Notes From The Flip Side: 02.17.2002
Figures. It's February of 2002, my back is killing me and I'm just now getting around to posting my list of 2001's best records. This means that everything is perfectly normal; thanks for asking.
The move was chaotic and hectic. Alex drove down from L.A. to help and we wound up drinking at the bar where Mitch works. Several shots of bourbon later, Alex and I were scuffling in the back of a cab while Jenn and her sister tried to calm us down.
Next thing I know, it's 1:30 a.m. and Alex is staggering down the street to Sparky's, the local pub in my old neighborhood, only to run into Gar Wood and one of Gar's friends. Alex being Alex, he promptly attacked them, fell down and started laughing. For the record, all of this was in good fun and all of the people involved were tremendous sports about it.
The next day, Alex and I shook it off and moved heavy furniture with the help of Jim and Porter. That was over two weeks ago. Jenn and I are still settling in here - there's still an immense amount of work that we need to do. However, I can actually start working on stuff again ... like the Clamor article I have coming due and the American Nightmare interview.
So anyway, these were my favorite albums of 2001. I don't claim that they're the best - these are just the albums that rocked my world the hardest and that I listened to most in 2001. I finally gave up on arbitrary numbering schemes - this isn't a Top 10 or Top 20. There are as many records on here as I felt were genuinely worth writing about. I'll freely admit that I kept revising this list after 2001 was over, adding some albums that I hadn't yet heard or overlooked and removing some that I thought were better than they proved to be after a separation of some months. Enjoy.
- American Nightmare "Background Music" (Equal Vision)
This record is leagues beyond blistering hardcore. It starts at blind rage and promptly gets more intense. The music consists of breakneck tempos, crunchy guitar riffs and crushing breakdowns; the lyrics consist of self-directed anger. There's nothing standard or bland about this album; it's historically and musically informed by a diverse variety of influences, most of which aren't overt. In short, this album is yet another example of how bands destroyed the boundaries of punk and hardcore in 2001.
- American Steel "Jagged Thoughts" (Lookout!)
American Steel's new record is a clear continuation of "Rogue's March" which in turn represented the band's progression from the first album. With that said, the only way I can describe this album is to say that it's this year's stylistic equivalent of "London Calling." American Steel explodes the definitions of contemporary punk with a record that sounds as though it could have been released alongside the best work of the Clash or Elvis Costello, with songs about love and loneliness and music that pays tribute to punk's reggae and ska roots.
- Bane "Give Blood" (Equal Vision)
This album is enough to make every boy band with guitars (read: pop-punk) in the world shrivel up in fear and involuntarily tighten their collective sphincters. This is what punk could - and, honestly, probably should - sound like - menacing, fierce, committed and heartfelt. However, if you just listen to the album without reading the lyrics, you're missing the point. These songs ripple with muscle yet still look inward to examine why and how we became so weak, why we amuse ourselves to death, why we talk so fucking loud but never seem to say much of anything at all. This album is decidedly angry and does everything it can to shake anyone who hears it out of their apathetic state. However, like most of the other albums that grab me, it's also optimistic and hopeful, finding joy in the little things - good friends, goodbye hugs and having the strength to take a stand - even if it might be your last. Like the man sang in "Ante Up," "The key is having the guts to raise with the second highest hand." And those are some words to live by.
- Blueline Medic "The Apology Wars" (Fueled By Ramen)
There are so many things to buy these days. We can buy things to make our lives better, chemicals to change who we are and compounds and surgery to change how we look. We can buy the newest fashions so that we can be sure to fit in, regardless of how we really think or feel. In fact, if you just spend enough money, you can effectively buy enough that people will like you just because you're exactly like them. And every word of this album seems to drip with contempt for people who choose to live - if you can, in fact, call it living - like that. It attacks all the ways we can transform ourselves into someone else; perhaps even someone we might like better. Insightful, critical lyrics supported by a melodic punk foundation make this one of the most significant punk albums of the year. Rather than engage in sophomoric whining like so many other purported punk acts, Blueline Medic analyzes the root causes of our insecurity and dissatisfaction and concludes that our only solution lies in transformative revolution. Fucking brilliant.
- Fairweather "If They Move ... Kill 'Em" (Equal Vision)
So let me get this straight - in 2001, a group of hardcore kids in their early 20s drop an album that distills the past decade of alt music (including shoegazing guitar rock ca. 1990-1991 and East Coast hardcore) into an incredibly sonically rich record that sounds like a learned mixture of Lifetime and Ride? I wouldn't have believed it if someone had predicted this would happen but that's precisely what Fairweather did and I fucking love every second of it. This album spent more time in my CD player than any other record except Furious IV's new album.
- Furious IV "... is that you?" (Pointed Finger)
Last year, the demos that would later become part of this record made my Top 10 list. This year, I wound up putting the record out (thus making it the most expensive record I ever bought). Words really can't describe how I feel about this record, but I've listened to it a few hundred times and I still sing along with these anthemic songs, one finger in the air, screaming as loud as I can.
- Hot Water Music "A Flight And A Crash" (Epitaph)
Much like American Steel's "Jagged Thoughts," this album polarized a fan base which is why it's all the more interesting that these bands toured with each other this year. In both cases, some fans have the same problem - the album doesn't sound the same; the band grew and progressed. "A Flight And A Crash" sounds like much more of a straight-forward rock record than their previous work, but maintains all of the stylistic traits that distinguish their oeuvre - the twin shouted vocals, the rhythm section's jazz-influenced propulsion, the ringing guitar riffs. In some ways, the song structure sounds less complicated (in other words, it seems slightly less progressive than "Fuel For The Hate Game," for example) but this also represents a step forward; HWM explored complicated musical structures over the course of several albums and thoroughly plumbed the depths of emotional, jazz-influenced post-hardcore. Their exploration of simpler structures promises to be just as interesting as their previous albums and may even yield more stirring results. All I know is this - "Paper Thin" means more to me than any other song I heard this year and I freely admit that this effect is a result of my personal experience with hospitals and my own fear of death in such a cold, heartless, antiseptic environment. However, that suggests to me that their work to come may surpass anything they've done to date. "AFAAC" is a great record and stands quite easily on its own merits; however, what may be even more interesting about this album is what it portends for the future.
- Jedi Five "Relentless" (Hell Bent)
I don't even remember where I heard about this band but I picked up a copy at Off The Record to give it a listen. I was - and still am - blown away. Guitars that sound like the bastard offspring of Dillinger Four and Lifetime, staggering down the street, drunk on whiskey and regret. Shouted vocals that call and respond to each other. While the band loads their songs with hooks, they aren't particularly poppy - the music simply sounds too rough, too unpolished and too genuine. And perhaps that's exactly why I like them - it sounds like four friends with three chords between them who just wanted to make some noise and sing songs about their lives. It sounds true. It sounds honest. It sounds real. It sounds fucking great.
- Kings Of Convenience "Quiet Is The New Loud" (Astralwerks)
Sad bastard, no self esteem rock for the shoegazing set. This record is so quiet and downbeat that it makes Dashboard Confessional sound like The Who at Leeds (while acting like Townshend at Monterey and Woodstock). This may sound like a bad thing but this record is actually quite astonishing. Plaintive vocals, gently strummed and picked guitars (think Red House Painters and pre-drum and bass Everything But The Girl), and lyrics that make me remember how lame, awkward and uncertain I felt in high school. Some of the themes seem a bit juvenile (witness "Winning A Battle, Losing The War" - "Even though she's only given me pain / I'll be on my knees to feed her" ... anyone feeling dramatic yet?) but I can't deny that they're eloquently phrased and executed.
- Ted Leo/Pharmacists "The Tyranny Of Distance" (Lookout!)
I'm embarrassed to admit that this album sat idly by while I listened to the new Ann Beretta record and tried to convince myself that the AB disc was better than it was. It wasn't. And this album suffered for it until the first week of 2002 when I FINALLY listened to it. And now I'm kicking myself. I'm convinced that: 1. Ted Leo is a genius. 2. Chisel was just exercise. These exquisitely crafted songs are mod-ish and Byrds-y, like what might have resulted if "Rubber Soul"-era Beatles had been able to hear The Jam. They're all soaked in long-gone pop styles, reconstructed to fit Leo's vision of jangly guitar rock, but they're all majestic and honest; they all sound far more passionate and forthright and ... well, real than the latest indie sensation. Frankly, this album has spent more time in my CD player lately than anything but One Time Angels; almost everything else suffers by comparison.
- Longshot "One Small Voice" (Rise)
Rise Records is a ridiculous rock powerhouse, releasing one great punk album after another this year. I only heard two of them in their entirety but both of them rocked my world. Longshot put six songs of graceful, throaty, power chord-driven emo on this disc and any one of them could make a career for a lesser band. For Longshot, these songs just seem to be the tip of the iceberg.
- National Skyline "This=Everything" (File 13)
This album begins with nearly everything that was good about atmospheric British pop music in the early 1990s (see: ethereal vocals, ambient stylings, droning guitars, ringing feedback), combines it with avant-garde elements and then wallows in shimmering, radiant - almost hallucinogenic - beauty (think Sea And Cake, Tortoise, Joan Of Arc and Tristeza and you're on the right track). It's spare music, sometimes knocking on dub's door in its use of breakbeats and hypnotic basslines (and nodding at electronic music as it passes by), but also delves into grinding guitar leads every so often. These songs ache and yearn, they linger in the room and smoke too many cigarettes - but they also resonate for hours.
- One Time Angels "Sound Of A Restless City" (Adeline)
Ringing guitars. Power chords. Shouted, hoarse vocals. A sense of resistance against impossible odds. This album is the sound of having one shot and choking every last bit of possibility out of it because it's the only chance you've ever had ... and the only one you're likely to see. The lyrics are poetry - abstract enough to be beautiful, concrete enough to mean something, although that meaning will likely be different for every listener. From where I sit, this album is so ridiculously hopeful and soaring that it makes me cry, particularly "Rose Carnation" which is easily one of the finest songs ever recorded.
- Owen "Self-titled" (Polyvinyl)
I adored American Football and considered their only full-length one of the single greatest late night albums I've ever heard. With Owen, Mike Kinsella (Owls, Joan Of Arc, Cap'n Jazz) returns with what amounts to a solo record consisting of stately, graceful songs that are perfect listening when the hours grow late. It's as if Kinsella removed American Football's jazz elements but retained the elements of melancholy pop which made those songs so touching. While I love Cap'n Jazz's sense of play and whimsy (even though I discovered them long after the fact) and appreciate Joan Of Arc's inventiveness and exploration, Owen's songs are nearest to my heart and never fail to satisfy that nagging musical itch that kicks in at around 3 a.m. when time seems to slow down.
- Pezz "With Everything We Got" (Soul Is Cheap)
I must note at the outset that I consider both Marv and Ceylon to be friends of mine, that I have the utmost respect for what they do and how they do it and that both of them have either written an article for or are in the process of writing an article for the zine and site. However, this album is still an incredibly intense vision of emotionally-driven thrash and hardcore at the beginning of the millennium. These ringing, heartfelt songs aren't too far removed from the D.C. tradition in style or politics, yet still resonate with other influences - Leatherface, a slew of post-core contemporaries. The thing that interests me most about this album is that it so willfully and gleefully crosses over arbitrary musical boundaries. It careens between hardcore ("I Liked Your Rough Draft Better"), thrash ("Thanks And Praises"), punk ("Sleeping Tiger"), emo ("What If Someday Never Comes") and reggae ("Voices In The Wilderness," which is also the name of a social justice organization that Ceylon is involved with) while stomping out the lines we've drawn to segregate musical styles. You can hear elements of virtually every musical style in every song - country, jazz, straight-ahead rock 'n' roll. Frankly, albums might be less boring if more bands allowed their influences to shine through like Pezz does. Unfortunately, Pezz broke up, so this is their final record, but it's good to know that they saved their best for last.
- Saint Etienne "Interlude" (Sub Pop)
Maybe I'm letting my love for Saint Etienne as a band and my appreciation for their willingness to experiment to get in the way, but - yet again - a Saint Etienne album makes my list, and it's a collection of outtakes and B-sides to boot. Then again, the band's whimsical fancy makes even tracks that didn't quite fit on a record (and honestly, most of these songs would have sounded very out of place on last year's "Sound Of Water") worth hearing. They aren't breaking more avant-garde ground on this release; instead, it's largely more of the same cosmopolitan pop that they've been creating for several years now. It's polished and shimmering music, carefully crafted and meticulously executed. However, the most notable track on this release may be the trance remix of "Lose That Girl" - it effectively reimagines a song from "Good Humor" as the centerpiece of a full-blown Paul Oakenfold DJ set; in other words, it features pulsing basslines, ethereal washes of sound, synthesized blips and twitters, and building snare rolls, closing this collection of odds and sods out in unexpected style.
- Small Brown Bike "Dead Reckoning" (No Idea)
The Bike's churning, grinding guitar rock lurches along like a car running low on oil. The engine catches and, just when you think it has seized up for good, it crashes back into operation. These 11 songs always surprise, always engage and never fail to move me. They're personal without being maudlin, angry without growing bitter, sentimental without being sappy. These songs have come to terms with life - its joy and sorrows. They don't flinch, they don't turn away and they don't give up. Ever.
- Strike Anywhere "Change Is A Sound" (Jade Tree)
In which five punks intertwine the personal and political, providing a passionate musical reminder that the two are inseparable, that our lives shape our politics and that our frustrations become the causes that we fight for ... and sometimes die for.
- Submission Hold "Sackcloth And Ashes, The Ostrich Dies On Monday" (Ebullition) / Fugazi "The Argument" (Dischord)
Writing about these records at the same time feels like cheating but I can't help but associate these albums with each other, perhaps because they are so unlike anything else on this list. They're also somewhat kindred spirits in that they are the side of punk that is all too frequently and conveniently ignored in the seemingly constant effort to package punk rock as something marketable and fit for Spin magazine covers. Both of these albums are political statements ranging from how the bands created and released them to what the songs address. They are not easy to listen to; these are not trivial little pop songs about nothing much at all. The songs on both records are dissonant and frequently grating; they most closely resemble aural sandpaper. Guy and Ian's guitar interplay on "The Argument" - while admittedly melodic and catchy at times - most frequently sounds like a machine grinding to a halt. Submission Hold combines soaring, almost operatic vocals with an eclectic blend of instrumentation and musical styles ("Turpentine" sounds like it takes its cue from traditional Mediterranean folk music) ... and then translates it all into a lingua franca for hardcore. Both Fugazi and Submission Hold are creating punk music, but their vision of punk extends quite dramatically beyond the marketable fringe. These songs - and, perhaps more to the point, these bands - continue to challenge the status quo in unique ways, mostly by upsetting the apple cart of expectations for what punk should sound like.
- Thursday "Full Collapse" (Victory)
I didn't hear a better album than this in 2001. Passionate, dramatic, emotional, theatrical - this is post-hardcore as Grand Guignol theatre while Ian Curtis watches from an otherwise empty box seat. It's melodic, driving, cathartic and prone to outbreaks of fury, rage and despair which inevitably give way to bitter understanding, resignation and, finally, hope.
- Unitas "Porch Life" (No Idea)
When I first picked this disc up, I was really underwhelmed. However, over the past few months, it's really grown on me. It's not the music so much as it is the sense of purpose. These songs are slightly jaded; they've been places and seen things, done things. They're all too painfully aware of how hollow punk can seem these days. And they're mad as hell about it. Falling somewhere between straightforward rock and No Depression C&W (think Son Volt / Wilco), Unitas' music is as direct and unambiguous as their ideas - if you miss their point, you probably wouldn't notice a brick falling on your head. While the music may not be especially subtle, it's immensely effective at communicating these notions, and heartening to see a band forgo complication in favor of clarity, especially when that clarity in turn yields what may yet be a new approach to punk.
- Watch It Burn "Radio Pollution" (Rise)
The first few seconds of this album are nothing but bass, a complicated line that sets the melody for the song. Watch It Burn's guitars seem to act more as rhythm instruments and while the drums set and keep time, they also swing in a jazzy post-punk mode. The key to this record isn't describing the components - it's listening to the sum of the parts. It all adds up to an album that looks for solace and redemption amongst friends and succeeds in carving out a space of safety for a little while.
- Zero Zero "A.M. Gold" (Jade Tree)
10 years ago, I couldn't get enough of the Charlatans UK, the Stone Roses, Primal Scream, Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets and the rest of the baggy bands. All of them looked like victims of an explosion in a paint store who wrapped themselves in rugs to ward off the cold and all of them sounded new. Fast forward to 2001. Ari Katz, former Lifetime frontman, emerges from wherever with a band consisting of himself, Lifetime's Dave Idea and Miss TK, who happens to be married to Ari. I expected punk (cf. Kid Dynamite). What I got was something better. "A.M. Gold" is an unabashed pop record, filled with blips and twitters, jangly Madchester guitar rock and hints of electronic dance music. It sounds joyous and happy. It sounds like crushing on someone who you hang out and laugh with, especially when they don't know that you like them. It sounds like a sunny Sunday morning drive with fresh-brewed coffee, the top down and the radio on (in the best Jonathan Richman-influenced sense of the phrase). I couldn't have asked for anything more.
I can't even begin to write about my favorite shows of the year, but here's a list of the bands whose shows kicked my ass:
- American Nightmare
- American Steel
- The And/Ors
- Dillinger Four
- Furious IV
- Hot Water Music
- The Neighbors
- One Time Angels
- Run For Your Fucking Life
- Spare Change / Rochelle, Rochelle
- The Tori Cobras
- The Weakerthans
I couldn't have asked for a year that provided better music than 2001 did. Honestly, I don't think I would have known it was even possible.
Gunmoll, "Anger Management In Four Chords Or Less"; Waterdown, "Never Kill The Boy On The First Date"; Kosher, "Self Control"; AM/FM, "Getting Into Sinking"; New End Original, "Thriller"; Screaming Fat Rat, "Idiomatic Breakdown"; Alkaline Trio, "From Here To Infirmary"; Saves The Day, "Stay what You Are"; Liars Academy, "No News Is Good News"
Lewis Shiner, "Glimpses"; Daniel Sinker, ed., "We Owe You Nothing - Punk Planet: The Collected Interviews"; Marguerite Duras, "The Ravishing Of Lol Stein"; John Strausbaugh, "Rock Til You Drop"
Italo Calvino, "t zero"; J.P. Donleavy, "A Fairy Tale Of New York"