Axl and his demons. Subjects that were prevalent on the rest of the Guns N’ Roses back catalog. There’s a lot going on in the record. Axl’s over indulgences may drive some fans of the original Guns N’ Roses away (If the wait hadn’t driven them away already) that preferred the stripped down bluesy Stones licks mixed with the Sex Pistols attitude that made Appetite For Destruction such a powerhouse. One thing that has been sorely missing in rock is the dangerous presence of Axl Rose and the moniker of Guns N’ Roses. For those fans that spite Axl and have turned their back, I’m sure that if they did briefly turn back around they would be greeted with a giant middle finger from Axl himself, saying he didn’t need them anyway and this record wasn’t for them. This record is for the die-hards that, “Stuck with Guns N’ Roses, through all the fuckin’ shit!” Those die-hard fans that were willing to wait will be rewarded and satisfied with the record. There is a lot here that is reminiscient of the band of misfits on the LA strip they adored 20 years ago, mixed with the epic journeys of Use Your Illusion I and II that made them world stadium superstars. It also has the potential to lure in a whole new generation of audience raised on contemporary rock radio with Axl’s new indulgences. It’s the sound of Axl finally coming to terms with himself (At least temporarily) and finally able to chart out the map of music that he had seen in his mind for so long. Chinese Democracy isn’t anything ground breaking, it won’t cure cancer or stop world hunger. It won’t challenge the likes of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Highway 61 Revisited for greatest album supremacy, but it is a great hard rock record. Axl shows what can be accomplished with plenty of time, unyielding passion for his vision of a single album, and uncompromising attitude to have this project see the light of day no matter what the critics and mobs say. And that is with the decks stacked and being pushed in a corner, great music, great art can be produced. Next time though Axl, let’s get another one out before 2021, alright?

01. Chinese Democracy*
02. Shackler’s Revenge*
03. Better*
04. Street Of Dreams*
05. If The World
06. There Was A Time*
07. Catcher In The Rye*
08. Scraped
09. Riad N’ The Bedouins*
10. Sorry*
11. I.R.S.
12. Madagascar*
13. This I Love*
14. Prostitute*

Originally posted November 23rd, 2008




Originally posted January 25th, 2009

Bruce Springsteen has always had a firm grasp on Americana. It seems that way more so than ever since the turn of the century. He has reunited with the E Street Band on numerous ventures in the last decade, beginning with a reunion tour in 1999 lasting into 2000. In 2002, in the aftermath of the events of 9/11, Bruce and the E Street Band gave us their first album together in 18 years with the reflective modern-day masterpiece ‘The Rising’. It was requiem for a nation shrouded in grief. Bruce had his ear tilted towards the American psyche, more specifically, what the American psyche needed. He was the one guy that could build a concept record off the ruin of 9/11, and make it blossom. Where as most artists would come off as pretentious in a heavy-handed manner, it felt more sincere coming from Bruce, since the heavy activity of 9/11 took place right in his backyard. With one hand firmly on the pulse of the nation, and the other gripping the neck of his Fender Telecaster, Bruce was more vital than ever to the frontier of America. It cemented the return of, and the importance of him and the E Street Band in American music. The band reconvened with Bruce in 2007, when his hand was forced by the continuing inadequacies of former President George W. Bush’s administration to create ‘Magic’. An album that was laced with under currents of the political landscape masked in Bruce’s pop oriented songwriting, the muscular sound of the E Street Band, and the layered production of producer Brendan O’Brien. It was an album that didn’t strike an immediate chord, but grew more impressive and decisive with each listen on the stance of Bruce on current America. 16 months later Bruce returns with his third record with the E Street Band this decade in ‘Working On A Dream’. For a craftsman on the level of Bruce, this is something unheard of, usually taking years between the release of records to get them situated. Releasing two albums in this little of time apart is something that he hasn’t done since releasing his first album ‘Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.’ and his second album ‘The Wild, The Innocent, & The E Street Shuffle’ in the same year back in 1973. Bruce himself was at first hesitant at the idea, but producer Brendan O’Brien (Who also produced his two previous albums with the E Street Band in ‘The Rising’ and ‘Magic’), pushed him to pursue a new album. There was enough material left over from the ‘Magic’ sessions to begin crafting another album. Bruce agreed and the E Street Band was called in as reinforcement. Bruce then made a statement on his website, which stated, “Towards the end of recording ‘Magic’, excited by the return to pop production sounds, I continued writing. When my friend producer Brendan O’Brien heard the new songs, he said, ‘Let’s keep going.’ Over the course of the next year, that’s just what we did, recording with the E Street Band during the breaks on last year’s tour. I hope ‘Working on a Dream’ has caught the energy of the band fresh off the road from some of the most exciting shows we’ve ever done. All the songs were written quickly, we usually used one of our first few takes, and we all had a blast making this one from beginning to end.” Bruce and his band stand at a crossroads staring down every path invigorated with a new sense of hope, arriving just in time for the changing of the guard in America with new President of the United States Barack Obama now in office. No doubt the album’s sparks and kinetic energy were kick started, and arose from the formula of an election in which the United States has more invested in and more at stake in than ever, its future. Springsteen being the blinding truth-seeker he is, saw the weight of importance, going to bat for Obama on the campaign trail at several political rallies. The roots for the push to rapid release the new record really took shape and gained momentum when Springsteen stated, “I don’t know about you, but I want my country back. I want my dream back. I want my America back.” After Obama secured the presidency of the United States, it appeared as if a dream had been realized in some form. This was Bruce’s cue to finish cranking out an album that would read like a tributary of the times. Bruce goes mining through his past sounds and has struck gold once again.

‘Working On A Dream’ continues in the same vein as ‘Magic’ as Springsteen continues to follow his pop sensibilities in both songwriting and song-craft. The album opens with the epic gunslinger ballad ‘Outlaw Pete’. At eight minutes long it’s one of the longest songs Springsteen’s ever written and it ranks right up with his best monumentally lengthy tunes. With a rush of cellos bursting through the scenery its clear that Springsteen has returned to his love of layered orchestrations that really went missing after ‘Born To Run’. Another thing apparent is Springsteen has returned to the arena of his Roy Orbison influenced singing where he carries his voice several octaves higher, mixing it in with the gruff drawl that has found its way into so many of his records as well. This is most apparent where the chilling breakdown happens near the end when Springsteen sounds like he’s at the bottom of a wild west canyon as his vocals boom echoing, “Outlaw Pete, Outlaw Pete, can you hear me?” The organ gives the moment a particularly ethereal feel. A moment that suspends you in time, as the rest of the band re-enters the fray galloping to a frenzied crescendo. From there, Bruce and the E Street Band let the hatches fly off with the surging optimism with ‘My Lucky Day’. Some of Bruce’s songs are so great musically you can get the scenery without even hearing the lyrics and this is the case here. There is the sunrise of hope as Roy Bittan’s vibrant bouncing piano gives way to Bruce who’s singing for miles and miles. It’s classic ‘glory days’ E Street sound. The song is massive with rich harmonies from Bruce and Steven Van Zandt and just when you need it, as if on cue, Clarence Clemons taps the nerve with a burst of his signature saxophone howl. The title track follows with lush layers of  guitar that cool from the burst of ‘Lucky Day’ to a confident stroll down main street. Springsteen rolls up his sleeves and presents a reaffirmation of the positive outlook flooding the album, with Bruce even letting his guard down to break into a whistle solo. Eat your heart out Axl! The song suggests that a “dream” realized is definitely possible, but you need to work on it, and you need to help others work on it in sense of unity. He then returns to his classic operatic wail with the fantastic ‘Queen Of The Supermarket’. Bruce plays the roll like so many of his characters watching his love interest from a far in a voyeuristic yet romantic fashion, while he remains a ghost or an apparition to her for the most part. It’s a glorious tragedy of the unattainable where the smallest of things can bust all of the seams of complacency such as when he turns back for one moment to catch her smile and, “It blows this whole fuckin’ place apart.” It’s also here where the orchestrations add to the atmosphere and several others dressing up the album’s songs like mini-operas. This is prevalent on tracks like ‘This Life’ and ‘Kingdom Of Days’ as well. ‘This Life’ has signatures that mirror that of ‘Your Own Worst Enemy’ off ‘Magic’ with a classic sweeping majestic E Street encore finale bow flanked by a tremendous exit solo from Clarence. ‘What Love Can Do’ was actually the first song that was made for the record as Springsteen stated, “During the last weeks of mixing ‘Magic’, we recorded a song called “What Love Can Do.” It was sort of a “love in the time of Bush” meditation. It was a great track but felt more like a first song of a new record rather than something that would fit on ‘Magic’.” ‘Good Eye’ is a gritty blues rocker, which may be the most surprising on the album. It’s the first time on record Bruce has gone for a straight-ahead blues track with a standard 12-bar blues format. Along with its bluesy roots romp it has the rough weathered distortion vocals of Springsteen causing him to sound more like Buddy Guy than Orbison. Throw in some dirt road harmonica and the song sounds like it rose up out of the Mississippi deltas with the sheer archaic power of the blues journeymen that began laying the foundation of rock and roll over 80 years ago. Continuing his genre jumping, he hits with the country styling of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. Not to be confused with the psychedelic safari of the Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, Bruce sounds like he made the subtle railroad traveling song for Bob Dylan’s ‘Nashville Skyline’. ‘Life Itself’ is perhaps the darkest track on the album with its ominous meditation speaking of the every day hardships of life. Once surrounded in riches and wealth, the character is torn down into situated rubble. He is dipping his feet into the black end of the waters that populated ‘The River’ as Springsteen contemplates with lines like, “Why do the things that connect us, slowly pull us apart?”. The original album closer is the most fragile with ‘The Last Carnival’. The track is used as a moving tribute to fallen comrade ‘Phantom’ Dan Federici, the prominent organist and original member of the E Street Band who had been playing with Bruce for nearly 40 years, died last April after losing his lengthy battle with melanoma. This created a fragility that rattled the band, as it always seemed like a bulletproof invincible force that could last forever as the band remained in tact for decades with relatively few tragedies in the family. But like they do better than any other act, they have pulled together and have risen above the tragedy of Federici, strong as ever. Unlike most of the rest of the album, the arrangement on the track is rather sparse. It’s a fitting coda to their fallen band member and friend as Bruce sings of the bright lights and fanfare of the carnival with the E Street Band having to move on down the road without him. Dan plays the role of Billy, whose journey is now at an end, and is left behind but his spirit and legacy remain in tact. It would seem to mirror the same Billy who was the main attraction of Springsteen classics like ‘Wild Billy’s Circus Story’ and ‘New York City Serenade’. The layered chorus ending serves as a hymnal escort for Federici’s legacy into the heavenly skies. The bonus track is well worth the wait entitled ‘The Wrestler’ taken from the Darren Aronofsky film by the same name. It seems like when directors ask Bruce to pen a great tune for their movies, he does so effortlessly. The poetry pours from Springsteen like the blood spilled by protagonist Mickey Rourke in the movie who is a pro wrestler past his prime, broken down by disintegrating family relationships, coupled with steroid and drug abuse trying to make a living. The track is beautiful with just Bruce on acoustic guitar accompanied by a solemn piano (also played by Springsteen himself) where he unveils some of his most heartbreaking lyrics like, “I always leave with less than I had before/ Then you’ve seen me/ Bet I can make you smile when the blood it hits floor./ Tell me friend can you ask for anything more?” The broke and beaten protagonist declares that his only faith left is, “In the broken bones and bruises I display.” The track is a truly devastating masterpiece of self-defeating fashion. Like so many of Springsteen’s lost protagonists in his musical canon, this one stands among his best. An elegant finale to Springsteen’s fantastic opus.

Several influences were involved in the DNA of the record. Whether it’s the election of a new president and optimism of America’s future, a personal satisfaction of a gratifying career with the most reliable backing band on the planet balanced with a fulfilling family life, or the continuing ability to outperform any other act live, Bruce’s mission statement is clear. Change is coming, or at least the hope of change is coming for America and its citizens. It can’t be taken for granted however, and it must be done in a unified effort. This record stands as a soundtrack, as reassurance that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Bruce and the E Street Band charge into the new year with bright rays of light that would probably seem contrived were they to come from a less accomplished and experienced group of musicians. Were it someone else, the passages may fall on deaf ears, but decades of credibility have made Bruce a worthy preacher. Once a kid himself that believed rock and roll could save lives and send a positive message, Bruce is now instilling that same hope in the youth generations later. He has been more involved with the future landscape of America than any of his peers. An upcoming performance at the Super Bowl followed by a blockbuster world tour supporting the album will certainly keep Bruce on the worldwide stage for awhile to come, and there will be more people listening to what he has to say now more than ever. With a perverse dedication to his craft, his fans, and his homeland it’s easy to see that Bruce has clearly grabbed the torch as the conscience of not only rock and roll, but popular American music in general. There are no signs of him slowing down, it seems he has a firm grip on that torch and won’t be giving it up anytime soon. As long has Bruce has that torch burning bright, we’re all better off for it.

1. Outlaw Pete*
2. My Lucky Day*
3. Working on a Dream*
4. Queen of the Supermarket*
5. What Love Can Do
6. This Life*
7. Good Eye*
8. Tomorrow Never Knows*
9. Life Itself
10. Kingdom of Days*
11. Surprise, Surprise
12. The Last Carnival*
13. The Wrestler*