1. The Do-Good Assassins – Rome
Reinventing himself as he is wont to do, venerable Toronto songwriter Ron Hawkins’ new group released a helluva debut last year. A double-album in 2012? AS YOUR DEBUT?? But the guy’s got the goods and packs the 20 tunes here with wit and insight. “Public Transit” is the type of song Elvis Costello would still be writing if his marriage to a jazz chanteuse hadn’t tucked him in for a songwriting nap for much of the last decade and the supple support from his backing ensemble (faces old and new to fans of LOTL and the Rusty Nails) nails the sweet spot between soul, rock and country. It’s thrilling to watch an artist like Hawkins continue to hit new strides over two decades into an already tremendous career. A must have!
2. Your Favorite Trainwreck – s/t
Old punks don’t die, they just find salvation in power pop! Jeff Caudill of Gameface and Popeye Vogelsang of Farside helped to define the Revelation Records sound for the better part of the 90s and then drifted off into the ether for the past dozen years or so (sure, Caudill put out a solo joint or two, and Vogelsang found work putting that amazing baritone to use shilling for Infiniti), leading one to believe that the good times were finally gone. Not so! Your Favorite Trainwreck shows both men in fine form and the songs meld the greatest part of both of their former bands with a sense of maturity that only comes with knowing that this isn’t a second chance but an opportunity to make passionate music you want with your friends. And the harmonies, oh the harmonies! A couple of the songs drift into mid-period Goo Goo Dolls territory, but the lion’s share displays why rock music needs gone-but-not forgotten punk vets like these two.
3. Japandroids – Celebration Rock
I resisted this album for months because of the title alone. “Celebration Rock”? REALLY? But as the Catherine Wheel once put it, “your cynicism’s boring” – this album bleeds sincerity and makes you wish all two-pieces had the heart, balls and conviction that Brian King and David Prowse bring to their follow-up to 2009’s great “Post-Nothing” (Ahem, I’m looking in your direction, Black Keys!) Beginning and ending with the sound of fireworks in the distance, this is an album perfect for driving through the gloaming, the windows down and you screaming along with reckless abandon, unafraid to look or sound like the joyful teenager you wish you still were. The closest one can get to recapturing “that teenage feeling”…
4. Cheap Girls – Giant Orange
Where the hell did this band come from? Lansing, MI apparently, but 2009’s middling “My Roaring 20’s” gave no warning of the sheer amount of awesome this trio was capable of! Produced by Against Me’s Laura Jane Grace (nee Tom Gabel) with a force and precision that allows the guitars and drums to EXPLODE from your speakers, this album is 37 minutes of sheer rock joy. In a just world, at least three of these gems would find their way into the dying world of terrestrial rock radio, and I am not sure I have ever heard a sound as noisily glorious as the guitar that growls at the start of “Pacer”. Consider my attention gotten…well done, boys!
5. The Gaslight Anthem – Handwritten
It’s clear this late in the game that Brian Fallon has a serious Springsteen jones, and with the Anthem’s fourth full-length he goes for his “Born to Run”. With the move to a major label and sidelining longtime producer Ted Hutt for big-shot “name” Brendan O’Brien, the signs of a cash-grab were all there. But, Fallon stacks the deck with 11 pretty great songs and the band actually sounds hungrier and most desperate than they did on 2010’s merely OK, “American Slang”. Longtime fans may bemoan that the band has gone for the brass ring, but if a single as perfect as “45” is born of careerism and actually giving a shit, I hope they sell millions.
6. Bob Mould – Silver Age
Having purged his demons in his must-read autobiography last year, Big Gay Bob decides to show the youngsters how it’s done! It may have found its genesis in a songwriting exercise to make a simple power pop record, but Mould taps into his fountain of youthful fury and releases his most thrilling album since Sugar’s 1992 high-water mark, “Copper Blue”. Gone are the flirtations with synths and the morbid navel-gazing that have been part and parcel of his solo albums this decade (all great records themselves, it must be mentioned). Instead, Mould kicks it power-trio style, enlisting longtime compadre Jason Narducy and Superchunk drummer-extraordinaire Jon Wurster to peel the paint off the place. Finally comfortable in his own skin (and with his own past), Mould makes his Stratocaster crunch and sing like a man half his age, and it’s a dazzling reminder of his awesome power.
7. Nada Surf – The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy
Bands are supposed to mellow with age, but apparently Matthew Caws and company didn’t get the memo! Trimming the fat and further distancing themselves from the “Death Cab Jr.” tag they (seemingly willingly) have been saddled with, “The Stars” bristles and hums with intensity. The songwriting is top-notch and contain some of Caws’ best lyrics and melodies since 2005’s excellent “The Weight is a Gift”, but I’m tempted to give the MVP award to Doug Gillard, the ace ex-GBV guitarist who was added on lead guitar. Gillard’s slippery leads and muscular wallop give the songs the extra heft that helps them break free of the speakers and knock you squarely in the solar plexus. Just listen to his guitar whine into the coda section of “When I Was Young” and it’s clear that his addition to the band has given their sound a new lease on life.