This feels impossible to rank, since style and fashion taste is probably even more subjective than judging the actual music these bands make. Most of these bands (solo artists another day perhaps) have a seamless ability to bridge classic style elements with modern flare and their own personal spin. My natural bias is toward semi-formal to formal men's fashion, because well, that's what I like, and this is after all, my list.
Many music geeks acknowledge that much changed in and around 1977 with punk changing the musical landscape permanently by largely pushing passion and energy ahead of technique and musical competence. I have always been more fixated on what came next. A refining of the punk aesthetic with a focus on song writing and refinement without completely abandoning the looseness of it all. Bands like Joy Division, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Jesus & Mary Chain, The Cure, and Talking Heads (to name but a few) were tagged as "Post-Punk", all with a different take on what ultimately equates a will to be weird, and all at the forefront of what would become alternative and all the other silly genre labels that help us categorize the bands we like.
This is not a history lesson, mostly because offering history lessons takes me out of my musical depth very quickly. What it is however, is some very quick background for what seemed to start about ten to eleven years ago. People would call these newer bands new wave/post-punk revivalists. Whatever. That's probably fair and unfair in equal parts. For my role, these bands are influenced by some of the aforementioned post-punk bands and have projected nicely the dreary and ominous side of the sound, while capturing the energy and upbeat elements at the same time. Interestingly, the original wave was heavily resident in the UK, where this most recent wave are largely US bands, and in many cases from NYC. My default sound preference for this bucket of bands should be readily apparent quite quickly.
In 2002 when Turn Out The Bright Lights was released, Gen Xers kind of lost their minds and those younger did so as well, for perhaps different reasons. This was what a post-punk record in the 2000's should sound like. Unfairly rubbed as Joy Division way more than once, the influence was still clear, but something had been revived. These guys should have had more than two perfect records to offer, but sadly, it feels like that's what we're left with. Interpol produced songs like PDA with such ease, especially for a band who mostly met each other just prior to becoming a band.
Amusement Parks on Fire
AAPOF released few quick records that feel mostly tier B with fleeting moments of brilliance. I remember hearing them called noise pop and I am sure someone would say emo (if someone could also tell me what the fuck emo really was, that would be great). Regardless, there is 1979 muddled all through a lot of their stuff, and I always had a soft spot for their sense of melody.
It is actually quite unfair to strictly categorize The Walkmen in the vein of "post" anything. Their catalogue has touched a number of styles and eras over a decade, including Dylan and other bits of more folky Americana. In 2004 however, they felt very post-punk, sitting nicely alongside similar New York contemporaries. Let me also once more go on record as saying "The Rat" is one of the greatest songs written in America in the last ten years.
The debut record from this all female band from Vancouver, could easily be written off as derivative eighties, if it was not so perfectly and genuinely executed. Always felt like they were gone way too soon. The song "Brother" hits all the high points of what their fave artists sounded like before them. More female vocalists should channel their inner Morrissey imo.
I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness
Not sure why they only made one album. Perhaps it was because they never recovered from having such a shitty band name. Regardless, there are some class tracks on that record, including "Lights". If The Killers had released "Lights" it would have been a huge hit. Thankfully they did not.
Much like The Walkmen, these guys started closer to something approximating a mix of sad chords, upbeat rhythms, and assorted John Taylor basslines. I love where both bands took their sound, but have a special place for how they sounded out of the gate. New York via Montreal and sadly no longer an active band.
Another 90's formed leading into 00's New York alumni, and perhaps the most solidly entrenched in post-punk and goth principals at heart. Calla are perhaps the most overlooked among the first wave of revivalists.
In the early to mid 2000's it felt like perhaps the US bands were beating the Brits at their own game a little bit, with so much Post type sounds coming from New York. I always felt like if Interpol were in fact a modern day answer to Joy Division, then Editors seemed like an answer to Interpol in some strange way. Similarly, consistency seems elusive to these guys, but the first record was really well done and true to the over arching Post sound.
Again with the New York. Their first album is what many would describe as "unfuckwithable". They never hit that stride again. Longwave always felt to me like what a less commercial Killers would resemble. In theory, trying to lean more toward the Killers side of revivalism may have been what hurt these cats. Wake Me When It's Over is without question one of my favourite records from the 00's, bar none.
Wes Eisold's time in hardcore bands comes through in spots, but mixed with baritone and moody synth parts, the Cold Cave records could be easily slotted into 1982 with ease. The sparse arrangements and deadened drum mixes give, the first album especially, a real back in time ambience without compromising a sound to now relevance.
I am guilty of genre name dropping, but try to stop short of the hair splitting that ends up with bands assigning themselves to foolish categories like Sad Core. Call The XX things like Indie Pop or whatever you prefer, but both of their amazing records are rooted in good old fashioned gloomy and melancholic Post-Punk. Nice to see London adding its two cents with these kids to the current landscape.
I am not sure what caused so many Brooklyn bands to embrace and expand on the Post-Punk sound so seamlessly, but albums like Diiv's debut are part of the wonderful net effect of it all. This is textbook stuff here. Excited to see where these kids go next.
You know what sounds a lot like The Smiths? Blacksburg, Virgina in 2013 apparently. Initially sounding more like the jingle jangle side of the coin a la Morrissey and Co. or Boys Don't Cry era The Cure, Wild Nothing easily fit into the nice bucket of indie pop groups like Beach House and Real Estate, while being loosely entrenched in the past.
Across three records, these lads have been all over the map musically. Glam, shoegaze, garage, and yes Post. Their last album, Skying, flexes on all types of influence, not the least of which is a really respectful and clearly deliberate nod to the early Simple Minds material. They have McCulloch swagger, Bob Smith aloofness, and Peter Hook...ahem... hooks. Cannot wait for their new album this year.
School Of Seven Bells
It is actually a bit unfair to categorize this band so generally in an exercise like this, but on so many tracks the vibe and aesthetic feels about thirty years young. Gorgeous combination of voices and solid playing. When songs remind you of New Order in spots, a band is absolutely doing something right. I adore this band.
Until recently I actually thought these guys were from the UK and not San Diego. My skew and bias to British music aside, there are times when it sounds like Crocodiles have gone all in on Jesus & Mary Chain. If more people knew or cared about what that meant, then perhaps it would be problematic. In my view it just means they're doing it right.
I am reasonably convinced that Sweden is able to produce not only any type of band, but have them all excel in their given musical style. These guys have two albums now, but are still quite new to me. Holograms are evidence that the Swedish can also do Post-Punk. Well.
Another London group of females with extraordinary energy and poise for a young band. They have an "it band" feeling right now. Also, if reincarnation were possible, my money is that Ian Curtis has resurfaced as a young female with short hair and solid onstage karate moves.
In their more sombre moments, the ones that land them on a list like this for me, Merchandise embody the Bunnymen, but perhaps with a less twee Morrissey on vocals. Bands like this should have dark sunglasses on in their videos, more often than not. Check.
The Pains of Being Pure At Heart
On their second record, this band seemed to move closer to a 90's Siamese Dream bracket, versus their debut that bounced around more readily between 80's Brit styles. Not sure where they plan to head next, and I like both records a great deal, but tracks like this from their debut is what got me excited about Pains instantly.
EDIT...plus one more...
Seems almost poetic to forget this band in my initial post rendering. Highly underrated and virtually unknown, but for some initial hype in the UK with the release of their debut, The Longcut without question sound like a Manchester Post-Punk band. Extended jam parts without venturing into dirty hippy territory. Defiant vocals and driving percussion. I really hoped these guys would be huge in relative terms. This track kills.
Many will remember a series of albums released in the 90's as an off-shoot of popular Much Music videos called Big Shiny Tunes. They were wildly popular until, like so many things, they became overdone and ran their course. Redd Kross have been writing big shiny tunes for 30 years and last year's Researching The Blues was no exception. The difference is their songs have not become overdone or run their course.
At the close of 2012, in an effort to be as honest with these things as a fickle music nerd can be, it seemed like a good idea to declare Researching The Bluesalbum of the year. To a fault, and perhaps due to lack of time or ambition, I did not offer much justification or commentary for that choice or any of my other end of year choices. So in addition to spending as much time as possible with new and interesting music being released this year, it always feels right to revisit years past and see if your key favourite musical choices still hold up. As it turns out, Redd Kross still made my favourite record last year, and this is why.
"Stay Away From Downtown" was a perfect lead single. It signalled a big shiny return after fifteen years. Packed full of upbeat energy, nifty little guitar licks right out of the gate, minor chord transition drops in all the right places, background vox placed actively in verse bridge and chorus sections, driving drums with hints of of a slightly medicated Keith Moon, and distortion that warms up the room without slipping into tinny or gratuitous feedback traps.
There is a lot of pop music released every year, and since the beginning of time the core ingredients have tended to be things like melody, hooks, brevity, and shininess. To varying degrees, artists, producers and labels go about that in different ways with varying end results. In my 42 years, 37 of which have been spent buying, consuming and obsessing about music, I have always had a fixation with melody and hooks. I would suggest bands like Redd Kross have as well.
For many who would listen to a song like "Hazel Eyes", the reaction would be something like "that sounds like The Beatles". Of course it does. The beauty with guitar based pop music, when you listen way too closely, is it never deviates too far from the baseline template (not bass line) set in motion years ago. When you also listen closely, you can here things that make albums like RTB uniquely a Redd Kross album. Like most of us in a certain vintage, these lads grew up listening to Kiss. The songs have the fuzzy warmness of Kiss without ever straying into Dinosaur Jr. or Husker Du fuzziness. They flex on the things that made early Kiss songs really just Beatles songs with a bit more muscle. The way The Beatles bopped there heads while playing "Love Me Do" is something you can do with every song on this record. This is a key guitar pop performance metric. Love Me Do Head Boppability. Check.
A friend and I were talking about "power pop" and guitar type pop compared with post rock, prog and other more free form styles of music with more clear lines of focus on musicianship and perhaps originality. Comparing well composed and considered three chord pop songs to Tool, or Tortoise or even Sigur Ros feels like an apples to oranges deal. What my friend said is, no matter how much you like the more complicated music, there really are no rules. Pop songs have rules. Again, the ideas of brevity and making something that can sound fresh within a framework that has been done at exponential length. Different styles with different angles of trickiness, but I would suggest sitting down to write "Winter Blues" is potentially tricky. You're not working from a clean slate. You don't have free reign. You want to create something that sounds very now in the current scheme of things, but with a familiarness that is both appealing to yourself and hopefully others.
This album is comfortable with itself from start to finish, because it never falls for any traps. Lots of bands start out to write three minute pop songs, but they lack the testicular fortitude to stay the course. One moment of doubt and an album like this gets doused in over production, big drums, heavy handed dubs, and mosh pit grunge type stop start cliches. Being genuine and true to what the song requires is what this album (and this band) does so well. Songs shouldn't change because of how you think they should sound for a listener. Songs should stay how you want them to sound for yourself after you have finished writing them. Perfect guitar albums like this one, Grand Prix by Teenage Fanclub, One Chord to Another by Sloan, and Copper Blue by Sugar don't bugger up their own well crafted pop songs to meet some other optical standard or perceived view to originality and rule breaking.
Researching The Blues also kickstarted a thought for me about something that I've been ranting about pretty much ever since. Albums have gotten too long. Sure there is a lengthy history of double records and artists feeling like everything they write should land on an album. It should not. No artist, especially in this day and age, has that many stories to tell in one sitting. Eight tracks is a bit short. Twelve is a bit long. Ten is perfect. Enough to leave the listener feeling satisfied yet wanting to hear your stories again. When I finish listening to RTB, I feel like the Redd Kross lads got to the point quickly in each of the stories, and left me wanting to hear them all again. I love Sigur Ros and Radiohead, but sometimes when I finish one of their albums, I feel mostly exhausted. Different experience by design, but again, they do not have any rules to work within. There is no filler on Researching The Blues. Just a focused playfulness with accomplished tight playing and an ultimate comfort in knowing what type of band you are, and a sense of not having to prove anything or be anything you don't want to.
The other thing I love about this record is the perfect execution of being able to sound like 1990 Redd Kross and 2013 Redd Kross simultaneously. Bands that have been around for any amount of time seem to find themselves trying to forget the past or constantly trying to re-create it. For the latter, the trick seems to be how much do we capture the essence of our signature heyday period, while not sounding like a relic or a band pandering to hardcore fans incapable of evolving with the band. When you play Researching The Blues and then follow it with Third Eye from 1990, the era of release would not be readily obvious if you did not know. In fairness, there is a retro feel to everything Redd Kross have produced even as far back as '82, borrowing respectfully from 60's and 70's rock, pop and punk with their own spin. This creates a timelessness in RTB that matches their whole catalogue, but still has a spark and energy that sounds like a band that's super psyched to be making a new record in 2013.
So yeah. Researching The Blues was not the most original ground breaking album in 2013, but it was one of the most sincere, genuine, concisely crafted, unapologetic, and adoringly playful records of the year. I used to feel swayed by critic lists or friend favourites when making "best of..." lists. I have gotten better at stepping back and rationally deciding which albums was I truly most excited about in a given year, regardless of whether they broke molds or created huge buzz. So in the same way that Redd Kross will not compromise the merits of a perfect three minute pop song, it felt right to not compromise a list with a number one choice that was anything less than perfect, and perfect is Researching The Blues remains.