Archive for December 28th, 2009

The Captain Discusses Modern Rock 2009

Just like last year, I’m devoting the next four days to discussing my two yearly Modern Rock discs.  Started back in 2002, this year marks the eighth year for Niks Piks.

The eighth installment of Modern Rock ended up in a much different place than where it started.  Music in the first half of 2009 was largely dominated by female singers.  By June it was starting to look like I’d have to rename my disc Lilith Fair ’09…

But then the gentlemen came out of the woodwork in the latter half of this year and managed to make a very strong showing.  Many of the slower tracks I had selected were replaced with more straight ahead rock songs.  As a result Modern Rock 2009 is heavier than discs from years past.  As it turns out, this was a good counter-balance to the mellower tone in my other disc this year, Modern Rock Covers.  But more about that Wednesday.

Once again, I’m breaking Modern Rock 2009 into two parts and including the cover art of the album of origin for each track.  So without further ado, here are the first ten tracks.

1.  There’s No Secrets This Year – Silversun Pickups

The first track of 2009 disc is also the first track of the album I was most anticipating this year.  Back in 2007 I was obsessed with the Silversun Pickups.  Their debut album, Carnavas, was by far my favorite that year and their concert in Tampa was by far the best I saw  in 2007.  This left me both excited and nervous for their sophomore effort, Swoon.  So many great bands this decade, from Arctic Monkey to Cold War Kids, followed up their amazing first album with a mediocre second album.  I was worried that the Pickups would fall prey to this curse.  Amazingly, their follow-up was every bit as strong as the original.  While I really enjoyed their first single, Panic Switch, it was this song that really stood out to me.  So for the second time in three years the swirling guitars of the Silversun Pickups start us out.  And I just love the message of the chorus; There are no secrets in 2009.

2.  Heads Will Roll – Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Yeah Yeah Yeahs were definitely the biggest surprise of the year.  Their third studio album, It’s Blitz, should by all accounts be terrible.  In the midst of ego clashes within the band, lead singer Karen O declared that the band would be retreating to a desert studio to record a dance album.  Forcing guitar prodigy Nick Zinner to learn the synthesizer doesn’t exactly sound like a recipe for success.  And yet the resulting album is arguably their best and definitely my favorite.  Just like in 2006, I had a really hard time choosing between their two singles.  That time I chose the first and lived to regret it, so this time I’m going with the second single.  While this track had one of the best music videos of the year, it was the darker synth beat that eventually won me over.  Not sure where the YYYs will head from here, but I hope they keep pushing the envelope with such style.

3.  Heavy Cross – Gossip

Gossip is a band that I was determined not to like.  They seemed way too calculated to be so sloppy, and I read way too many articles about plus-sized lead singer Beth Ditto that wouldn’t shut up about her brave stage performances.  Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that she’s not shy about her size and performs her heart out on stage.  But a great stage show rarely translates well to a studio album.1 After years of ignoring this band, I decided to give them one more shot at the recommendation of a college friend’s twitter feed.  I was super surprised to hear an almost Strokes-ish guitar heavy song with such a great beat.  I guess they finally figured the whole studio thing out.  Well done!

4.  Out Of The Blue – Julian Casablancas

And speaking of Strokes-ish, Julian finally releases his album!  Three years into the Strokes hiatus finally saw the band’s leader release his solo project and it’s about time.  While his album, Phrazes For The Young, is only eight tracks, it’s better than 75% of the Strokes last album.  While I thought the album’s single, 11th Dimension, was a solid choice I ultimately went with this track instead.  Something about those jangling guitars proved irresistible.  It gives me optimism that the Strokes album scheduled to be released next year might actually be worth a damn. Here’s hoping…

5.  Hold The Line – Major Lazer

This track was a real jolt to the system the first time I heard it.  The video for the song was a staple this summer on one of my favorite sources for new music, MTV2’s Subterranean.  Definitely my favorite music video of the year.  It’s a spot-on recreation of every Saturday morning cartoon I watched in the 80s.  It even has an action figure commercial!  According to Wikipedia, the group is actually a DJ duo that met while working on M.I.A.’s last album.  This makes sense considering that the track features Santigold, the go-to girl for collaborations the past few years.  The duo’s album, Guns Don’t Kill People…Lazer Do, is all over the map musically and features several great music videos.  Highly recommended.

6.  Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked – Cage The Elephant

Cage The Elephant were everywhere this year; they were the rare group that was embraced by alternative rock and mainstream rock radio.  Hailed as the second coming of G-Love, this group managed to incorporate hip-hop, southern rock and blues in a way that please everybody.  And what’s not to like?  This slick little song has a catchy guitar hook, an infectious beat and universal lyrics.  From what I’ve seen in the media this band seems destined to burn out quickly, especially since the principal song-writers are temperamental, drug-loving brothers.  Hopefully they manage to keep it together, because mainstream rock could use more acts with broad appeal like Cage.

7.  Percussion Gun – White Rabbits

This track was the winner of my third annual Modern Rock contest, as suggested by my college roommate Eric.  I’m amazed that I somehow managed to miss this song!  First, a bit about the band.  White Rabbits formed while attending Mizzou and did what all respectable college bands do post-graduation:  they moved to New York City.  While in New York, the band’s frontmen Greg and Stephen, met the band’s sixth member when they discovered he grew up on the same street in Webster Groves as Greg.  These Missouri all-stars then proceeded to write the best under-the-radar album of 2009, It’s Frightening.  As this track’s title suggests, the band manages to combine expansive percussion with lush piano arrangements and off beat time-signatures.  I’m currently infatuated with this group since it’s the only new music I’m listening to at the moment.  Good job Eric!

8.  1901 – Phoenix

Every year has one inescapable song and in 2009 it was 1901.  This song was everywhere this year: numerous radio stations, car commercials, movie trailers, you name it.  This song was a powerhouse of guitar hooks that seemed to captivate everyone.  The album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, was probably the biggest critical and commercial success on Modern Rock this year.  A huge surprise from the fifth album by the virtually unknown French band2, Phoenix.  I loved the song the first time I heard it, but repeat overkill has cooled me off on it a bit.  Still, this was undeniably the biggest song of the year and definitely earned its place here.

9.  I Know What I Am – Band Of Skulls

This band is a great example of the two major trends on Modern Rock this year:  terrible band names and women rocking out.  Band Of Skulls3 is a British trio with a back to basics approach to rock that really resonated in 2009.  What made this band so interesting were the heel-stomping beat and the perfect interplay between the male and female vocalists.  Hearing a powerhouse like Emma rock out just as hard as Russell was a welcome change after years where women were mostly absent from the rock scene.  As a huge PJ Harvey fan, I long for the days when women had a serious presence in rock.  Band of Skulls and a few others really seems like a big step in the right direction.

10.  No One Loves Me And Neither Do I – Them Crooked Vultures

Rarely am I a fan of the super-group.  The idea of combining several talented musicians for a record always sounds like a great idea but never seems to work out as planned4.  Except when the musicians are as talented as the three collaborators in Them Crooked Vultures.  Dave Grohl and Josh Homme are super-group veterans known for working on a broad range of musical projects.  Uniting these two metalheads with John Paul Jones on bass must’ve seemed like a can’t lose idea.  It was!  This super-groups’ self-titled album instantly became all that was missing from rock this decade.  The rhythmic chugging of Grohl and Jones’ drums and bass merged perfectly with Homme’s power guitar and nasally whine.  By keeping the songs straightforward and simplistic, the songs have a fun quality that always seems lacking in most super-groups.  This group seems too talented to stay together for long, but hopefully they manage to crank out another album before calling it quits.

And speaking of quitting, that’s all for the first half.  Check back tomorrow for the second half of 2009!

Ciao,

The Captain

1  Like the first Yeah Yeah Yeahs album or anything by Lady Gaga.

2  I can’t remember the last time I willingly listened to a French band.  I guess it would have to be Air, or Daft Punk?  Even then, it’s not like those groups were known as rock bands, per se.

3  What a lazy name!  Putting the word “Band” in your band name is the worst.  I think a power trio with a male and female singer should’ve gone with something clever, like XY-ZZ Top…

4  In 2009, that mediocre super-group was Monsters of Folk.  What should have been an indie rock powerhouse was just a waste of Conor Oberst and M. Wards talents.

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