I write this as I pack for Cleveland where my film “Color Me Obsessed, a film about The Replacements” is screening at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Which is all completely surreal. The band will never be inducted. None of the bands I truly love will ever be. Certainly none of the bands listed below. But my film about one of them is playing. And that all sort of makes sense for 2012.
This year started off for me as one of the worst years in music. As bad a year as I could remember. It seemed every piece I would read about a new band would contain a word I hate more than many women hate the word “panty.” That would be “synth.” Just typing the word I feel the bile rising in the back of my throat. So before I even get to my list, I wanted to offer some sound advice to any band who uses synthesizers. This will truly help your sound. I promise. Take your synthesizer outside. Lay it on the ground directly behind the rear driver’s side tire of your van/car. (Not passenger side, it must be the driver’s side.) Get behind the wheel, start it up, put the car into reverse, then give it just enough gas so that you travel backward approximately two feet. Pop the transmission back into forward. More gas. Again, two feet of driving should do it. Then repeat those actions a few times. Then hop out of your vehicle, pick up what’s left of your synthesizer, and toss it into the nearest garbage can. And just like that, you’ve grown a pair of balls. You’re that much closer to being a rock band.
And speaking of castrated bands, we’ve got another clear and easy winner for this year’s coveted “Vampire Weekend Lame Ass Award.” Just as eunuchs Foster The People ran away with the award last year, this year Fun(period) has no equal in the category. How lame and wimpy are they? Let me put it this way, the guys in Maroon 5 are “Damaged”-era Black Flag compared to these guys. (Think about it for a moment.) So congrats to the guys in Fun(period)! Wear the honor well. (For your reading pleasure, my Vampire Weekend film idea.)
Back to real music. I started off the year editing my Archers of Loaf concert documentary “What Did You Expect?” I went from there to preparing for our upcoming Grant Hart doc, “Every Everything.” So I was mostly listening to the Archers, Husker Du, and solo Grant. The guitar geek in me was in freakin’ heaven. It was all a loud and glorious noise. Music that grabbed you by the throat, and slammed you up against the wall. It was rough sex rock ‘n’ roll that would have the author of “The Shades of Grey” novels hiding in the closet. You listen to these bands and you’re beaten down with power, with a growl of almost biblical proportions. But one with melody, with hooks, with singers who were baring their souls.
There were a couple of new glimpses of brilliance, but they were singular and far between. But then on September 2nd, I open up the Sunday New York Times, as I have every Sunday since I was twelve years old. Went right to Section 2, “Arts & Leisure” – sometimes I never even bother with the rest – and I flipped through it, looking over the articles on film before hitting page 17. A large above-the-fold photo of two cute slightly-tattooed, somewhat-punky girls. An article by Jon Caramanica called “Twin Rock Dreams Prevail.” He wrote about twin sisters Allison and Katie Crutchfield, and how after two bands together – The Ackleys and P.S. Eliot – they were splitting up into new bands, with Katie forming Waxahatchee and Allison forming Swearin’.
I was looking for a sample of their music before I even finished reading the article. I found Waxahatchee first. And as I wondered how the word was pronounced, the video for “Grass Stain” came on, and suddenly my musical world didn’t seem nearly as empty. I bought that album first, then Swearin’ eponymously-titled debut, then the Ackley’s album, then both from P.S. Eliot, then the Ackley’s EP, then a sister side project called “Bad Banana,” then the P.S. Eliot demos, a couple of other Waxahatchee tracks, and then finally another Katie side-project Great Thunder. It was like finding a treasure chest of gold in your deceased relative’s house. It was a gift from the music God (perhaps she really liked “Color Me Obsessed”). One hundred thirteen songs in all.
Why had I never heard of these bands? How had the Ackleys and P.S. Eliot passed me by? There were no real answers. As Grant Hart would say, “shit happens.” And it didn’t matter ultimately. What mattered was they were in my collective conscious now and probably forever.
Personally I would advise you to buy every one of those songs for your collection. Most of the production sounds like what you’ve heard on The Replacements “Let It Be,” a little ragged with heavy emphasis on the guitar. Most of the songs are pure power punk noise pop. Sample P.S. Eliot’s “Untitled” or the Ackley’s “7 Days.” And Katie’s voice truly kills me. It breaks, it feels real, she can belt, and she can whisper. She’s telling you the story of her life, with just the right amount of attitude. She’s a fucking rock star.
And yes, aside from Waxahatchee and Swear’, we’re talking about seven years worth of songs here. But to me, that’s irrelevant, 2012 will always be the year of the Crutchfields.
(RANT TIME: I said BUY! Pay for them, dammit. I fucking hate people who steal music and films. You are literally stealing from people who give you joy. You’re no different from a thug on the street who steals an old lady’s pocketbook. Except that you probably don’t need to feed your starving kids. And you probably think it’s okay, that you’re not hurting anyone. Well, you’re wrong. You’re deluding yourself into thinking you’re actually a good person. You are NOT.)
And with that I give you my ten (eleven, really) favorite albums of the year, in order of preference:
1. “American Weekend” by Waxahatchee – I almost don’t know where to start on how perfect the eleven tracks on this record are. I guess with the production, which is what will hit you first. A guitar that stings at your senses, noisy, loose, Katie Crutchfield is playing in the corner of kitchen, trying almost not to be noticed as she writes a diary to lovers lost, one that perhaps should never be shared. When you listen to the brilliant “Bathtub” (which should have been the song every teenage girl was playing this past summer) she’s just as much to blame. “And I tell you not to love me/But I still kiss you when I want to,” she half-whispers, half-sings, in a voice lost down an endless hallway. This is as emotionally naked as rock music gets. And it never lets up. Even the songs which appear poppier on the surface are just as self-effacing. It’s an album’s worth of “Unsatisfied” from a female point of view. And that’s about the highest compliment I can pay any record.
2. “Remember When” by The Orwells – Goddamn if “Mallrats (La La La)” isn’t the most snotty fun you can have listening to music this year. A song about just walking around the mall, watching some gal shop for bras. (Or at least I think that’s what it’s about.) The words are almost incomprehensible, but it doesn’t matter. It’s got punk attitude up the freakin’ wazoo, and the catchiest hook of the year. (How did this not outsell “Call Me Maybe”?) The entire album is good dirty fun from a bunch of 17-year-old out of Chicago. I’m really curious to see them live, as I’m hoping they tear apart the stage. (Guys, please do not just stand there and play.) This is a great rock ‘n’ roll record.
3. “Swearin’” by Swearin’ – Allison Crutchfield’s takes her turn in a raging collection of eleven songs that sound like a great lost riot grrrl record, noisy guitars (have I mentioned that I like noisy guitars?), a driving rhythm section, and Allison’s slightly gruff vocals. “Movie Star” is the masterpiece here, where the pop almost threatens to overtake the growl with a bridge that will catch you off guard as the album winds down, as you’ll find yourself floored and wanting more.
4. “The Lumineers” by The Lumineers – Monumental songwriting, that keeps you on your toes. Even I was surprised by this record. Love the sound, the instrumentation, the voices. And other than a couple of duds (“Slow It Down” is a god-awful song), it’s pretty damn spectacular. And really now, “Ho Hey” was one of the only listenable “hits” this year.
5. “Celebration Rock” by Japanandroids – I’m not a fan of most two people bands. Every song by Black Keys sounds like every other song by the Black Keys. Same for the White Stripes. Buy one album you’ve bought them all. The Pack A.D. for me were one band who broke that mold. Japanandroids is another. This is a mostly flawless collection of bluesy anthem rock that’s as compact and personal as it is loud and stadium-ready.
6. “Open Your Heart” by The Men – good, noisy, balls-to-the-wall punk-based rock ‘n’ roll. What the fuck more do you want?
7. “Tramp” by Sharon Van Etten – A beautiful collection of heartbreak from a voice that will steal what’s let of your heart.
8. “Royal Headache” by Royal Headache – see #6
9. “Boys & Girls” by Alabama Shakes – yes, it was over-rated and over-played. But still it had the coolest vibe of the year. And you’ll still be wanting to listen to at least half these songs ten years from now.
10. (tie) “In The Dusk of Everything” Matthew Ryan and “Tomorrowland” by Ryan Bingham – In reviewing the Matt Ryan album I am not taking into account the amazing title track from my forthcoming “Broken Side Of Time” which is a bonus track on the album. Obviously the song kills me, otherwise it wouldn’t be in my film. It’s the rest. Matt alone with his guitar. The production stripped away. What’s left is brilliant songwriting and that voice. That voice unlike any other. A beautiful collection, his best in years. And I include the Ryan Bingham here because in many ways Bingham is the alt-country Matt Ryan. Songs about life and love and despair. And again, another one of those voices. Beautiful.
There you have it. No list of best movies this year. I was working so much, I barely scratched the surface of what was released. But instead you’ve got some music to buy. Start with the first two on the list, they’re a nice contrast to one another, then work your way down. Then dig into that Crutchfield catalog. If you weren’t aware, then I just left a gold nugget in your Xmas stocking.
Happy Holidays! Be healthy, happy and well. And if you don’t already have one or two, adopt a dog from a shelter. It’ll make your life better. It’ll make you a much better person. And you’ll understand what unconditional love is for the first time in your life. (It’s a good thing.)
Time for “A Dog Named Gucci”…
See you in January.