I remember my first Tom Petty song so clearly. I was working the dish-pit in a spaghetti restaurant when “Don’t Do Me Like That” came on the local FM radio station. What a song! Those distinctive guitar/piano shots were the musical equivalent of crack cocaine. I was never gonna get free of that. Then I heard “Refugee,” “Even the Losers,” and “Here Comes My Girl” and knew Petty and I were going to spend a lot of time together. Over the years I didn’t react to each Petty record quite as strongly but every release had something to love. That made his sudden unexpected passing in 2017 hard to take as the guy clearly had more to give. Four years later Petty’s impact on multiple generations of musicians and fans has only become more apparent. I mean, people write songs about the guy! And some of them are pretty good.
Austin Texas’ Leatherbag add just a dollop of Petty song-style to their “Tom Petty Summer” from 2009’s Tomorrow/Everything I Once Knew album. Ok, it’s there vocally and the guitar lead lines too. You can also enjoy a nice acoustic treatment of the song too from the band’s 2012 Rarities collection. Morgantown Virginia’s Weedhawks dial down their political commentary just a bit to honour TP on “I Miss Tom Petty” from their 2019 release Build a Wall Around Washington. On this tribute, it’s the message that is all about Petty rather than the treatment, which owes more to a country-fied Lou Reed and the Velvets. That the Hanging Stars would ace the Petty sound is really no surprise. The band ooze a Brydsian folk rock meets jangle confidence on all their recordings. So their “Tom Petty” from 2020’s New Kind of Sky is a treat, mixing 12 string electric guitar with some pretty pedal steel work over a solid piece of songwriting. The Satin Cowboy and the Seven Deadly Sins conjure up a bit of Wildflowers with their “Song for Tom Petty,” a lovely tune that hurts bad for Tom and all that we are missing with his death. A more upbeat take on the same sentiment can be found on Dolour’s dynamic 2021 release, Televangelist. His “The Day Tom Petty Died” honours Petty’s sonic legacy in a more rip-roaring melodic sort of way.
He may be gone but today’s songs demonstrate that Tom Petty is very much alive in the music we love. In line with today’s troubadours, I say, long live TP and his influence.
Pick up this fantasy compilation I’ve entitled March Music Express and here’s what you get: twenty should-hits, all original artists, and melody for days. It’s a collection that rocks when it wants to, throws in some jangle to make your heart sing, and even goes mellow when the moment calls for it. I’m telling you, K-Tel never treated you this good. March Music Express has all the hooks and none of the groove cramming. Just hit play and let it ride!
Let’s start side one with some sophisticated pop. Dolour offer up a very smooth ambience on “Televangelist,” a keyboard-heavy single wrapped in breathy background vocals with some swing in the beat. There’s something I find so captivating about Brian Bringelson’s vocal treatment on “Losing Train of Thought” from his recent album, Desperate Days. Shades of Gerry Rafferty and Paul Kelly covering a long lost 1970s AM radio pop song. Brooklyn’s The Suns kick off “When You’re Not Around” sounding like some wayward Mersey cover band though the song quickly develops its own distinctive feel. The Mersey vibe’s still there, but now its cast in a more 1968 mold. The song is from the band’s recent EP Big Break, a brief excursion into the 1960s-infused rocky pop numbers. I love the urgency established early in William M. Michael breakneck, rollicking “Miles Away” from his EP Modern Sounds in Pop Music. The feel is very 1980s western Rank and File or True West. Detroit’s Dave Caruso creates such pretty pop songs on his recent album Radiophonic Supersonic, reminding me of 10cc mixed with more than a little Macca. “The Drop” perfectly captures his careful attention to song arrangements, juxtaposing some crunchy rhythm guitar with low key sweet vocals.
Oslo, Norway’s Death By Unga Bunga offer a striking a mix of influences, a bit of metal ‘tude, a dash of 1970s glam, and lurking behind their in-your-face guitars is usually an ear-worm quality set of hooks. Take their new release Heavy Male Insecurity. The first singles – “Egocentric” and “Faster Than Light” – are slow burn hook machines. But I find myself drawn to album deep cut “Trouble” with its subtle, alluring chorus. Looking for something completely original? Scotland’s Pictish Trailhas an endearing, inventive indie sound that is something else. Just check all the elements at work on “Bad Algebra,” from the ping pong speaker effect on the opening guitar, to the softly understated vocals, to the explosive outbreak in the chorus. And the guy’s website is pretty hilarious too. Tampa Bay’s The Easy Button claim a musical lineage to Weezer but I hear more Fountains of Wayne on their new single, “Waiting Room.” Great edgy lead guitar here, tempered by some pretty smooth vocals. With a name like Cult Stars from Mars you know you’re in for some fun. I was totally grooving on the band’s fab recent cover of the Springsteen-written, Manfred Mann hit “Blinded by the Light” when I stumbled on “Can’t Wait to See You.” What a song! The performance kicks off like some mid-1980s pop hair band (and I’m liking that a bit more than I should) when suddenly the track transforms into a slice of poprock heaven. Something very Cheap Trick going on here, at their most melodic. Tamar Berk’s new album explores the restless dreams of youth but as a politics guy I was immediately drawn to the song “Socrates and Me.” It’s a cool bit of understated guitar pop, kinda like a new wave Suzanne Vega.
For side two, let’s hit southern Europe. Italy has got a pretty impressive underground rock and roll scene, with an accent on Ramones-inspired acts. Milan’s Radio Days up the melodic quotient on a straight rocking sound with “I Got Love” from last year’s EP of the same name. Crashing chords with soaring harmony vocals equals one appealing single. Another band mining a classic rock and roll sound are The Rubs. The new single “I Want You” kicks off oh so Stonesy but into the main body of the tune there’s a bit more Steve Miller Band attention to melody. Love the space synth! Tim Izzard wrote me about his Bowie-influenced album, Starlight Rendezvous, and boy has this guy got Ziggy nailed. But I found myself drawn more to the less Bowie-fied numbers, like the wonderfully hooky “Breaking Me Down.” The main riff is sensational, effectively threaded throughout the song and nicely offset with some pumping piano. Portland punk-noise meisters White Fang tune up the acoustic guitars on their new album Don’t Want to Hear It. The party dude sentiment is still there (on tracks like “Drunk with my Friends”) but check out the easygoing feel of “Never Give Up.” The song opens with a relentless hook that comes back again and again, effectively haunting the song. Then the track shifts to an acoustic guitar heavy sound that reminds me of Eels or Guster. Overall, it’s a concentrated dose of poprock goodness, a delightful departure from these party rockers. Melbourne, Australia’s Farewell Horizontal offer up a dreamy, reverb-drenched testament to the times we are in with “I Never Know What Time It Is.” I love the musical ornamentation here, from the jangle and psych lead guitar, to the subtle, atmospheric keyboard touches, to the soothing harmony vocals. And that’s not the only highlight from their new record, An Argument with an Idiot – definitely worth checking out.
The irony of Mt. Misery’s single “The Dreaming Days Are Over” is just how dream-like the roll out to the tune is. The song sounds like a skip through a spring garden, all pleasant acoustic guitar and keyboard embellishments, carried forward in a distinctive folk pop style. It’s been ten years since Irene Peña’s fabulous debut album Nothing To Do With You came out, with just an EP and a handful of singles released since then. But what killer singles! Like last year’s shimmering “Ridiculous,” a track on par with anything from Juliana Hatfield and Liz Phair. Such a great crisp guitar sound counterbalanced with a candy-coated vocal shine. Somehow I missed Purling Hiss’ 2019 EP, Interstellar Blue, and that’s a shame because “Useful Information” is song that screams classic 1960s rock and roll. The driving guitar hook is so 1968. And yet the song has a very subtle melody snaking throughout the song. Another band known for noise and screaming guitars that has turned over a more melodic leaf of late is Terry Malts. “Distracted” lays a folkie vocal harmony over a bed of grinding guitars in an effective hooky counterpoint. Last up, The Menzingers’ reworking of their 2019 Hello Exile went from punky to four on the floor folk with 2020’s From Exile. From what I can hear “America Pt. 2” is a slight reworking of the “America, You’re Freaking Me Out” that appears on the album. It’s topical and has got a winning sing-along chorus.
With any great compilation album, someone else has done all the work. All you have to do is let the music play. Though hitting the hyperlinked artist names and checking out their musical wares wouldn’t hurt.
Under normal circumstances we’d be reeling from the nearly toxic levels of holiday music saturation going on. Every shop, office or mall would be wall-to-wall Santa tunes, with a few mentions of that Jesus guy for good measure. And here I’d come along making the case for even more eggnog-splattered tune-age but with a significantly higher quotient of hooks. But not this year. Lockdown has put the holiday music hostage-taking on hold, at least somewhat. So I expect even greater tidings of joy to accompany my annual holiday hit parade offerings! Forget tinsel, let’s get a little reverb on that tree.
Kicking off our seasonal singles is fab contribution from Lisa Mychols. Last year Williamsport Grade 8 math teacher and aspiring songwriter Brian Fagnano wrote me late in the season to alert me to this great tune he’d written and convinced Mychols to record (sometimes cold-calling actually works!) and the result, “Ringing Bells on Christmas Day,” is fantastic, an instant classic! His note came too late to include the song in last year’s holiday post but I’ve kept it aside to feature this year. The track has a great Spector-ish quality to it, particularly in the song structure, with an updated, chiming indie-charm production-wise. This one’s going into an eggnog-with-rum level of rotation.
Another last-year Christmas song contribution came from the uber talented Brothers Steve. In addition to releasing a highly celebrated debut album (#1, reviewed here) the boys managed to get out a double-A-sided seasonal single. Last year’s post had one of the songs and this year I’m featuring the other, “I Love the Christmastime.” It’s got an early period Squeeze-like appeal, so 1980, in the best sort of way. The song also appears on the Big Stir Singles: The Yultide Wave with a load of other great tunes and artists (check out the whole package here). Another reliable band of hooky holiday music providers is Vista Blue with a whole album of festive tunes and one-off singles. But this year they blew the doors off on the doing-the-holiday-music thing with their Ralphie’s Red Ryders project and its accompanying album You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out. What a wonderful tribute to everyone’s fave anxiety-fueled holiday movie classic, A Christmas Story. And the songs are great too! I included “I’m Gonna Get an A+ on My Theme” because it’s my fave at this particular moment – that could (will) change. Growing up Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Paper” was a holiday 45 must play. Roy’s gone but a bit of him lives on in a raft of current releases from the Ruen Brothers, like their brand new holiday song, “This Wholesome Christmas Eve.” The boys nail the guitar ambience and songwriting style of 1962 while the vocals really are heavenly.
The holidays offer performers an immense catalogue of now-classic material to cover in their bid to get a piece of that seasonal download/streaming action. But not all remakes are made equally. Nick Lowe is ‘old reliable’ in his ability to cover a tune and practically reinvent it. His collection of seasonal songs, Quality Street, as aptly named, and not in the cheap chocolates sort of way. This year he dropped two more holiday songs on us, one a cover of “Let It Snow.” With the able backing of his regulars Los Straightjackets, Nick largely lets the song’s hooky melody do all the work and the result are candy cane good. Indie darlings Peggy Sue strike a similar guitar pose with their cover of the venerable “White Christmas,” with just a shiver of their distinctive other-worldly Blue Velvet-style on the vocals. Power pop master Greg Pope gets right to work cranking the guitar all over “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” shifting from reverby lead to power chords with solid melodic effect. A less obvious pairing sees melodic noise-ster Velco Mary add some swing to the otherwise rather more typically morose “Silent Night.” But, hey, it works, giving the song some as-yet undiscovered pep.
Ok, back to new holiday songs. Dolourhas definitely been good this year, releasing copious amounts of great material, both albums and singles. No coal for these guys. But they have more to give! Like “All Winter Long,” a contribution to the season with a nice McCartney “Wonderful Christmastime” ambience. Nick Piunti and the Complicated Men’s “Christmas Morning” is a more upbeat take on festive music, with both their signature jangle and Bryan Adams-meets-Elvis Costello vocals in attendance. Now here’s a timely seasonal tune, in more ways than one: The Jac (featuring the Christmas crew)’s “I Won’t Be Leaving Home for Christmas.” I mean, no metaphor here. We’re locked down or should be, for everyone’s sakes. Still, Jangle band and The Jac main man Joe Algeri manages to make it sound light and uplifting, with a sing-along feel and great harmonies. Now slipping back a few years, here’s a winning Christmas selection from Trolley’s Star of Wonder album, “Christmas in the Marketplace.” The guitar riffing alone here makes this song sparkle.
We wrap up this installment of our holiday hit parade by coming full circle, back to Lisa Mychols, this time working with Super 8. The duo wowed listeners with the obvious musical chemistry all over their self-titled debut effort this past summer, one that managed to effectively vibe sun, sand and a bit of surf. Now they take aim at winter with “Red Bird,” and the track is more proof that what they’ve got going is no fluke. The song is easy-going and breezy like an afternoon skate on an outdoor rink.
Merry happy to you this season dear readers, wherever you are and whatever you believe. I hope your holidays are filled with hooks that get cranked to 11.