by John M. Borack
2012 was a great year for new music, with albums from former major label favorites sharing space with releases from relative upstarts from the indie pop world. For my money, here’s a look at the best of the best from last year.
Wanderlust’s Record Time is an independently-released reunion album from Rob Bonfiglio, Scot Sax and the gang that was – amazingly – recorded in just three days. From the sassy pop rock strut of “Lou Reed” to the uber-cool ‘n’ hooky “Friend Tonight” and from the delicate “Like Stars” to the downright goofy “We Need a Drummer,” there’s nary a false move. It rocks, it pops, it’s moody, it’s lighthearted and the songs all sound like old friends. Welcome back, guys.
Soundshine is a simply glorious collection of songs by David Myhr, a former member of ‘90s Swedish power poppers the Merrymakers. It features one infectious ditty after another, impeccably arranged and presented, often sounding like ‘70s AM radio hits magically transformed into the present day. “Loveblind,” “I Love the Feeling” and “Don’t Say No” are all great places to initially jump in, but the water’s fine no matter where you turn. Wonderful.
OHMYGODTHISSONGISGREAT. That’s what Brian Wilson/Beach Boys sideman Nelson Bragg calls his publishing company, and it’s also the phrase this writer uttered 11 times over after being overwhelmed by Bragg’s sophomore offering. What we get is 11 little slices of pure pop heaven, each featuring Bragg’s understated melodic gifts and multi-instrumental talents. The overall vibe is of a ’60s-era sunshine-pop record, lovingly updated and wrapped in a beautifully sung and artfully played and produced package.
Reunion albums are generally hit and miss propositions, particularly when the band in question has been relatively dormant for a long period of time. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, and this, the first all-new release in 25 years by alt power pop icons the dB’s, is one big, fat exception. It’s packed with inspired, hyper-melodic tunes from the dynamic duo of Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey, clever arrangements, sweet and sour lyrical musings, and nifty little aural twists at every turn. It takes the band’s signature quirkiness, smooths out the rough edges a bit (a quarter century has a way of doing that) and hits the listener with song after song of melodic goodness. Oh, and the Will Rigby-sung “Write Back” just may be the catchiest damned thing I’ve heard all year.
Simply put, everything about this record is beyond top-notch. Jimi Evans’ sweet-yet-powerful lead vocals, the intoxicating melodies on all 11 cuts, the soaring vocal harmonies, the wonderful songwriting (courtesy of Evans, drummer Mike Collins and guitarist Paul Bond) and the crisp, clear sonic palette all add up to wow. Shot Glass Souvenir is exactly the type of record that made your humble scribe fall madly in love with pop music in the first place.
Bangle Susanna is obviously influenced by the sweet sounds of ‘60s pop – not for nothing is her boutique record label called Baroque Folk – and this is a lovely little late night/early morning record that showcases her love of the sounds of that era without falling into a retro trap.
GP and the boys age without going soft, and while the record doesn’t always “rock” per se, it still smolders behind Parker’s wry, pointed lyricism and the Rumour’s tasteful support. It’s not Squeezing Out Sparks Mark ll (in case the faithful were hoping for a musical revisiting of GP and the Rumour’s classic 1979 album), but it’s a more-than-welcome release and a top-drawer addition to Parker’s stellar body of work
Each of the 15 tracks here is unfailingly melodic, with the warm, inviting sound that Shoes fans have come to know and love. The guys still sing as good as ever, their instrumental abilities have sharpened with age and pretty much everything here will worm its way into the listener’s subconscious in short order – as good power pop should.
Typically solid collection from Mr. Hillis, featuring co-writes with Danny Wilde and Scot Sax, with mixing handled by Brad Jones. Cliff’s the star of this show, though, with each of the dozen songs offering melodic stimulation of the highest order. Non-cliched pop music that is as radio ready as it comes. Standout track: “Twin Sisters.”
The cheeriness is unrelenting on Marty Graveyard’s solo debut, with speedy tempos, spiffy songwriting and an overall summery pop vibe combining for an irresistible listen. Marty is the former drummer for Dutch pop mavens The Madd, by the way.
No-frills power pop from Texas, with Flowers’ slightly soulful voice wiping away any hint of wimpiness. The only complaint is that at 9 songs and 27 minutes, the disc is too damned short. Non-stop pop action that thrills from beginning to end.
“Sounds a lot like Matthew Sweet…wonderfully addicting…pure pop for now people, this is.” So says the blurb on the back of my promo copy of On High – and even though the writer was speaking about Guss’s solo debut, Mercury Mine, the same holds true here. Even more so, in fact, due to songs such as the Merseybeat-tickled title track, the piano ballad “Avenue A” and the ridiculously catchy “Come Over.” And since I wrote the blurb, I trust the writer implicitly.
It’s been way too long since we’ve been treated to a Bill Lloyd solo record, so BKOT is a welcome treat. Some of it is autobiographical (including the title track, a tale of an American boy growing up in a foreign land) and it includes one of my Songs of the Year, the crazy catchy “Indubitably.”
Hailing from Brooklyn, NY, Eytan and the Embassy have fashioned a slick (in a good way), keyboard-dominated record that leads off with the groovy, hip-shaking single “Everything Changes.” Nicely done.
A cool little side project masterminded by Rick Hromadka from LA-area psych-popsters Maple Mars, and featuring his better half Lisa Cavaliere on vocals. It’s a more laid back affair than Hromadka’s previous work, and the male/female harmonizing and overall pastoral feel works well. “Good Company” and “Three Cheers for the Sun God” (to cherry pick two of the winners) recall Paul McCartney and Wings, which is always a good thing.
More old schoolers back in the ring. A fine 10-song effort from the venerable pop-rockers that packs a sonic wallop while never leaving the melody behind. “Stay Away From Downtown” = Godhead.
Punchy guitar-pop and the finest batch of tunes that Jeff Shelton has ever written. A cover of The Smoke’s ‘60s UK psych-pop raver “Have Some More Tea” is a nice touch, too.
Aside from giving us what might just be the Album Title of the Year, Richards and the boys also offer up song after song of pure, unadulterated (loud and proud) pop, with the guitars going crunch, crunch, crunch all over the place to counter-balance the sweet vocals.
19. Didn’t Planet – “We’re Goin’ Nowhere”
A concept album? About being in a cover band? With loud-ass guitars and cool tuneage and wit? Yes, please.
Led by the passionately soulful vocals of Peter Case and the slashing, melodic guitar work of Eddie Munoz, this is a stunning live performance dating from the summer of 1983. Recorded at the now-defunct Golden Bear in Huntington Beach, CA, the incendiary 17-song set finds the ’Souls charging through a particularly inspired set of hook-filled originals and some smartly-chosen covers, such as Moby Grape’s “Fall on You” and the Creation’s “Making Time.”