Japandroids

Rust Is Just Right’s Best Albums of 2017

Today is April 17, and while the rest of the nation trudges through another Tax Day (a few days later this year), we here at Rust Is Just Right choose this occasion to return from the dead and release our Best Albums of the Year list.  We follow this unusual schedule for a few reasons: 1) It allows some of the albums that are released at the end of the calendar year to get some recognition, since they usually get swallowed up in the attention of the flurry of year-end lists; 2) We get the chance to analyze other lists to pick up on albums that somehow escaped our attention during the course of the year; and 3) It provides a handy consumer guide for people to focus where to spend their tax refund.

The process that is used to determine this list is highly rigorous and hardly scientific.  However, we are still in the process of attempting to patent and trademark The Process, which if you may recall, is simply tallying up the play counts on iTunes for each album.  It has served us well in years past, and a quick glance at our list this year proves that it has worked once again.

Note: Though the list is a Top 10, there are more albums than slots, because we don’t like breaking ties for the same play count.  If you’re really intent on focusing on only 10, I guess take the 10 highest performing albums from the list, but you really shouldn’t limit yourself like that if you can help it.

10. Phoebe Bridgers – Stranger in the Alps; Fleet Foxes – The Crack-Up; Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Luciferian Towers; Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory; Tyler, the Creator – Flower Boy; Wolf Parade – Cry Cry Cry (7 plays)

It should come to no surprise for our readers the band who inspired our site’s name would crack our Top Ten with our return, though their low placement on the list may raise some eyebrows.  While their return has enough artistic merit to make it more than a simple cash-in on instant nostalgia, Cry Cry Cry lacked the standout songs that marked Wolf Parade’s previous work, with the album seeming to be more competent than anything.  Still, the one-two punch of Dan Boeckner’s “Artificial Life” and Spencer Krug’s “King of Piss and Paper” (reversed for the video) should alleviate the worries of any fans that the Canadian supergroup still has gas left in the tank.

I felt bad for the short people behind me

Wolf Parade, at the Crystal Ballroom

Tyler, the Creator bounced back from a couple of forgettable efforts with an ambitious album that recalls why fans were so impressed with the Odd Future crew back when “Yonkers” first hit, mixing bangers with surprisingly introspective tracks.  We’ll leave the discussion about the lyrical prowess of Vince Staples to others (they never really impressed us that much, but the words aren’t usually our focus), but the beats on Big Fish Theory were a goddamn revelation considering the malaise that seems to be spreading over modern hip-hop these days.  We’re not sure what gets the party going with the kids these days, but bump Vince’s latest on your headphones and you should be set for one heart-pumping adventure.

Much like Dinosaur Jr., another iconic alternative group, Godspeed has shown new life after their return from their prolonged hiatus.  However, as good as their recent albums have been, they seem to be following a similar arc where the third album doesn’t quite have the juice of its two predecessors.  That said, the climax of “Bosses Hang” is exactly what we need these days.

Phoebe is the newcomer to the party, and her delicate debut is perfect for late-night listens.

9. Dieg Cig – Swear I’m Good at This; The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding (8 plays)

What can we say–we love duos.  The mix of the sugar-sweet vocals with the propulsive punk makes Diet Cig a welcome addition to the garage rock revival.  The War on Drugs exceeded our expectations; we had begun to get tired of the band’s style (and had read too many critiques of their sound), so we weren’t exactly pumped for their latest.  However, there are plenty of songs on Understanding which will make the band’s eventual Greatest Hits release.  That said, we pray that on the next album Adam Granduciel learns you can use drum patterns besides ones that hit on 2 and 4.

The War on Drugs, at the Crystal Ballroom

8. Alvvays – Antisocialites; Beck – Colors; LCD Soundsystem – American Dream; Protomartyr – Relatives in Descent (9 plays)

Alvvays went a bit darker with their follow-up to their self-titled debut, and added new textures to their indie-pop sound.  Beck finally released his often-teased follow-up to the Album of the Year winning Morning Phase, and while it seems the rest of the country wasn’t psyched for a return of “fun” Beck, we found this album plenty enjoyable.  Beck may have fussed over individual sounds endlessly before the release of Colors, but repeated listens prove it was well worth the effort.  LCD Soundsystem was another welcome return of indie rock royalty, and though it seems they may have stalled a bit creatively after their wonderful initial three album run, “Call the Police” was worth the price of admission in and of itself (though we wish they could have found a way to include the teaser single “Christmas Will Break Your Heart” on the album).  Protomartyr further honed their sound of post-punk mixed with the ravings of an esoteric college professor.  Relatives was not as initially catchy as The Agent Intellect, so it may discourage new fans, but eventually it hooks your way into your brain–see how the line “She’s just trying to reach you” keeps repeating throughout and how it fits with the themes of the record.  The lyric from the Michigan band of “It’s been leaded by snider men to make profit from the poor” might be the best line from 2017, but it’s the following line I keep repeating in my head: “I don’t want to hear those vile trumpets anymore.”

Protomartyr, at the Doug Fir

7. Broken Social Scene – Hug of Thunder; The National – Sleep Well Beast (10 plays)

Hug of Thunder might be the most consistent front-to-back record in the BSS catalog, with several songs that are just really damn uplifting.

Broken Social Scene, at the Crystal Ballroom

By contrast, Sleep Well Beast is a step down for The National, but they’ve been on fire since Alligator and you can’t expect them to maintain perfection forever.  The electronic flourishes to the album are a nice touch, and there are several standout songs that will be great additions to the average setlist.  Simply put, the album gets dinged only because it pales in comparison to their recent string of successes.

The National, at the Schnitz

6. Death From Above 1979 – Outrage! Is Now; Queens of the Stone Age – Villains; Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3 (11 plays)

Death From Above officially dropped the “1979” from their name, but it’s going to take us a while to get used to it.  However, we are thrilled that the return to form of The Physical World was no mere fluke, and we’re exceedingly pleased to see the band continue to evolve.  At first, it may seems the album dips in the middle, but after a few times through it becomes clear the forays into sludgier metal riffs are a welcome evolution for the duo (and will help save the stamina of a singing drummer).  Hell, see how easy they make metal look with the hard-hitting opener, “Nomad”.  We may overrate these guys compared to others, but honestly, we have no idea why “Freeze Me” wasn’t a bigger summer hit.

Death From Above, at the Roseland

It took a few times though to get on the same wavelength as QOTSA for their latest, with our initial impression being that a few of the better songs would have worked just fine as Eagles of Death Metal tracks instead.  But once we got lost in the sound and feel of the record, we began to appreciate it more.  Also, “Villains of Circumstance” will be remembered as one of their best ever.

Queens of the Stone Age, at the Hult Center

RTJ is in a strange position, because the schedule of their leak and official release had them straddling the line between 2016 and 2017 lists, but this feels like the right spot for them (if we included every single listen since its release, it would tie for the top spot).  RTJ3 isn’t as lean as its predecessors, but there’s plenty here that will leave listeners longing to hear the continuing saga of Jamie and Mikey.

Run the Jewels, at the Crystal Ballroom

5. Joey Bada$$ – All-Amerikkkan Bada$$; The xx – I See You (12 plays)

A couple of surprises make it into the top half of the list!  We were not impressed with Joey’s debut, but All-Amerikkan Bada$$ is an impressive step forward, effectively mixing groovy R&B and political hip-hop.

We thought The xx had already begun running out of creativity with the decent Coexist, but it turns out there is still juice left in their minimalist indie rock.  Who knew you could make introverted love songs so danceable?

4. Big K.R.I.T. – 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time (13 plays)

Big K.R.I.T.’s ambitious new record easily slides into the trinity of Wu-Tang Forever and All Eyez on Me on the list of greatest hip-hop double albums.  Though nominally split between his two personalities with the party anthem heavy “Big K.R.I.T.” and the introspective gospel-tinged “Justin Scott”, the album flows just fine as one long piece.  Hell, even the few skits on the album can be listened to more than once!

3. Cloud Nothings – Life Without Sound; Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins; Japandroids – Near to the Wild Heart of Life (14 plays)

Now here’s a triumvirate you would expect from us.  Japandroids got an early jump on everybody with a January release, which partially explains their high ranking on this list, though we don’t want you to put too much in that disclaimer.  Wild Heart of Life is a half-brilliant, half-decent album, which explains our reluctance to fully commit to any direction in our assessment.  The title track opener is an all-time great for the band, and the run from “Midnight to Morning”, “No Known Drink or Drug”, and “In a Body Like a Grave” finish the album on a rousing note.  It’s the middle songs which sag, though we appreciate them as experimental forays necessary for a duo who wish to have a long career.

Japandroids, at Revolution Hall

Grizzly Bear once again returns with an album that sounds great on headphones, begging for you to pick out more and more details with each listen, all in a style that’s perfect for either driving in the car or listening late at night.

Grizzly Bear, at the Roseland

Cloud Nothings made the most consistently brilliant punk record of the year, and goddammit I hope that band keeps moving on to bigger and better things.

Cloud Nothings, at the Doug Fir

2. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.; Spoon – Hot Thoughts (16 plays)

After the overflowing To Pimp a Butterfly, a record that placed a lot of its emphasis on being a complete album, it seemed Kendrick was coming back with a series of hard-hitting singles–“Humble.” and “DNA.” were huge, aggressive tracks which got everybody fired up for the release.  The initial impression of DAMN. as a series of singles eventually proved to be incorrect, as Kendrick revealed more of the thought process behind the album.  For us, though, the switch was flipped when the “Collector’s Edition” was released, which flipped the tracklisting from back-to-front.  All of a sudden, the album seemed to have a much better flow, and its themes became more readily apparent.

What more can be said about Spoon?  The band is incapable of releasing a less-than-great album at this point, and Hot Thoughts shows off a fun side that had been hiding in the background for a few years at this point.  Britt and the guys walk the tightrope of staying true to their “sound” while not repeating themselves–for example, the funky “Can I Sit Next To You” fits right alongside their early hit “I Turn My Camera On” without it being a rehash.

Spoon, at the McDonald Theater

We love the whole album, but we’re going to keep the somber “I Ain’t the One” and the relevant-to-these-times “Tear It Down” on repeat.

1. Slowdive – Slowdive (17 plays)

The return of My Bloody Valentine may have inspired more ink, but we appreciated the return of the other titans of shoegaze more.  Slowdive fits right in next to Souvlaki and Just for a Day, but doesn’t feel like a mere revival of their early-90’s peak.  The music is as gorgeous as ever, venturing from the delicate haunting vocals in the ballads to the big rush of guitars in the epics.

Slowdive, at the Crystal Ballroom

We’re not sure if we’ll look back in ten years and definitively say we made the right choice on the number one album of 2017, but we’re confident in saying we’ll still love the hell out of this album.

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A Lesson In Lyrical Put-Downs, By Japandroids

Before Japandroids caught people’s attention with their thrilling debut Post-Nothing and broke through with the triumphant Celebration Rock, they were just a hard-working couple of guys who grinded away for years on the road.  The wonderfully-titled No Singles compiles the band’s early recordings, and though the songs are a bit rough around the edges, there are some gems to be discovered.  The opener, the Springsteen-referencing “Darkness on the Edge of Gastown”, is probably the highlight of the collection, mainly due to its anthemic chorus, a quality which would become a future trademark of the band.

Musically speaking, Japandroids reverse the listener’s expectations in the initial section of the song by using the guitar part to set up more melodic elements in the drums; Brian King thrashes on a single (but expansive) chord, but tinkers with intricate rhythms by emphasizing different beats, as David Prowse experiments with diverse rolls and fills.  It’s a thrilling combination, and it helps the band ratchet up a certain tension, as the listener continuously anticipates the moment when the band breaks the pattern to dive into the next part of the song.  When the band finally launches into the chorus, the listener feels some relief with the transition; by drawing out this release, the band helps underline the contrast between the hooks of the chorus and the harshness of the verses, making the chorus that much more effective in sticking in people’s heads.

While the majority of listeners would point to the catchy chorus melody as the most memorable aspect of the song, the part that captures my attention every time I listen is a particular line at the end of the first verse.  Amid all the noise and thrash, the song’s protagonist is lashing out (through a third party) at an unnamed woman, launching insult after insult about her wardrobe and physical appearance (“Tell her she wears too much neon, tell her it’s hanging off her bones”).  The third taunt is the most cutting, as the protagonist proclaims, “That’s all she is: just new ways to wear old clothes.”  The juxtaposition of the old and new make the line especially poetic, but it’s the distinct image that the words portray of the person as merely a mannequin built for the express purpose of modelling vintage fashions that makes it an especially devastating and disrespectful rejection; the narrator has completely dismissed all the elements that make his target an actual person.  It is difficult to recall a lyrical put-down dripping with such sneering contempt, and the fact that it takes the listener a second for the insult to register makes the comparison that much more brilliant.  The subtlety of the barb makes its sting even more powerful.

I am sure that there are those that find praise for such a contemptuous sentiment offensive, but consider the line in context with the rest of the song.  The next verse paints a bleak picture of the narrator and of the relationship between the characters, so the narrator is not exactly reveling in the absence of the partner.  The song ends with the chorus, which documents the repeated pleas of the utterly defeated narrator.  The chorus is set up in a way that de-escalates the stakes of the situation, as the narrator begs the third party to tell her 1) “I’m still alive”, 2) “I’m still in love”, and 3) “to come pick me up”.  With this status report, the narrator alerts the listener to his/her most basic condition, then his/her general emotional state, and finally his/her specific physical situation, narrowing down the listener’s potential concern from “he might be dead” to “oh, he needs a ride.”  The fact that the narrator is in such a state that he’s left pleading for a ride from the object of his scorn should indicate who ended up with the upper hand in the disintegration of this relationship, and provide comfort to those who object to the prior insults.  She’s the one with the last laugh.

But you have to admit, Japandroids delivered a pretty sick burn (to use a colloquial expression).

Covered: “To Hell With Good Intentions”

Covered is a feature where we examine the merits of various cover songs, debating whether or not they capture the spirit and intent of the original, if the cover adds anything new, and whether or not it perhaps surpasses the original.  If we fail on those counts, at the very least we may expose you to different versions of great songs you hadn’t heard before. 

Today’s inspiration comes from the simple fact that I was listening to the underrated punk band Mclusky this afternoon.  They’re now defunct, but they left us with some classic post-hardcore albums that are an excellent mix of fiery intensity and bitterly sarcastic humor.   Just taking a look at their album titles should give a clue about the latter (My Pain and Sadness Is More Sad and Painful Than Yours and The Difference Between Me and You Is That I’m Not On Fire come to mind, but knowing the allusion of Mclusky Do Dallas is hilarious as well).

“To Hell With Good Intentions” is one of my favorites, with its string of ridiculous boasts for each verse, mirrored by the nonsensical response of “My love is bigger than your love” and punctuated by the simple warning of the chorus: “We’re all going straight to hell.”  Musically, it’s spare, simple, and direct, marked most notably by a rhythmic bass hit that emphasizes each line.

It turns out that these elements help make the song an excellent song to cover.  I had a friend whose band used to cover this song, and honestly, it was probably the best song they did–and all they had to do was pretty much play it note-for-note.  The song has a natural energy and bounce, and accomplishes the trick of allowing the vocalist to attempt to be more theatrical while the backing instrumentation can focus on the tight music.  Also, by the end of the song, even if the audience wasn’t familiar with the song, they’ll be able to sing along.

Japandroids are a much much much much better band than my friend’s band, so it should be no surprise that they perform an excellent version of the song.  There’s the necessary musical adjustment from a bass-guitar-drums trio to a guitar-drums duo, with Brian King merging the original’s bassline into a denser overall guitar part.  Japandroids also indulge the natural tendency that occurs when covering punk songs, and that’s to play it faster–but they don’t let the tempo get away from them, meaning that they’re able to convey all the urgency they want from the song, but they keep it constrained well enough that it never feels like rushing.  A lot of credit should be given to David Prowse’s excellent drumming, both for his timekeeping and his spot-on fills.

BONUS VERSION

Here’s a live version of the Japandroids cover, this time in a more sedate setting:

Review: Solids – Blame Confusion

I’ve had a fascination with two-person bands for some time now, and I count many of them among my favorites.  It’s great to see bands like The White Stripes, Death From Above 1979, and The Black Keys attain success over the years and inspire others to start making music even if they can’t find a bass player (or in the case of DFA 1979, stick with the bass and abandon the guitar).  I’ve considered some theories as to why these two-person groups work so well.  One possibility is that it may be that it’s easier to reach consensus as to which musical direction to take with two people (though the lack of a third mediating party may be the reason why after the initial spark of incredible inventiveness these partnerships tend to fizzle out, Local H being a notable exception (though there was a lineup change at one point)).  Another might be that, as I’ve heard Jack White explain, that imposing certain limits allows creativity to flourish.  One can be paralyzed by infinite possibilities, so by setting boundaries you at least are able to realize your limits.  And once you know your limits, you can focus attention on challenging them.  It’s in those attempts to challenge that great music can result, as seen with bands like Japandroids and No Age.

I mention those two bands in particular, because they seem to be the most significant inspirations behind the debut album Blame Confusion from another two-man group, Solids.  Solids follow in the footsteps of their Canadian brethren Japandroids by focusing on energetic, driving rock songs with a guitar that seamlessly blends rhythm chords and inventive leads.  The haziness of the vocals and general attitude bring to mind No Age, though Solids don’t take any of their trademark left turn forays into ambient noise.  The result is a lot of distortion, a lot of riffs, and a lot of fun.

Solids definitely did a great job in choosing their influences, but the question remains if they add anything to the equation themselves.  I’ll give a group a listen if they remind me of some of my other favorite bands, but in order for me to keep listening to their album, they need to offer something up themselves, or else I’m going back to the tried-and-true.  Fortunately, Solids seems to have pulled off this task.  I find myself singing along to the great lead melodies, usually making up my own words because a lot of the vocals are pretty indecipherable.  I’ve read more than a few comparisons to Dinosaur Jr, which makes a certain amount of sense especially considering the guitar tones on the record, but you won’t find any of J. Mascis’s trademark solos on Blame Confusion.  That’s not to diminish the guitar playing on the record at all–there are ton of great riffs to be found.  The drums also do a great job of driving the beat when needed (like in “Traces”) or providing a rhythmic counterpoint to the caterwauling guitar.  And sometimes it helps when Solids throws in the traits of another band to the mix, like …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead in “Cold Hands”.

Blame Confusion is a very good debut, and it’s easy to see that it would be a lot of fun to see Solids live.  I’ll definitely be looking forward to seeing what these guys do next, and hopefully we’ll see an artistic leap forward like the Japandroids did with Celebration Rock.

*Note: In a perfect bit of symmetry, famous two-man band Suicide came up on my iTunes as I was writing this review.  So this review comes courtesy of their 1977 performance live at CBGB’s.