Music To My Ears: A 50,000 Foot Review Of The Current Rock and Pop Scenes (Part II of IV – Rock and Alternative)

Part I – Overview
The State of Rock and Alternative
Let’s take a look at the surviving rock scene, one artist at a time. In addition to a thumbnail of my impressions of each artist, for those who have some songs worth checking out, I’m offering my list of their best songs since 2000 or so, so you can check them out for yourself if you’re unfamiliar.
Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band – I start, as always, with Springsteen, about whom I’ve written more than I could hope to summarize or even link here (see here, here, here, here, and here). As I’ve noted previously, Bruce has had a good decade or so since turning 50 in 1999; following 1998’s Tracks box set of three decades of unreleased recordings, he got the E Street band back together in 1999, released the definitive post-9/11 album in The Rising in 2002, and has put out three other original studio albums (2005’s Devils & Dust, 2007’s Magic and 2009’s Working On A Dream), an album of covers of classic American folk songs (2006’s The Seeger Sessions), a classic concert album/DVD (the 1975 Hammersmith Odeon show in London, his first overseas concert), two new live albums (2001’s Live in New York City and 2007’s Live in Dublin) and, most recently in the fall of 2010 opened the vaults again for The Promise, a 2-CD set of previously unreleased tracks from the Darkness on the Edge of Town sessions. And, through it all, keeping up a punishing touring schedule that would wear down a man half his age.
The production of good studio albums isn’t as effortless as it once was – a man who would once leave whole abums worth of great stuff unreleased has at least a few dull filler tracks on each of his last three studio albums – but Bruce is still making quality rock, and Working on a Dream was better and, oddly, more pop-oriented than its two predecessors, with many tracks reflecting, at last, his contentment at a stable marriage and desire to hang on to those days of relative youth that remain. Now into his 60s, Bruce is very much aware of his own musical mortality. I recent read Big Man, Clarence Clemons’ quirky, impressionistic look back at his life and career with Bruce, and that’s one of the core recurring themes of the book – Bruce’s voice just keeps getting more gravelly, Danny Federici is dead, Clarence has a battery of problems with his knees, back and heart, Max Weinberg has a bad back, Nils Lofgren’s had hip replacement…the band’s days are numbered, and true to form, the only way Bruce knows how to deal with that reality is to keep playing show after show like each one could be his last. And as the Live in Dublin album attests, to this day, Bruce is putting new spins and reinventions even on some of his oldest songs.
As for The Promise, it’s not really new music (although Bruce has been promoting it with the full-tilt enthusiasm of a man with new songs and something to prove) but it clearly illustrates how the track selection for Darkness worked. There are nearly no hard-rocking songs left in the vault, as those all made the album. There are a number of fun pop songs; of the songs on the album only ‘Prove It All Night’ was remotely pop, whereas poppier tracks like ‘Fire,’ ‘Because the Night’ and ‘Talk To Me’ are well-known songs by now because Bruce gave them to other artists. As for the slower, mopier songs that fill out the rest of the 2-CD set, those were clearly lesser songs than others in the same vein that filled out the album (I include the title track, and I know I’m a heretical Bruce fan for not liking it much; Joe Posnanski offers the majority view).
Best Tracks (since The Rising): ‘Working on a Dream,’ ‘Radio Nowhere,’ ‘Save My Love,’ ‘Surprise, Surprise,’ ‘Gotta Get That Feeling,’ ‘Maria’s Bed,’ ‘Ain’t Good Enough For You,’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows.’
U2 – They may be younger than Springsteen, but age has caught up with the best rock band of the past three decades. Bono, now 50, no longer has the effortless powerhouse voice that seemed to fill stadiums by itself, and the band had to cancel the US leg of its summer 2010 tour after he suffered a back injury requiring surgery. Their most recent album, No Line on The Horizon, is a good listen all the way through but is clearly their worst album since their earliest days, lacking any one standout song; it’s like the second side of The Unforgettable Fire stretched to a whole album. Even the Spider-Man Broadway musical they scored has been beset by production delays. Meanwhile, Bono has taken up another sideline as an occasional NY Times columnist; he comes off as a smarter, less China-toadying Tom Friedman.
U2 is promising they’re not done, with as many as three albums in production (including a new rock album, an album of the Spider-Man songs and, reportedly, a “dance” album with hot electro-dance producer David Guetta and – gag – of the Black Eyed Peas). They may be down, but I wouldn’t count them out just yet. Here’s a taste of some of the new stuff.
Best Tracks (since 2000): ‘Walk On,’ ‘Beautiful Day,’ ‘Love and Peace or Else.’
The Saw Doctors – Longtime readers know I never pass up a chance to talk up The Saw Doctors, the great Irish pop-rock band about which I’ve written repeatedly (and have a longer profile piece still in the works). With their Beatles-style pop-rock with its twinges of Irish folk influences and their rollicking live shows, the boys from Tuam in County Galway are still going strong, and released their seventh studio album and third of the decade, Further Adventures of…the Saw Doctors, in 2010, following on the heels of a greatest-hits compilation (To Win Just Once) in 2009, a compilation of unreleased songs and live recordings (That Takes The Biscuit!) in 2007, and three live albums since 2004 (2004’s Live in Galway, 2008’s Live at the Melody Tent and 2005’s rare but awesome tsunami-charity release Live on New Year’s Day), plus a single recorded for charity (a cover version of the Sugababes’ ‘About You Now’) that hit #1 on the Irish pop charts in 2008. They were last in the news playing the inaugural ball for Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley.
The new album has a bunch of good songs, the standout tracks being the distinctive guitar riff and wistful lyrics of the lead single, ‘Taking the Train’ and the hard-rocking ‘Hazared’ (in which Davy Carton boldly declares “me, I’m back on the rock and roll”), but it does have two weaknesses: first, two corny, clunker ballads (‘Be Yourself’ and ‘Somebody Loves You’) that lack the usual Saw Doctors touch, and second, no songs by Leo Moran, the band’s other frontman.
Best Tracks (since 2000): ‘Taking the Train,’ ‘About You Now,’ ‘Villains,’ “Hazared.’
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – I most recently wrote about Petty, Florida’s gift to rock, here. Following on the heels of a really excellent 4-CD live anthology, Petty and his band were back in 2010 with a new studio album, Mojo, his first since 2002. Petty’s voice hasn’t changed in 35 years and his band’s only gotten better (they recorded all the songs from this album in live studio sessions). There’s nothing here as catchy as ‘Refugee’ or ‘Runnin Down a Dream’ or ‘American Girl’, but this is a quality vintage Petty album from beginning to end, rock with blues influences and tempered by Petty’s general mellowness. Tom Petty’s still in this for the long haul.
Best Tracks (since 2000): ‘Running Man’s Bible,’ ‘The Last DJ,’ ‘High in the Morning.’
The Killers – The best young (under-40) rock band, period. After they were recommended by a whole bunch of different people, I only had to sit through three or four of their songs to decide I’d go out and buy all their albums and wonder how I’d missed them before. With massive success in the UK in particular, over 15 million albums sold since their 2004 debut, and a sound that would fit comfortably on Top 40 radio if Top 40 radio still played rock, The Killers are the closest thing going to a logical successor to U2 as the world’s best rock band.
You might be forgiven, especially if you were introduced to them by watching their music videos, for assuming that 29-year-old frontman Brandon Flowers is a gay Englishman who came up through the clubs (unsurprisingly, his favorite band growing up was the Pet Shop Boys), rather than a married Mormon father of three from Nevada, the band’s home base. In fact, The Killers’ blending and shifting of musical and visual styles is a big part of what makes them a compelling and evolving band (their videos are actually quite good, unlike much of what’s done in that medium these days), but they remain unmistakably rooted in rock. The second and best of their three studio albums, Sam’s Town, shows the repeated influence of Bruce Springsteen after Flowers went on a huge Springsteen kick between their first two albums; the lyrics to ‘Read My Mind,’ their best song, are sprinkled with little Bruce touches, and ‘A Dustland Fairytale,’ off their third album, Day & Age, could not possibly be a more obvious homage to Bruce. Flowers’ crisp vocals stand in stark contrast to so much of the current trend in ‘alternative’ rock, and make the band’s music immediately identifiable and accessible. If anything, his recent solo effort, Flamingo, was even more lyrically Springsteenish, but nonetheless a little weaker – as is often the case for solo debuts by band frontmen – for the lack of the musical backbone provided by the band. Fortunately, the band will end its hiatus with a return to live performance in April.
The Killers are slightly crotchety and prone to feuds with other bands, such as when Flowers blasted Green Day for filming a DVD of the America-bashing American Idiot before a UK audience, horrifying some left-wing music fans with what was really nothing more than simple patriotism (the band played a 2010 campaign rally for Harry Reid, so they’re not exactly a right-wing outfit). They also put out an annual Christmas song, the best of which was 2007’s tongue-in-cheek ‘Don’t Shoot Me Santa.’
Best Killers Tracks: ‘Read My Mind,’ ‘When You Were Young,’ ‘All These Things That I’ve Done,’ ‘Mr. Brightside,’ ‘For Reasons Unknown,’ ‘Spaceman,’ ‘Human.’
Best Brandon Flowers Solo Tracks: ‘Magdalena,’ ‘Jilted Lovers & Broken Hearts.’
Grace Potter & the Nocturnals – If rock-fan readers of this post come away with nothing else, I hope you all go out and listen to the work of this Vermont-based throwback rock band, fronted by a tall, leggy 27-year-old with a serious Janis Joplin vibe and a powerful set of lungs (Potter is basically Janis if she was prettier and not wacked-out on drugs; in fact, while the music scene will always have its junkies and burnout cases, my sense is that relatively speaking there are fewer people on drugs in the rock and pop worlds than there have been for a very long time). My wife and I are going to see Potter in March at Manhattan’s Irving Plaza, a tiny venue where I’ve seen the Saw Doctors twice. One major booster of the band is Peter Gammons, who has been a devoted fan since their appearance at the 2006 Boston Music Awards.
For my money, the band’s self-titled third album is the best album released in 2010, with essentially no filler. It shows their continuing growth, as each album has had progressively more strong songs. You can definitely tell that the band is making a major push to break through commercially; they’ve followed a tireless promotional schedule (everything from the VH1 Divas “Salute to the Troops” to performing at the Knicks game at Madison Square Garden on Christmas Day), Potter did a duet with country superstar Kenny Chesney, and she has clearly made an effort to glam up her image, with blonder hair and shorter skirts standing in contrast to the slightly frumpier, more bohemian look you can see in older concert clips.
Potter and her band revel in their old-school influences, doing classic rock tunes with the likes of Gov’t Mule and Joe Satriani (they recorded a cover of ‘White Rabbit,’ a staple of their live set, for the recent Alice in Wonderland film). Potter can also write catchy pop when she wants to; she recently recorded a straight-up pop song, ‘Something That I Want’ (the song, full of bouncy organ riffs which could easily have been a Monkees tune) for Disney’s animated Rapunzel film “Tangled.” Potter might seem an odd choice to get picked for the soundtrack of a Disney movie (most of the other songs on the soundtrack were by Mandy Moore) until you realize that she and the band are signed to Hollywood Records, the Radio Disney house label that promotes the likes of Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers, and Hillary Duff. Potter’s other big passion is cooking; she has her own brand of chocolates, makes her own maple syrup from trees in her back yard (it’s a Vermont thing), and incorporated the recipe framework in the powerhouse chorus of one of their best songs, ‘Mastermind’:

One part sugar/Two parts feeling…
Three cups full of bottled lightning…
Four parts water/Five parts believing…
Mix it all together and put both feet in

Best Tracks – ‘Hot Summer Night,’ ‘Mastermind,’ ‘Medicine,’ ‘Colors’.
Pearl Jam – Pearl Jam should be the best rock band in the business today, but even if they’re something less than that now, they’re still worth seeking out. I always liked them better than Nirvana, and their first three albums in the early to mid-90s were outstanding. If Kurt Cobain had somehow mastered his demons and lived on to 2011, Nirvana might well be where Pearl Jam stands today, a popular and successful touring act but generally considered past their prime and largely left behind by the music-listening public outside their fan base. Of course, to get from there to here, Pearl Jam had to wage a long series of self-destructive battles, from their war with Ticketmaster to ultimately striking out on their own independent label to pettier decisions like refusing to make music videos for more than a decade. Much as I enjoyed those first three records and their backing of Neil Young on 1995’s Mirrorball, the last Pearl Jam album I bought was 1996’s No Code, and other than the Eddie Vedder-less ‘Mankind’ (a very underrated song) I didn’t bother replacing that album or any of the songs on it when I lost the CD in the fall of the Trade Center. It doesn’t help that Eddie Vedder, while he has a great and powerful voice, so often sounds as if he’s singing while eating a sandwich.
But their 2009 release, Backspacer, seems to signal a comeback to more listener-friendly music. After checking out a bunch of the songs I keep meaning to buy it (I can never find it in stores and there’s like 12 different versions of the thing for sale on Amazon, but I’ll get there eventually).
Best Tracks (since 2000): ‘The Fixer’
Sheryl Crow – The female Tom Petty, in terms of being an artist who’s churned out quality music year in and year out with a minimum of fuss (not that she’s lacked her own personal dramas, between a battle with breast cancer and a relationship with Lance Armstrong, and as with Pearl Jam, the less said of her politics, the better) and wears her Southern heritage lightly (she’s from Missouri). Her sound’s softer than Petty’s and even at age 48 she’s only been releasing albums half as long, but she’s built up a considerable catalog of hits since 1992’s breakthrough ‘All I Wanna Do.’ Crow’s latest album, 2010’s 100 Miles From Memphis, sees her back to her Motown roots (she got her start as a backup singer for Michael Jackson in the late 80s), with a record heavy on the horn sections. It’s a good, mostly mellow listen, even if you aren’t in the mood to sit through ‘Say What You Want To,’ a catchy but not very thinly veiled diatribe aimed at Sarah Palin and plunked down in the middle of the album.
Best Tracks (since 2000): ‘Soak Up The Sun,’ ‘Peaceful Feeling,’ ‘Summer Day,’ ‘C’mon C’mon’
Jack White – Imagine a 2-person band consisting of a singer/guitarist and a drummer, in which the singer isn’t especially good at singing and the drummer’s not that good at drumming. You might expect a failure of a band, but instead the Detroit-based White Stripes made some of the best, most uncompromising rock of the past decade, and 35-year-old Jack White’s guitar magic, eclectic influences and relationships with other artists have made him and his various bands vital figures in the rock world. The White Stripes officially announced their breakup yesterday, perhaps an inevitable development given (1) Jack and Meg White’s divorce and Meg’s remarriage (which finally put to bed the longstanding air of mystery they’d cultivated over whether they were husband and wife or brother and sister) and (2) the fact that Meg was really never musically necessary to the band and was never entirely comfortable with the limelight.
The White Stripes never reached the heights of the great rock bands of the 60s and 70s, in large part because of Jack White’s limitations as a vocalist; while White, like Bob Dylan, could do more with his voice than you’d guess at first glance, he was never an accessible vocalist, and an even worse vocalist live (White’s reputation as a live act rests instead on his guitar wizardry). But his musical virtuosity made the vocals take a back seat anyway. The band was also masterful in its use of iconography – the red-black-and-white motif of their outfits, equipment and album covers, the hypnotic video to ‘Seven Nation Army’ – one element of their success that is unlikely to be carried over as Jack White moves on to other projects.
I still need to check out more of Jack White’s music across his many ventures, including his other bands, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather. His most recent project, since relocating to Nashville and starting his own studio there, is backing an album by septuagenarian rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson, following on the heels of a prior effort for country legend Loretta Lynn, and with the White Stripes going the way of Cream, more collaborations are undoubtedly in the works.
Best White Stripes Tracks: ‘Seven Nation Army,’ ‘The Denial Twist,’ ‘Icky Thump,’ ‘The Hardest Button to Button,’ ‘Catch Hell Blues,’ ‘Ball and Biscuit.’
Kings of Leon – In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, and so it is with the Kings of Leon, a conventional, straight-up no-frills hard rock band that places in the top tier of young rock bands today. A Tennessee-based brother act fronted by 28-year-old Caleb Followill that originally hit it big in the UK, the Kings were on their fourth studio album when they had their crossover commercial breakthrough in mid-2009 with the success of ‘Use Somebody’ on the pop charts (it hit #1 on top 40 radio, an extremely rare accomplishment for a rock band these days). As Clarkson – a fan since seeing them open for U2 earlier in the decade – described the band to the New York Times on the eve of their breakout, “The rock category is not rock anymore, so I love that they’re a rock band. Nothing about them is not rock.” And indeed, Only By The Night, their 2008 breakout album, is a good rock album from stem to stern, without a weak song in the bunch, and I’d recommend it to anyone; the 2010 followup, Come Around Sundown, lacks the distinctive tracks that made Only By The Night a hit, but it’s likewise a worthwhile listen.
But realistically, if the Kings of Leon had come out in the mid-70s, they’d have been ranked closer to Foghat, Golden Earring and Bachman-Turner Overdrive than Aerosmith or Zeppelin; it’s only the weakness of today’s rock scene that puts them near the head of the class. In a generation that would regard the second coming of Foghat as a blessing, it’s good to be the Kings.
Best Tracks – ‘Use Somebody,’ ‘Sex on Fire,’ ‘Crawl.’
Muse – Muse is a cross between pre-Joshua Tree U2 and Rush. A trio like Rush, with a reputation as a spectacular touring act, their sound is distinguished by the powerhouse vocals of 32-year-old frontman Matthew Bellamy, probably the most strongly Bono-influenced vocalist in rock (even more so than Flowers or Coldplay’s Chris Martin), and they too have opened for U2. Musically, Muse is is even more synthesized and electronic than Rush, but unmistakably still guitar-driven rock. They’re an intensely political British band; Bellamy is something of a 9/11 Truther and prone to pronouncements like “[t]he one thing religion has got right is that usury is a fundamental problem with the worldwide banking system.” Originally successful in France and scorned at first in their native UK, they’ve backed into a lot of free publicity on account of Twilight author Stephenie Meyer being a fan and insisting on their music being used in the soundtracks of her massively successful film franchise. Bellamy is reportedly romantically involved with Kate Hudson, one of those useless bits of gossip-mag celebrity trivia I can somehow never avoid absorbing.
Best Tracks: ‘Resistance,’ ‘Uprising,’ ‘Knights of Cyclonia,’ ‘Starlight.’
Nickelback – I really tried to give Nickelback’s music a fair hearing, honestly I did, but their songs were so forgettable I sometimes forgot what they sounded like while they were still playing. There’s nothing actively offensive about Nickelback other than that they take up airplay that could be given to good rock bands; they’re by far and away the most-played rock act on radio over the past decade, which may have helped convince the public that rock is well and truly out of ideas. The only song of theirs I own is ‘Into the Night,’ the single Chad Kroeger recorded with Santana, suggesting that Kroeger’s bland voice isn’t the entire problem with Nickelback’s music.
Coldplay – Like Nickelback, I worked hard to come to Coldplay with an open mind, knowing that both bands were hugely popular yet frequently derided. I didn’t have an auspicious start: my initial reaction to the song ‘Viva La Vida’ was that it sounded like it was building up to really go somewhere, and never did. But eventually I was sold, not on Coldplay generally as a band, but on a handful of their songs. Given the narrow range of their style, I can’t really imagine listening to an entire Coldplay album at one sitting, but they make a good change of pace on my iPod.
Best Tracks: ‘Viva La Vida,’ ‘Clocks,’ ‘Speed of Sound,’ ‘Low.’
Slash – Back in the day, I was a very big Guns ‘n Roses fan, and still listen a good deal to their best stuff from Appetite for Destruction and the Use Your Illusion albums, as well as more offbeat stuff like their superior but hard to locate cover of Jumpin’ Jack Flash. Probably no other band has disappointed me as badly as Guns ‘n Roses without the death of one of the key members of the band, to the point where I’ve never even mustered the desire to listen to The Spaghetti Incident and only just finally listened to the long-delayed, Slash-less Chinese Democracy after finding a copy of it in my older brother’s car amidst the other possessions of his we ended up with after his death.
I’m probably overdue to catch up on Slash’s work with Velvet Revolver, but I did pick up the 45-year-old London native’s self-titled solo debut released in 2010, and it’s very, very much worth it. The album features collaborations with a variety of vocalists ranging from Ozzy to Adam Levine of Maroon 5 to Chris Cornell, Iggy Pop and Lemmy from Motorhead. Slash also appeared on a recent single, ‘Rock Star,’ by Rihanna, about which I can only say I hope he was paid in cash.
Contrasting Slash with Chinese Democracy, which is in effect an Axl solo album and has maybe two good songs (‘There Was A Time’ and ‘Catcher in the Rye’), you can definitely see that Slash – like Keith Richards and Pete Townsend – was the more important member of the band (in fact, Izzy Stradlin’s 1992 solo debut Izzy Stradlin and the Ju Ju Hounds is also a vastly better album than Chinese Democracy, with hardly a weak track on the record).
Best Tracks: ‘I Hold On’ (with Kid Rock), ‘Beautiful Dangerous’ (with Fergie), ‘Starlight’ (with Myles Kennedy, who provides some of the album’s best vocals and has toured as the vocalist for Slash’s band).
Chickenfoot – Supergroups have a checkered history in rock, but Chickenfoot is a perfect situation for a supergroup: three low-key guys who know how to play in a band (two Van Halen veterans – Hagar and bassist Michael Anthony – and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith) unite with a spectacular talent who’s never played in one (guitar god Joe Satriani). The result is a solid debut album that flat-out rocks, and more impressively, sounds like the work of guys who have been playing together for years.
Best Tracks: ‘Future In The Past,’ ‘Soap on a Rope.’
Them Crooked Vultures – If Chickenfoot’s album was a success for rock supergroups, I have to class Them Crooked Vultures as a failure. I really wanted to like this band, built around Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones and Dave Grohl of Nirvana and the Foo Fighters. But as I went through track after track on YouTube, I heard way too much jam and not enough song. It kept sounding like they were giving us the studio sessions instead of the album. A real missed opportunity.
Gov’t Mule – An Allman-Brothers style classic rock jam band, and the Allman Brothers sound isn’t coincidental, as 50-year-old frontman Warren Haynes spent almost a decade as a member of the reformulated Allman Brothers starting in 1989 (he’s also toured with the surviving members of the Grateful Dead after the death of Jerry Garcia). Gov’t Mule is more of a live act whose studio albums are just excuses to tour, so while the band’s catalog of songs is solid, it features little in the way of standout signature songs other than ‘Soulshine,’ a good studio track that really shines in any number of live performances.
Best Track: ‘Soulshine’
Arcade Fire – Arcade Fire was another band I genuinely wanted to like, given their reputation as a quality, rising rock band, and I gave the indie darlings fronted by a husband and wife duo from Montreal a couple of looks, even going back after seeing a clip of them performing with Bruce (maybe it’s just me, but the song – ‘Keep the Car Running’ – reminded me of John Cafferty’s ‘On the Dark Side’). I did like one of their songs, ‘Rebellion (Lies),’ and found a second, ‘Intervention,’ to be adequate, and might have been a good song with better sound quality. But the band fronted by a husband and wife duo from Quebec just suffers too badly from the alt-rock disease of murky production and barely-audible vocals, and seeing one of the members of the band laud “that amateur sheen, that nonprofessional sheen that I treasure,” suggests that perhaps the poor production values on their recordings is a deliberate way of keeping the listener at arms’ length.
Best Track: ‘Rebellion (Lies)’
Ben Harper – I’ll refer you to my essay on the Lost Black Voice of Rock if by now you’re thinking that this list is a little too white. Anyway, there’s always somebody to provide the exception to the rule, and for now that’s Ben Harper, a 41-year-old Californian who combines guitar theatrics with a distinctive, gritty voice. Whichever of his various backup bands he’s playing with at any given time, Ben Harper rocks.
Best Tracks: ‘Shimmer & Shine,’ ‘Why Must You Always Dress In Black,’ ‘Burn to Shine.’
Spoon – One of the poppier “indie” rock bands (the horn riffs on ‘The Underdog’ remind me of the old Motown classic ‘Build Me Up Buttercup,’ but maybe that’s just me), featuring the slightly gravelly voice of 39-year-old frontman Britt Daniel, Austin, Texas-based Spoon has built a steady following with seven albums dating back to the mid-90s and a fairly consistent, listener-friendly sound.
Best Tracks: ‘The Underdog’, ‘You Got Your Cherry Bomb,’ ‘My Mathematical Mind,’ ‘I Turn My Camera On,’ ‘Got Nuffin.’
The Black Keys – An Akron, Ohio-based blues-rock duo that loves fuzzy guitar and throaty vocals but sometimes loves the fuzz a little too much in both, the Black Keys sound like a throwback to 50s bluesmen, but with modern technology. Like Coldplay – a very musically different band – I find them better suited as a change of pace than a band I really have a hankering to hear ten songs in a row by. The one album of theirs I own is 2010’s Brothers. Their videos are often darkly witty.
Oh, and this is just concentrated awesome.
Best Tracks – ‘Tighten Up,’ ‘Howlin’ For You,’ ‘Unknown Brother.’
Dave Matthews Band – The 1990s jam band isn’t just still going; it’s coming off its most critically acclaimed album in 2009 (following the death of saxophonist Leroi Moore) and is one of the biggest touring acts of the past decade. I have two Matthews albums (Crash and Busted Stuff), one of which I got as a gift, and I still have mixed reactions to the band – I like a handful of songs on each album, but I really don’t get into them.
Best Track (since 2000) – ‘Grey Street’
Elton John – Some people hang it up when they’re done as pop stars, some keep soldiering on in obscurity. Elton John instead headed for a natural field for his talents in middle age, finding a profitable second career writing for Broadway and Disney movies. (At last check, he was working on, of all things, an Animal Farm stage musical, when he wasn’t performing at Rush Limbaugh’s fourth wedding – like Bono, Sir Elton is savvy about the virtues of entertainers being civil to their political opposite numbers).
But in late 2010, Elton John went all the way back to his earliest musical roots, recording a new album, The Union, with that other early-70s piano legend, Leon Russell. (The Oklahoman Russell, now 68 and white-bearded, was last seen performing at the 2010 Grammys with the Zac Brown Band, a young country group that looks like they got lost on their way to the Lonely Mountain). The result? I went through on iTunes and found too many slow songs to be worth buying the whole album (the last thing I need in my life is nine new Elton John ballads), but the remaining tracks are really good stuff, as the gruff, flinty Russell curbs Elton John’s maudlin side and brings out the best of his old time rock n’ roll side.
Best Tracks – ‘Hey Ahab,’ ‘My Kind of Hell,’ ‘Jimmie Rodgers’ Dream,’ ‘If It Wasn’t For Bad,’ ‘Hearts Have Turned To Stone.’
Kid Rock – I would never have predicted, a decade ago, that I would grow to like Kid Rock, but he has gradually been winning my respect. He’s always been a guy who defied genre boundaries, and is now firmly established as a rock-country-rapper, not necessarily in that order. He’s a gritty vocalist and a devotee of the sound of his fellow Michigander Bob Seger, especially his latest, the 80s-esque anthem ‘Born Free.’ I hated ‘All Summer Long’ at first for its utterly shameless use of those 70s classics ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and ‘Werewolves of London,’ but it like Kid Rock himself, it grew on me.
He’s also one of the few open Republicans in rock (he’s campaigned with Sarah Palin), which is worth some good will with me but not enough that I’d listen to a Ted Nugent album voluntarily.
Best Tracks – ‘All Summer Long,’ ‘Born Free,’ ‘I Hold On’ (with Slash), ‘Rockin’ My Life Away’ (with Jerry Lee Lewis and Slash).
Daughtry – Kind of a junior Nickelback, to the point where Daughtry even opened for Nickelback on a recent world tour, but Chris Daughtry does have a much better voice than Chad Kroeger, and occasionally that comes through on his songs. The 31-year-old North Carolina native also seems like a really likeable guy. I still find the band’s music boring and disposable and have yet to buy any of it, but a couple of the songs are at least listenable, and I haven’t ruled out Daughtry the way I have with Nickelback.
Green Day – Most of this list consists of artists who range from politically liberal to hard-shell leftist, but usually the politics is off center stage just enough to sit back and enjoy the music. Not so with Green Day, a once-juvenile punk band that must have read a few mimeographed pamphlets somewhere and decided to declare themselves public policy solons. Now, they’ve sent American Idiot and its Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-bashing message to Broadway. Dude: even Neil Young got over Nixon eventually.
Bon Jovi – I have to say, speaking of defying expectations, I never imagined, back in 1987 or so when I was in high school in North Jersey and listening to their albums (few of my favorite artists of that era have aged worse, besides Def Leppard, although I do still love ‘Runaway’), that Bon Jovi would still be trucking along in 2011, still putting out records that get played on the radio in addition to Jon Bon Jovi’s Lifetime Movie acting career; the band’s put out five studio albums since 2000, and according to Wikipedia, each has sold between 3 million and 11 million copies worldwide. They’re less hair band, less New Jersey and less obviously Van Halen-meets-Springsteen these days, but still very much Bon Jovi.
Best Track (since 2000): ‘Who Says You Can’t Go Home’ (with Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland; I was astonished, after hearing the song, to discover that Nettles was a skinny white girl), ‘It’s My Life.’
John Mellencamp – The fifth pillar of American roots rock, along with Springsteen, Petty, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Bob Seger, the 59-year-old Indianan produced a lot of good pop-oriented rock in the 80s, and two of my favorites of his (the hypnotic ‘Human Wheels’ and a cover of Van Morrison’s ‘Wild Night’) were recorded in the early 90s. The last Mellencamp album I own (or rather that my wife owns) is 2001’s Cutting Heads, although I also liked his 2005 anthem ‘Our Country’ even after it was beaten into the ground by Chevy truck ads. Unfortunately, Mellencamp’s latest album went the folk/acoustic route, so I’ve taken a pass.
Best Tracks (since 2000): ‘Our Country’, ‘Peaceful World’.
Paul McCartney – True story: the first album I ever purchased, in vinyl, was 1982’s Tug of War (don’t judge: I was 10. ‘Take It Away’ is the only song from that album I still listen to). I basically stopped listening to his stuff after that, even when he drew good reviews for 1989’s Flowers in the Dirt and 2007’s Memory Almost Full, two of the eleven solo albums Sir Paul has turned out since then.
After my older brother died in November, we’ve been cleaning out his apartment and dividing his stuff, always a grim duty, but that means carving up his extensive CD collection. I made off with a huge amount of Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead, a bunch of Hendrix and Janis Joplin CDs, and a variety of other stuff, one of which was Memory Almost Full. And it’s pretty good. A McCartney album inevitably disappoints on the first listen – for all his pop gifts, you have to listen more than once to stop expecting a Beatles record – but with only a few exceptions (the hideous ‘Gratitude’) it’s an album you can hear through without skipping (including a number of songs in the album’s second half that run together, not as a single composition like the Abbey Road medley but more like Sgt. Pepper). McCartney’s voice is well-preserved for 65 (he’s 68 now); you can hear the age on some songs, but not the miles. ‘That Was Me’ is the one track that sounds like it could have been recorded by the 1970 version of McCartney.
Best Tracks (since 2000): ‘That Was Me,’ ‘Ever Present Past,’ ‘Dance Tonight.’
Santana – No, I didn’t expect Carlos Santana to become a pop radio star in his 50s either, and anybody who predicted that in the early 70s could only have done so by imagining a pop music landscape totally unlike the one that welcomed Santana with open arms beginning with 1999’s Supernatural. His guitar style remains as distinctive as ever.
Best Tracks (since 1999): ‘Smooth’ (with Rob Thomas), ‘The Game of Love’ (with Michelle Branch), ‘Into the Night’ (with Chad Kroeger).
Aerosmith – To be honest, I haven’t heard any Aerosmith songs other than horrible pop ballads since 1989’s Pump album, and if I never heard another of those post-1990 ballads again it will be too soon. From what I can tell, Joe Perry feels the same way. For all of that, for all the band’s hard-living history and threatened breakups as recently as the spring of 2010 and recent injuries (Steven Tyler’s fall from a stage, Perry getting rear-ended while driving his motorcycle), they’ve endured remarkably well – Tyler’s vocal range seems undiminished after 35 years of wailing, and they’re still touring and promising new studio work, and of course Tyler is now a judge on American Idol.
Fountains of Wayne – I mentioned the Saw Doctors above as a modern heir to the Beatles’ sound, but the New York City-based alternative band Fountains of Wayne qualifies as well (bassist and songwriter Adam Schlesinger wrote three songs, including the title track, for the early-60s-pop-homage Tom Hanks-written film That Thing You Do! and is also in the band Tinted Windows with members of Hanson, Smashing Pumpkins and Cheap Trick). Some of their best songs aren’t entirely appropriate for mainstream radio for content or language reasons (although this didn’t prevent their signature song ‘Stacy’s Mom’ from being a hit of sorts).
Best Tracks (since 2000): ‘Bright Future in Sales,’ ‘Traffic & Weather’
The Strokes and Franz Ferdinand – Two highly similar alt-rock bands other than their geographic roots (The Strokes are from New York City, Franz Ferdinand from Scotland), both of which alternate between (1) good songs that rock over a solid grounding in pop melody and (2) songs that succumb to the alt-rock disease of unnecessarily submerged vocals. (The Killers, with the addition of a superior vocalist, are sort of the evolutionary, mainstream version of these bands, to the point where Entertainment Weekly’s review of their first album quipped, “isn’t it a little too early for a Strokes tribute band?“).
If you’ve heard the Rolling Stones’ ‘Dance No. 1,’ you have heard the roots of every Strokes guitar riff ever.
Best Tracks (The Strokes): ‘Last Nite,’ ‘Someday,’ ‘You Only Live Once’
Best Tracks (Franz Ferdinand): ‘Take Me Out,’ ‘No You Girls’
Razorlight and The Jayhawks – Two pop-rock-oriented “indie” bands with a few catchy tunes, Razorlight from England, The Jayhawks from Minnesota.
Best Tracks (Razorlight): ‘Who Needs Love,’ ‘America,’ ‘Golden Touch.’
Best Tracks (The Jayhawks): ‘Save It For A Rainy Day,’ ‘I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.’
The Wallflowers/Jakob Dylan – It’s debatable who is rock’s most disappointing band of the past two decades; the competition from acts like Guns n Roses, Nirvana and Living Colour, and to some extent Oasis and the Black Crowes, is stiff. But The Wallflowers are definitely on the list, a band that showed a lot of promise (and of course the Dylan pedigree) as a breakout mainstream rock band with 1996’s Bringing Down The Horse. But their second album, Breach, was a step backwards and they’ve deteriorated ever since. I listened to a sample of each song from Dylan’s last project, 2010’s Women + Country, and couldn’t turn it off fast enough.
Best Tracks (since 2000): ‘Letters from the Wasteland,’ ‘Sleepwalker’
Radiohead – I listened through about six Radiohead songs recommended by friends and they were all slow, whiny and turgid, at which point I gave up. I know Thom Yorke has a reputation for having a great voice, and at least you can hear him loud and clear on their songs, but I ran out of patience with Radiohead before I found anything that would impress me with his vocals. They’ve recently made a splash in the record industry by announcing that they’re abandoning albums and focusing entirely on selling individual digital song downloads.
The Ben Folds Five – I listened to a song by this band (I forget which song) and I came away thinking they were a pretty talented act that made catchy, poppy music, but that the song made me want to punch Ben Folds in the face. Fair enough, a lot of artists record something like that, so I tried another one, and another, and another – maybe about five songs. And each time, I kind of liked the music, but I still wanted to punch Ben Folds in the face. I couldn’t even exactly put my finger on it, the way I can with Green Day’s politics. But eventually I decided that, whatever the reason, Ben Folds’ smug, hipster face would be safer if I gave up trying to enjoy his music.
Susan Tedeschi – Another female blues-rocker with a fantastic, gritty voice; I need to dig further into her music.
Best Tracks: ‘Evidence,’ ‘Tired of My Tears’
The Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly – Given my enthusiastic following of the Saw Doctors and enjoyment of another local NY Irish band with a national following (Black 47, although I only have the one album, 1999’s Live in New York City), I gave a look at some other distinctively Irish bands. Now, the Irish are probably second only to African-Americans in their impact on American music; besides Irish imports like U2, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello and the Pogues, the roster of musicians of Irish or significantly part-Irish descent includes John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, John and Tom Fogerty, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Harry Connick, Mariah Carey, Kelly Clarkson, Tim McGraw, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly and Rosemary Clooney.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of Irish music: the kind you listen to after three beers at a party, and the kind you listen to after twelve beers at a wake. Your mileage may vary, but my own preference is for the former. (After one of my freshman roommates in college bombarded me with their music for a year, the only Pogues song I came away liking is ‘Blue Heaven,’ which not coincidentally is not gargled by Shane McGowan). The Dropkick Murphys, at least, have some upbeat songs worth a listen – I love their guitars-and-bagpipes instrumental version of ‘Amazing Grace,’ and ‘Tessie’ is an enormously fun song, plus you cannot possibly stop me from loving a song about the 1903 Red Sox that takes reasonable care to know its history (with shoutouts to Cy Young, Chick Stahl, Bill Dineen, ‘Nuf Ced McGreevey and his Royal Rooters). It’s maybe the best baseball rock song ever written, surpassing even John Fogerty’s ‘Centerfield.’ They’re also Springsteen fans – Bruce will appear on their next album on a new version of the nearly century-old standard Peg O’My Heart, and guitarist Tim Brennan even proposed to his girlfriend from the stage of a 2009 joint appearance with The Boss.
I’m less enamored with Flogging Molly, no doubt to the consternation of my RedState colleague Moe Lane – they’re more the latter type of Irish music – but Moe has at least sold me on their song ‘Float.’
OK Go – An alternative band with faintly catchy music and irritating vocals, I have to list them here because they make the best music videos ever, videos so good they landed the band’s lead singer a lengthy spread in the Wall Street Journal on rethinking the economics of the music business. Really, go here and here if you’ve never seen one of their videos. Go now. I’ll wait.
Jars of Clay – Few phrases frighten true rock fans away more quickly than “Christian rock,” which conjures up images of cheesy, overly-earnest hair bands singing ham-fisted lyrics about Jesus. Yet, as I alluded to in my most recent Springsteen essay, Christian spirituality infuses the work of many of rock’s giants (Bruce, U2, Van Morrison, for a time Bob Dylan) and even the occasional classic song by ordinarily non-religious artists (see The Who’s ‘Who Are You’). Questions of faith are too profound, and faith is too huge a part of human life, for popular music to ignore it. The difference is that artists pigeonholed as “Christian rock” acts tend to try too hard to squeeze explicit Christian witness into song rather than letting the pervasive influence of their faith flow naturally.
On the recommendation of Steve Dillard, I have recently started checking out the Christian band Jars of Clay, which has more in common in terms of sound and in terms of the more abstract, poetic lyrical style with bands like U2, The Killers and Muse than they do with Stryper, and thus far I’m positively impressed, but haven’t delved far into their catalog.
Best Tracks: ‘Work,’ ‘Good Monsters.’
Gogol Bordello – A band that mixes punk rock with Romanian folk music and sounds pretty much exactly like what you’d expect from that description. They were recommended by a reader; not my speed, but worth a look on YouTube if you’re in the mood for something very different and think that might be to yours.
Wasted TapePatterico pointed me to HUTT, a free-for-download collection by this LA-based indie band that makes quality rock, at least some of it pop-friendly to my ears (not pop-rock, but more the kind of stuff you get from, say, the Kings of Leon if they were fronted by the Gin Blossoms’ Jesse Valenzuela). I haven’t explored the rest of their stuff but it’s a good album.
Best Tracks: ”Too Far Gone,’ ‘The Bean King,’ ‘Friend The Monster.’
Part III: The State of Pop and Other Current Radio Formats (the Artists)
Part IV: The Rest, and the Best Albums of 2009 and 2010

7 thoughts on “Music To My Ears: A 50,000 Foot Review Of The Current Rock and Pop Scenes (Part II of IV – Rock and Alternative)”

  1. it’s like the second side of The Unforgettable Fire stretched to a whole album.
    I’m picking nits here, but the second side of Unforgettable Fire includes their best song – “Bad.” Granted it’s the live version of said song that stands out, but still.
    I feel a bit like you, and I wonder if I’ll also start appreciating new music in a few years when my kids are older.

  2. Wow, such inexplicable love for The Killers, are you related somehow? I understand musical taste is one of the most subjective things ever but good god, to heap praise on Sam’s Town of all things!!! Hot Fuss, maybe, but Sam’s Town in un-listenable. Ben Gibbard wouldn’t hire the Killers to mow his lawn.

  3. Lot of good stuff here. Thanks, Crank.
    But I completely disagree with you about No Line on the Horizon. Breathe and Magnificent are stand out tracks. Both lyrically and musically, the band seems inspired: different sounding chord structures, wide-ranging production methods, and lyrics with an even heavier than usual emphasis on spirituality. I liked their last two albums, but I think this one was better, and certainly better than most their 90s output. I think it’s clearly their best album since Achtung Baby.

  4. Just checking back to see what other readers had to say and I realize I may have been too harsh in my comments above. If it’s any consolation, while my comments still stand regarding Ben Gibbard and the Killers, it’s also quite true the Killers wouldn’t hire Maroon 5 to mow THEIR lawns. All part of the Manual Labor Food Chain.

  5. Maroon 5 is a pop band. Naturally, you can’t compare them to rock bands. The bands you’d compare them to are the likes of Fastball, the Gin Blossoms, the Spin Doctors, etc.
    I’ll admit I don’t know a lot of the Death Cab for Cutie stuff.

  6. Check them out, I suggest the album Plans (and do buy the entire album) as you will find 3-4 songs you know already that you don’t realize you know already. One of those albums that every time you listen to it a different song becomes your favorite. After a few months every song has become a favorite at one time or another. THAT is the sign of a great album. Then if you start digging into their back catalog you’ll find a ton of gems.
    Also Ben Gibbard did a solo tour a couple of years ago and one show was specifically recorded in Washington, DC for NPR. That used to be available on the NPR website, don’t know if it still is but if not bittorrent (or me) can be your friend. Great show, great arrangements of DCFC, Postal Service or one of his other projects’ songs with him either on guitar or piano only. I’m not a Postal Service fan at all but his solo versions are dynamite. The guy is one of the most prolific artists out there, he seems to have stuff coming out his ears and always has 3 things going on at once to get it all out.

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