Sunday, February 27, 2005

Sunday Synthpop Brunch: Yaz

Yaz It was one of the biggest surprises of 1981 when keyboardist Vince Clarke abruptly left Depeche Mode just after their debut album Speak And Spell had achieved a significant breakthrough on the UK charts largely thanks to his work on what would become one of their signature singles: "Just Can't Get Enough." While co-synth player Martin L. Gore would eventually steer Depeche Mode into darker thematic waters over the next few years, Clarke's next move was to further refine his kinetic robopop style under the guise of Yazoo (simply Yaz in the U.S. - God knows why).

Unsurprisingly, the limited output of Yazoo has Clarke's distinctively detailed compositional fingerprints all over it. Stocked with ultraclean, incredibly catchy electro-pop gems as well as some equally compelling and far less sunny material like the doom-laden ballad "Winter Kills" and the eerie experimental tape loop collage "I Before E After C," Yaz's 1982 debut album Upstairs At Eric's was Clarke at the top of his game aided and abetted by the blazing R&B vocals of Alison Moyet (who gave the dry synthesizer dominated music a warmer and more palpably human counterpoint than Depeche Mode vocalist David Gahan was capable of at that point in time).

Apparently, it wasn't just the fans of Speak And Spell that were pleased with the results of this new collaboration: Upstairs At Eric's met with instantaneous success and the popularity of Clarke's new project, for a while, even eclipsed that of Depeche Mode. Despite this runaway success in England, Upstairs At Eric's never took the U.S. market by storm (though it ultimately managed to sell over a million copies over the following decade). Despite never reaching higher than #73 on the Billboard Hot 100, "Situation" became the duo's U.S. "hit" and the song that still accrues the most airplay for them on 80's-themed weekend and specialty shows. However, it was the album's second UK hit "Don't Go" that really caught my attention, largely thanks to airing of it's deeply silly monster-movie video on MTV. Right up there on the same insanely catchy plane as "Just Can't Get Enough," "Don't Go" features a typically head-turning Moyet vocal that adds even more urgency to Clarke's dancing synth arpeggios and driving electronic percussion.

Yaz with their enormous touring load The following summer saw the release of the second and final Yaz album You And Me Both, which managed to top the charts in Blighty (Upstairs At Eric's never made it past #2), but yet didn't have the longterm sales legs shown by its predecessor. The album also managed to yield another UK Top 3 smash with "Nobody's Diary," which retains the danceability of and dancing keyboards from "Don't Go" but adds a more reflective and sorrowful delivery from Moyet, who sings lyrics that could be interpreted as a commentary on the imminent end of their creative partnership.

Following the dissolution of Yaz00, Moyet embarked on a solo career that, while virtually a dead issue in the United States outside of a lone Top 40 single in 1985 ("Invisible"), has seen considerabe success overseas. Clarke landed in an even shorter-lived collaboration next: with Feargal Sharkey under the moniker The Assembly. In 1985, however, Clarke found his musical soulmate at last in vocalist Andy Bell and the two of them formed Erasure, which not only has become far and away Clarke's most permanent musical project to date but also yielded him a true American breakthrough at last with 1988's The Innocents.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Sunday Synthpop Brunch: 'Primitive Man'

Iva Davies Years before they became a two-hit wonder in the U.S. (thanks to "Crazy" and "Electric Blue"), Australia's Icehouse were haunting a handful of new-wave and college stations with their dark-tinted, yet highly melodic electronic pop. Sounding at times like David Bowie fronting Joy Division, Icehouse had a much starker sound early on than hinted at by their later American chart hits. This was especially true of their second album, Primitive Man (1982), largely due to the fact that there was no actual band at the time. After dissolving the intial band lineup, singer Iva Davies crafted Primitive Man nearly single-handedly, with assiatance provided by producer Keith Forsey (a session drummer for sundry Georgio Moroder projects in the 1970s and later become one of the pre-eminent pop producers of the 1980s), and it's from that album that we source this inaugural Synthpop Sunday Brunch.

The hypnotic reverie "Hey Little Girl" served as the Icehouse's true American breakthrough, at least as far as MTV was concerned. Though the fledgling channel had a couple of earlier videos by the band in sporadic rotation from their archives, this clip received heavy airplay for months on end in the summer and fall of 1982. Alternating color and black-and-white photography to dreamlike effect, "Hey Little Girl"'s hazy, shadowy visuals perfectly complimented the song's skittering, skeletal percussive track and eerie, chime-like synth chords.

Perhaps due to the original videoclip for the song being rather unremarkable in comparison, "Great Southern Land" never became as well-know its predecessor...at least not until its prominent use years later in the movie Young Einstein (which I believe represents the entire U.S. career of Australian hellspawn Yahoo Serious). It's a real shame this song fell through the cracks stateside, for its breathtaking sweep arguably represents the pinnacle of Icehouse's career. As with "Hey Little Girl," it doesn't take a lot to make "Great Southern Land" work: a driving bassline, a simple synth figure, a double-tracked vocal and a compressed Linn Drum loop is all it takes for Davies to conjure images of wide, empty desert vistas in our mind.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

The 2004 Music Wrap-Up

(Note - Yeah, I know, it's February of 2005, and I haven't written anything in nearly a month. I usually do these year-end recaps a bit late anyway, but this one comes far later than usual as the result of a catastrophic screwup that wiped out this entire post in its original form back around the middle of January. From there, it took me the better part of a week to get up the stomach to attack this project again, and then a couple more weeks of additional listening to music before I felt ready to rewrite and re-summarize. Lesson learned - always compose longer posts in a word processing program and then paste them in here and format...)

2004: it was the best of times and it was the worst of times – an unending avalanche of alternating good news and bad news, artistic brilliance and cynical crap, keen executive foresight and quick-profit idiocy.

In the all-important realm of new and vital music, it was once again those pesky independent labels operating largely below the mainstream radar that did nearly all the grunt work in discovering and serving up the best material the year had to offer. As far as bands that actually “made it” to the majors and made a big splash on SoundScan were concerned, it helped a lot if your band name was Modest Mouse, Franz Ferdinand, or perhaps Los Lonely Boys. Beyond that qualification, it wasn’t a pretty picture for new artists unless your sister had a mysteriously-popular reality show on MTV, or you had a movie career (and augmented breasts) to use as a launching pad for your singing aspirations.

What very few breakthroughs that did emerge at the mainstream level in 2004 were almost entirely poached from overseas deals (Keane, The Darkness) or simply bought up from the minors in the tried-and-true fashion that has existed since the so-called Alternative Rock Revolution. In the case of the above-mentioned trifecta of Modest Mouse, Franz Ferdinand and Los Lonely Boys, these albums were literally swooped down upon as they started to break open from Sony’s faux-independent labels operating in a little shack on the same corporate premises.

Thanks to the ongoing ripple effect of the corporate media conglomeration orgy of the 1990s, bland, vaguely rebellious meat and potatoes rock and inconsequential brand-obsessed hip hop continued to dominate the airwaves to the exclusion of nearly all else. The picture here hasn’t really changed much, as the major labels saturated all mainstream musical outlets virtually unopposed, pumping them full of some of the most insipid, uninspired and market-tested-for-your-safety product in recent memory. The independents, long used to this drastically-tilted playing field, continued to exploit the opportunities for promotion offered by longtime allies at college radio and the internet, while two recent additions to their arsenal -- satellite radio and digital distribution – began to experience some rapid upward growth (largely in response to the decade of “comfortable” stasis reigning at FM).

Incredibly, this runaway consolidation that has engulfed the music industry (as well as most of the entertainment media itself) since the early 1990s continued into 2004 as Sony and BMG merged at last, effectively reducing the Big Five to the Big Four ... or, perhaps more accurately stated, the Big Two (Universal and SonyBMG) and the Not-So-Big Two (WMG and EMD). Hell, one could even refer to this new recalibration of power as the Axis (Japan and Germany) vs. the Allies (U.S. and U.K.).

The big news in corporate land aside from the latest mega-merger was the total sales picture, which continues to look muddy at best. This is actually troubling news for the industry, as for the first eight months of the year, 2004 represented a confident step back into upward sales momentum for the first time since 1999. Then along came the fourth quarter and the shit-eating grins in the corporate suites started to vanish in a hurry as those thirteen all-important sales weeks damn near completely erased all of the healthy gains posted until then.

The late-flagging sales pace at the retail level was in direct opposition to the already-strong sales of legitimately available downloaded music – sales of which began to soar towards the year's end as the emergent iPod culture began to flex its developing sales muscle at last. It is this developing battle of digital file sales vs. physical CD sales that will likely be one of the most watched stories of 2005, and the results will have seismic impact (as if they haven’t already) on the way music is promoted by the majors in the coming years. If CDs can manage to stay the course and build on last year’s minor gains, then perhaps the worst of the industry’s slump is indeed history at last. But if CD sales flag again (especially at a pace relative to what was seen during Q4 2004), then we may soon see just how ready the U.S. music market really is for an all-digital future.

As far as albums themselves were concerned, it still wasn't a banner year, though the ratio of wheat to chaff product appeared to show some real signs of improvement for the first time in the new century. Perhaps reflecting the industry's soaring fortunes in the a la carte download business, songs/individual tracks seemed to be more dominant than albums in determining the worth of a given artist once again, though there were some encouraging signs pointing to labels remembering for the first time in a decade how to make albums that people will actually want to play more than once. In-house guidelines quietly put into place by Sony, for example, started trending CDs away from the 13-15 song / 65-75 minute excesses common to the last decade, favoring a 10 song, 40-50 minute approach instead. This "all-killer, no filler" style of thinking seemed to be coming back into vogue across all labels towards the year’s end...whether the results actually matched the intent, however, is still wide open for debate.

Of course, the music industry being what it is, smart moves are always sabotaged by the kind of thinking that might be a grand idea when it comes to marketing snack foods and children’s toys, but not necessarily so for selling music. Perhaps the single most infuriating practice becoming commonplace is the repackaging of current albums, which nearly always means added tracks or visual content that was not available on the initial release. Until 2004, this practice was largely reserved for underperforming albums that were judged to be in need an added incentive to kick their sales into gear (usually achieved with a new song or remix added to the updated version). But the re-issue of Usher’s Confessions (the biggest selling album of the past year by some margin) only six months into its run, followed by expanded editions of breakout albums by Franz Ferdinand, Los Lonely Boys and Gretchen Wilson signaled a full willingness on behalf of the majors to quit beating around the bush and to see if they can indeed sell a blockbuster album twice. What kind of message does this send to fans conditioned over the years to purchase new albums the second they hit the street? What kind of sympathy are these fans to have for the major labels and their ongoing heavily publicized battle against online piracy when they pull this kind of shit in return?

Continuing along this apparent dropping of the pretense of consumer friendliness, the labels also seemed to be forcing diehard fans to purchase the same product twice in different formats, not just CD itself. The apparently inexorable march into a 5.1 surround future continued in 2004 as more advanced-resolution format SACDs, DVD-As and (towards year’s end) DualDiscs made their way to shelves, with many of these updated editions offering bells and whistles unavailable in any other fashion. The most glaring example of this was the SACD-hybrid remaster of Nine Inch NailsThe Downward Spiral, which offered a second disc of b-sides, remixes and non-album tracks that was not available on the DualDisc version, which instead offered promotional videos for the album’s singles unavailable on any format.

While SACD and DVD-A appear to be eking some kind of uneasy co-existence on racks, DualDiscs (which represent the technological fusion of DVD and CD technology onto a two-sided disc often sold at the same price as a regular compact disc unlike some SACD/DVD-A titles which can retail upwards as twice the price) remain an unproven commodity, though an intensive release schedule in the coming year will certainly raise their visibility. Amusingly, the format launched with true ham-handed aplomb – the entire run of the much-ballyhooed initial major label DualDisc release (The DonnasGold Medal) were defective pressings, with no option available for replacement copies as the title was immediately deleted from the WMG catalog (but customers returning them for a CD copy were allowed to keep the special DualDisc slipcase as a reward for giving it a whirl anyway). Nice!

Alright, enough with the industry news/rant prologue: without further ado, here are the lists and awards I’ve bestowed upon the most notable albums (for better and for worse) of the last 12 months. Enjoy!


THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2004

How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb
1. U2 How To Dismantle An Atomic Bom
Liars
2. Todd Rundgren Liars
The Blue Notebooks
3. Max Richter The Blue Notebooks
Hopes And Fears
4. Keane Hopes And Fears
SMiLE
5. Brian Wilson SMiLE
The Final Straw
6. Snow Patrol The Final Straw
A Strangely Isolated Place
7. Ulrich Schnauss A Strangely Isolated Place
Danny The Dog
8. Massive Attack Danny The Dog
Everybody Loves A Happy Ending
9. Tears For Fears Everybody Loves A Happy Ending
Here For The Party
10. The Black Keys Rubber Factory

11. VHS Or Beta Night On Fire
12. Zero 7 When It Falls
13. Comets On Fire Blue Cathedral
14. Secret Machines Now Here Is Nowhere
15. The Whiles Colors Of The Year
16. Prince Musicology
17. The Blue Nile High
18. Isidore Isidore
19. Lisa Gerrard & Patrick Cassidy Immortal Memory
20. Interpol Antics

Honorable Mentions:

Aerosmith Honkin’ On Bobo
Ambulance Ltd. LP
Arcade Fire Funeral
Bjork Medulla
The Church Forget Yourself
Client City
The Dissociatives The Dissociatives
Dogs Die In Hot Cars Please Describe Yourself
Eagles Of Death Metal Peace, Love, Death Metal
Faze Action Broad Souls
Franz Ferdinand Franz Ferdinand
Green Day American Idiot
Iron And Wine Our Endless Numbered
Japancakes Waking Hours
The Killers Hot Fuss
Kaki King Legs To Make Us Longer
Kings Of Convenience Riot On An Empty Street
Lambchop Aw C’mon
Lambchop No You C’mon
The Libertines The Libertines
Longwave Life Of The Party
Menomena! I Am The Fun Blame Monster
Morrissey You Are The Quarry
Mylo Destroy Rock & Roll
Orbital Blue Album
A Perfect Circle Emotive
Grant Lee Phillips Virginia Creeper
Phoenix Alphabetical
Radio 4 Stealing Of A Nation
RATATAT RATATAT
Rush Feedback
Scissor Sisters Scissor Sisters
William Shatner Has Been
The Shore The Shore
Supercilious The Next Time We Go Sublime
Tortoise It’s All Around You
Trans Am Liberation
T.V. On The Radio Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babies
Tweaker 2 A.M. Wakeup Call
United State Of Electronica Emerald City
Vangelis Alexander
The Veils Runaway Found
The Von Bondies Real Gone
Tom Waits Real Gone
Wilco A Ghost Is Born
Worm Is Green Automagic
Pete Yorn Live From Jersey
Zombi Cosmos


Left Of The Dial - Dispatches From The ‘80s Underground
1. Various Artists Left Of The Dial - Dispatches From The ‘80s Underground
Black Power - Music Of A Revolution
2. Various Artists Black Power - Music Of A Revolution
The Bootleg Box Set, Volume 2
3. Tangerine Dream The Bootleg Box Set, Volume 2
Rumours (Deluxe Edition)
4. Fleetwood Mac Rumours (Deluxe Edition)
The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads
5. Talking Heads The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads
Words & Music - Greatest Hits
6. John Mellencamp Words & Music - Greatest Hits
The Rhythm Of The Saints
7. Paul Simon The Rhythm Of The Saints
The Downward Spiral
8. Nine Inch Nails The Downward Spiral (Dualdisc)
Garden State
9. Soundtrack Garden State
Join The Dots - B-Sides And Rarities
10. The Cure Join The Dots - B-Sides And Rarities

11. Tangerine Dream Thief
12. Pearl Jam Rearviewmirror
13. Neil Young Greatest Hits
14. ZZ Top Rancho Texicano: The Very Best Of ZZ Top
15. The Verve This Is Music – The Singles
16. Slowdive Catch The Breeze
17. Fleetwood Mac Tusk (Deluxe Edition)
18. Nirvana With The Lights Out
19. Brian Eno Another Green World
20. Pink Floyd The Final Cut

Honorable Mentions:

The Allman Brothers Band Stand Back – The Anthology
Curve The Way Of Curve
Def Leppard The Best Of Def Leppard
Brian Eno Before And After Science
Brian Eno Taking Tiger Mountain
Fleetwood Mac Fleetwood Mac (Deluxe Edition)
A Flock Of Seagulls Listen
John Fogerty Blue Moon Swamp
Daryl Hall & John Oates The Ultimate Hall & Oates
George Harrison Cloud Nine
Bruce Hornsby Greatest Radio Hits
Grace Jones The Collection
Lamb The Best Of Lamb 1996-2004
Paul Simon Graceland
Soundtrack Grand Theft Auto – San Andreas
Tangerine Dream Live Aachen - January 21st 1981
Tangerine Dream Live Montreal - April 9th 1977
Tangerine Dream Live Sydney - February 22nd 1982
Travis Singles
Various Artists Happy Birthday Newport! 50 Swinging Years
Yes Drama


THE LETDOWNS AND WORSE

The Capitol Albums Vol. 1The Beatles and John Lennon front the letdowns of the year, as it looks like Capitol Records has started to scrape against the very bottom of the barrel at last -- both projects are really only for the hardcore collector/fetishists despite the marketing campaigns put in motion to sell them. To be fair, it must be said that the Fab Four’s latest exercise in repackaging (The Capitol Albums Vol. 1) actually failed on non-musical counts, as the shrill, compressed-to-the-pain-threshold mix and terribly-conceived packaging alone conspired to make this project feel like a callous rip-off. Lennon’s Acoustic, on the other hand, features some strikingly shoddy-quality material that (along with the bonus material on Rhino’s otherwise-excellent reissue of The Cure’s Three Imaginary Boys) stretches the definition of what is “releasable” in new and rather unpleasant directions.

While we're on the Beatles tip, Abbey Road engineer Alan Parsons issued an electronica record (A Valid Path) last year with hardly anything on it worth a second listen save for the title track , which featured some typically blazing slide guitar work from David Gilmour. Further casting shame on the heady 70s, Christine McVie and her old band Fleetwood Mac both issued completely inconsequential albums; McVie’s emergence from retirement was rife with lazy clich├ęs and faceless, by-numbers music, while the mighty Mac’s Live In Boston failed to capture lightning in a bottle in the same fashion as 1997’s excellent live album The Dance.

A few 80s icons returned to the fray with dissapointing results, most notably the original lineup of Duran Duran, whose Astronaut contained a catchy coulda-been-a-hit-in-1987 single or two, but was also depressingly free of the fleet-fingered musicianship that made Rio such a potent new wave classic. Another long-awaited release from The Cure turned into yet another ultimately frustrating dry-hump as the venerable act issued what was on the surface a startlingly ferocious effort, yet forgot to pack enough songs to warrant more than a handful of listens. Even more of an unpleasant surprise was just how tired and out of ideas R.E.M. sounded on Around The Sun, which is quite possibly the dullest and most instantly forgettable work of their career. Other acts running on fumes these days include Marillion, who tried to step back into their trademark progressive opulence with Marbles but wound up merely marking time (and far too much time at that) ... which can also be said of They Might Be GiantsSpine, and The Orb’s meandering Bicycles & Tricycles.

Now, there are albums that I expected more from are then there are the albums which just flat out sucked. The most blatant examples that come to mind in the latter category are Gene Simmons’ perfectly-titled Asshole and Courtney’s Love’s disastrous “comeback” effort America’s Sweetheart (which pretty much shot in the gut whatever was left of her career in music). In perhaps of the most notable achievements of this past year, Brian Wilson managed to both kick ass and suck rocks simultaneously as Gettin’ In Over My Head, released a mere three months before SMiLE, was as pathetic as the latter was brilliant (then again, maybe it just needs another 35 years of work). Other notable stink bombs from the past year -- Damien Rice’s whiningly tuneless compilation of B Sides, David Byrne’s head-scratching Grown Backwards, Concrete Blonde’s stillborn Mojave and Trey Anastasio’s excruciating cod-classical mess Seis De Mayo.

Upping the ampage a bit, LostprophetsStart Something continued in the grand late-1990s tradition of screaming and lot and turning all the knobs up to 11 rather than actually recording anything of long term interest. Pulling a similar stunt was The Prodigy, who apparently spent the last 7 years creating the most annoying major label electronic album ever with Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned. Also kicking out the jams and leaving the songs at home this time around was Rick Springfield (!), and while his music has been getting increasingly broody and farther-removed from his ultra-slick 1980s heyday, no one was prepared for the nu-rawk assault of Shock Denial Anger Acceptance (which was far more Linkin Park than “Love Somebody”).

In the almost universally sucky category of cover albums, Wilson Phillips reanimated and dined noisily on the brains of classic 60’s pop with California. The same messy result happened when Warners released the reggaefied all-80’s-remakes soundtrack to 50 First Dates, except that many of the bands on this album still had a viable career when the project was commissioned. A remix album terrifyingly named What Is Hip? – The Remix Project Volume 1 attempted to squeeze blood from a stone by having a dozen and change modern electronic producers and DJs rework songs from the Warner Bros. vault and make them modern and hip -- and the end result sounded like the lamest mash-ups your mother ever attempted on your iMac. Lastly, while The Best Of Sixpence None The Richer was not a true covers project per se, the compilation managed to prove beyond a doubt that this band’s amazing penchant for making every song they re-interpret (“Dancing Queen,” “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” “There She Goes,” and “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”) sound blander than store-brand vanilla ice cream remains nearly unmatched among their peers.


THE HORROR, THE HORROR…

Hell's PitWith over 30,000 titles now released and reissued annually (and that is just in the U.S., folks), the product pipeline occasionally carries along with the flow some Hell-sent project so horrifying in nature that you have to wonder at the mentality of the label execs who green-lighted it. While some of these projects are tied to movies (Dirty Dancing – Havana Nights, Kevin Spacey singing the hits of Bobby Darin simply because he wanted to in Beyond The Sea) or aimed at people who can’t let go of being beat up a lot in junior high school (Insane Clown Posse’s Hell’s Pit), others seem to beggar belief that there is any kind of market for them whatsoever. Occupying this latter category in 2004 were The Ultimate Bang Tango, J.C. Chasez’s Schizophrenic, Joey McIntyre’s 8:09, Kathie Lee Gifford’s Gentle Grace, Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell Live With The Melbourne Symphony, a 3-disc reissue of David Bowie’s Black Tie White Noise, Barbie’s Hit Mix, 10: 1993-2003 – Ten Years Of K’s Choice, Girls Gone Wild Music Volume 1, Phil CollinsLove Songs – A Compilation Of Old & New, Dennis DeYoung’s The Music Of Styx Live With Symphony Orchestra, Danny Aiello’s I Just Want To Hear The Words, The Best Of Coal Chamber, Regis Philbin’s When You’re Smiling, Kenny G’s At Last – The Duets Album, a solo album from Verve Pipe lead singer Brian Vander Ark (Resurrection), and newly remastered/expanded editions of not only Warrant’s “classic” catalog (Dirty Rotten Filthy Stinking Rich and Cherry Pie) but also Tormato by Yes.

Standing out in a field all its own in this category was William Hung’s Inspiration, which is one of those once-in-a-decade cultural nail bombs that sells exclusively on the premise of “oh my fucking God, I HAVE to hear this!” Known to millions for spectacularly bombing his American Idol audition on TV, Hung functioned as a kind of Asian-American Mrs. Miller for the 21st Century, and appeared to be honestly clueless as to just how bad a singer he really was. Whether or not the album was truly another horseman of the cultural apocalypse, the bargain-basement produced Inspiration not only raised (or lowered) bad karaoke to near-gold sales status in the U.S. but also single-handedly set back Asian-American stereotypes about 3 decades. Nice work, Bill.


ENOUGH ALREADY!

Room ServiceSo few bands have the ability (or possible chances at individual solo success) to stop when they’re on top like The Police and The Beatles did. Instead, these bands choose to slog on through year after year, long after anyone has ceased caring barring a devoted but dwindling fanbase. Sometimes, said band is actually making music that is an improvement over a decade’s worth of crap, as in the case of Bryan Adams (Room Service), which was too little too late to save him from the abyss. It can also be that a band like New Edition (One Love), who have apparently come to the collective realization that their solo careers have long since withered into dust, so why not fire up the ol' nostalgia machine one more time. More often, however, it’s extended blasts of potato-chip-scented flatulence from the distant past (hello, Silent Nation by Asia!) that make you want to hit the ceiling fan and never invite these guests into your life again.

Being that there is still a sizable portion of the record-buying public out there who desperately want to believe that rock music stopped evolving around 1989, it is possible to perhaps nod your head and say that ok, maybe people like Kevin Dubrow (In For The Kill), 38 Special (Drivetrain), Bang Tango (Ready To Go), The Scorpions (Unbreakable), Heart (Jupiter Darling), Jack Blades (Jack Blades), Overkill (Unholy), Gwar (House Party), Anthrax (Music Of Mass Destruction and the live Greater Of Two Evils), L.A. Guns (Rips The Covers Off), King Diamond (Deadly Lullabyes Live), George Lynch (Furious George), House Of Lords (Power And The Myth), Yngwie Malmsteen (Attack!!), Krokus (Rock The Block), Lynyrd Skynyrd (Lyve), Danzig (Circle Of Snakes), Enuff Z’ Nuff (?), and W.A.S.P. (The Neon God Volumes 1 and 2) still deserve to have a semblance of a career, even at the indie level. Well, what can I say? If you are one of those people, don't take this paragraph too hard, o.k.?

Ah, but there are more walking corpses still stinking up the bins than there are reformed hair metal bands, so we'll share the scorn a bit and list some more artists a decade or more past whatever prime they once had but still refuse to stagger off into the musical sunset. Led by their undead masters The Rolling Stones (Live Licks), this bunch includes the likes of Morris Day (It’s About Time), Dobie Gray (Drift Away & Other Classics), Mike Oldfield (Tubular Bells III), Ready For The World (She Said She Wants Some), Cowboy Junkies (One Soul Now), Crosby/Nash (Crosby/Nash), Gary U.S. Bonds (Back In 20), Harry Connick, Jr. (Only You), Crash Test Dummies (Songs Of The Unforgiven), Southern Culture On The Skids (Mojo Box), Cypress Hill (‘Til Death Do Us Part), Lionel Richie (Just For You and Encore! Live At Wembley Arena), Lisa Loeb (The Way It Really Is), Richard Marx (My Own Best Enemy), Blues Traveler (Live On The Rocks), Royal Crown Revue (Greetings From Hollywood), Black 47 (New York Town), Rusted Root (Live), Adam Sandler (Shhh Don’t Tell), and Boyz II Men (Throwback).

It was once commonplace for a successful band to wear out its welcome over a period of years and not months, but the current industry practice of squeezing every last bit of airplay from a smash carries with it the danger of a very speedy shelf-life for any band lucky enough to score a mainstream hit of any kind. Furthermore, the days of albums being two or three singles deep as a rule are largely over from a promotion standpoint. Thus, your average big hit single is now mercilessly bludgeoned by radio for 30-40 weeks on average instead of the 10-15 weeks that was custom in the previous decades (when it was also considered good business to have more than, say, one good song per album). So it has now become far easier than ever for new acts to be pounded into a greasy smear on the carpet before their second radio emphasis track hits, never mind their second album. Such unlucky overnight-has-beens trying to attain a new lease on life last year included Better Than Ezra (Live: New Orleans – House Of Blues), The Corrs (Borrowed Heaven), Afroman (Afroholic – Even Bettertimes), Collective Soul (Youth), Uncle Kracker (72 And Sunny), Big Head Todd & The Monsters (Crimes Of Passion), Lit (Lit), The Cardigans (Long Gone Before Daylight), Tantric (After We Go), Orgy (Punk Static Paranoia), Sister Hazel (Lift), Fatboy Slim (Palookaville), Saliva (Survival Of The Sickest), Local H (Whatever Happened To P.J. Soles?), Hillary Duff (Hillary Duff), Meredith Brooks (Shine), Seven Mary Three (Dis/Location), Drowning Pool (Desensitized), The Calling (Two), and Marcy Playground (MP3).


THE CHRISTMAS WRAPUP

A John Waters ChristmasNot that we've been seeing a bumper crop of outstanding Christmas albums over the last decade, but the new holiday releases for 2004 were a pretty sorry bunch indeed. In fact, the sole notable Yule releases for the year were the garage-rock-leaning Christmas With The Kranks soundtrack and John Waters' hand-picked freakazoid novelty comp A John Waters Christmas (which, if nothing else, was defiantly unafraid of pissing anyone off during its running time). Everyone else this year either played it safe (which ultimately torpedoed the otherwise promising-looking Chris Isaak Christmas) or reissued older holiday-themed material with a couple of new additions slapped on (Brian Setzer, Denis Leary).

Farther down the desirability ladder, there was (as always) a dumptruckful of treacly holiday schmaltz laid on thick by such recidivist MOR slop artists as Clay Aiken, Josh Groban (on the Polar Express soundtrack), LeeAnn Rimes, and the godforsaken Mannheim Steamroller (who really should have stopped releasing these back in the 80s) that dominated the scene, followed by the umpteenth re-re-re-releases of catalog pieces by the likes of Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys, Johnny Mathis and their ilk.

In the flat-out "terrifying" category, there was Afroman’s Jobe Bells abomination (as if making one comeback attempt this year was bad enough), a hair metal compilation called We Wish You A Hairy Christmas, and William Hung's Hung For The Holidays ... but none of them measured up to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's third Yule release The Lost Christmas Eve, which was yet another pious overbearing Jim Steinman-esque rock opera paralyzed of cracking a smile lest it somehow be taken as anything less than an Important Artistic Statement. T.S.O. also considerately released a freaking box set of all of their holiday fare titled The Christmas Trilogy, which (if nothing else) at least portends an end to these overcooked, sub-Meat Loaf epics.


MISCELLANEOUS DEBRIS, AWARDS AND OBSERVATIONS

I didn’t think I’d ever need to create a BEST ALBUM BAZ LUHRMANN NEVER RECORDED award, but then again these kinds of records never announce themselves the way your average rock albums do. Anyway, some guy named Lazy Boy felt the need to record a kind of combination comedy/self-help album in a similar vein as Luhrmann’s left-field hit with Lazy Boy T.V. – which, while a nice diversion, is also a record that should date as quickly as that “Sunscreen” song did back in early 1999.

Whatever John Frusciante has been doing to himself since cleaning up his act in the late 1990s has certainly kicked his work ethic into overdrive lately – for the last six months, the Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist has been so absurdly copious in output that he’s making even Prince look like Boston in comparison. Thus, Frusciante collects the INSANELY PROLIFIC ARTIST award for DC EP, The Sphere In The Heart Of Silence, Will To Death, Inside Of Emptiness, and Shadows Collide With People…all of which were released (and in most cases, recorded) in 2004.

It appears that indeed old rockers never die … they just cease going after your daughters and start leering at your mothers instead. Once again splitting the BLUE-HAIRED VEGAS ROCK award between them, Michael McDonald (Motown Two) and Rod Stewart (Stardust… - The Great American Songbook III) have created a mini industry between them of peddling “safe” old standards re-recorded and ready to use in any phone company commercial that needs them.

The best modern examples of TRULY SICKO ALBUM ARTWORK may not have the same capacity to repulse as in the 12” x 12” heyday of vinyl, but a select few CDs every year like perpetual gross-out champs Cannibal Corpse’s Wretched Spawn and up-and-coming acolytes Cattle Decapitation’s Humanure always manage to make you feel relieved that the advent of the CD era has seen artwork shrunken down to it’s current point … you really don’t want to see these images any bigger than they already are.

Along with stomach-churning artwork, OBNOXIOUS ALBUM TITLES AND BAND NAMES (and once in a while a classic label name like A Violent Turd) can always brighten up even the most boring label release sheets, and there were some fine examples of both in 2004. Such great names seen during the last year include I Killed The Prom Queen, Eddie Spaghetti, Sluts Of Trust, Rotting Christ, Gore Gore Girls, Gorerotted, Goretex, Pig Destroyer, A Wilhelm Scream (film geeks will chuckle, the rest of you can keep reading), Scum Of The Earth, The God Awfuls, The Clinton Administration, Well Hungarians, and, last but far from least, the Exploding Fuck Dolls.

It goes without saying that the best album titles are the ones that take on a hilarious shade of meaning (whether intended or not) when seen alongside the name of the artist or band. For proof of this wonderful synergy, look no further than G.G. Allin’s Expose Yourself compilation, Bile’s Frankenhole (not to mention their best-of Regurge – A Bucket Of Bile), Pygmy Love CircusThe Power Of Beef, Exhumed’s Platters Of Splatter, Holy Shiite by Dayglo Abortions, Gibby Haynes And His Problem, and Great White’s live compilation Burning House Of Love (which, granted, was not released with the band’s input or blessing, but you have to admire the sheer balls on the fly-by-night Italian label that issued it anyway).

Speaking of live albums, whatever happened to artists earning the right to release live or "rarities" albums? Rather than being a much-hyped "event" release capping or summarizing the career of the biggest superstar acts (whether active or defunct), these albums are now more prevalent in the marketplace than actual physical singles, for crying out loud. The release of concert recordings from bands as recently-arrived as Evanescence, String Cheese Incident, 3 Doors Down, and John Mayer (who released his second double live album in 2004), or rarities albums from the likes of Damien Rice, Incubus, and Static-X has already become everyday business. Aside from a plausible corporate aim to nip internet piracy in the bud, the mere existence of these albums seems to underline just how fleeting fame can be in this modern age.

Coming out of one of the most divisive election years in modern U.S. history, it's no surprise that politics played a bigger part in the record industry than at any time I can remember. Even the underground punk scenesters who made careers out of coruscating Ronald Reagan back in the 1980s didn’t have the visibility attained by Steve Earle's The Revolution Is Now, Bad Religion's The Empire Strikes First, John Fogerty's Deja Vu All Over Again, Fat Wreck Chord's compilations Rock Against Bush Volumes 1 & 2, moveon.org's Future Soundtrack For America, the soundtrack to Fahrenheit 9/11 (not to mention a separately-released Music Inspired By… tie-in) and Songs In The Key Of W by The George Bush Singers enjoyed in 2004. Too bad that high media visibility was all that these releases could boast. Sigh.

Getting back to brighter topics, here’s an award I enjoy bestowing almost as much as the year’s best album, and that is the year's MOST SATISFYING FLAMEOUT. Even better, this year's award is a draw! Woo! It's not often I get to dance on two graves at once, and this being the era of Behind The Music-savvy spin, these stories won't stay in their present hilarious state for long, so let's enjoy kicking these inflated egos while they're still down.

For about eight months this year, this award was a lock for Janet Jackson. Following her world-famous disaster of a promotional stunt (showing a little jeweled titty to all of America during the SuperBowl halftime show) heralding the release of her latest cartoony sonic handjob Damita Jo, dear Miss Jackson actually found herself doing real damage control rather than basking Madonna-like in the intended manufactured controversy. In a rare show of mass wisdom, the American buying public passed on Damita Jo -- which was a big enough flop upon release not even Virgin Records believed in it enough to try reissuing with bonus tracks around the fourth-quarter as was originally planned -- and sent poor Janet careening down to the celebrity B list (at least until she enlists the services of Clive Davis to plot her comeback). Classic!

Ah, but then along came Ashlee Simpson -- the even more-annoying younger sister of Jessica -- who scored an instant #1 with Autobiography thanks to evil MTV relentlessly airing a reality series based around the making of said album. While this flashy achievement was indeed a pretty low point in the year for our country, there was a delicious price to be paid a few months later when Ashlee was caught lip-synching in perhaps the most satisfying fashion imaginable -- live and in front of an audience of millions watching Saturday Night Live. Simpson's pathetic rifling through various excuses as to how this happened in the days that followed was bad enough, but then she compounded the error with her side-splitting "singing" performance during the Orange Bowl a month later, making her the biggest music industry laughing stock since Milli Vanilli (and their songs were actually better).

Finally, it wouldn't be a year end awards ceremony without at least one nod given in gloriously bad taste, and here it is -- my first annual BAND MOST LIKELY TO BE WEARING KEVLAR ONSTAGE award goes to Alter Bridge, who (going by the recent history of new rock acts created out of the acrimonious dissolution of far bigger rock bands) also might be well advised to keep their backstage doors locked once their equipment is off the truck and on stage, lest their debut album (One Day Remain) also become their last.

All right, enough with last year, let's get going into 2005! New Order, Nine Inch Nails, Coldplay, Doves, Sigur Ros, Tool, Foo Fighters, The Raveonettes, Moby, Daft Punk, Erasure, Soundtrack Of Our Lives, Audioslave, Hot Hot Heat, Queens Of The Stone Age, Oasis, Mercury Rev, Kasabian, The Bravery, Lemon Jelly, here we come...