Tegan & Sara Make Changes…For The Better


The Quin sisters have been releasing music for a while now and it has traditionally been indie-alternative songs. Over the last couple of years, they have been dabbling with synthesizers and dance tracks and today they release their 7th album, “Heartthrob,” and I’m happy to report that this album is an awakening for this twin duo. I’ve always liked their sound but as they went along from album to album, it seemed not so much that their sound was getting stale as it was simply stagnant. At it’s peak, their 2004 album, “So Jealous,” was the epitome of their sound with classics “Walking With A Ghost,” “So Jealous,” and “Where Does The Good Go” hitting the airwaves as well as television, with some songs being selected for shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The L Word.” Since then though, I found their albums, 2007’s “The Con” and 2009’s “Sainthood,” to be a lot of the same thing. Not that there is anything wrong with that…if you’re good at something, sometimes it’s good to stick with it. But in T&S’s case, I wasn’t as impressed and started to lose interest.

Then came this morning. I knew changes were in store when the duo teamed up with Tiesto in 2009 for the awesome track, “Feel It In My Bones.” This peaked my interest in them again and then last year they released “Closer” and I was excited to see what they came up with for their new album that was released today. Needless to say, I am not disappointed. So refreshing to hear when a band takes its essence to a higher level and that is what Tegan & Sara have done here. They have added more synthesizers (who ISN’T these days?) and made their sound more radio-friendly with tracks such as “Love They Say,” “I Was A Fool” and “Goodbye, Goodbye.” Most of these tracks could have come straight from the late 80’s, each one has a refreshing pop sound that is missing from so many alternative acts these days.

Needless to say, I’m sure “Heartthrob” will be burning up my Ipod for the next few months. I imagine a couple of these tracks may even end up as my favorites this year but it’s early. For now though, this album will get me through the winter doldrums and I can’t wait to see where T&S take it from here! Considering how much they’ve evolved to this point, the ceiling is very high for this Canadian sister act!


My Top 10 Favorite Albums Of 2011

As much as I hate to admit it…I’m not as into buying albums as I once was. It’s so much easier now with ITunes and other music outlets to simply pick & choose singles and a lot of times I would rather spend a dollar or two on a couple of songs rather than spend $12 on an entire album online. Shopping for music isn’t the same as it was 5 years ago and that is unfortunate. I used to really enjoy shopping for CD’s at the local music shop but those days seem to be gone now. It takes too much time and I haven’t got a few hours to waste going through bargain bins and racks of $20 CDs. So…I am sad to say that I don’t buy as many albums as I used to. But there were a few this year that I made the trip out to the store to get because I wanted the physical copy of it and so…without further adieu…here are my Top 10 favorite albums of 2011!

10. Teddybears – “Devil’s Music”
This Swedish band knows how to make you move your butt. From the opening track, they hit you with techno beats and silly lyrics that are just fun. And with a slew of artists making appearances (from The Flaming Lips to Cee Lo Green), they leave no beat unturned.

Favorite Tracks: Rocket Scientist, Devil’s Music

9. Foo Fighters – “Wasted Light”
From the opening track, David Grohl & company hit you with solid left hooks and slamming guitars and they have made another incredible rock album. It’s almost to the point now where you would think Grohl would phone in an album or two but when it comes to rocking out, there’s no one that can put together the melodies with the metal like the Foo.

Favorite Tracks: Bridge Burning, Rope, These Days

8. Social Distortion – “Hard Times & Nursery Rhymes”
7 years came and went between their 2004 album “Sex, Love and Rock N Roll” and this one but it was worth the wait! With their bluesy rock still as fresh as when they rolled it out of California in 1983, Mike Ness leads the way on this jam packed album. Solid from start to finish, it’s kind of refreshing that my favorite track on the album is actually a slower song.

Favorite Tracks: Bakersfield, California Hustle & Flow, Machine Gun Blues

7. Beastie Boys – “Hot Sauce Committee Part 2”
If ever there needed to be a return to their roots, The Beasties picked the perfect time. After a few overproduced albums and one cancer scare, Committee is a return to the glory days of chest thumpin’ and party bumpin’ of “You Gotta Fight For Your Right (To Party)”. Hooks and wicked beats pepper this album and it’s hard not to get motivated when you got this album boomin’ in your system.

Favorite Tracks: Here’s A Little Something For Ya, Don’t Play no Game I Can’t Win, Make Some Noise

6. Blue October – “Any Man In America”
I don’t know what to say about this album other than it is honest in every way. With his marriage falling apart, lead singer Justin Furstenfeld dove into his art and came out with one of the most curious and angry albums I have ever heard. The key is listening to it in its entirety as it goes from the beginning to the end of the relationship and where it stands, we’re not sure. But it sure is a fascinating journey.

Favorite Tracks: The Honesty, The Follow Through, You Waited Too Long

5. Gotye – “Making Mirrors”
Not gonna lie…I haven’t had this album very long. It came out in August but I just recently discovered it when it appeared on ITunes as a “selection I might like.” And man…I really do! It’s quirky and poppy and has all kinds of loops and whisperings and…well…you get the point. Wally De Backer is a unique talent and this album showcases his ability to find the perfect hook to go with his unique style.

Favorite Tracks: Eyes Wide Open, Save Me, No Easy Way Out, Somebody That I Used To Know

4. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds
The half of Oasis that is known for writing the music continues to do so and he does it so well. This album is chock full of soaring guitars, Beatle-esque hooks and the famous Gallagher attitude.With brother Liam leading the charge for the rock band “Beady Eye,” Noel stays true to his roots and puts together a classic that I’ll be listening to for a very long time.

Favorite Tracks: Record Machine, AKA…What A Life, (Stranded On) The Wrong Beach

3. David Nail – “Sound Of A Million Dreams”
If there is one thing I love about country music, it’s that it can be familiar and yet new all at the same time. Taking a page from the Glen Campbell handbook, Nail has that smooth country croon that makes everything he sings about seem like it could be happening at this very moment. It could be love, it could be heartbreak, it could be a fleeting moment in time. But whatever it is, it grabs my attention and I can’t stop listening, wondering what will happen next. This will undoubtedly be one of my favorite country albums of all-time. Granted, only time will tell. But I enjoy ALL of the songs on this album and it’s damn near perfect in it’s pop country way.

Favorite Tracks: She Rides Away, That’s How I’ll Remember You, Let It Rain, I Thought You Knew

2. Black Keys – “El Camino”
There’s not a hotter rock band in the world right now than these guys. Straight outta my neck of the woods (Akron, OH is maybe 2 hours from my hometown), The Keys have won several Grammys and this highly anticipated 7th release was everything I hoped it would be. With fuzzy guitars and thumping drums, this album can only be played loud or it’s just not being played correctly. And the fact that it sounds like it’s straight from a 70’s porn flick gives it all that more street cred.

Favorite Tracks: Lonely Boy, Gold On The Ceiling, Money Maker

1. R.E.M. – “Collapse Into Now”
My world was rocked when one of my favorite bands of all-time called it quits earlier this year…but I totally understand. They’ve been together for almost 30 years and each member has other interests outside of the band so it makes sense. And it is only fitting that they call it a day with this album. Sounding almost like a collection of greatest hits that spanned their careers, this album, the 15th studio album in their collection, is far and away one of their best since drummer Bill Berry left the band in 1997. I am hoping that there are hundreds of new tracks in a vault somewhere that will be released over time however if that’s not the case, then this album is a classic that R.E.M. should be very proud to leave us with.

Favorite Tracks: It Happened Today, Oh My Heart, Discoverer, Mine Smell Like Honey, That Someone Is You, Blue

David Nail’s “The Sound Of A Million Dreams”

I don’t know if it’s because lately I’ve been making so many trips to Nashville lately or what but I’ve been listening to quite a bit of country music and I have been waiting in anticipation for this sophomore effort from David Nail. Not so much a pure country album as it is great pop with country influences (Nail has called it “California Country”), this album has so many personal touches and so many familiar themes that it’s hard NOT to like it.

From the gospel tinged “Grandpa’s Farm,” which has a southern rock funk sound, to the soaring arena rock anthem, “She Rides Away,” this album has something for everyone. The first single, “Let It Rain,” was released earlier this year and peaked at 11 on the Billboard Country Top 100 List in September. Now, with the release of the album, I have to imagine there are gonna be a slew of hits coming from this relatively new artist. With a little help from his friends, including band members of Lady Antebellum, Lee Ann Womack, Phil Vassar and Johnathan Singleton, Nail has packed this album with stories of love, regret, life struggles and longing and there’s not a song on here that doesn’t hit it’s mark.

One of the many highlights is the title track. Written by Phil Vassar and Scooter Carusoe, Nail’s vocals take this above what could have very easily been a Marc Cohn retread. Nail has said that he loved the song from the first time he heard it and was fearful that someone else might cut the song if he hadn’t jumped at the opportunity. After listening to it several times, I have to believe that, although he didn’t write it, this song was tailor-made for him.

There are so many quality country tracks on “Dreams” that I have to wonder what his label will do with them all. I would say this album is a mixture of Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban and classic Glenn Campbell. It’s quality music that focuses on the hooks and the lyrics both without sacrificing either and it’s about as entertaining as any album that I have listened to this year.

If I were to recommend songs to download, I would wholeheartedly recommend “Let It Rain,” “I Thought You Knew,” “She Rides Away,” and “Sound of A Million Dreams.” But you can’t really go wrong buying the entire album. It’s worth every penny.

Blue October’s “Any Man In America”

Hailing from Houston, TX, this alt-rock band is one of my favorite bands to listen too when I’m feeling down or in a bad mood. This might sound like an odd statement, but if you’ve ever heard Blue October’s music you know why. In 2006, they released their 4th studio album called “Foiled” and it is a classic. So many great songs but the biggest was the hit, “Hate Me” which made a splash on the alt-rock charts, getting as high as #2. Following an album that is so great is always a test and I felt that their follow-up, “Approaching Normal” was, by comparison, nowhere near as good.

Then came this album.

I’ve read several reviews of “Any Man In America” and some find it to be an honest yet harsh epic. Others have said its a regression from where they were once headed. I stand somewhere in between. I can see both sides of the reviews but I have to tell you, not since Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising,” which was based entirely on the Boss’ feelings about 9/11, have I heard an album as centered on one situation as this. “Any Man” is essentially a breakup album. And not just about breakup but about the entire process of a relationship completely falling apart.

If you are a person who has ever been through a hard relationship, a divorce or separation, you will find something in here for you. Lead singer Justin Furstenfeld is the man behind the writing on this album, tracing his relationship with his ex-wife and the custody battle he had to go through to be with his daughter, Bluebell. And it is pretty much a step-by-step process as Furstenfeld takes us through the process from the beginning to the end. It’s not always fun listening, as you can tell by some of the song titles (“Drama Everything”, “The Getting Over It”, “The Worry List”), but every song has a hook and almost every song is worth repeated listenings.

The album begins with a short soundbite of a phone call from Furstenfeld’s ex-wife. And that pretty much sets the tone for the first track “The Feel Again (Stay)”. With lyrics that suggest uncertainty and frailty in the relationship, Furstenfeld sings starkly about wanting the relationship to go on even though things have obviously started to fall apart. Furstenfeld, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, has often written about his life and has said that writing has helped him through some of his most difficult times. At one point in his life, he was admitted to a mental institution due to his illness, but he has since said that he is no longer a danger to himself anymore. While listening to this album, you have to hope that this is truth because there is a lot of anger on this album. Following “The Feel Again (Stay)” is “The Money Tree,” where he sings about the fact that he has paid off all of his ex’s bills singing…

With two houses, both cars,
I paid off your fucking credit card debt,
Did you already forget? Huh?
You threaten, threaten, threaten, threaten, threaten, huh
Just fucking leave,
Find a man who will put up with this

We both know who we are
And I’m not changing a thing,
I’ve never changed before
If lovin’ me is workin’ or a job to take
I think we’re headin’ for the crazy-making heartbreak

He cries for support from her and understands that his job has taken him away and caused a split in their relationship. It’s these kinds of lyrics that make this album such an interesting listen. And if you’ve ever been in a harsh relationship, you can understand the depth of the lyrics in all of these songs.

As you can imagine, the rest of the album follows the breakup timeline from there and with each track, Furstenfeld delves deeper and deeper into the dark side of their breakup. Like I said, this isn’t a “Feel Good” album at all so for many, it might come as a downer but I argue that something like this is almost therapeutic for those of us who HAVE had rocky relationships. In a twisted way, it’s good to know that we are not alone and the title of the album hints that this could happen to any one of us.

On the title track song, “Any Man In America,” Furstenfeld sings…

Like you don’t know.
You act like you believe it.
That you’re in control.
It’s just your legal system though
They don’t think about you
No they don’t care about you.
Now every man in America take back your control.

This kind of lyric permeates the entire song as Furstenfeld tells how the courts have taken his daughter from him and goes into a step by step account of the situation. Most of this song (except for the refrain above) is spoken and I’ve read some reviews that say this is almost sacrilege but I disagree. I find it to be very effective and I don’t know if I would call this a “song” per se because it’s actually more of a dialogue. It’s like he’s having a conversation with me. He’s angry and despondent and he is telling his story. He swears and screams and basically goes through so many emotional waves that this is easily the most autobiographical track on the album and when he wraps it up by saying “Any other man in American can get screwed just like me,” you know he’s not kidding. At the end of the song, an unknown rapper recites the most biting lyrics and I’m not sure why Furstenfeld chose to do that, but it’s effective and takes Blue October into an entirely different direction.

My personal favorite track on the album is the final song called “The Follow Through.” This is the most hopeful track on here and, as you can imagine, leaves you with the feeling that whatever war Furstenfeld and his ex are in, they will make amends in some way and find a way to raise their daughter in an amicable manner.

And everything I ever want to be
The only one I ever need to know
I’d wait for you till time lay down to sleep
And I’d sneak across the world to let her know

And as it falls down into night we run away
And once again divided
But each one knows just what we have to do
We do
We have to…follow through

Hold my heart
Take my hand
Walk with me
Cause when the evening comes
We’ll set the world on fire
And I was wrong
Let me help you live on

There are so many reasons to listen to this album in its entirety from start to finish but the thing I like about it is you don’t have to. As heavy as the material is, I don’t consider this to be any different than an album from artists such as Eminem or Bruce Springsteen. This is an album that is grounded in reality and the reality of it is that sometimes relationships crash & burn. How we handle it individually is up to us, but in listening to “Any Man In America,” you get the sense that this is how one man took the pain and made it his own, creatively using his gift as an outlet. And as far as I’m concerned, this is a classic album from a band that has found its niche. It’s not for everyone but it definitely serves a purpose and that makes this a “Must Listen” for anyone who likes alternative rock with a sharp psychological edge.

If you’re looking to download certain tracks, “The Chills” is the hot song right now but I would also recommend “The Follow Through,” “Drama Everything” and “The Honesty.”

Hell Or Highwater’s “Begin Again”

So I was heading to ITunes to download the new Kanye West/Jay Z collaboration called “Watch The Throne” figuring I had just enough in my budget to get the full album but after listening to all the tracks I thought, “Ya know…maybe there’s something else out there?” So I downloaded a couple of tracks and went exploring. Lo & behold, I discovered a band I had never heard of. Just this past weekend a friend and I were talking about how there wasn’t any “fun” rock anymore. All the hair bands have disappeared or have been forced to hide behind all their 80’s hits and no one wants to hear anything new from them. Well…then I began scanning new music on ITunes and found Hell Or Highwater. And it occurs to me that maybe hair band rock ain’t quite dead yet.

Apparently this band is a collaboration of band members from Atreyu (singer/drummer Brandon Saller) and Good Charlotte (guitarist/keyboardist Billy Martin) and it’s obvious to me that they know what rock music needs. It needs to be fun and loud and kickass and they do a pretty good job of delivering the goods. This album clocks in just over 40 minutes and all the songs are under 4 minutes in length. Unlike some rock bands these days who seem to have to bludgeon you with heavy guitars and even heavier lyrics, this band could have been around in the mid-80’s during the heyday of Skid Row or Quiet Riot. Ok…maybe they aren’t THAT pop oriented but they are still a fresh breath of air in what has become, for me anyways, a stale genre. With bands such as Avenged Sevenfold, Nickelback & Daughtry not really delivering anything new or unheard, Hell Or Highwater take the path well travelled and deliver an album that will remind you of when you were a kid, cranking the latest Scorpions or Ratt album and cruising the town.

Right out of the gate, they hit fast and hard with “Gimme Love” and the rest of the album just follows right along. With a fast beat and rocking guitars, Saller’s vocals grab you and don’t let go. He’s got a great voice and he shines throughout this entire album. Slow rockers such as “Rock Waters Edge” and “When The Morning Comes” remind me of classic Bryan Adams songs. With soaring choruses and simple guitar chords, every track on this album takes me back to a day when music was a lot simpler and a lot lighter. Songs about love (“Hail Mary!”), war (“We All Wanna Go Home”) and finding yourself (“Come Alive”) all remind me of my youth. It’s just classic hair band rock n roll and it’s ALL good. Is it gonna recharge the music industry? Absolutely not. There’s nothing “new” here. But for what its worth, sometimes doing old stuff the right way is the BETTER way of making music. And for me, every track rocks and it is well worth the $5.99 price!

R.E.M.’s “Collapse Into Now”

I went to buy the new R.E.M. CD at Best Buy on Tuesday but when I saw “The Walking Dead” on Blu-Ray and after hearing the first tune called “UBerlin” as a freebie on ITunes, I decided…”Eh…it can wait.” Then I read some reviews and decided I should have gotten it. And so, off I trudged BACK to Best Buy to get it and I wasn’t disappointed in the least. Many reviews of this, their first album in 3 years, have been split. Some are hailing it as a return to form while others are finding it to be a lot of the same. Well…depending on your opinion of R.E.M., they are BOTH correct. “Collapse Into Now” is every bit a return to form AND it is a lot of the same, as long as the same is the late 80’s/early 90’s R.E.M. And THAT is a very good time for them to return to.

It was in that 80’s/90’s time frame where they released “Green” (1987), “Out of Time” (1991) and “Automatic For The People” (1992). As much as I love those 3 albums, I also enjoyed the following 2 albums that really got the band rockin’ with “Monster” (1996) and “New Adventures In Hi Fi” (1996). This new album is like all 5 of these rolled into one disk. And the best part is that it’s all the best parts of all of those albums!

Starting at the beginning, “Discoverer” comes roaring in with lyrics that you’re not gonna hear out of any other more modern bands these days. I have to be honest, a lot of Stipe’s lyrics are more like poetry and I can’t even begin to understand them in their musical form. With its repetitive refrain, this song seems to me to be about a relationship that is maturing over time, but only the author knows the truth behind these words…

That just the slightest bit of finesse
Might have made a little less mess
But it was what it was
Let’s all get on with it now

“All The Best” issues a firing shot at newer bands who are looking to replace this band that has been making amazing music for over 25 years. R.E.M. is the definition of alternative rock and when Stipe sings the following, you know he’s looking for his foothold on the genre itself.

I hold the mirror off
You tell me what is what
You tell me which part of my story baby stuck, stuck, stuck
I’m in a part of your trees
That you don’t even understand
It’s just like my need to overstay my welcome man

Let’s sing it a rhyme
Let’s give it one more time
Let’s show the kids how to do it fine, fine, fine, fine

The above mentioned “UBerlin” is a much better song when heard in context with the rest of the album. Honestly, “Losing My Religion” has never been my favorite R.E.M. song, even though it is one of their most popular and this track reminds me of it. It drips with sentimentality and is one of the mellower songs on the album, but I find it growing on me more with repeated listenings.

Then we start getting into the meat of the album. Like I said, this album is almost a “Greatest Hits” of songs you’ve never heard. “Oh My Heart” is possibly the most beautiful song on here with the return of the mandolin and reminds me of the best tracks on “Out Of Time.”

The kids have a new take
A new take on faith
Pick up the pieces
Get carried away
I came home to city half erased
I came home to face what we faced

This place needs me here to start
This place is the beat of my heart

Track 5, “It Happened Today”, has Stipe doing some vocal gymnastics that doesn’t involve lyrics at all. Although this is an uplifting track, it’s when he simply starts humming and singing at about 2 minutes into the song that makes this track soar. I can’t but help cranking this one up whenever it comes on. It’s one of those songs that just gives you a sense of hope and is so amazing that you HAVE to turn it up.

“Every Day Is Yours To Win” is an odd little song because at the offset, the lyrics are simple and sort of jangly. But the more I hear it, the more it makes sense. It’s another uplifting song that transcends the lyrics. It’s not my favorite song on the album, but compared to anything else out there, this is amazing stuff…

With the brilliance (brilliance)
and the light (light)
with the sting (sting)
and the hide (hide)
and the road ahead of you.

I cannot tell a lie
It’s not all cherry pie
But it’s all there waiting for you
Yeah you

Possibly my favorite track on the album is “Mine Smell Like Honey.” It soars and rocks and is one of the greatest songs R.E.M. has in their vast library. Honestly, I have no idea what the lyrics mean (which is a typical of Stipe and company) because it’s all very cryptic, however I love the riff and it reminds me of the better parts of “New Adventures In Hi-Fi” which is one of my favorite R.E.M. albums!

I would dare you, but I know I don’t need to
You’re going to do just what you want to
You’re going to take the leavings here at the fairground
You’re going to sing the praises of your fruit

Mine smell like honey, uh!
Mine smell like honey, uh!
Mine smell like hu, hu, hu, hu, honey, uh!

Dig a hole, dig it deeper, deeper!
Climb a mountain, climb it steeper, steeper!
Dig a hole, dig it deeper, deeper!
Track a trail of honey through it all

The next track, “Walk It Back,” has been touted as the best song on the album by several reviewers and I can’t argue. It truly is a great song. As a matter of fact, it’s possibly the one that speaks to me the most, especially at this point in my life. Here it is…

I don’t even know what to say about the next track. Seriously…it’s almost like they just decided to be goofy. “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter” is right up there with “It’s The End Of The World” in it’s delivery with Stipe & Peaches singing and reminds me of when Kate Pierson joins Stipe on “Out of Time” on “Me In Honey” except this could have easily been a B-52’s song. It’s bouncy and catchy and will drive you nuts once it gets stuck in your head!

The next 2 tracks are short & sweet. “That Someone Is You” is a straight ahead rocker (reminiscent of their early 80’s work) while “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando And I” is almost a concession speech which makes me wonder what Stipe is trying to tell us when he sings…

We live and dream about our heroes
I listened closely and I said
“I’m not sure where to place myself here, friend.
I might pawn the gold rings instead.”

The winners write the rulebooks, the histories and lullabies.

The final track, “Blue,” is eerily similiar to “E-Bow The Letter” from “New Adventures In Hi-Fi” with Patti Smith once again joining Stipe with her haunting vocals and the music even sounding like a direct reference. However the lyrics, once again, take this song above and beyond. This is really more of a poem written by Stipe. Is it a love poem? Is it a look at himself? Is it his cry out for acceptance? What do these lyrics mean? Maybe we’ll never know. But I love how they go…

I like you, love you, every coast of you.
I’ve seen your eddies and tides and hurricanes and cyclones.
Low ebb tide and high, full moon.
Up close and distant.
I read you.
Look, the sky, the sea, the ocean, the sun, the moon.
Blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue blue, blue, blue, blue, blue.
Naked and blue.

Breathing with you. Touch. Change. Shift. Allow air. Window open. Drift. Drift away. Into now.

I want Whitman proud. Patti Lee proud. My brothers proud. My sisters proud. I want me. I want it all. I want sensational. Irresistible.

This is my time and I am thrilled to be alive.

Living. Blessed. I understand.

“Collapse Into Now” is the final album the band is contractually obligated to do for Warner Brothers. It’s also their 15th studio album. With music becoming more & more disposable, you have to wonder if a poet like Michael Stipe will continue to try to appeal to the masses. With R.E.M.’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, they really have nothing else to prove. Critics railed them for their post-Bill Berry work (“Reveal” & “Around The Sun”) and they came back with “Accelerate” and now this classic. With no tour scheduled and with the knowledge that Stipe, Peter Buck & Mike Mills have made their mark on rock & roll history, will they continue onward? Or will this be their swan song? It seems fitting that if this is their final album, it is a complex return to what made them so successful at the height of their careers and is every bit as good (if not better) than those albums all put together.

Social Distortion’s “Hard Times & Nursery Rhymes”

I wouldn’t say I’m a die-hard Social D fan but I have followed their career from a distance, enjoying quite a few of their classic songs (Bad Luck, 99 To Life, Down On The World Again). After checking out THIS early nominee for Best Album of 2011, I might need to pay closer attention. I realize it’s only January, but I HAVE to imagine this one is gonna be burning up my CD player (yeah…I STILL have one in my car) for quite a while and I hope it gets some respect next year at the Grammys!

If you’ve never heard the bluesy rock of Social D, it’s what you’d expect from a band with the name “Social Distortion.” Hard rockin’, hard rollin’, blues rock from…California? Yep…and it’s damn good blues rock too. Lead singer Mike Ness’ gravelly vocals and heavy guitars have been the sound of this band since 1978, and they haven’t changed much. The one thing that has changed is the insightful lyrics that have infiltrated this album. Living the rock n roll lifestyle is never easy (or so they say), and Ness and the boys aren’t necessarily living the dream. But what they ARE doing is making some great old fashioned rock that has always been straight from the hip, and this album is no different.

They lead off with the album with an instrumental track, “Road Zombie”, that rocks with a driving beat and a guitar frenzy and from there the album never really lets up. You have instant anthems “Machine Gun Blues”, “Far Side Of Nowhere” and “Still Alive.” And you have rockers like “Gimme The Sweet Lowdown” & the Hank Williams cover of “Alone & Foresaken.”

For me though, the real treat of “Hard Times & Nursery Rhymes” are the rock ballads that speck the album. You can feel Ness’ pain when he sings about the end of a relationship in “Writing On The Wall” and the beautiful “Bakersfield” is the highlight of the album, with it’s slow jam, smoky bar feel. And when Ness sings to his girl (he’s stranded in Vegas and she’s millions of miles away), you feel for him. And I can understand that feeling…which might be why I love this song so much.

The only track that doesn’t really stand out for me is “Can’t Take It With You,” which is a little repetitive in the chorus and grows old after a while. But even that isn’t a detriment in what is a stellar return from a band that has paid its dues. 7 years has been WAY too long to wait for this new edition to their collection but trust me when I tell you…it fits right in perfectly and might very well be the classic album that we’ve always known they had in ’em.

Kings Of Leon’s “Come Around Sundown”

With 2008’s “Only by The Night,” southern rock band Kings Of Leon laid the groundwork for what should be an illustrious career path. With the summer anthem “Sex On Fire” and the classic “Use Somebody” filling up the radio airwaves and with the album going platinum, KOL almost seemed to be everywhere. And even though the album came out nearly 2 years ago, some might be surprised that the band is releasing an entire new body of work so soon. But truthfully, this album comes along at a perfect time. With a lackluster summer that was slow for rock bands, this album takes off right where “Only By The Night” left off and expands the horizon for Kings.

With time, Kings Of Leon have morphed from a grungy southern-fried band into a modern rock anthem band. With “Come Around Sundown”, they seem to be embracing their arena rock sound and shadowing the greatest arena band of our time, U2. Take almost any song from this album and play it in a concert setting and I imagine the tracks soar. Layered guitar work, blistering drums and the classic vocal of Caleb Followill are all KOL staples and in several tracks, I can easily hear the influence of Bono and the boys. In “The Immortals”, I can almost hear Matthew Followill channeling The Edge in his guitar work. And in “The Pickup Truck”, I can imagine a Bono & Followill duet.

But all comparisons aside, Kings Of Leon are obviously their own band and they have definitely found their sweet spot. Time will tell whether this album will be as memorable as “Only by The Night.” Certainly there isn’t a “Sex On Fire” on this album but I would argue it’s just as strong and more consistent than it’s predecessor. It’s a little mellower and not quite as rocking, but still retains it’s rock genre street cred. Tracks like “Beach Side”, “Birthday” and “Radioactive” are radio friendly and “The End” and “No Money”(the rockingest track on the album) will be big fan favorites when performed live in concerts. The only stumbling point is the country-tinged “Back Down South.” With it’s steel guitar and hand-clapping bass, it’s an odd choice that it was included on the album. I can see it maybe as a B-side or something, but it sticks out like a sore thumb here. I realize the band is from Tennessee, but they should leave the country where it belongs and stick to their strengths. And their strength is very much the rock anthem and on this album they have done that very well. I highly recommend “Come Around Sundown” and this only goes to show that Kings Of Leon are not a one-trick pony. The Followill’s are here to stay and will be rockin’ for many years to come!

Iration’s “Time Bomb”

You know how every now and then you buy an album and it just works for your frame of mind at the time? Well…THIS album was that way for me. A friend recommended this band to me (thanks Suzanne!) and if I were to try to describe it, I would have to call it simply pop reggae. In the same vein as Pepper (who they opened for during a previous tour) or any number of California beach bands, Iration hasn’t been around long, but they’ve been making some waves in the reggae community…and rightfully so.

With all of it’s members hailing from Hawaii, Iration spent most of its early days performing in southern California. After releasing a well-received EP in 2006, they hit the road and created a following for themselves. Then in 2007, they released “No Time For Rest” and went on a tour with Pepper (one of MY favorite bands of the genre). Earlier this year, they released “Time Bomb” and I gotta tell you…it’s pretty much a perfect pop album.

First off…there’s not a truly bad track on it. From the outstanding opening title track to the last track on the album appropriately titled “The End”, “Time Bomb” is as complete an album as you’ll ever find. It’s a perfectly blended pop concoction that goes easy with a cold beer on a warm summer night or aboard a crowded plane. It’s relaxing and easy to listen to and it came along at an extremely busy time in my life and it has been perfect for plane flights, long drives or just hanging in my hotel room.

If you are looking for a great summertime album that is chock full of great pop songs, check out Iration’s “Time Bomb.” It’s excellent and right now…it’s high on my “Favorite Albums of 2010” list!

B.o.B.’s “The Adventures Of Bobby Ray”

When it comes to rap music, I’m not a specialist. I like what I like and in the case of rap & hip hop, there’s a lot I don’t like. I’m not into gangsta rap, I don’t like the poser rap and I think as far as most rappers are concerned, they have a little too high opinion of themselves. Not that rappers aren’t talented, obviously they are, but there is far to much bravado in rap for me and a lot of times it gets in the way of what could be a creative form of music.

That being said, along comes B.o.B. With as much charisma & cockiness as you can have for a new artist, B.o.B. is a fresh breath of air. With a confidence & style much like Kanye (without the “assholiness”), Bobby Ray is part pop, part hip hop without the art-house style of Kid Cudi but he’s tapping at the same vein.

Well it was just a dream
just a moment ago
I was up so high,
lookin down at the sky
don’t let me fall
I was shooting for stars, on a Saturday night
they say what goes up, must come down
but don’t let me fall

Opening track “Don’t Let Me Fall” is an interesting choice considering all of the options that he and his producer & mentor (T.I.) had. Showcasing Bobby’s rapping ability and his view of his popularity, “Don’t Let Me Fall”  is a high wire act, bouncing between insecurity and confidence, and he realizes that he could be “the next big thing”. It’s a nice touch kicking off with this song because it shows what a unique and thought-provoking artist Bobby Ray really is.

There are a lot of reasons why I really enjoy this album. Hot single “Nothin’ On You” is pure pop goodness, “The Kids” bites a riff from one of my favorite alt-rock bands,Vampire Weekend, and reworks the lyrics. “Magic” SHOULD be his next single based on it’s radio-friendly summer sound. “Bet I” has a “catchy as hell” hook and “Fame” swipes a little from David Bowie in the chorus and talks about the elusiveness & danger of fame. I also like the ballad “Lovelier Than You” and the old-school soul sound of “5th Dimension”, which features my favorite lyrics of all his tracks…

The stars is what I sleep on, 
the moon I put my feet on
The way my aura glows you’d swear I’m made of neon,
cooler than the freon that’s in your dodge neon
The say the futures now
to me it hasn’t begun,
stay tuned to me and there will never be a re-run.

 The highlight track might be the new single “Airplane”. There are actually 2 versions of this track on the album but it’s the longer version that is my favorite. With Paramore’s Hayley Williams supplying her smooth vocals to the chorus, Bobby gives an autobiographical look at how he came to be a rapper. Then, in a surprise move, Eminem makes an appearance and takes the song to a whole new level. I find it appropriate that Bobby Ray ends his album with Em’s solo rap. Marshall Mathers is obviously someone Bobby looks up too and if it’s Eminem’s success that B.o.B. is looking for, “The Adventures Of Bobby Ray” is a great step in that direction.

Florence + The Machine’s “Lungs” (Deluxe Version)

Released on New Year’s Eve back in 2008, I kind of skipped over this album, thinking it was another Imogen Heap sounding hippy trip band. But I was totally wrong. Although I do find lead singer Florence Welch’s voice to sound eerily similar to Heap or Poe, once you get past that, there are some top notch songs on this debut and, after a few listens, I find her voice to have a more husky sound, giving this entire album a dreamy, dark vibe. So many things to like about “Lungs”, and there are some truly great tracks here that I will be listening to for years, but the entire package isn’t as consistent as I would have liked. For every “Howl”, there’s a “Dog Days Are Over”, which is somewhat repetitive in it’s refrain. But every song is written with care and there are a lot of relationship songs on here, which makes me think that maybe Welch has seen her share of bad ones. Anyway, I can’t be overly critical because I love Welch’s voice throughout and I would LOVE to see them live. I have to imagine it’s quite a show and I bet she has even more range live.

If I were to recommend tracks to download, obviously “Howl” is one of my favorite tracks from last year, but there is also “Blinding”, “Swimming”, “Hurricane Drunk” and “You’ve Got The Love”, which is an awesome track and has been remixed by The xx (if you are lucky enough to find the download). “Kiss With A Fist” is about as violent as you can get for a rock track and the vision of “Bird Song” is almost funny in its quirkiness. My least favorite tracks are “Dog Days” and “Falling”, which I think makes for a great poem, but it kind of lulls me to sleep when I listen to it.

If you get a chance, check out Florence + The Machine’s “Lungs”. It’s a great album and I can’t wait to see what they come up with next!

Overall Rating: A-

Guns ‘N Roses’ “Chinese Democracy”

17 years is a long time to take to produce a body of work. Doesn’t matter if you are an artist, a writer, an architect. You name it. Something that takes THAT long to come to fruition is gonna have some problems because it becomes painfully obvious that the project will have been overthought and overproduced. That is DEFINITELY the case of “Chinese Democracy”, the long-awaited and way too expensive album from Axl Rose’s Guns N Roses. I say “Axl Rose’s” because other than Rose, none of the original members of the band have returned. And it is obvious from the 3rd song on that Slash and the gang are sorely missed.

I could go on a bashing session here, but I’m not gonna. There are some very good songs on this album, however they are too few and far between. But there is one classic track, 3 very good songs and the rest are kinda…”Eh”. If I had to pick one song from this group of songs to stick on a “Best Of” Guns N Roses disc, it would have to be “Shackler’s Revenge”. With a screeching guitar and a subdecimal growl from Axl, this song really fires on all GNR cylinders. It was smart of Geffen to release this track on “Rock Band”. Because, as a fan, this song would get me hyped for the album release. But once you get past that track, its a short train to boringville.

Ok…maybe the title track isn’t as bad as I initially thought. Actually, after hearing the rest of the album, I’ve come to really like “Chinese Democracy” just for the fact that it’s the only other true ROCK song on here. The rest of it is mostly slower, midtempo tracks with thoughtful lyrics. Does that make this a bad album? Well….kinda. Because if I want thoughtful lyrics, I’ll go check out the latest from Paul Simon. When I throw on a GNR CD, I want LOUD. I want VIOLENT. I want pure, unadulterated, smash mouth rock. I don’t want to hear about feelings (Street of Dreams), or the Falun Gong (I.R.S.), or being lost in a storm (Madagascar…the WORST song on this album). I want to hear about sex, drugs and…well…that’s pretty much it. AC/DC understands this concept. Don’t underestimate what you do well. Axl Rose is NOT Kurt Cobain. He is his own entity. Thoughtful and insightful is not what I think of when I buy a Guns album.

Anyway…here are the songs worth their weight…Shackler’s Revenge, Chinese Democracy, Prostitute, If The World. And songs to completely avoid: Madagascar, There Was A Time, Better.

As for the rest of it, I’m gonna quote my buddy Newman. When I asked him what he thought of this album he said, “Sounds like all the throwaway stuff off ‘Use Your Illusion I'”.  And that pretty much sums it up. So to Slash and the boys, we miss ya. As much as I’m glad to hear Axl again, it ain’t the same without the REAL band. My only comfort is that I know I can always throw on “Appetite”, crank it to 11 and remember when GNR actually stood for RNR.

Rating: C-

Tinted Windows’ “Self-Titled Debut”

Released: April 21, 2009  (S-Curve Records)
Format: Pop Rock

It was the summer of 1986. I was heading into my senior year and all I wanted to do was hang out with my friends and play basketball. I was driving a beat-up, primer red 1967 Volkswagon Bug. I had a cassette deck and two lame-ass speakers in the back window. At any given time, you could have spotted me & Chuck cruising along Maple Avenue with “Danger Zone” cranked up or The Outfield’s “Play Deep” or Bryan Adams. It was a great summer that year and I didn’t have a care in the world.

Flash ahead some 23 years later. I’ve got 2 kids, a mortgage, lots of worries & concerns. But I still love great pop music and recently a “supergroup” released an album that takes me back to those days of my youth; when music was more about falling in love and heartbreak than it was about getting laid and getting high. “Tinted Windows” is a foursome that includes perhaps the oddest mix of artists ever put together for a single album. But when you throw this disk in your CD player, it’s pretty obvious that I’m not the only one missing the golden age of the 80’s.

Lead singer Taylor Hanson is from the pop boys band Hanson (remmmember “MmmmmBop”?). Guitarist James Iha is from the band “Smashing Pumpkins”. Bassist Adam Schlesinger is from one of my  favorite bands, “Fountains Of Wayne”. And drummer Bun E. Carlos is from 70’s rock band “Cheap Trick”. Wonder how a band like this comes together? Well…me too. So I looked into it. Apparently Taylor & Adam are friends since the mid-90’s and had been tossing around the idea of making some music that would pay homage to New Age music of the late 70’s/early 80’s. In their minds, they were thinking of bands such as The Knack & Cheap Trick. Well…of course once they got together and wrote some songs, they needed a guitarist and a drummer. Enter Iha, who had toured with Fountains of Wayne while with Smashing Pumpkins. So then all they needed was a drummer. They figured who better to emulate the great bands of that era than one of them? So they sent a demo to Carlos and he really liked what they were doing and joined in. Thus, “Tinted Windows” was born.

It’s all a great story, but it wouldn’t be complete without the music. And what a fun album this is! It’s power pop at its best and really does sound a lot like Cheap Trick/The Outfield/Rick Springfield/The Knack/Bryan Adams or almost any other band of that era. It’s not deep. It’s about having fun and driving with the windows down and enjoying the summer sun. Just like I did back in the summer of 1986. So if you are craving to let loose a little and revisit your past, there are worst things you can do than dropping a 10 spot and picking up this new CD. Great music and great fun. And be ready for a blast from the past! And for my money, there hasn’t been a better 1-2 combo of pop music than track 5 & 6 (Back With You & Without Love) since The Outfields’ “Say It Isn’t So” & “Your Love”.

Rating: B+

Foreigner’s “Can’t Slow Down”

Released: October 2, 2009 (Rhino)
Format: Rock

Remember back in the 80’s when you would go to the record store, buy a cassette, open it, look at the cover art, read the liner notes, slide the tape in the tape deck and crank it up? You do? Well then…you are an 80’s child…just like me. In today’s world, we don’t buy cassettes or CD’s or albums anymore. We download. And all the songs are so serious or sexual or just plain dumb. Whatever happened to love songs? Or songs about heartbreak? Or how down on our luck we can be? Back in the 80’s, that was all they sang about. And bands like Journey or Def Leppard or Whitesnake knew how to rock out and let loose. Who knew they were still doing it?

When Foreigner released “Can’t Slow Down” (available only at Wal-Mart), it had 2 things going against it. First…I hate Wal-Mart. Second…I never really cared all that much for Foreigner. Sure…I like a few of their songs from the 80’s. “Juke Box Hero” was always a good single. And then you have “I Want To Know What Love Is” which, I think, pretty much everybody danced to at their first high school dance back in 1985. So they had a few hits that I listened to, but for the most part, I was more of a Def Leppard/Journey/Sammy Hagar fan. So imagine my surprise when I was presented with a free copy of the new album and…well…I actually LOVE IT!

Here’s the thing about the 80’s…it was simple. Granted…I was a kid back then so I had no stress. But even then, it was a different time. And the music that was coming out then was simple. Huey Lewis & The News, Hall & Oates, Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Nicks, on & on & on. Artists were releasing FUN music. And even when the music was heavy, it had a simple pop sensibility to it (“Billie Jean”, “Papa Don’t Preach”). So much music now is so over-complicated with technology. Beeps & whistles and overdubbing. It can all get in the way of a good, simple rock song. It’s not needed. And Foreigner proves it on this album.

With new singer Kelly Hansen joining the band (Lou Gramm is gone), Mick Jones & crew have never sounded tighter. Every track is a great pop nugget and could have been included in just about any 80’s John Hughes film. When I first listened to this album, the film “VisionQuest” came into my head. With rockers like “Ready”, “Angel Tonight” & the title track, they could have easily fit into the action scenes where the guy takes the girl on a motorcycle ride through the city. And then you have the love songs like “Fool For You Anyway”, “I’ll Be Home Tonight” or “As Long As I Live” where the guy is racing to stop the girl from leaving. And then the end titles could be “In Pieces” or “When It Comes To Love”, with their sweeping guitars & keyboards (and a surprise sax in the latter). Simply awesome…

Everyone is gonna laugh at me about this…but I miss this kind of music. The lyrics are simple (sometimes TOO simple) and the hooks are powerful. They are melodic and carefree and fun. This is an AWESOME album and so far, it’s possibly my favorite album of 2009. Imagine that…an 80’s band releases an album that SHOULD have been released in 1987 and I love it. Go figure. And go buy “Can’t Slow Down” at your local Wal-Mart. It might be the only time I ever say you need to go to Wal-Mart…but you won’t regret it. And I bet once you listen to this album you’ll understand exactly what I’m talking about here. And you’ll wish it was 1987 all over again…

Rating: A

Phoenix’s “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix”

Released: May 12, 2009 (Ghettoblaster)
Format: Pop Alternative

Critical darlings “Phoenix” return with their 4th album and this Grammy award-winning effort. Picked as the Best Alternative Album of 2009, I couldn’t just let it slide by how average I think this album is. And even after repeated listens, I just don’t see the appeal.

Not that this album isn’t without some good songs. On the contrary, the 2 singles that were released (the commercial pop sensation “1901” and “Lisztomania”) are quite good and easy to listen to. But the rest of the album is just average, not really breaking any new ground and retreading where their previous albums had already been. With tracks such as “Lasso”, “Girlfriend” & “Armistice” sounding all so familiar, I quickly lose track of which one is which and with Thomas Mars’ vocals, they almost blend into one another. Throw in “Rome” & “Countdown” and I was ready for a snooze. Maybe Mars’ voice just isn’t that interesting to me? I don’t know. But overall I found that most of this album just made me sleepy with other bands such as Vampire Weekend & Ok Go doing this genre more justice.

Tracks to download: 1901, Lisztomania, Love Like A Sunset Part I (instrumental), Fences

Rating: C-

The 69 Eyes’ “Back In Blood”

Released: September 15, 2009 (The End Records)
Format: Goth Rock

I was searching for something new & different on ITunes yesterday and I came across this album. Originally from Helsinki, Finland, The 69 Eyes are what some call “goth n roll”, a mixture of hair metal and gothic rock. With their 10th studio album, they have created an album for vampires and creatures of the night and surprisingly enough…it kinda rocks! What could have become a parody of the genre is actually a throwback to the hair bands of the 80’s. As a matter of fact, as I listened to the album, I was immediately transported to some scenes in the film “Lost Boys”, with its vampires, rock bands on the beach and its dark themes. Which is kind of funny because one of the Eyes’ previous singles is titled “Lost Boys” and so this makes me think that maybe the film was an influence to this band. But whatever the case, this album is all done very much tongue-in-cheek and The 69 Eyes carry the torch for the gothic cock rock set nicely.

Baritone lead singer, Jyrki 69, is the leader of the Eyes, sounding like a cross between Glenn Danzig  & Andrew Eldritch of “Sisters Of Mercy”. But it’s the guitar work on “Back In Blood” that really caught my ear. It sounds straight from the Guns N’ Roses school of rock with influences being Blue Oyster Cult, Billy Idol and Ratt. It’s a melodic assault on the ears and unlike some goth rock bands, The 69 Eyes can actually carry a tune. But it’s the lyrics that need some work. There are a few songs on here that are quite laughable. In their attempt to keep with the vampire theme (titles such as “Kiss Me Undead”, “Lips Of Blood” & “”Hunger” litter the album), a few of the songs almost teeter on silly. The most obvious of them all is “Dead Girls Are Easy”, with it’s Motley Crue intro and with a repeating chorus that ends with “All I wanted to do is ROCK!”, it had me laughing. Probably not exactly what the Eyes were shooting for. Or were they? Seriously, almost all of the songs are so over the top that they seem to be having fun with the gory themes and bloodlust that it makes it fun to listen to.

All in all, I really like this album and it makes me want to check into their other albums. I don’t consider myself to be much of a goth rocker, but this makes me want to put on some dark mascara, drink some red wine and hang upside down.

For MY money, the best tracks are “Hunger” & “Some Kind Of Magick”.
Both are excellent rock tracks. “Hunger” is a slick ballad, “Magick” is a slow rocker with a cool riff that kind of burns under the surface. If you like those, check out “Lips Of Blood” & “Dead N Gone” for fun. If there is one track to avoid I would say “Suspiria Snow White” is probably the most repetitive and I lost interest in it after a single listen.

There are some obvious homages paid to other bands on “Back In Blood” as well with “Back In Blood” (Guns N Roses), “We Own The Night” (The Cult’s Fire Woman), “Night Watch” (BOC’s Burnin’ For You) and there is a sample of Vincent Price’s laugh in “The Good, The Bad & The Undead” that seems appropriate even if it has been used a million times.

Overall I thought this was a fun album to listen to. I can’t imagine anyone taking this completely seriously but I can say that the vampire imagery makes for an interesting theme. Also, if you dig this album, you might also want to look into their greatest hits disk called “Framed In Blood”. It sounds pretty damn good also!

Rock Rating: B