My January playlists are typically filled with leftovers from the previous year and a smattering of new content I download hastily just for the sake of having something new to listen to after replaying my year-end mix for a whole month. Quality doesn’t really matter at this point, and (ideally) 90% of these songs will be buried and long forgotten by the time March rolls around. The situation’s no different this year- I scoured the world wide web for anything even remotely resembling “listenable” and stuck it on my iPod. Let’s unpack.
It’s been fifteen years since Morrissey‘s last truly great song, 2004’s “Irish Blood, English Heart”. 2006 gave us the above-average “You Have Killed Me” and 2009’s “Black Cloud” was a solid “meh”, after which the perennially peeved crooner took a bit of a hiatus. This decade’s seen the release of two abominable records, bottoming out with 2017’s Low in High School.
The anthropomorphic head of wilted lettuce has now re-released the latter of those albums with some new content, one track being an able cover of The Pretenders‘ “Back on the Chain Gang”. Another is the -yes, you’d better believe it- fairly decent “Never Again Will I Be a Twin”. Hearkening back to his solo material from the early 90s, the song features all the hallmarks of a Moz tune with the added bonus of being listenable. You get the overwrought melodrama and the railing against the ruling class, but it’s matched by a sense of urgency that was MIA for the past ten years. It could do without the extended instrumental interlude after the first verse, but the menacing bass is a welcome return to grit for the onetime Smiths frontman.
I was a bit hesitant hitting play on “Shelter”, the new track from Broken Bells, but it’s not through any fault of the band. The James Mercer side project has been reliable every release, and the Shins having a stellar run for the past few years should be a good omen as well. It’s strictly through bad luck that they happened to drop new material at the beginning of very bad years for me. So forgive me for fearing that dropping this entirely enjoyable song into my playlist will wreck 2019.
“Shelter” is a weepy U2-style ballad, complete with an Achtung Baby style minor key post-chorus. Its quality bodes well for the remainder of the album- whether or not it also acts as a harbinger of the year’s quality remains to be seen
There are very, very few artists that I’ve written off entirely- and those few are entirely capable of turning my opinion around with a good song. That one good song hasn’t yet come from mope-rock legends The Hold Steady, and I feel that even if they finally did land something melodically, I wouldn’t be able to get into it due to singer Craig Finn‘s irritating sour milk vocals.
It’s that same vocal style that plagues Pedro the Lion‘s Dave Bazan, whose fascinating spiritual journey is overshadowed by bland, unadorned rock like new song “Yellow Bike”. As someone who hadn’t listened to Pedro the Lion prior to this comeback record, it’s utterly banal, and it’s been somewhat of an epiphany for me.
I’ve long romanticized the late 90s/early 2000s as a period of incredible music, wishing I was five to ten years older so I could have experienced it firsthand. The college indie scene just seemed so cool and hip. I’m now realizing that I’ve been viewing that scene through the lens of more commercially successful bands that distilled that sound into more accessible music. Death Cab, Jimmy Eat World, and Brand New were second-generation envoys of the Pacific Northwest indie/emo sphere that Seth Cohen loved so much.
That’s why up until now, I’ve been so bewildered that hipsters have been so enamoured with the recent emo revival when only a handful of songs have made any sort of impact on me. Turns out these bands are in fact representative of the true nature of that time period. I just don’t like that true nature. The prog-rock touches, the constant drum fills, the lack of melody- that’s what it was about. The knotty guitar pinwheels and plaintive lyrics were just adapted into a more cohesive format thanks to more commercial-thinking acts, and that’s what I’ve been wanting more of this whole time. I don’t want bands to sound like American Football or Modern Baseball or Mineral or Archers of Loaf. I just want catchy songs about the Oregon shoreline.
It’s not one of my music blogs if there’s no mention of Imagine Dragons and their anthem-core legacy. Three recognizable names borrowed cues from the communal workout champions recently: Switchfoot, Papa Roach, and Jaden Smith. Switchfoot did it so effectively in fact, that “Native Tongue” is virtually indistinguishable from an Imagine Dragons song. Jaden Smith was a little more subtle about his homage, and Papa Roach split the difference.
I wonder if Arcade Fire knew when they were writing “Wake Up” that it would be the sound of a whole generation of musicians, adopted into the genre of choice of Tough Mudder participants, and eventually picked up by Papa Roach. I wonder if they know what they’ve done.
Speaking of overdone influence, I think it’s time for the Springsteen subgenre to take a break. Because while Sharon Van Etten uses The Boss’ sound well on her great new album Remind Me Tomorrow, The Killers have gone overboard with their well-intentioned but embarrassing “Land of the Free”. It’s basically exactly what you think you would hear if Bruce performed on a televised charity fundraiser.
And then there’s the undying devotion to 80s new wave.
I didn’t need to hit play on a band with this album cover to know exactly how bad it was, but I did anyway, and it was just as bad as you know it is. There are over one million bands that sound exactly like this, and I don’t have to write a word about them for you to know what that sound is.
Fortunately, as the decade winds down, it’s clear that there were in fact some very well-defined genres that didn’t rely strictly on the 80s to exist. There was the aforementioned anthem-core, which sometimes blended with its cousin genre maximalist indie pop.
“Stand Out, Fit In” from ONE OK ROCK is corny, but even a cynical heart like mine can’t deny that it hits the right melodic points in the brain and ultimately may help some troubled youth get through tough times. The surging dance pop is this entire decade in a compact three minutes, and could have been released at any point within the past nine years without anyone blinking. It’s interchangeable, but at least its a solid representative of what happened in alternative music in the 2010s. You can just picture the photogenic millennials in the music video with their coloured hair, thick-rimmed glasses, and thrift-store wardrobe.
The Decemberists‘ last album I’ll Be Your Girl was a little too indebted to 70s yacht-rock, and offered little in the way of quality singles. “Traveling On” is the last song from a recently released follow-up EP, and it outshines everything on the previous record. The pleasantly winding guitar hook and A+ verses carry an above-average chorus, and the track would fit comfortably towards the end of a Greatest Hits compilation.