by John M. Borack
2014 seemed to be one of the best years in recent memory as far as new music goes; as a matter of fact, pretty much anything in the top 10 on the following list would have been a solid choice for number one. But here’s 2014 the way I saw it (or heard it):
1. Aerial – “Why Don’t They Teach Heartbreak at School?”
Aerial is a Scottish pop band who released WDTTHIS?, their sophomore long-player, 13 years (!) after their debut. There are some aural nods to their fellow Scottish pop brethren Teenage Fanclub, but there are also dollops of Beach Boys, Greenberry Woods (on the absolutely glorious “Go With You”) and Silversun. Thick guitars, splendid harmonies, generally speedy tempos and melodies that refuse to let go are the order of the day here. Damned near perfect, say I.
2. Yorktown Lads – “Songs About Girls and Other Disasters”
In which Michael Simmons of sparkle*jets UK ably mentors two talented, up-and-coming young (just out of high school) musicians and records an album with them, with all three sharing singing, songwriting and instrumental duties. It’s quite a glorious array of pop riches, with the super-talented Simmons contributing the autobiographical pop ditty “Something to Write About” (try getting the chorus outta yer head after a listen or two – impossible), and the more plaintive “Sick of Me” and “Home.” Cohort Addison Love shines on tunes such as the irresistible Herman’s Hermits-like “La La,” the funky rocker “Make Her Smile,” and the classically-styled power pop numbers “Around” and “Got it Down,” the latter featuring some stellar six-string work. (He also adds a sweet, George Harrison-inspired slide guitar solo to “Something to Write About.”) Cameron Lew’s pop moves are a bit more angular and eclectic, but still catchy as all get out (see “Rewind” and “Pronouns”). Fantastic stuff, all.
3. The Paul & John – “Inner Sunset”
Paul Myers and John Moremen are both veterans of the pop scene, Myers with his early ‘90s outfit The Gravelberrys and Moremen with the Neighbors, the Orange Peels and solo. The duo co-wrote all the tunes here (with Myers handling all the lyrics) and they’re all absolutely wonderful from start to finish. High water marks include “When I Lost My Way,” which is fed by some Beatley guitar; “Can’t Be Too Careful,” a propulsive power pop gem given a boost (as most of these songs are) by Myers and Moreman’s close harmonies; the gorgeous, lush “Everything Comes Together,” which finds the boys wrapping some sweet vocals around an enticing melody; the foot-stompin’ title track, and its groovy guitar solos; and the disc-closing “Inner Sundown,” which is appropriately reflective and pretty. A masterful yet unassuming record.
4. The Mop Tops – “Got to Make Sunday Funky!”
A 10-song tribute to ‘60s British rockers the Equals (best known for spawning Eddy “Electric Avenue” Grant and for the minor hit “Baby Come Back”) by a Swedish indie pop band? Sounds like a nutty idea, but damned if it doesn’t work – in spades. The Mop Tops add an authentic garage-sounding air to the proceedings and the songs – which include “Police On My Back” (later covered by the Clash), “Can’t Find a Girl to Love Me” and the endearingly odd “Michael and the Slipper Tree” – are all quite fine.
5. Linus of Hollywood – “Something Good”
Breezy, summery and instantly likeable pop sounds abound on this one, which has the timeless feel of a really solid ‘70s pop album that doesn’t rock so much as it bops and sways, which in this case is a very good thing. Choosing favorites is sort of a fruitless exercise when everything has the blissful vibe of a smile-inducing, feel-good playlist, but here are a few of the many highlights: “Whoever’s Around” is a mid-tempo winner worthy of Paul McCartney and Wings comparisons; the innocent “A Girl That I Like” glides along on pillows of acoustic guitar; “Don’t F**k It Up” sounds like something Hall & Oates might have attempted had they been a bit more twisted; and the deceptively pretty melody of “Biography” doesn’t quite mask a pointed set of lyrics about the unsettling aftermath of a broken relationship.
6. The Rubinoos – “45”
45 is a wonderful distillation of everything that makes the Rubinoos great. Jon Rubin’s crystal pure voice has always seemed heaven sent, and combined with the songwriting smarts of guitarist/vocalist Tommy Dunbar and the beyond-solid rhythm section of bassist/vocalist Al Chan (who adds another beautiful voice to the proceedings) and drummer Donn Spindt, pretty much everything on 45 soars, be it a ballad or a rockin’ pop tune. There are plenty of the memorable power pop numbers that Rubinoos fans have come to expect, including “Run Mascara Run,” the winking “Does Suzie Like Boys” and the hyper-Beatley, “this-must-have-been-written-as-a-potential-tune-for-that-movie” “That Thing You Do.” There are also delicious ballads such as “Graveyard Shift” (which sounds not dissimilar to Carole King’s “It’s Too Late” in spots) and “What More Can You Ask of a Friend,” and somewhat ironically, two of 45’s finest moments are listed as bonus tracks: the irresistibly catchy “All it Takes,” which is adorned with some sweet slide guitar, and the crunchy power pop perfection of “She’s Driving Me Crazy.”
7. The Split Squad – “Now Hear This…”
Imagine the early Who and the Small Faces all hopped up on glam rock and loud(er) guitars and magically transported to the present and determined to rock your face off, and you’ll be in the ballpark as far as the vibe of the Split Squad. Now Hear This… is their debut record and it’s nothing short of awesome, but that’s to be expected from a band with this sort of pedigree: vocalist/songwriter/ringleader Mike Giblin is one of the founding fathers of ‘90s indie power pop darlings Cherry Twister and currently heads up Parallax Project; lead guitarist Eddie Munoz formerly plied his trade in the Plimsouls; guitarist Keith Streng comes to the band from garage rockers the Fleshtones; and Clem Burke, Blondie’s drummer extraordinaire, more than holds down the beat with style and panache. From the opening call to arms of “Now Hear This” to the powerful stomp of “She is Everything” and from the cool blast of power pop on “Feel the Same About You” to the fuzz rockin’ slam-bang of “Hey Hey Baby,” these guys sound as if they’ve been playing together for years. Scott McCaughey’s live-sounding production helps pull it all together, as does the fact that the band sounds like they had an absolute ball laying it all down.
8. Sugar Stems – “Only Come Out at Night”
Another jewel of a record from Milwaukee’s finest, with tough-yet-sweet lead vox from Betsy Heibler and another clutch of maddeningly catchy songs. If Kirsty MacColl had jammed with the Plimsouls in 2014, it might have sounded like this. Or not. In any event, “We Only Come Out at Night,” “Some Might Say,” “The One” and any other song here you’d care to point out are all the toppermost of the poppermost.
9. Spirit Kid – “Is Happening”
Sounding not unlike guitar-pop acts of recent vintage such as Locksley and The Singles combined with a ‘60s AM radio sensibility, Spirit Kid hits the mark with unerring accuracy on this 10-song disc. Many of the songs have that familiar, “where have I heard this before?” vibe, with fast-paced offerings such as “Slow it Down” and “Dot the I” rubbing elbows with the “Gloria”-influenced, garagey “Everything is Old,” the appropriately dreamy “Is This Heaven?” and the sunny “Playing Cupid.” Very happening, indeed.
10. Phonograph – “Volume 1”
Apparently this cool little record was originally released on a tiny label in 2001, when it was promptly purchased by about 17 people and quickly disappeared from sight. (Okay, maybe a few more than 17, but you catch my drift.) Pop fans should be well pleased it’s been given a second life, as it’s jam-packed with Beatley/Badfingery harmonies, snappy tunes and a bit of an instrumental kick on some of the songs that prevent things from getting too retro. “She Knows It” may just be the power pop song of the year (or 2001), by the way.
11. The Hangabouts – “Illustrated Bird”
The Hangabouts are all about bringing the catchy, pretty-sounding pop to the people. This one’s swimming in gentle vocals, bunches of soothing melodies and a mellow vibe that never feels boring or repetitive. John Lowry and Gregory Addington are the guys in charge, and they infuse all 13 tracks with a consistently pleasant pop sensibility that sounds simultaneously fresh and familiar. Picks: the swinging “Forest For the Trees,” the Squeeze-like character study “Roman Forum,” the “Blackbird”-esque title track and the ever-so-slightly psych tinged “Love Nothing,” which recalls the Lightning Seeds.
12. The Ugly Beats – “Brand New Day”
Coming out of Austin, Texas with guitars and Farfisas blazing, the Ugly Beats are armed and ready to show the world that garage pop did not give up the ghost in 1966. The sounds range from moody and melancholy to loud and raucous, with the Beats always keeping the melody at the forefront. Echoes of jangly mid-‘60s folk rock, beat, and lo-fi—yet deliciously on point—garage are all present and accounted for, with Joe Emery’s plaintive, understated vocal delivery coloring each song with just the right amount of energy and verve. He’s singing at the top of his register and laying down a manic spoken word bit one minute (on the speedy “Throw Me a Line,” where the main guitar riff sounds like a sped up “Gloria”/”Little Black Egg” combo), and slowing things down and offering up a catchy, tremolo-fueled pledge the next (“Brand New Day”). There’s also some retro power pop on display, with the sunny sounding “I Want That Girl” and “Gone For Good” both veering dangerously close to tuneful perfection. (And the little lead guitar break – fortified by handclaps – on “Gone For Good” is the stuff of which pop dreams are made.) Fab.
13. The Jellybricks – “Youngstown Tune-Up”
“Probably Me,” “Hate Speaker,” and “About the Weekend” (one of Little Steven’s “Coolest Songs in the World,” and deservedly so) are the highlights of this PA quartet’s sixth release, but the whole darn thing is first-rate. YTU is jam-packed with 14 stellar tunes brimming with the hooks ‘n’ harmonies one expects from longtime power pop practitioners. Groovy.
14. Willow Willow – “Listening to Music”
A nice left-field surprise from a California-based outfit fronted by childhood pals Jessica Vohs and Miranda Zeiger, Listening to Music is a hyper-melodic, sweetly sung (love the harmonies) collection of wonderfully charming numbers presented in a low-key, acoustic-based fashion. Named after a Love song and greatly influenced by ‘60s and ‘80s pop, Willow Willow should attract some new followers with this, their second long-player.
15. The Empty Hearts – “The Empty Hearts”
Put Wally Palmar (The Romantics), Elliot Easton (The Cars), Clem Burke (Blondie) and Andy Babiuk (The Chesterfield Kings) together, book some studio time, and what do you get? It’s an honest-to-someone pop-rock supergroup, who dole out song after song of what is basically garage rock with some primo songwriting, a healthy dose of rock ‘n’ roll swagger, and Ed Stasium’s punchy, live sounding production. Palmar handles the lead vocals and all four collaborated on the tunes, which touch on some slammin’ proto-glam, Zombies-ish moodiness, Stonesy C & W, Nuggets-styled pounders and a whole lot of straightforward, meat and potatoes, guitar slinging rock. Winners such as “Perfect World,” “(I See) No Way Out,” “Meet Me ‘Round the Corner” and “Just a Little Too Hard” – for starters – are the perfect antidote to much of the stale, prefab music that’s currently out there and will kick start any rock ‘n’ roll party in an instant. Say “yeah!”
16. Rob Bonfiglio – “Freeway”
Freeway is without a doubt Bonfiglio’s finest solo effort to date, with his vocals sounding more assured than ever before and married to an excellent batch of songs that touch on country, rock, pop and a little bit of soul. “Almost Blue” comes off like a long-lost Eagles track circa 1974, “Under the Gun” recalls a less quirky Ben Folds, and “Lonely World” is a glorious pop-rock tune that mines a sound similar to Andrew Gold’s 1970s-era hits.
17. The Legal Matters – “The Legal Matters”
Michigan-based popsters Andy Reed, Chris Richards and Keith Klingensmith have produced – together and separately – some cool indie-pop music over the past few years. Now they’ve joined forces as The Legal Matters and have fashioned a lovely record that showcases their pristine harmonies and a kinder, gentler power pop sound. The 10 breezy, easy to like ditties here go down smoothly and leave a lasting impression, particularly Richards’ “Rite of Spring” and “Have You Changed Your Mind?” and Reed’s “The Legend of Walter Wright.” The Klingensmith/Reed co-write “Mary Anne” is also a winner, building from an almost ghostly beginning to a harmony-filled climax. The Legal Matters is a perfect summer record for anytime of the year.
18. Paul Collins – “Feel the Noise”
One of the last of the class of ’79 who continues to proudly wave the power pop flag, Paul Collins is still down in the trenches, touring across the country and beyond and releasing excellent records such as this. Collins rocks like a man half his age on Feel the Noise, and his energy and enthusiasm is contagious. Two of the coolest tracks are ones that Collins has unearthed from the past: the outstanding, Nerves-era raver “Little Suzy” and the Collins-Steven Huff co-write “For All Eyes to See.” (Huff was a charter member of The Beat.) Other tracks worthy of repeated spins are the super-catchy “Only Girl”; “With a Girl Like You,” which sounds like it could have sprung from a Collins collaboration with the Searchers and Phil Spector; “Can’t Get You Off My Mind,” which recalls the Ramones’ “I Want You Around”; and the rollicking, Buddy Holly-ish “Baby I’m in Love With You.”
19. The Muffs – “Whoop De Doo”
The Muffs’ first release since 2004 is a smashing one indeed, with Kim Shattuck, Ronnie Barnett and Roy McDonald elegantly bashing their way through a dozen punk-pop pearls, with a bit more of the pop thrown into the mix than ever before. “Weird Boy Next Door” gets things off to a typically raucous start, with the band firing on all cylinders and Shattuck’s snotty, emotive lead vocals out front. “Paint By Numbers” is a cool little ditty with a catchier-than-hell chorus and a bunch of girl groupy “whoo-hoo-hoo’s,” “Take a Take a Me” is a playful number that musically harkens back to early L.A.-area punk groups such as the Zeros, and the super-poppy “Cheezy” begins with a blast of harmonica that sounds like it leapt straight off of “I Should Have Known Better” and continues with lyrical slaps such as “I would like to strangle you or punch you in the face” that are ironically married to a sunny melody. “I Get It” finds Shattuck engaging in a spirited duet with Barnett (the punk rock Sonny & Cher?), while the disc-closing “Forever” is probably as semi-sweet as the Muffs have ever gotten. A fine album, Muffs – welcome back and whoop-de-doo.
20. The Cry! – “Dangerous Game”
Slashing guitars, sassy punk vocals, shout-along choruses, lyrics that reference T. Rex, Mott the Hoople, active libidos, smokes and Schlitz – The Cry! brings all this and more on their glammy, power poppin’ sophomore effort. It’s a major step forward from their debut, and brings the band’s songwriting and performing strengths into sharper focus by toughening up their sound. “Discotheque” is quite a slammin’ opener, while other tunes such as “Shakin’,” “Nowhere to Go” and “Same Old Story” also rock like mad with equal doses of Stonesy swagger and teenage abandon.
Favorite EPs of 2014:
The New Trocaderos – “Kick Your Ass” (Why, yes; yes they do.)
Cliff Hillis – “Song Machine” (Why, yes; yes he is.)
Kylie Hughes – “Calipopicana”
The musical playground known as the annual National Association of Music Merchants Show (aka NAMM) hit Anaheim, California in late January and as per usual, it was chock full of products showcasing the latest and greatest from the big guns (Fender, Rickenbacker, Ludwig, etc.) and hundreds of specialty retailers, all in attendance to network like mad. It’s also where you make your way through large crowds of music buffs and hear random bits of conversation such as, “Dude, I swear that was Tony Iommi!”
Although many of the visitors walk the convention floor in search of autograph opportunities, I was able to somehow resist the temptation to hang out at the Ludwig Drums booth and await the arrival of Weird Al Yankovic’s drummer and the guy who keeps the beat for the kids’ TV program Yo Gabba Gabba. (Just a joke; I’m sure they’re both fine fellows and great percussionists.) Instead, I prowled the convention floor and did what I usually do, which is scouring the exhibit halls for more off-the-beaten-path types of things.
One of my first stops was the Driven Drumsticks booth. Being a drummer myself, I was attracted by their large display of brightly-colored and well-made drumsticks, and I stopped to chat with the affable Scott McDuff, president of Driven. He told me the company was about one year old, based out of Georgia, and was at NAMM showcasing some new designs. I was struck by the fact that McDuff mentioned that they plan on hiring veterans to staff their factory. Very cool. I was also struck by the bright orange drumsticks I purchased. www.drivendrumsticks.com
The next booth to draw me in was SHS International, where they were showcasing College Guitars. These 39” full size acoustic guitars come with the official logo and colors of your favorite Division One college (provided your favorite Division One college is one off the 24 SHS has licenses for). Schools such as Ohio State, the University of Kansas, Texas A&M, and the University of Alabama are among the ones featured, and the guitars are very colorful indeed (and the current price is $249.99, in case you were wondering). According to their website, “Every College Guitar features a spruce top, mahogany back and sides, a 6-pin rosewood bridge, adjustable truss rod and sealed die-cast tuners.” These guitars are not only cool six-string pieces of memorabilia for the college fan, but functional as well. Straps and picks with college logos are also available. Visit www.collegeguitars.com for more information.
Other sights of note were the Rickenbacker booth, where guitar buffs were drooling over the beautiful (and beautiful sounding) guitars; the enormous Hal Leonard display, which included songbooks of every conceivable type (Justin Bieber’s Believe, the Beatles Live at the BBC, and Charlie Brown’s Greatest Hits, for example); the most incredible set of cajons I’ve ever seen, courtesy of Schlagwerk Percussion; and a gentleman handcrafting Sabian cymbals on the exhibit floor.
All in all, it was another successful year for NAMM, which is always run like a well-oiled machine. And, as a bonus, during my first day at the show, I walked a total of nearly eight miles. Now that’s rock ‘n’ roll, friends.