Music is far too important to be relegated to the background. Conan Neutron’s top albums of 2011

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Wild Flag

By Conan Neutron

Music is far too important to be relegated to the background. And while many “Best of” or “Top 10” lists are full of background music for background people, I reject that wholesale. We live in a world overburdened and surrounded by tawdry flacks and cheap howling sideshow men yelping for your attention at every level. All demanding that they and ONLY they have found the NEXT.BIG.THING. Finding a filter for this isn’t just a nice thing, it’s nearly a requirement.

In any case, it’s a world gone topsy turvy when certain other sites of “music writing”, never to be confused with actual music criticism, FAMOUS for being a closed system are suddenly soliciting a reader’s poll. What do you think, is this progress?

In any case, just because something is popular means that it is good, it just means that it is popular. However, certain powerful forces that have dominated the majority of the music world have been awash in pushing forward a certain branded identity. Whether they admit it or not, there is culpability and an aesthetic that favors the Starbucks variety of sensitivity and vaguely inoffensive background melody and music. So therefore, let us all give thanks that there is a place on the Internet that you can read and INTERACT with actual music criticism. A place where people who truly LOVE music will both tell you when they see miserable failure, but can present to you what they love. Sometimes in an easy list form.

2011 was an incredible year for music and here are some of the things that made it even more incredible for me, as a fan of rock music in no particular order:

Virgin Islands – Ernie Chambers V. God
Sharp and vital last wave punk from Seattle, WA that is not the least bit ‘grungy’ at all. Musically proficient, literate, and filled with purpose and aplomb. The album title is a reference to the famous Nebraska senator who filed a lawsuit against God himself. It’s a fitting analogy for a band this good that has this much creativity, power and incisiveness behind them. Much like the legislative maneuver of Suing God, it’s audacious, admirable and more than a little nutty. Also: ‘No Doctor’ is absolutely on my short list of singles for the year. To say nothing of all time Health Care related anthems.

Obits – Moody, Standard And Poor
There is a reserved confidence to what Obits do that is truly interesting. This is a rock band with a pedigree of much more raucous outfits, that have chosen to take that power and put it through a funnel. Obits are confident and well poised, what comes out at the end is some mature, at times shuffling rocking that eschews the middling elements of many other contemporaries. They aren’t hitting you over the head with sledgehammers, but they will not be ignored either. I have called them a “punk rock Yardbirds” in the past. And while I meant that facetiously, the consistency matches. Great band and great album worth your attention.

Police Teeth – Awesomer Than The Devil
Probably one of the finest American rock bands going right now, and still criminally unknown. Here’s what I wrote up on this amazing record earlier in the year:

“Seattle’s little-known and largely unheralded Police Teeth continues to write, record, and perform some of the best indie rock around, despite the lack of financial gain, notoriety, or justice. Few are in its league. Hell, few are playing the same game. Awesomer Than The Devil brings the damage just as hard as 2008’s Real Size Monster Series, a cult hit among those in the know. This is the sound of smart, cynical guys playing vital music that smokes the competition.

“Should-be No. 1 hits like ‘Summertime Bruise’ and ‘Rock And Roll Is A Pyramid Scheme (Parts 1 & 2)’ cross paths with moody and insistent pieces such as ‘Public Defender’ and ‘Watching The Hydroplanes’ (originally by the Factory Records band TunnelVision). A slap in the face of Pitchfork Media-style posing, Awesomer includes scathing indictments of the “cash in, debt out” nature of the banking class and songs that advocate burning your diploma for heat. To the initiated, the catchy, working-class rock of Police Teeth demands comparisons to Les Savy Fav at the top of its game, or The Thermals when they truly lock it in, or Archers Of Loaf. True to its title, the album is not only worth a blind buy, it’s a necessity.”

Wild Flag – Wild Flag
A great, great inventive rock record that happens to consist of four very talented ladies. (WHAAAA? GIRLS CAN’T ROCK!!!) Combining the dreamy and near proggy guitarwork of Mary Timony, the sharp concise riffage of Carrie Brownstein, the authoritative organ and bass of Rebecca Cole and the powerhouse drumming of Janet Weiss, Wild Flag is a band that is truly more than the sum of their parts, despite any detractors protests to the contrary. How fitting that all four members sing together and sing beautifully. There are certain contingents that think it has gotten more attention than deserved due to their origin, pedigree or gender, they are wrong. I love that many than a few of the songs on this record are about the love of music itself, the making of it and the power that it can wield. If you were look at the reaction of the indie music world, you would think rock music itself was in exile, instead of just not an area of interest for the current arbiters of taste. But there is more a symptom of the pathetic state of so-called music journalism these days and is not to be laid at the feet of this excellent band.

Let’s put it this way: I am glad that this band is around to bring the rock to girls and boys alike and maybe show to a whole new generation that this kind of music is too valuable to be left to hacks, imitators and fools … and gee whiz, perhaps four really awesome ladies can completely bring the damage. This is not a perfect record, but it is a damn fine debut, and anybody expecting that is paying far too much attention to the hype machine and the impressive resume this band carries around like a hair shirt. Expectations can be a tumultuous thing. Why can’t something just be a good record? Anyway, I love music … and rock music specifically, and this is a damn fine rock music style record. I reject the notion that it is a bunch of disparate personalities just “doing their thing”, this is a new thing. The sound is the blood between me and you. More please.

Poison Control Center – Stranger Ballet
I believe I already expounded at length about how great this band is:

“Any squalid talk of the death of rock and what not can fuck right off. The Poison Control Center is a force to be reckoned with and this should be recognized now. I cannot put this simply enough.”

This is their go-to record, and you should know it. If you want to believe in rock’n’roll again, you should give it a try.

Tom Waits – Bad As Me
Everett posted the phrase “the best kind of ‘more of the same’”. And that’s pretty darn good, hard to top even. It’s a weird situation when ‘more genius’ is just kind of expected, but that’s something that you can hang on Tom Waits’ hat rack. I’d love to see a review where the phrases “Captain Beefheart”, “Tin Pan Alley” and usage of mules at, in, or around boats, are not allowed. But a lifetime of great music will breed cliché and hack writing as much as anything. Tom Waits is a treasure, and not one to be taken lightly. He is one of my favorite artists of all time, and Bad As Me is indeed the best kind of more of the same. I long ago decided not to evangelize about the man to the non-believers, but my church is most definitely headed up by the right Rev. Waits. Even when he’s not waving a gun around, his words are very compelling.

Helms Alee – Weatherhead
Holy balls. ‘Heavy’ music that manages to combine the best parts of modern psych music with the power of bands such as the Melvins? Sounds good, now add in crazy three part harmonies with every member of the three-piece band, 2 ladies, one gentlemen singingly like angels. Well … you’ve got something special. If you are the kind of person who hates loud guitars… well, you are probably reading the wrong list, but this is the kind of record that might make you change that opinion. Helms Alee will make the metal “Best Of’s” but banishment in that musical ghetto sells them short, at times they get almost shoegazey and they are one of the few bands to build on the beauty and majesty of what Unwound has done with their own voice. To say that this is a band to watch is a wild understatement. This is a band to love.

The Mountain Goats – All Eternal’s Deck
The songwriting, lyricism and appeal of John Darnielle is absolutely undeniable to any that choose to listen and have an ear for an earnest well done song. And understand that when I say: earnest I mean in the truest sense of the term, not in the coarsening of earnestness that is used a synonym for banality. Bring forth all of the faux sensitive beardos and they shall be struck down by the truth of the Mountain Goats’ songs. BRING THEM ALL FORTH. All Eternal’s Deck is one of the finest entry points and most cohesive offerings since the landmark and incredible Sunset Tree. Much like with the great Mr. Waits I try not to talk people out of their opinions if they cannot abide the vocals. As somebody that took me years to get into it, I get it … believe me. However, ‘Damn These Vampires’ might just be one of the finest Mountain Goats songs written, and in a career of incredibly poignant and heartfelt songs, that’s no mean feat. A damn fine record and one that I think will stand the test of time. “Sleep like dead men, wake up like dead men, and when the sun comes, try hard not to hate the light, someday we’ll try to walk upright.”

Hurry Up Shotgun – Hurry Up Shotgun
Ahh! Hurry Up Shotgun, you make the rest of these artists look as obscure as Radiohead, yet you have made one of my very favorite albums of the year. One of the very few bands in my home of the SF bay area that I can truly say have grown exponentially. Shotgun have become a stronger more purposeful unit. A far, far cry from their raucous noisy roots, but still taking the heart of that into the future.This is a fully realized and powerful set of modern rock songs that should be played in stadiums instead of half full bars. This is the passion and power that should be filling arenas around the world. I’m tasked with the almost overwhelmingly difficult task of trying to convince a skeptical audience that this is a truly remarkable album. So here’s the pitch, listen to this record. It is worth your damn time and you will be better for it.

Just one example is the album closer ‘Girl From CA’:

“after all the fires burn out
this will keep you warm and sound
after all the fires burn out the clouds will clear up and we’ll see STARS”

The Blind Shake – Seriousness
The Blind Shake are another mostly unknown American treasure. Trying to describe why they are such a vital, exciting, powerful and interesting band is an arduous task. Take a reverbed DEVO-ish trio revved up on a V8 engine humming to capacity and launching off into the horizon and you have a start to understanding The Blind Shake. But here’s the thing, this album of rocked out crazy surfish noise rock is unlike anything else going and is absolutely thrilling. The upcoming documentary on them is going to be an absolute must-see. And this record is one that I’ve listened to quite a bit in the past year. Absolute seriousness.

Personal note: There is NOTHING wrong with rock music, there’s just a lot of terrible rock music out there. This is some rock music that is NOT terrible.

(continues overleaf)

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18 Responses to Music is far too important to be relegated to the background. Conan Neutron’s top albums of 2011

  1. sleevienicks December 17, 2011 at 11:28 am

    looks like somebody watched the movie school of ROCK way too much.

  2. Conan Neutron December 17, 2011 at 12:33 pm

    If liking (good) rock music is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

  3. Lucy Cage December 17, 2011 at 8:08 pm

    ‘Romance’ is one of my songs of the year, absolutely and for definite; it’s got handclaps, joie de vivre, several songs’ worth of tune and great guitar noise. I just didn’t enjoy a whole album’s worth of Wild Flag; too meh, too plodding. I say this with a heavy heart because the news that Mary Timony was in a new band had me hopping up and down with excitement.

    Thanks for the Mountain Goats and Hurry Up Shotgun: those are good songs. Oh, and Marnie Stern! Yes! She’s the best. ‘For Ash’ was one of last year’s wonders.

  4. sleevienicks December 18, 2011 at 12:38 am

    not sure how i missed the tom waits inclusion on this list but you should be ashamed adding that heavy jazz handed one shoe polish can short of a minstrel show asshole.

  5. Conan Neutron December 18, 2011 at 4:18 am

    Sleevie: you’ve proven yourself to be a dullard and somebody with fairly bad taste in music as well as manners. You should be ashamed at drawing breath in the morning when you use your energy to troll. Glad to see you put some vaguely racial epithets in the mix as well. I hope you feel very proud. So glad that on a post where I specifically mentioned that I will not evangelize about an artist I love so much, you felt the need to come in and poop on my coffee table. The “minstrel show” argument is old, tired, inaccurate and obnoxious. Good day.

  6. Conan Neutron December 18, 2011 at 4:27 am

    Lucy: I hear ya. It is the first album though, so I think it’ll be exciting to see what they do next. The backlash is deafening in my peer group right now, but I like the album and listen to it, and like it more than a lot of other good records. Which counts for a lot. Thanks for reading and for giving some of the other tunes a try.

    I’m still aghast at how badly I missed that Marnie Stern record. It’s a monster. May need to write a piece about that.

  7. sleevienicks December 18, 2011 at 2:57 pm

    Conan: For such a manly name that was a very weak ass response, I almost thought you were gonna slap me with a glove and challenge me to a duel with your rockist powdered wig wearing bad self. However on the troll bit, to quote boyracer “check yr fucking history.”
    It’s what I do, I get one here and crack wise (or as you see me and my racist self should I say cracker-wise). I get on here and bust balls, most folks have fun with it, guess I know now not to comment on your stuff as you get all sensi-tits, most rock and rollers can’t take a joke I noticed. It’s cool though keep making those middle-ground picks and building up that resume you’ll be at that 10 cent a word paycheck writing for Magnet any day now getting read by more people and having even less of a voice. So keep knocking’em out there Spastic Colon Newbietron. (in the uk one might think I just called you a retarded asshole noob, yet in the states I’m just saying your defense shit all over itself just like your top picks list).

    oh, and Poison Control Center….yeah they got some rock and roll moves, it’s like Brownsville Station but without the hits. Being a total rockist I know you have to know who Brownsville Station are.

  8. jed December 18, 2011 at 6:31 pm

    I’m a rockist and I think this list is pretty milquetoast, sorry. It’s not your fault, though, there really is a dearth of great guitar-based music out there. Maybe. I don’t know.

    So, you’re both wrong/right.

  9. jed December 18, 2011 at 6:53 pm

    Also there is nothing racist about what sleevie said. C’mon now.

  10. Erika December 19, 2011 at 3:47 am

    Whats wrong with being racy?

  11. Conan Neutron December 19, 2011 at 5:55 am

    Ok, if not racist… Idiotic. But seriously, “minstrel show”? preposterous. I have heard that ridiculous attempt at a dis a few times before. It is no more clever than the first time. I have read your stuff, not really my thing… Just like Waits isn’t yours. I am all for cracking wise, I can’t wait for you to do that. Haven’t seen it yet.

    There isn’t a thing middle ground about my list, feel free to comment, but Jesus Christ man, try a little harder. “how many times can a man write an album about mules in boats?” would have been an improvement.

    (and yeah, it’s pronounced like the talk show host, not the barbarian. When your parents give you a name like that in the era I was born in, you do get a chip on your shoulder.)

    Jed: I am not a rockist, I do not like Brownsville station, and you are wrong. But thanks for checking it out anyway, I’d be curious as to what your list looks like. I’d be curious as to why you think any of these records are “milquetoast”. Wild Flag has been contentious, and well documented, but other than that…

  12. jed December 19, 2011 at 3:49 pm

    I don’t know man, I’m just not into most of the stuff you posted. No insult intended, really. Just doesn’t grab me. I’m not into “sincerity” or “intensity” as formal acts of creative will. Also I don’t like a lot of music beyond 1985, so I probably shouldn’t even be having this conversation.

    However, I will say the “girls can rock- whaaa?” thing is a little silly. I mean Sleater-Kinney were on the cover of Rolling Stone 15 years ago or something, weren’t they?

  13. jed December 19, 2011 at 3:52 pm

    my list consists of Crystal Stilts’ newest album and the Beets’ newest album, and that’s probably about it. I guess I’m only a rockist if you consider rock having ended around 1967 or so, with brief resurgences in the 70s and early 80s, and Guided By Voices?

  14. jed December 19, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    incidentally, I totally agree with you on the background music thing

  15. Conan Neutron December 19, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    Just typin’ ’em like I see ’em Jed.

    Specifically if you read the Poison Control Center piece, I go far more in depth with those boys. But they are one of those bands that maybe you have to see?
    I’ve grown to truly love their records though, and Stranger Ballet is a monster.

    I’ve generally tried to follow the CB orthodoxy and post live videos, but I think they made an incredible record. Here is the recorded version of the song I posted:

    Sleevie: I’ve thought about it, I think Poison Control Center are far more “Boys are Back In town” than, “Smokin’ in the Boys Room.” Cheers for making me learn/re-learn that there was ever a dude named: ‘Henry “H-Bomb” Weck’ though. Redonkulous!

    Also, if you would like to do a “battle” piece on the right Rev. Tom Waits, I would be happy to pick up that guantlet, name the format, name the time. No opinions shall be changed, much wise will be cracked.

    I am serious.

    Back to Jed: to be fair, i haven’t heard Crystal Stilts, or the Beets, but I will check them out for sure.

    I will say if you love GBV that digging your way into a PCC show at least, should be right up your alley. Few do it as well as they do, and with enough panache and vitality.

    As far as my expounding upon sincerity and intensity, i think that Pavement, as much as I’ve come to appreciate some of what they do as quite good, were something of a poison to the (indie) rock world. Disaffection and lack of commitment seem to somehow be laudible traits, which absolutely disgust me on every level. How I roll, what I do… if I decide to get mean, I may name names, but what is the point really?

    Sincerity alone is not a good thing, but when pointed to the right direction and when the aim is true, it can be beautiful. And all too rare these days. I’ll take a Hurry Up Shotgun over a disaffected, “oh, whatever” pitchfork darling any day of the week. Not every heart on sleeve is worthwhile, but it can go a long way too.

    Also: I really must say that any list that includes the Blind Shake *AND* Police Teeth, to say nothing of Helms Alee can be called many things, but milquetoast is a hard sell m’man. Virgin Islands alone make this a rather out of the mainstream/danger stricken list.

    Facing facts: there are two… maybe three bands on here that the music listening world at large has heard. But these are my top 10 records of the year, i’m just staying true to the concept.

    This list is born by the sum total of the (non-CB) top 100’s/best ofs. Most of which sound like dentist music to me at best, and insults upon the face of music at worst. I like the rock, I write about it, I read it, I play it. It’s what I love for… passive and safe consonance for consance’s sake and faux bearded sensitivity makes me wretch. Luckily, I stopped reading the main offender of pushing such things years ago, so it mitigates my exposure..

    Back to the main crux of things, I will say this:
    I think if you really give a listen to some of this stuff, and i’m not saying you will… but I think that if you did, you would find some of the wonder within. And that’s all i’m trying to share… not who has the best PR agency, not who has the most blurbs, just the stuff that personally enriched my life and made me remember… “Yes… yes… i *DO* love music. It is FUCKING wonderful.” and i’ll never stop.

  16. jackINjill December 20, 2011 at 3:35 am

    ” four very talented ladies. (WHAAAA? GIRLS CAN’T ROCK!!!) ”

    Wow someone is a closet misogynist.

  17. jed December 20, 2011 at 9:11 am

    Colin- I don’t mind sincerity when it’s not an affectation, but it usually is these days. I love Pavement and would actually argue that they were incredibly sincere- Malkmus is a sarcastic, obtuse dude and his music reflects that. THAT’S sincerity. I can’t tell you how many successful bands I know who sing romantically about being a loser, an outcast, misunderstood, when in fact they’re popular kids, and good looking kids, the rich kids, the successful kids, and always have been. Some people are fooled or contented by that kind of affectation but it’s not for me. So I think we have to define our terms when we talk about sincerity.

    Anyway I’ve played shows with PCC in New York a few times and they’re great live and swell dudes, so yeah! Agreed on that.

  18. Conan Neutron December 20, 2011 at 10:31 am

    Sincerity as an affectation is as repulsive as “noble disconnection.” I’m sick to death of everything being a reference, to a reference, to a reference to something that happened before. I’m not just sick of it, i’m done with it.

    When everything is a sort of vague sardonicism that is used as a shield to prevent hurt it devalues culture itself and makes a closed circuit of smirking self reference that threatens to create a singularity that probably looks quite a bit like an episode of Family Guy.

    I think Pavement is fine, but I hate what they helped bring about, if that makes sense?

    That said, the appropriation of geek culture and honest pariahs by those that wear them for fashion? Yeah, that sucks pretty bad. Trust me, I don’t think a single one of the acts mentioned in this list qualify for that.

    Assuming that any kind of sincerity is just a put on… well that’s just a bummer, and shows a larger problem with our society as a whole.

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