Time for our first 2020 spin around the dial now that our vision has cleared and there’s nothing but blue skies from now on …
First up, a brand new 2020 album from London’s Emperor Penguin. Just one look at the cover says we’re in for fun! Soak Up the Gravy hits all the indie poprock marks from decades past. From the wily XTC-like veneer of “Go Guitargonauts!”to the poppy Dylan elements in “You’ll Be the Death of Me” to the mid-period Squeeze waft of “Memoria Magdalena” to the Sgt. Pepper vibe animating “Burning Man.” Other songs like “What’s Come Over Me” and “Public Information” simply burst with delightful melodies. “Speedwell Blue,” the duet with the fabulous Lisa Mychols, is well, just, gravy! Definitely a full album experience.
Every year I overlook some masterpiece or two, like The Jellybricks’ 2019 release, Some Kind of Lucky. The band has that classic rock and roll combo sound, two guitars, bass, and drums, working over material with solid hooks. Sometimes the guitar drone and vocal harmonies remind me of Rooney or The Odds, particularly on tracks like “Faith” and “D.O.A.” Presently I’m hitting repeat pretty hard on the obvious should-be hit singles, “Brooklyn” and “Can’t Get Over You.” I love the call and response between the main and background vocals on the latter track! Also, don’t miss out on the band’s winning mellow moments with the title track that rounds out the album.
Detroit’s The Hangabouts have a new single out: “Who Wants Cilla.” It’s great but personally I’m more tuned into the B-side, “Mrs. Green” which exudes a Beatles for Sale or early Monkees vibe. From past releases, particularly 2017’s Kits and Cats and Saxon Wives, we know that band is reliably poprocky so this single bodes well for a whole new album hopefully sometime soon.
You don’t get a much more perfect poprock song than The Who’s “The Kids Are Alright.” Crunchy guitar offset by a perfect vocal melody, backed by killer background vocals and harmonies at key points. Curiously then, the song has been both covered and not that covered since its 1965 release. A quick spin through the web-o-sphere reveals countless live versions by big name acts like Pearl Jam, pub rob darlings Eddie and Hot Rods, glammers The Glitter Band, and many many others. But studio versions don’t hit the major leagues as much. In fact, they’re far surpassed by punk and indie treatments. Personally, I find the punk ones tend to lose the sweetness of the melody by leaning on the song’s ennui. I get it – they love the rave up ‘I hate the world!’ potential. But in this post we’re going to hew to the hooky side of things.
American bands seemed to groove to The Who the earliest in the 1960s, with a decided garage and psychedelic bias (e.g. The Count Five covering two Who songs on their debut in 1966). El Paso’s The Legend cranked up a winning cover with some very groovy organ in 1968. Meanwhile Miami’s The Last Words offered a distinctive interpretation of the song in the same year, altering the melody of the chorus. Sweden gets into the act with the Lasse Lindbom Band’s 1979 more straight up poprock version. Then things take an indie/punk turn with France’s Les Calamités in 1984 but this version still manages to capture the song’s essential (and necessary) vulnerability. The last version from this early period is Pete Townshend’s own demo of the song, recorded in sixties but only released on his Another Scoop album in 1987.
The LegendThe Last WordsLasse Lindbom BandLes CalamitésPete Townshend
The new millennium has seen various acts cranking up power pop elements of the song. The normally very punky The Queers even out their sound to accent the song’s hooks. Not surprisingly, with Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs it’s all super sweet background vocals and harmonies while tempering the more combustible sonic aspects of the tune. Possibly my fave cover comes from the reliably hooky The Lolas, featured on the 2004 Who tribute album Who’s Not Forgotten. And then for something completely different, there’s Joe Goldmark’s kooky but charming country instrumental version with John McFee on pedal steel.
The QueersMatthew Sweet and Susanna HoffsThe LolasJoe Goldmark
More recently a new flurry of covers have emerged, demonstrating how this hit just keeps on coming. Both The Connection and Keith Klingensmith and the TM Collective offered up sleek candy-coated versions in 2013 while The Ravenonettes turned all shoe gaze with their cover in 2015. Just this last year Jean Caffeine put a bit of edge into her otherwise melodic treatment of the song while The Decibels hit the jangle pedal pretty hard in a more rocking rendition.
A great song is one that you can hear over and over and somehow never tire of. Not surprisingly, such tunes draw other acts to want to cover them. “The Kids Are Alright” is one of them and as you can hear above, it’s actually pretty hard to mess it up.
Poor Myrtle. She’s only got Muzak® to keep her company through the long shift at work. If only she had access to this great new list of must-have LPs from 2019, helpfully assembled by Poprock Record, she might actually close that Henderson account and get off early. The lesson? You can take an oldies fixation too far. You don’t have to live in the past to love that retro sound. This year’s best-of round up of LPs from 2019 is definitive proof that everything old can be new again!
Just a word of caution – there’s no science to the list and rankings below. Here are just 25 albums and 10 EPs that caught my ear this past year and kept me coming back for more. There was something about each, their combination of elements (songwriting, instrumentation, performance), that I thought really worked as a coherent whole. And that’s saying something in our world of social media distractions and a renewed music biz focus primarily on singles.
So let’s begin with Poprock Record’s 25 must-have LPs for 2019:
I really like the variety covered in this list. There’s everything from jangle (4, 11, 15, 25) and country (12) and Dylanesque stylings (21), to keyboard contemporary (8) and acerbic social commentary (10, 23) and straight-up Beatlesque poprock (17, 19). And there’s a lot of sweetness, like Mondello’s impressive 20 year labour of love (18). My number one album, Bombadil’s Beautiful Country, embodies this commitment to diversity. It’s got an overall indie-folk vibe but the songwriting and playing are so sophisticated that somehow the label fails to capture all of what’s going on. Believe me, it’s a 37 minute journey through a myriad of lyrical and musical delights. Close behind at #2 Matthew Milia’s Alone at St. Hugo represents an amazing synthesis of melodic rock influences, from the Beatles (obviously) to the more mellow Fountains of Wayne moments. It’s an tone setter – put it on and drift away! At #3 was #1. Confused? #1 was the name of the debut album from the power pop veterans behind The Brothers Steve and it did not disappoint. The record is like a veritable hit machine. I can only imagine that this was what it was like to get your hands on a new Beatles record in the 1960s: immediately engaging, inventive yet relatable, and with nary a bum track. And I could go on about every entry on this list … but instead just click on the links to go my original posts about the bands and you can judge them for yourself.
Next up, Poprock Record’s10 must-have EPs from 2019:
The revival of the EP is very much in the spirit of the times as performers try to woo listeners to fork over for music in an era of YouTube shuffles and streaming. Personally, I’m usually left feeling that most are just bloated maxi-singles or Readers Digest condensed albums. But these ten show just how punchy an EP can be! Content-wise, I’ll just say this about my number 1 choice: wow. Dave Molter got his musical start in the 1960s (as evident on the record!) but waited until his 70s to put out Foolish Heart. What you get are five gems polished to poprock perfection: hooks, harmonies, the whole deal.
One last thing: a special mention for Aaron Lee Tasjan’s Karma for Cheap: Reincarnated. The original record was my number 1 album for 2018 and this reinvention beautifully reimagines all those great tunes in often stark and stripped down ways. If you liked the original, you’re gonna love the remake.
Clicking on this late 1990s track from northern California’s The Orange Peels you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re hearing a great New Pornographers single or maybe a late 1970s new wave reunion of the Mamas and Papas, if they’d become a rock band (and somehow brought a key member back from the dead). The guitar on this track is so striking, fresh and in-your-face resonant without being jarring, while the vocals are candy smooth but never syrup. Clocking at just a minute and 49 seconds it’s all over way too soon but that’s OK, it’s just the opening track of a pretty cool album of similarly fab songs. And now would be the time to add The Orange Peels 1997 debut album, Square3, to your collection as it has just been remastered and plumped up with 27 bonus tracks. Come back 1997! All is forgiven.
Visit The Orange Peels online to find out more about their past and more recent releases and re-releases.
2019 had plenty of jangle, hooks, harmonies and melody to spare. From an initial list of over 200 songs I’ve managed to whittle my should-be hit single list to just 50 chart toppers for this year. Man, it was hard. Because I only post music I like this whole exercise is a bit like choosing your favourite child. Well, IMHO, the 50 songs featured here all have a strong earwormy quality to them. But let me know if you agree or disagree! Hit the links below to find each artist as featured in my original blog post this past year.
So, without further ado (drum roll please!), here is Poprock Record’s should-be hit singles for 2019:
As you can see, the list is a bit all over the map. There’s hints of country and folk and a lot of rock and roll. Because I’m working a broad poprock vein (as opposed to a more narrow power pop) my list crosses lines that other melodic rock blogs might not. That means the pop folky Bombadil and Fruitbats can sidle up to the more edgy melodic punk of Ezra Furman or country rock of The Cerny Brothers. But most of the entries fall neatly into my definition of ‘poprock’ – as in, melodic rock and roll characterized by plenty of hooks and harmony vocals. It’s all there in my number one song from The Golden Seals “Something Isn’t Happening” with its swinging acoustic guitar base, various hooky lead guitar lines, and catchy vocal melody. Or you can hear it in the addictive guitar drone driving Juliana Hatfield’s great single, “Sugar.” Same goes for The Well Wishers’ fantastic poprock reinvention of Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 sound on “Feeling Fine.” And I could just go on dropping superlatives on every entry on this list. Instead, click on the links and check out my original posts about all these artist.
All these artists have instruments to keep in tune and studio time to pay for, not to mention all the time they take away from paying work to write the songs and practice performing them – all in aid of getting this exciting music out there for us to enjoy. Help them thrive by getting out to see them live and buying their music.
Today’s duo of bands are like opposite ends of the Beatles influence circa 1966, with Rochester NY’s The Demos handling the sweet vocal harmonies and melody-driven tune-age while Sacramento California’s The Decibels grind out a bit more of the rockin’ jangle side of the equation. Both bands benefit from strong songwriting and some pretty inspired and unpredictable performances.
The Demos debuted with a low key EP, 2008’s Your Girl Has Fun Without You. The band’s essential elements are all there in the opening track, “I Gotta Know” with its spare guitar work and layered vocals. Overall, the EP reminds me of more recent fab work from The Rallies. 2011’s full album Lovely fleshed out the band sound a bit, sounding slightly reminiscent of Farrah on tracks like “Nervous.” And check out the full on ELO vocal palate cushioning “Don’t Wake Me Up Again” – breathtaking! 2016’s Paramount Clouds EP takes things in more Rooney-ish direction, particularly with the keyboard focus on “I Don’t Mind.” Personally, I think the 2018 If You Only Knew EP may just be The Demos strongest outing, representing another slight departure style-wise changing up the keyboard and vocal delivery. Should-be hit singles “Make It Better” and “If You Only Knew” vibe a host great bands like Guster or Sunday Sun without losing any of their own originality. The spooky background vocals on “Make It Better” alone are worth the price of admission! The EP also features a nice reinterpretation of the previously released “Nervous.” Oh for the days when a ferry could taxi me over Lake Ontario to see this band.
I Gotta KnowMake It Better
The story of The Decibels is like a script right out of indie rock and roll Hollywood. Promising band release a handful of great records to critical acclaim but poor sales. They break up. Then they’re brought back together for a one-off show and fan demand pushes them to reunite but, alas, poor health stalls the comeback. But somehow, years later, the band returns with new material and new lease on rock and roll life! The Decibels roared back into action in 2019 with not one but two new records, both critically acclaimed. Big Hits (plus twelve more!) was a rehearsal session of the band’s live act (focusing on cover tunes), originally taped to help them prepare to record new original material. But the record company liked the sound so much they insisted on releasing it. It was so the right decision. Compared to their other 2019 long-player, the feel of Big Hits (plus twelve more!) is a bit edgier, with a punky live vibe. It’s amazing to hear how they bring new life to songs like “Pictures of Matchstick Men” by picking up tempo (frankly, I found the original Status Quo version a bit plodding). The album is full of highlights like the glorious “Sometime in the Morning,” the melodically rocking “Ship Went Down” and “There’s a Place,” the vocally clever “Try and Stop Me” and the very 1979 stripped-down new wave sound of “Cover Girl.”
Of course, none of this is meant to suggest that their other 2019 release, Scene, Not Herd, is anything less than stupendous. The album is brimming with radio-ready should-be hits like “Hey Emily,” “I Need to Tell Her” and “Misery.” The renewed band sometime come off like a more indie version of The Wonders, the fictional group from the film That Thing You Do. At other times you could be forgiven for thinking The Plimsouls had got back together on tracks like “The Only Reason Left” and “Thinking About You.” And here’s a bonus if you just discovered The Decibels – there’s a pretty special back catalogue awaiting your attention! For instance, the band’s 1997 debut Create Action is a janglicious mix of 1960s-meets-1990s swinging tunes. Check out “Change,” “Something Good to Go By” and “Can’t Play Tag Alone,” the latter sounding like a compressed greatest hit of the 1966 mod rock and roll sound.
I don’t know what Sesame Street was on about but as the letter D has no money it clearly cannot be the real sponsor of today’s post. That, dear reader, is left to you, via your dutiful patronage of these fine artists. Visit The Demos and The Decibels to help sponsor ever more quality poprock programming.
My vision for 2020 would be for a bit more truth, beauty and justice to come to light. It’s getting harder and harder for working class people to make ends meet, all the while a circus of obscene over-consumption by the 1% of the 1% is shoved down our throats culturally. So why don’t ‘the people’ revolt? Well, there are lots of reasons …
Some of the reasons are cultural. Despite the supposedly liberating, equalizing effects of social media, representations of ‘the people’ in commercial media remain highly distorted in class terms. On TV and in movies it would appear that everyone’s rich and there’s nothing that can’t be solved with just a bit of celebrity charity (‘thanks Ellen!’). But as New Yorker Jeff Rosenstock bluntly puts it, “TV stars don’t care about who you are.” Rosenstock’s work ranges from straight up punkish rock to more dreamy melodic numbers with a dollop of shoegaze. “TV Stars” is from his 2018 album Post- and makes the point that ‘nice’ isn’t really equal to caring.
Of course, part of the reason people mistake nice celebrities for friends is that media seldom mirrors the great unwashed or their experiences in any recognizable form. The first step toward self-respect is recognizing who you are (and who you are not). And every now and then a tiny bit of authenticity breaks through. Like Scotland’s Gerry Cinnamon. He is a rare example of an unabashedly working class artist who has eschewed major labels and conventional music promotion. Movies and TV never tire of pushing the trope that any decent idea, if it’s worthy, can take off via social media, eluding the gate keepers and corporate media machines, but the reality is that a kitty appearing to dance and sing “Bohemian Rhapsody” is much more likely to succeed. But in Cinnamon’s case, the myth actually became real. He is an unsigned artist who plays sold out shows throughout the UK. I can’t help but feel that part of his appeal is that his songs give voice to the experience of an alienated working class youth in believable ways. The songs on Cinnamon’s 2017 Erratic Cinematic have the same gut impact of early Dylan, Jake Bugg, Springsteen when he’s got his harmonica out, and Ike Reilly. No one does heart-wrenching loneliness quite like Cinnamon on tracks like “What Have You Done” or check out the Morricone-esque quality of the title track, complete with haunting whistling. Cinnamon did release a single in 2019, a teaser from his coming 2020 album, entitled “The Bonny” – with pretty magical harmonica accompaniment.
Artists like Cinnamon make working class experience visible and that is crucially important because making such lives visible allows other people to realize that their problems are not merely personal (i.e. their own fault) but happening to all kinds of people all over the place. Of course, the next step politically would be to act on that knowledge. Here I want to harken back to the just reviewed new album Bulletproof from The Lolas and a few particular songs that really name the work to be done. Like “Storm of Silence,” where songwriter Tim Boykin sings “workers have so much to win” by breaking the ‘storm of silence’ because “there’s a million people standing strong and another million coming on.” Or the Steve Miller Band-ish “Stand Up and Fight,” where he asks “who is it going to be if not you or me?” because “you can call the local news and I bet they won’t care, but if you dare this might be the start of something big.” Boyko ends the album with the classic leftwing liberation anthem, “L’Internationale,” with its still relevant theme of international working class solidarity.
Seeing who your real friends are is partly cultural work but it is also affected by dramatic and ever increasing economic inequality that defines western countries. Make no mistake, a lot of money is spent by powerful people to keep the gauze over our eyes. Making the depravity and cruelty of that inequality more visible is also crucial to seeing a more progressive vision triumph in this new year. And it just happens to be good for music too!