Steve Moakler’s biggest claim to fame—at least at this particular moment in time—is writing the title track and fifth single from Dierks Bentley’s 2014 LP, Riser. That fact may just change with Steel Town, Moakler’s fourth full-length solo record and his most accomplished work yet. Stacked with radio-friendly numbers that meld Moakler’s smart, resonant songwriting with the hooks and lush instrumentation of a mainstream country record, Steel Town has the potential to make Moakler into this year’s breakout country star.
Steel Town is 11 songs long, but Moakler actually released the first half of the record a year ago. In a move that has become customary for Nashville up-and-comers, Moakler dropped a self-titled EP last spring that featured the first five tracks from this album. (Similar maneuvers have recently helped launch artists like Maren Morris, Brett Young, and William Michael Morgan toward chart success.) That EP was my favorite short-form release of 2016, pairing wistful, emotional tour de forces (“Steel Town,” which Moakler wrote about the town where he grew up) with breezy summertime hooks (the indelible “Suitcase”) and gorgeous dusky ballads (“Summer Without Her”).
As Sorority Noise’s Triple Crown Records debut and the full-length follow up to the wildly popular Joy, Departed, You’re Not As ___ As You Think is an important album. But this is a band that has never been afraid to take risks – one that has continuously pushed themselves with each new release – and it shows in their latest effort.
From the conversational nature of lyricist/vocalist Cameron Boucher’s songwriting to the open-endedness of the album’s title, Sorority Noise actively invites listeners to insert themselves into each song. Boucher frequently plays with perspective and often address listeners directly, reminding each person who hits play that they have value and that they are more than their insecurities.
For over a decade now, Topshelf Records have done a fantastic job of seeking out the best in up-and-coming talent, especially within the indie/emo scenes. From Into It. Over It. and Sorority Noise, to Touché Amore and You Blew It, they just seem to have a knack for finding bands with incredible potential.
In 2015 they signed Del Paxton, a quirky indie rock group from upstate New York with an affinity for hazy guitars and rousing melodies. The band recently released their debut full-length album All Day, Every Day, All Night, a solid first showing from the fairly young trio.
I still remember when I was first introduced to Culprit. And since that first show I’ve seen them in various venues around Los Angeles and Orange County. Each time, they leave it all on the stage and that’s what makes them a band I continue to follow. It’s been a long wait for a full-length but that wait comes to an end with the release of Sonder.
“Gargantua” starts with a radio transmission that’s like something out of a sci-fi horror movie. From there, Travis brings a stellar vocal performance that is consistent throughout the whole album. The way this band puts together a song — vocally, lyrically, and musically — just meshes so well. Not to mention, they have a good amount of versatility. “Gargantua” ends with a long scream from Travis, but not one that detracts from the song. For someone who isn’t a fan of songs with a ton of screaming, Culprit knows when it’s appropriate and when it’s not needed at all. In a song like “Glow,” Travis takes a softer approach to the vocals.
When the world got blown apart on the morning of September 11th, 2001, it felt like nothing would ever be the same again. In a lot of ways, it wouldn’t. Even at 10 years old, I knew there was a sense of innocence and wonder to the world that was stolen the moment that first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. How could anything ever be okay again after something so terrible? Even as a child, I pondered this question.
For years after that day, I would read about the reactions to the tragedy. Shortly after I graduated from high school in 2009, I read a speech that Dr. Karl Paulnack of The Boston Conservatory gave to the parents of incoming students in September 2004. In the address, Paulnack reflected on his experience on the morning of September 12th, 2001, when he—a classical pianist by trade—went to sit down at his instrument to practice. It was part of his daily routine, but on that day, it felt wrong. “Playing the piano right now, given what happened in this city yesterday, seems silly, absurd, irreverent, pointless,” Paulnack recalled. “What place has a musician in this moment in time?”
Mark Kozelek doesn’t like what I do. This was made abundantly clear somewhere between Universal Themes’ “Cry Me a River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues” and Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood’s “Philadelphia Cop,” in which the song breaks for a strange skit between a “music journalist” and an outdated impression of a teenage girl (both voiced by Kozelek). It’s true; things have gotten pretty weird between Kozelek and in followers since the release of his recent opus, 2014’s Benji. He’s publicly lashed out against music journalists, other artists, and an entire North Carolina audience. Truth be told, he couldn’t give a shit whether or not I “recommend” his new album or not. So why do I continue to be so drawn to it?
Connecticut’s A Will Away describes their sound as “80’s pop rock on Acid.” As far as their hooks go: that’s a pretty apt description. Their instrumentation owes more to the emo revival and 90’s grunge than the shiny, synthesized pop of Genesis and A-Ha, but their ability to craft vocal melodies that leave lyrics permanently stuck in your head is indeed a product of the 80’s.
Since 2002, Minus the Bear have released a string of fairly consistent, ambitious (if not always successful) albums that navigate the shared ground between math-rock, prog-rock and groove-based dance numbers. Each album tweaked its predecessor’s formula enough to keep the band interesting and listeners on their toes. Even Infinity Overhead, which dropped the band’s penchant for experimentation in favor of a more straightforward, pop-rock hybrid sound, ultimately contained more hits than misses (and a few career highlights). VOIDS is the first album to flip this formula on its head and double down on its misses. Largely built on filler, it leaves listeners somewhere between disappointment and relief that it took the band this long to hit their weak spot.
Ryan Adams made what was, to my ears, his best record ever with 2014’s self-titled effort. More diverse and consistent than Heartbreaker and less bloated than Gold, Love Is Hell, and Cold Roses, Ryan Adams was a tight, taut, and tense collection of songs that saw Adams dealing with the loss of his grandmother and the pressures of a troubled marriage. Two and a half years later, the once-prolific Adams returns with the proper follow-up to his self-titled record, and it’s the closest he’s ever come to making a sequel. Prisoner carries many of the sonic and lyrical hallmarks of its predecessor, from the reverb-heavy production to the clear influence of 1980s Springsteen and Petty records. “Do You Still Love Me,” the opener and lead single, even bears a strong resemblance to the last record’s first track, “Gimme Something Good.”
Like Semisonic sang on their classic 1994 single “Closing Time,” “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” Such is the case on both halves of Jake Clarke and Spur’s new split. Clarke was one of the vocalists of the grunge band Superheaven, and his half of the split sounds like the natural next step from his old band’s ‘90s-inspired rock. Spur, on the other hand, rose from the ashes of the emo band In Writing, and they play a blend of coarse punk and shoegaze.
Andrew McMahon is an artist who has had a very loyal and passionate following for a very long time. Starting with Something Corporate, which offered a piano-led twist on the emo/pop-punk trends of the early 2000s, McMahon has been regarded as a master of melody and a writer capable of churning out fiercely relatable songs. Suffice to say that BuzzFeed hit the nail on the head (for the first and last time) when it labeled “Konstantine” as the emo “Freebird.” When McMahon transitioned his career from Something Corporate into the poppier and more mature Jack’s Mannequin, it was a testament to his talent as a songwriter, his likability as a performer, and the strong personal resonance of his work that just about all of his fans were willing to go along for the ride.
Scott Crawford took what he worked on with Salad Days and brought it to a nice coffee table book format. He compiled a list of influential punk bands from the 80’s DC scene. Each entry gives the perspective of the band members, concert goers, photographers, and more. It’s a thorough look at the history without being overwhelming. The format works well since it focuses a lot on the images and sometimes those can tell stories better than words can.
I wouldn’t say I’m in tune with all of the punk bands from the 80’s era, let alone all of the ones around Washington D.C., but I’d like to think I know at least a little about punk music. This book has the bigger bands you’d expect with Fugazi, Bad Brains, and Minor Threat, but it’s the others that will surprise you if you haven’t done your homework. Ian MacKaye sprinkled his talents around in more bands than I had thought, so he’s a prominent feature in this book.
Over the first ten years of their life, The Menzingers have never shied away from their boozy reputation. Numerous mentions of alcohol – the good and the bad – are littered throughout the Philadelphia band’s first four albums. Which makes the band’s new album, After The Party, so profound – we already know what happens during the party but what happens after, once all the confetti’s been swept up, the beer’s gone flat, and music turned down? After The Party explores the themes of getting older and bridging the gap between a carefree spirit to a more responsible partner while still trying to escape the mundanity of everyday life.
An acoustic album is always a bit of a gamble. To take songs that fans are already attached to and release them in alternate versions runs the risk of losing what they fell in love with in the first place. The Early November have never been afraid of taking that risk. The band released an acoustic EP in 2005 and more recently a full-length acoustic album, Fifteen Years, in celebration of their 15th anniversary.
When we think back on our lives, even on a relatively small scale like, say, the week we just had, we tend not to think on every minute of minutiae we endured. We think of the relatively big things we went through, the stuff that was memorable. Sure, we all eat and have conversations and go to work and sleep and wake up, but we tend to only process it as a necessity: it’s the minute to minute, day to day of being. What’s important to understand, however, is that every second we live, every small little thing we go through, informs literally everything else about us. It’s all a flow of life that causes us to react, to process information, to make decisions, to move forward. It’s the process of life, and it’s the context for who we are as people, and our identities are as grand and important a concept as we’ll ever grapple with.
“It’s a lifeless life, with no fixed address to give/But you’re not mine to die for anymore/So I must live.” On the list of the best lyrics of the decade so far, that one—the most climactic line from the Japandroids’ blistering, cathartic “The House That Heaven Built”—has to be near the top. To me, that line has always been a beautifully apt statement about growing up and moving on. I suppose you could read it as a lyric about a break up, but I prefer to see it as a vow to let go of the things that used to define your life and build new ones in their place.
In a way, that’s exactly what Japandroids are doing on Near to the Wild Heart of Life, their third full-length album and their first in nearly five years. Their last record, 2012’s Celebration Rock, was more appropriately titled than any other album released in the past seven years. Beginning and ending with fireworks, the album raged with pounding guitars, blitzkrieg drums, and shout-along choruses that could put anyone in a party mood. It was an album about being young, staying up all night, making memories with friends, and drinking way more than could feasibly be deemed “necessary.”
I remember the first time I heard Sinai Vessel. It was around four years ago and their sophomore EP profanity had just come out. I was immediately captivated the band’s raucous indie rock – sort of like a more upbeat and aggressive Pedro the Lion. Songs like “Cuckold” and “Flannery” carried the energy and raw emotion of songs by scene favorites like Taking Back Sunday or The Weakerthans. I knew the band had a phenomenal full-length in them, and I knew they going to blow up with its release. But that full-length didn’t come, and I found new bands who gave me similar feelings. I revisited profanity now and then, but mostly when I thought about Sinai Vessel it was to wonder what could’ve been. Then, all of a sudden, I didn’t have to wonder anymore – Sinai Vessel signed to Tiny Engines, one of my favorite active labels, and announced that long-awaited full-length.
Where to even begin with Silence.
Martin Scorsese is my favorite filmmaker. The Departed is a masterwork that served as mine and countless other’s introduction into the world of cinema. To survey the diverse array of films Scorsese has made is to attend film school: to learn how to read a visual story, to realize that every frame has meaning and is communicating something and that, when done expertly, the experience of a film can be profound. It’s to learn the ID of Scorsese: the themes he’s preoccupied with, the ideals he’s interested in exploring. Faith is one of those ideas. The Last Temptation of Christ is likely his masterpiece, a film about Jesus Christ, a legend treated as more than man, and it tests his faith and what his martyrdom means on a human level. Silence is about an ordinary human, not the son of God, facing a similar test of faith. When Scorsese tells this story about a real man in the real world, the grim realities of slavish devotion to faith and dogmatic thinking are exposed for the true devastation they wreak. Faith and morality are not so easily reconciled together.
I’m sure there’s a joke to be made about Dryjacket’s debut album being titled For Posterity, given their throwback sound, but I’m neither clever nor unoriginal enough to make it. There would be truth to it though — from the pun song titles (“Spelling Era,” “Abe LinkedIn”), to the horns, to the dual vocals — everything about For Posterity feels familiar.
You can pull out hints of The Promise Ring and Piebald at every corner of the band’s pop-sensible emo, and the trumpet calls to mind American Football, of course. The band even pays tribute to their more eclectic, more technical forefathers on “Epi Pen Pals” and “Milo with an ‘H.’” This is all to say that, much like my sort of attempted joke, For Posterity isn’t all that original. It plays, generally, like a recap of the genre for anyone who might’ve missed it the first time around.
In the summer of 2015, when I put Chris Stapleton on the last-ever incarnation of AbsolutePunk.net’s Absolute 100—a feature dedicated to celebrating up-and-coming, under the radar artists—I asked a pair of questions that have since proved to be prophetic. The first was “If given the opportunity, how many of country music’s gun-for-hire songwriters could make better records than any of the artists they write for?” The second was “How many of them could make masterpieces?” More than I thought, apparently.
Since Stapleton’s breakout success, the songwriters seem to be taking back Nashville. 2016 brought major critical and/or commercial successes for Maren Morris (who had previously written for Kelly Clarkson and the TV show Nashville), Brandy Clark (who had previously written for Sheryl Crow, Miranda Lambert, and Toby Keith, not to mention a slew of co-writes with Kacey Musgraves), and Lori McKenna (who penned two of the biggest hits in modern country with Tim McGraw’s “Humble & Kind” and Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush”). Hopefully, these big successes will push Nashville labels to take chances on more of their top songsmiths. Who knows how many stars are waiting to be born in the liner notes of your favorite country records.