Burning Love - "Hateful Comforts": My issue with punk rock, even going back to my teenage years, was that most of it was exasperatingly vague about what, exactly, we should be rebelling against. Mostly it was just an excuse for mohawks and facial piercings and I'm sorry, The Offspring, but I don't need your permission for a tattoo to bum out my parents. This is where Burning Love frontman Chris Colohan comes in. "Hateful Comforts," off of their sophomore album Rotten Thing To Say, is the most exhilarating four and a half minutes of punk rock I've heard in years. The lyrics and vocal performance are mostly what sells the song for me. It is painfully specific about post-9/11 paranoia, witch hunts, and the easily led cable news junkies. This is everything punk rock should be aiming for. And, goddamn, that guitar solo...
Future Of The Left - "Beneath The Waves An Ocean": Most people who have heard Future Of The Left's most recent album, The Plot Against Common Sense, would probably argue that "Robocop 4 - Fuck Off Robocop" should be the song you mention first. (Actually, they probably wouldn't argue, they'd just mock me, but... shut up.) While I think it is some of Andy Falkous' best work, the lyrics overpower everything else in the song. "Beneath The Waves An Ocean" feels like a more even balance. Catchy as hell with the entire band firing on all cylinders. Falco's arch delivery and the fuzzed out bassline from Julia Ruzicka really sell it.
Local H - "Sad History": Saying that Local H is the most underrated and under appreciated band in rock music would probably be cold comfort to singer/songwriter Scott Lucas. Every Local H record feels like it could be the last one, it's been that way since the 90's, but "Sad History" could very well be the swan song for a couple of puckish Midwesterners who never quit. While most of his peers have been reuniting for club shows to help pay off their mortgages and drug addictions, Lucas has never stopped writing and touring. He's never released an album that was anything short of rock solid. As a songwriter, there's no one in America who wields bitterness and cynicism the way he does. As a live act, they're still a freight train... thanks in no small part to Brian St. Clair's monster drumming. That said, Lucas has never seemed more tired than he has on this song and this album. Even if the lyrics could easily be about the band themselves, he still ends on a note of hope. Because if Scott and Brian have proven anything, it's that writing them off is a bad idea.
The Afghan Whigs - "Lovecrimes": The idea of Greg Dulli and the recently reunited Afghan Whigs covering a Frank Ocean song only sounds like a strange idea for about the first ten seconds. Dulli has covered everyone from Bjork to Billie Holliday to Kanye West in his other band, The Twilight Singers. His rough, working class soul croon never sounds better than when it's paired with Rick McCollum's instantly recognizable bluesy guitar. They may have broken up more than a decade ago but no moss has grown on them in that time. If the real criteria of a cover song is whether or not a band can make the song their own, this is a success. It sounds like the exact kind of dark psychodrama Dulli was always fond of. I'd never have known this was a cover if they didn't advertise it. It's also a free download on their website, so there's no excuse not to pick it up.
Diplo feat. Nicky Da B - "Express Yourself": New Orleans Sissy Bounce is a subgenre of a subgenre but it's also been some of the most irrepressible dance music I've heard since Baltimore club music was in vogue several years back. Built around lo-fi, homemade beats and repetitive chants, and anchored by openly gay or transsexual emcees like Big Freedia, the gravelly voiced Sissy Nobby and Katey Red, it somehow manages to be dirty as hell and unselfconsciously fun at the same time. Probably because it doesn't have the macho douchebag energy straight men seem to take with them wherever they go. Diplo wisely maintains the basic aesthetic of sissy bounce but gives it a budget and clean production while Nicky Da B jump onto the track with confidence and control. Straight up the best dance music I've heard all year.
Psy - "Gangnam Style": Nope, still not sick of it yet. Usually, when there's a foreign language dance craze, like the Macarena, we can all agree that it was always ridiculous and it's charming or enduring for exactly that reason. Not only is Psy the only real Asian pop star who broke through in America despite several tries (sorry Utada), he was legitimately funny AND in on the joke. Nothing he does will ever be remotely this big again, but damned if it wasn't entertaining while it lasted. And without Psy, I wouldn't have had the single most panic attack inducing four minutes of my life.
Baroness - "Take My Bones Away" / "March To The Sea": Most people I know seemed leery when Baroness went on record about going in a more hard rock direction for fear of permanently scarring the vocal cords of singer/guitarist/lead songwriter/artist John Dyer Baizley. I was not. I got turned onto the band when they released their first EP (yeah, yeah... music nerd bragging rights) and while the heavier-than-thou sludge metal was part of the appeal, you could never deny their songwriting chops. Take out the sludge and you're still left with some very solid, catchy rock music of a sort that doesn't get made anymore. Hesher music of the highest order.
Unsane - "No Chance": It's always gratifying to see a band perfect their artform, whatever it is. Unsane have honed in on a very specific brand of angry, working class noise rock. The stark lyrics, the awesomely distorted bass guitar... no one else could pull it off with this kind of velocity or single-mindedness. A good Unsane song barrels right through you and "No Chance" is one of their best.
Pigs - "Give It": There's no part of the Unsane trio that's less integral than the other but Dave Curran's singular bass tone tweaks the pleasure centers of my brain the way nothing else does. When I found out he had a side project (this time on guitar and vocals) I jumped at it immediately. The album is still very much in the noise rock template but it opens up a bit more than his other project. It's less suffocatingly bleak, but only just. "Give It" could stand alongside the best Unsane track without question. An excellent song on an under-appreciated album.
Golden Void - "Atlantis": All you had to do was mention guitarist Isaiah Mitchell and my ears perked up. A guitar hero in the purest sense of the word, his other project, Earthless, is the essential modern psychedelic rock band. Songs stretch out for twenty minutes or longer, enough to break the patience of any casual listeners. However, the hypnotic repetition and guitar solos that seem alternately endless and far too short help it go down easy. They hinted at what they could do in a more conventional song length on a three way split with Danava and Lecherous Gaze last year and now we have Golden Void. It's an excellent album that I'll write more about later but it culminates in this epic track, incorporating my favorite of Mitchell's guitar work yet.
Aesop Rock - "ZZZ Top" / "Zero Dark Thirty": The thing that jumped out at me first about Aesop Rock's new album, Skelethon, were those killer live-sounding drum samples. They knock hard. I wasn't expecting a huge change in his sound jumping from the "B-boy brainiacs" at the much missed Def Jux to the Minnesota-based Rhymesayers crew, and the star here is still Ace Rock's flow, but Skelethons is definitely funky in a different way than his previous album, None Shall Pass. "ZZZ Top" (incidentally my favorite video of the year... go Patti Li go!) and "Zero Dark Thirty" are probably the best examples of this. Ace is every bit as dense and dizzying as always but this new vibe gives him an extra kick I haven't heard from him before.
Killer Mike - "Reagan": I'd heard of Killer Mike before this year's awesome El-P produced R.A.P. Music but this album was a revelation. Not many emcees would be able to jump from axe murdering with Bun B & T.I. to taking down his own culture and the government that enables it and oppresses it at the same time, but Killer Mike managed it with aplomb. In addition, it contained El-P's most accessible production work, marrying boom bap with the sort of layered darkness he uses on his solo work to outstanding effect. The best track on an excellent album.
Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats - "Death's Door": Adding this song is a bit of cheat. It came out in Europe last year but was only released in the States in November, giving me a chance to talk more about it. Willfully mysterious, this Cambridge trio are gaining a lot of momentum. The entire album is a strain of doom metal of a type that's been out of fashion for awhile. They've been lumped in with bands like the Merciful Fate devotees Ghost, but Uncle Acid prefer to wallow gleefully in the B-movie themes and grimy lo-fi production. The rickety vibe and the hazy claustrophobia gives the entire album a unique 70's vibe I never get tired of. Essential listening.
Graveyard - "Goliath": There's something about Sweden. No other place can reproduce discarded and marginalized genres of music with so much faithfulness and soul that it doesn't come off like some kind of rote mimicry. There's desert rock Kyuss worshippers like Truckfighters, Astroqueen, Dozer, etc. (Are there even deserts in Sweden? I don't think there are any deserts in Sweden...) Then there are the 70's rock revivalists like Spiders, Horisont, Witchcraft, and Graveyard. Their previous album, Hisingen Blues, was flat out brilliant. It was everything I love about what is usually dismissed as dinosaur rock in an updated form without coming off like some lunkheaded, lowest common denominator-baiting Jet single. Lights Out aims for a tighter, more streamlined version and mostly knocks it out of the park. In a mainstream where The Black Keys are seemingly the only remaining rock band people take seriously, the world needs more bands like this.